For scholars of religion, South Korea is a fascinating place. While it is a very ethnically homogenous society, its religious diversity is unique. Among Christians, there is quite a bit of diversity. While the dominant denomination is the Presbyterian Church in Korea, there are Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, the Assemblies of God, and others. The Roman Catholic Church has been in Korea for over 200 years. Additionally, there is a small Orthodox presence. There are several Buddhist sects. Korean shamanism continues to survive.
Korea has also produced a number of new religions. The oldest of these is Cheondogyo (天道敎), or the religion of the heavenly way. Cheondogyo’s origins date back to the 1860s. The founder, Choi Je-u, proposed his religion, which he called Donghak (東學) or “Eastern Learning” as an alternative to Seohak (西學) or “Western Learning” which was synonomous with Catholicism. It is a monotheistic religion, which is sort of unique for Korea at that time. However, the God worshipped by the followers of Cheondogyo is more panentheistic than anything. Followers are to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence in them as well as in other people. It draws on Confucianism as well.
It is also a very nationalistic religion. About half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence of March 1, 1919 were followers of Cheondogyo. The leaders and followers of the religion were involved in resistance to the Japanese regime. It is one of the very few religions tolerated in North Korea today. Like in China, there are seats allocated in the Supreme People’s Assembly. And also like in China, the members of the Cheondoist Chongu Party all follow the leadership the Korean Workers’ Party. (There are about eight minority parties in the People’s Republic of China. Wan Gang, who is the Minister for Science and Technology, is the only non-Communist Party member of the State Council, or cabinet. All of the minority parties follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be allowed to exist.)
Cheondogyo also played a part in the Donghak Peasants’ Rebellion of the late 19th century. The rebellion of the peasants forced the king in Seoul to make some major reforms.
Anyhow, given its nationalistic heritage, it is somewhat strange that for their central temple, they hired a Japanese architect. Nakamura Yoshihei was an architecht working in Seoul during the early 20th century. He had on his staff an Austrian architect by the name of Anton Feller. Perhaps this accounts for the almost Viennese Secession look of the building. It was intended to be an answer to the Roman Cathedral Cathedral in nearby Myeongdong. In the first half of the 20th century, the three most visible buildings in Seoul were Myeongdong Cathedral, the Japanese government building (since demolished), and the Cheondogyo Central Temple. It is one of my favourite buildings in Korea. It is well worth a visit.
Matt Kelley of Seoul Scene has a short video about the history of this temple which is also worth viewing.