Chu Ki-chol

From our service on March 21, 2021, a story of the inspiring life of Chu Ki-chol, as recounted by Colin Mills.

Chu Ki-chol

Sometimes, in service of a worthy cause or in order to live a life of integrity, we may be called upon to sacrifice. Jesus knew that to fulfill God’s mission, He had to accept the ultimate sacrifice: martyrdom on the cross. And throughout history, other courageous Christians have sacrificed themselves for their faith. One such martyr is Chu Ki-chol, a Korean pastor who stayed true to his faith at the cost of his life.

Chu was born in Changwon, Korea in 1897. When he was 8, the Japanese Empire occupied Korea. Five years later, they officially annexed the country. This occupation set up the central conflict that defined Chu’s life.

At age 15, he went to the Osan School, where two causes reigned supreme: Christianity and Korean nationalism. The young Chu was attracted to both. He went on to Yonhi College in Seoul, where he planned to study commerce. But his vision deteriorated, and he was forced to drop out after less than two years.

In 1919, he explored nationalism, becoming a youth leader in the March 1st movement for Korean independence. But shortly after that, Chu attended a faith meeting where his sight was restored, and he committed his life to Christ instead. He changed his name from “Ki-bok” to “Ki-chol” (which means “devotee”) to symbolize his faith. Chu enrolled in the Pyongyang Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1926.

Around this time, the Japanese government became more hostile toward Christianity. They demanded that Koreans pay homage to Shinto shrines, and ordered Korean churches to include Shinto altars. Many Korean Christians were uncertain whether to obey the orders. But to Chu, it was clear: this was idol worship, and God forbid it.

In 1936, Chu became the pastor of the Sanjunhyung Church in Pyongyang, the birthplace of the Korean Presbyterian Church. From his new pulpit, Chu turned his resistance into a nationwide movement. His opposition made the church popular with Korean nationalists.

Under immense pressure from the government, the Presbyterian Church finally yielded in 1938 and told their members to obey the Shinto orders. But Chu stood firm in his resistance, which made him a target. He was arrested in February 1938 and tortured for several months before being released.

Chu returned to the pulpit in September and delivered a sermon entitled “Determination for Death,” defending his resistance and explaining that his convictions were rooted not in nationalism, but in his faith. After that sermon, Chu was arrested and jailed again.

The government agreed to release him on the condition that he not preach. He responded: “I give sermons by God’s authority… So I will continue to give these sermons as long as God authorizes me to do so.”

As he promised, Chu delivered a sermon entitled, “My Five Prayers.” He asked that God allow him to overcome the power of death and endure the ordeals inflicted on him. And he urged his congregation, “Let us live for righteousness and die for righteousness.” He explained that his resistance was mandated by his faith: “I grew up in Jesus when I was young, and I swore to devote myself to Jesus tens, hundreds of times… How could I then today, when God’s commandments have been broken and the name of Jesus has fallen to the ground, escape and lamely seek to save my life?” After this sermon, Chu was jailed and tortured a third time.

When he was released in the summer of 1940, the government sent a pastor to his church to give a speech claiming that worshipping at Shinto shrines was not a sin. But Chu confronted the pastor, saying: “I am impressed by your knowledge but I cannot sit here and allow you to tell us that the Bible [says] that we should not worry about worshipping at Shinto shrines.” Chu’s active resistance thrilled the congregation and embarrassed the visiting pastor.

The government ordered Chu to be expelled from his church, and they arrested him for treason. This time, they would not release him.

During his imprisonment, Chu was tortured again and again. In response, he prayed and sang hymns. When others expressed sympathy for his plight, Chu replied: “My cross is nothing compared to the cross that Jesus bore on Golgotha.” After years of torture, Chu died in 1944 at age 47. His last words were “God of my soul, hold me firm.”

Chu is revered as a hero to this day in South Korea. In 1968, he was declared an Honored Patriot. But though he is remembered for his contribution to the cause of Korean independence, Chu Ki-chol made clear that his conviction was driven by his love of God. He had the courage to make the ultimate sacrifice for his faith.

Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:38):