Robert Jermain Thomas

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Robert Jermain Thomas (died c. 31 August 1866) was a Protestant Christian missionary who served with the London Missionary Society in late Qing Dynasty China and Korea.

While serving as a Welsh missionary to China, Robert Thomas developed a strong desire to work among the people of Korea. At the time, Korea was closed to foreigners because of the government's fear of foreign influence. Many Koreans had been converted by Catholic priests in the late 1700s, but the fearful government slaughtered 8,000 of those converts in 1866.

Thomas made his first visit to the Korean coast in 1865, making him the second known Protestant missionary to Korea (Karl Gutzlaff, a German Protestant missionary, had visited Korea in 1832 and distributed Chinese Bibles to Koreans). Thomas learned as much as he could about the people and their language during his two and a half months there, distributing tracts and New Testaments in Chinese because they were not available in the Korean language.

In 1866, Thomas was asked to join French Naval force as an interpreter to go to Korea as a part of invading party. However, the French force went to Vietnam instead. Then, Thomas took a job on an American trading ship, the General Sherman, as an interpreter for the crew. The leaders of the armed trading ship was persuaded by Thomas to sail to Pyongyang to establish trade between Korea and the United States, even though uninvited trade was forbidden. Thomas intended to use his visit to Korea to spread the gospel.

The General Sherman left for the coast of Korea on 9 August and was first spotted on the mouth of the Taedong River on 16 August. As the ship sailed up the Taedong River loaded with cotton goods, tin and glass, Thomas tossed gospel tracts onto the riverbank. Not surprisingly, Korean officials repeatedly ordered the American boat to leave at once. On or around 25 August, the ship's crew kidnapped Hyon-Ik Yi, a Korean official, who was running communications between the General Sherman and Korean government. Also, Yi's two other subordinates were also taken as hostages. The ex-military officer, Chun-Gwon Park, eventually managed to rescue Hyon-Ik Yi and was reinstated to his former position. However, Yi's two subordinates, Soon-Won Yoo and Chi-Young Park, perished during the scuffles. On 31 August, the crew of General Sherman fired cannons and guns at the nearby civilians, resulting 7 deaths and 5 wounded. Both the Korean government and the early Korean Christian community agreed that it was the General Sherman who started the hostile acts first. Governor Gyu-Su Park of Pyong-An Province finally declared the General Sherman as a non-friendly vessel and ordered to prepare for battle with the ship.

When the ship ran aground on the muddy river bottom near Pyongyang, the Koreans attacked the ship. The crew of General Sherman, who were armed with guns and cannons, held the attackers off for two days. Eventually, the Koreans launched a burning boat, which in turn caught the General Sherman on fire. Among the crew, 14 were shot and killed (including one who was shot to death two days before), 4 were burnt to death, and 2 who had jumped to shore were beaten to death. Thomas was one of those who were beaten to death by angry civilians on the shore.

There are other accounts of how Rev. Thomas died. The first claim appeared on Oh Mun-hwan's "Christian News" article of 8 December 1926, reporting that Rev. Thomas was killed by the relatives of Koreans killed by the General Sherman crew. In the same article, Mr. Oh cited a statement from Rev. Lee Jae Bong, a minister in Sounthern province (a thousand miles away). He had a distant relative who happened to be a soldier present during the General Sherman incident. This former soldier said that one of the crews being put to death by sword had a red book and begged for soldiers to take it. From this, Mr. Oh concluded that there is no doubt that the man was none other than Rev. Thomas. A year later, this story had evolved so that Rev. Thomas tried to hand his Bible to his soldier executioner and this soldier told his family that he had killed a good man (the "Korea Mission Field," Sept. 1927). In addition, there was also a claim that Thomas's executioner was none other than Chun-Gwon Park, who had previously rescued the government official, Hyon-Ik Yi.

The Korean official report of the General Sherman incident had clearly stated that Thomas was killed by civilians, not by Officer Park. And this is also backed by Mr. Oh Mun-Hwan's original article of 1926. Also, there is an account that Thomas leapt to shore carrying a Bible, which he offered to his attackers while crying, "Jesus, Jesus!" in Korean. This account was also rebutted by others who stated that Thomas was waiving the official signet of Hyon-Ik Yi which was probably taken from kidnapped Yi earlier. Hyon-Ik Yi was demoted for losing an important official signet.

In a side account of the event, a local Korean used Chinese bible pages (assumed to be one of bibles that were distributed by Thomas) to wallpaper his house. This was discovered by the local Christian community in early 1900s, and people came from all over to read the words on his walls. Eventually, a church was established in the area.

According to Sungho Choi, lecturer at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Korean Christians may not know that Wales is a country with its own language and history, but they do know that Wales is the place from where Thomas came to them.[1]


  1. ^ Blatchford, Dai (Jan–Feb 2010). "The business of relationships" (PDF). Swansea Bay Business Life. 
  • American Presbyterian Mission (1867). Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press. 
  • Broomhall, Alfred (1982). Hudson Taylor and China's Open Century: Barbarians at the Gates. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 

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