Robert Thomas and his wife faced a hazardous future as they contemplated sailing to China as missionaries in 1863. Few had yet set foot in that vast and unknown land to bring the gospel of Christ to its teeming peoples. In 1807 Robert Morrison had made a noble endeavour, but could penetrate no further than Canton where he carried out his invaluable work in translating the Scriptures. Hudson Taylor had been in the country for nine years, but he was still a solitary figure.
The son of a Welsh Congregational pastor, Robert was brought up in Llanover, near Abergavenny. With a flair for languages, he had excelled at French, Latin and Greek which he had studied at Llandovey College. Leaving home at the age of seventeen, he had taught until he could begin his studies at New College, London. Five years later the young Welshman gained further academic accolades as he graduated with his BA degree and also gained a coveted prize as the most outstanding student of the year.
But now, at the age of twenty-three, Robert Thomas turned his back on a promising future with all its prospects. A stronger desire burned in his heart: the desire to serve Christ and bring the gospel of hope to the darkened land of China. Preaching his first sermon at his father’s church shortly before his own ordination in June 1863, Robert had taken as his text ‘Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and for ever’. Then, under the auspices of the London Missionary Society, he and his wife left Wales, knowing they would probably never return.
A long voyage followed, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope; and doubtless Robert redeemed the hours by struggling with the rudiments of the Chinese language. Arriving at last in Shanghai some months later, the couple faced all the problems of adjusting to a new climate, culture and primitive way of life. But this was little in comparison to the sorrows that awaited the new missionary.
Scarcely had they been in the country three months before Robert was called upon to bury first his new born infant, and then his young wife. Alone, a stranger in a strange land, Robert Thomas must have longed for the consolations of home. Nor was there any privacy for his grief. From dawn to nightfall he was an object of constant curiosity among the people: everywhere he turned an intrigued crowd followed, for rarely had they seen a white man before. Now he must cast himself anew on the unchanging Christ about whom he had preached.
Undaunted, Thomas threw himself with singleness of mind into the work, travelling north to Chefoo. Here he met some Koreans and, as he tried to communicate with them, realized that there were striking similarities between the language he was slowly mastering and the Korean tongue. A new ambition began to take shape in his mind: why could he not take the gospel to Korea? A short voyage across the Yellow Sea from Chefoo would bring him to Pyongyang, capital of Korea.
Known as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, Korea was a closed land, and had been so for more than six hundred years, not only to the gospel, but to any contact with other nations apart from China. A recent attempt on the part of Catholic missionaries to enter the land in disguise had ended in disaster with a massacre of all their adherents. Now Robert Thomas wrote to the L.M.S. Board, pleading for permission to try again. But the Board would not comply, regarding Korea as too dangerous an undertaking.
If he could not go with his mission’s support, he must go alone, thought the young man, for the needs of Korea weighed incessantly on his spirit. So in September 1865 he sailed in a Chinese junk across the Yellow Sea to Korea. Finding shelter in the islands to the west of the mainland, he reconnoitered the possibilities for missionary endeavour for three months, while also learning the language. Convinced of the feasibility of such work, he returned overland, through the mountainous and bandit-infested country of Manchuria.
Collecting all the tracts and Bibles he could, he then awaited a ship which would call at Pyongyang; and the following August boarded an American trading schooner, the General Sherman. It soon arrived at the mouth of the Daedong River which it had to negotiate to reach the capital. With rapids and concealed mudflats, the captain had to navigate skillfully and progress could only be made when the tides were running high. As the schooner picked its way upstream, Thomas threw ashore bundles of Bibles, tracts and portions of Scripture to the crowds lining the banks. Timid Koreans grabbed the packages and disappeared from view, for accepting foreign goods was an offence punishable by death.
At last the schooner was safely past the rapids and within sight of the walled capital. At Sook-syam, not far from Pyongyang, contact was made with suspicious officials on the shore; the ship’s owner then disembarked and had a meeting with the governor of Pyongyang. Following this the governor, together with four other officials came on board. But with incredible folly the Americans confiscated his insignia of office and papers, refusing to return them. Even worse, they bundled the bewildered men into the ship’s boat and rowed them up river. The Koreans on the shore could only offer a reward for their return, while one man rowed out to rescue his fellow countrymen. The small boat was caught in the dangerous rapids and as it was eddying precariously the hostages jumped for safety. Two missed their foothold, fell into the swirling waters and were drowned.
We may only guess at Robert Thomas’ mental anguish as these tragic scenes were being enacted. The Koreans then turned all their fury on the waiting schooner and intermittent firing took place for a fortnight, with considerable loss of life. Rumours had spread that the foreigners were intent both on robbing the ancient tombs and using the eyes of children for medicine. At last the captain decided to abandon all hope of landing and tried to navigate a hasty retreat downstream again. But his schooner became marooned on one of the treacherous sandbanks.
Now he and his men were at the mercy of the enraged Koreans who tied together a number of small boats packed with pine brushwood. As the tide rose they set them alight, allowing them to drift like burning arms towards the schooner. Soon the wooden hull of the ship caught ablaze and the trapped passengers and crew had no option but to jump overboard and wade towards the shore. Armed with handguns and shooting as they came, the men tried to secure a safe landing. An easy target, they were picked off one at a time and killed with knives, clubs and rifles as they emerged from the water.
Just one man acted differently. He was not shooting. Rather his arms were filled with strange-looking bundles. As he staggered out of the water, he held out his treasure of the Word of God to the people he had come to serve. A boy of twelve grabbed three of the Bibles and ran off. Others also picked up the books that Thomas dropped as he was clubbed to death kneeling on the bank. He was twenty-six years of age.
But the sacrifice was not in vain. The boy who had taken the three Bibles gave them to a soldier who tore out the pages and used them to wallpaper his home. The boy himself later became a Christian; so did the man who had gone to the rescue of the hostages. Although the Korean officialdom tried to gather up and burn all the literature the martyred missionary had brought, some escaped their notice and was read in secret. Even the wallpaper proved powerful to the conversion of another. And when missionaries finally gained access to the country almost twenty years later they discovered little groups of Christians in the towns along the riverside where Thomas had thrown his packages. In Pyongyang itself a small church had sprung up, as the seed of the Word of God which Thomas had sown in dying germinated and yielded its harvest in the lives of these Koreans.
Korea, like Thomas’ homeland, is a land that has seen powerful revivals. Its church, born in suffering and nurtured in prayerfulness, has become the fastest growing church in the world, and perhaps the greatest missionary church of the late twentieth century — an undying tribute to the life and witness of Robert Thomas.