Robert Thomas – missionary to Korea

The name of Robert Jermain Thomas is known to very few people in his native country of Wales, but amongst Christians in Korea he is a hero. He grew up in rural Wales and graduated from London University. He was an excellent linguist learning Russian and taking just 4 months to master Mandarin. He left the independent chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, to go as a missionary with the London Mission Society to China. He and his young wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai after a 5 month sea voyage. Within a short time he was devastated when his wife suddenly died.

While in China Robert heard of Korea, which was then known as the Hermit Kingdom with no contact with outsiders. He made a secret visit in 1865 taking with him Chinese Bibles. Those who received the Bibles risked death if they were discovered. In 1866 Robert returned to Korea aboard the General Sherman, an American trading ship, taking more Bibles with him. Near Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, the ship ran aground and was set on fire by Korean fire rafts. Standing on the burning deck Robert flung the Bibles into the water hoping they would float ashore and be read by the people. He  died at the hands of a Korean solider. He was just 27 years old.

Many would see his death as the waste of a young life in a futile cause, but the reality was very different.  Robert’s death made a great impression on many who witnessed it. Some took the Bibles and used them as wallpaper in their houses. Some read the strange words on the walls of their houses and became Christians. Today there are millions of Christians in Korea. Most of the largest evangelical churches in the world today are in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Korean churches have sent thousands of missionaries to many countries around the world to preach the same message Robert Thomas brought to them.

The value of our lives is not to be judged by how long we live, but by what we have lived for. In 1956 a young American missionary, Jim Elliot, and 4 other young missionaries, died at the hands of the Auca Indians in Ecuador. As he set off for Ecuador, knowing the dangers which lay ahead, Jim had said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”