The origins of a Korean new religious movement that, while his founder was in prison for ten years, did not disappear but grew.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 5.
On February 18, 2018, President Jung Myung Seok, of the South Korean Christian new religious movement Providence, was released from prison, where he had spent ten years for alleged sexual abuse. In 2009, when the Supreme Court of South Korea confirmed the verdict, Korean anti-cultists, for which Providence had been for years a main target, believed that the movement would soon disappear. To their astonishment, during the decade in which Jung remained in detention, Providence not only did not collapse, it actually grew, both in South Korea and in other countries such as Taiwan.
While sociologists might have warned anti-cultists that it should never be taken for granted that, when a leader is jailed and sentenced, a religious movement would disappear, opponents of Providence were understandably disappointed. After President Jung was released and resumed his role as leader of Providence, they multiplied articles and TV shows against Providence and its leader, and members of the movement continued to be discriminated in various ways and abducted to be deprogrammed, a phenomenon that has targeted several new religious movements in South Korea and has never been seriously repressed by the authorities.
In this series of articles, I do not propose to take a stand on whether President Jung was guilty or innocent of the crimes for which he spent ten years in prison. This is not the task of scholars, while it is part of their job to analyze how different narratives of the same events interact and create social effects.
Before discussing the controversies, however, it is important to do something media that focus only on President Jung’s court case normally omit. It is impossible to understand both the controversies and the reason why they failed to destroy Providence without analyzing the biography of President Jung and the theology of the movement. I believe I am in a privileged position to offer this reconstruction, as I am the only Western scholar who interviewed President Jung at length after he was released from prison, in March and June 2019.
Jung Myung Seok (also transliterated as Jeong Myeong-seok) was born in Seokmak-ri, Jinsan-myun, Kumsan-gun, South Chungcheong (Chungnam) Province, South Korea on March 16, 1945. He was the third of seven children of a couple of impoverished farmers. His parents were only able to support his education in a primary school, after which he had to help with the family farm.
At age six, he first encountered Christianity through missionaries in Seokmak. He reports that he became interested in the Bible and, despite his poor education, read it in its entirety several times, and re-read it more than two thousand times in his life. After several mystical experiences, at age 20, in 1965, while attending a local Presbyterian Church where he also served as Sunday school teacher, Jung decided to devote its free time to street evangelism. He claims his work was non-denominational, as he urged those he evangelized to join whatever Protestant church might be convenient for them.
Jung’s life changed dramatically on February 22, 1966, when he was drafted to serve in the South Korean 9th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War. He remained in Vietnam until August 26, 1967, and was called again there for a second tour of duty between February 18, 1968, and April 15, 1969. Critics do not dispute that he served with honor, earning several decorations, including an Order of Military Merit medal. Jung also claims that, during his two Vietnam campaigns, he managed to remain faithful to what he considered the Christian imperative not to kill anybody, not even enemies in war. This claim is supported by testimonies by some of Jung’s comrades in Vietnam.
Upon his return from Vietnam, Jung resumed both his farming and evangelistic activities, and decided to devote a substantial part of his savings and time to rebuilding the Presbyterian church in Seokmak, which was in a destitute state. The new church was inaugurated on July 20, 1971.
However, from several years he had harbored doubts on the Presbyterian teachings. He began asking friends to draw diagrams representing his understanding of the Bible, which put him at odds with the Presbyterians, and for the best part of the decade of the 1970s visited several mainline and new religions, not only Christian, as they included Daesoon Jinrihoe, the largest non-Christian new religion in South Korea, and Won Buddhism.
Jung explored both mainline Christian denominations, such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics, and new religious movements, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Yongmunsan Kidowŏn, established by Na Un Mong (1914–2009). Na had a special influence on Jung, who later regarded it as a “major prophet.” Na had been expelled from the Presbyterian Church for heresy in 1966, although after his death his son led his movement to merge with the Methodists.
In 1973 and 1974, Jung attended a Holiness church in Gwangju, which did not prevent him from exploring other religions and movements. He also read the works of independent Christian theologian Han Enoch (Han Jin Gyo, 1887–1963), whom Jung also came to regard as a prophet.
In November 1974, Jung came into contact with the Unification Church. On March 20, 1975, he was registered as a member of the church founded by Reverend Moon Sun Myung (1920–2012). Jung’s church is often presented as a “schism” of the Unification Church. Jung claims that it was quite easy to be registered as a “member” of Moon’s church in the 1975, as he reports that, to inflate their numbers, they registered as members all those who attended their meetings. Jung, however, admits that he occasionally delivered speeches at Unification Church’s events until 1978, and in an interview with me he compared Moon’s relation with himself to John the Baptist’s with Jesus.
Jung also reports that in 1978, he heard a voice from Heaven telling him, “Do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal.” These are locations mentioned in the Bible, and Jung interpreted Bethel to mean the mainline Protestant churches, and Gilgal to mean the Unification Church.
On June 1, 1978, Jung moved to Seoul, determined to launch there his own independent ministry. He claims he came to the capital with only the equivalent of US $300, but he had his diagrams, and trusted they will attract interest. Through street evangelism, he gathered a handful of followers, who grew to a few hundreds and then to a few thousands. In 1982, he established the MS Gospel Association, which was later called Christian Gospel Mission and popularly known as Providence. The new church soon started to grow, as we will see in the second article of this series.