Robert Jermain Thomas was born in 1839 in Wales. His father was an Independent minister. Robert graduated from London University and was ordained as a missionary with the London Mission Society. He married Caroline and the young couple set out for China, arriving in Shanghai at Christmas after a five month sea voyage. However, within a short time he was devastated when his wife suddenly died. He was an excellent linguist, having already learnt fluent Russian at school, and it only took him four months to master Mandarin. Later that year he went to Beijing and became a school lecturer in English and Chinese.
At that time Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom and had no contact with outsiders. However, there were some Catholic priests in Korea. They had first arrived in Korea in the 1785 and had made many converts. But the Korean authorities objected to this and in 1863 had massacred approximately 8000 of the converts.
Against this background Robert met two Korean traders in 1865. They told him of the situation in Korea and Robert went secretly there for four months on behalf of the National Bible Society of Scotland. He took Bibles with him and sold many Scriptures in Chinese. He was also able to preach the gospel but he went heavily disguised and those to whom he gave Bibles risked death if discovered.
In 1866 Robert went back to Korea with more Scriptures. This time as a translator on an American trading ship, the General Sherman. They sailed up the river to Pyongyang – the present-day capital of North Korea – but were warned to leave by the Koreans who did not want foreign traders. However the ship continued on its course and eventually became stuck on a sandbank. Korean fire rafts were sent against the vessel which then caught fire. All tried to escape from the ship but they were killed by soldiers on the river bank. Robert, standing on the deck of the burning ship, opened his cases of Bibles and flung the books to those who lined the banks of the river. With his clothes on fire he leaped overboard. He offered his last Bible to a soldier waiting for him, begging him to accept it. The soldier hesitated to execute him, but at last he had to do his duty and transfixed Robert with his lance. Robert Jermain Thomas was just twenty-seven.
The memory of Robert’s martyrdom made a great impression on many who witnessed it. A few managed to rescue some of the Bibles and brought them home to be used as wallpaper in their houses. As time went on, curiosity arose and people began to read this strange text on the walls of their houses. Gradually Koreans began to become Christians and today, the church in South Korea numbers many millions of Believers and reputedly the capital Seoul has seven of the then largest evangelical churches in the world.
One (young) man, who on fire with the gospel of Jesus Christ, laid down his life to tell other people about Jesus. The Koreans thought that they had won the battle but 130 years later it is clear that they lost the war!