Olive Tree Movement

Don Baker
Yuri Kim

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OLIVE TREE MOVEMENT TIMELINE

1917:  The founder, Park T’aesŏn, was born in northwestern Korea, in South Pyŏngan Province.

1925:  Park began attending a Protestant church after the death of his mother.

1933:  Park moved to Japan to attend middle school and high school.

1941:  Park married Park Chŏngwŏn in Tokyo.

1944:  Park returned to Korea because of the heavy bombing of Japan.That book, Omyo wŏlli (奧妙元理 Profound Principles), was the primary scriptural guide.

1946:  Park attended a revival service conducted by an evangelist of the Holiness church during which he saw tongues of fire falling down from heaven.

1949:  Park met Chŏng Tŭgŭn, a female evangelist who reportedly later convinced Park to participate in a “blood-replacing ritual” involving sexual activity. Park denied that report.

1949:  Park Yunmyŏng, the third son of Park T’aesŏn and Park Chŏngwŏn and later his father’s successor as head of both his business empire and his religious movement, was born.

1950:  Once the Korean War broke out, Park was forced to hide from the North Korean military. While in hiding in a hole under his house, he discovered water “the water of life” (saengsu), that he believed was sent from heaven.

1954:  Park was ordained an elder in the Ch’angdong Presbyterian church in Seoul.

1955 (March):  Park was one of the main speakers in a revival meeting in Seoul and became known for healing the sick and lame by a laying on of hands, anch’al (healing massage).

1955 (July):  At a revival organized by his group, attendees reported that tongues of fire descended from the sky while Park preached.

1956:  Park was expelled from the mainstream Presbyterian community for heresy and established the Korean Christian Evangelizing Hall and Revival Association.

1956:  Followers began referring to Park as the Olive Tree, the Righteous Man from the East, and the Victor.

1957:  Park began building his first Village for the Faithful, in Sosa west of Seoul.

1957:  Park’s followers began selling “Water of Life,” which they promised would wash away sin.

1958:  Park was arrested on charges of embezzling church funds for harming others with violent anch’al.

1959:  Park was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

1960:  Park was released from prison after fifteen months behind bars.

1960:  Park followers were arrested after violently protesting a newspaper report that photos of tongues of fire descending from heaven at Park’s revivals were faked.

1961:  Park was arrested on charges of participating in the rigging of a national election and served six months of a one year sentence.

1962:   Park began building another Village for the Faithful in Tŏkso, east of Seoul.

1969:  Tŏkso Village for the Faithful was destroyed by floods and fire.

1970:  Park began building the third Village for the Faithful in Kijang, in southeastern Korea.

1970:  Omyo wŏlli (Profound Principles) was published.

1972:  Park’s first wife, Park Chŏngwon, died.

1974:  Park married Ch’oi Oksun.

1980:  Park began claiming that he was God, and that the Bible was ninety-eight percent a lie and began demanding that members remain celibate and that men and women must live apart.

1980:  He group name was changed to “The Proselytizing Hall of the Revival Society of the Korean Church of the Heavenly Father.”

1981:  Park’s second wife, Ch’oe Oksun, left him.

1990:  Park died at age seventy-three. His son, Yunmyŏng, replaced him as head of the religious community and of the businesses.

2014:  A collection of Park Taesŏn’s sermons, Hananim ŭi malssŭm (The Word of God), was published.

2020:  The Church of the Heavenly Father reported that there were 124 worship halls in Korea and four in the United States.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

The religious organization now known as the Church of the Heavenly Father (Ch’ŏnbukyo 天父敎) was known in its early years as the Olive Tree movement and as the Church of Elder Park. Elder Park was Park T’aesŏn (朴泰善1917-1990), the founder of this religious community. However, he is no longer called Elder Park. Instead, he is called God (Hananim). However, that change came more than two decades after he founded the Olive Tree Movement.

Park T’aesŏn was born in 1917 in northwestern Korea in Tŏkchŏn county in south Pyŏngan province. That was a very difficult time for the Korean people. Only seven years earlier Japan had overthrown the five-century-old Korean kingdom known as Chosŏn and absorbed it into the Japanese empire. Japan then began to reorganize the economy of its Korean colony to better fit Japan’s needs. Park’s family did not adapt well to that new economic environment, and so Park grew up in poverty. To make matters worse, his mother died when he was only nine years-old and his father died two years later. He began attending a local Presbyterian church for solace.

He was able to finish elementary school and then realized that he would have to support himself if he wanted to pursue further education. At age sixteen he left Korea for Japan. He was able to graduate from a technical high school, which he attended at night while working part-time as a delivery boy during the day. While living in Japan, he also continued his earlier association with Protestant Christianity, though he says he was not a firm Christian until he witnessed an elder in his church on his death bed. When he saw how that man prayed and sang hymns until just before he died, and then saw his face light up with joy as he welcomed his imminent death, his faith in Christianity grew stronger. (Ch’oe Chunghyŏn 1998:42-45)

After graduating from high school, Park worked for a while in Tokyo. In 1941, he married Park Chŏngwon (朴貞源. ??-1972). They returned to Korea together in 1944 because of the bombing of Tokyo by U.S. aircraft. They arrived just in time to witness Korea regaining its independence after Japan was defeated by the U.S. in 1945 and had to withdraw from its Korean colony. The couple settled down in Seoul, and Park started running a precision machine company (Ch’oe 1998:45-46; Moos 1967:20). He also continued his association with Christianity. In 1946, he attended a revival service in Seoul conducted by an evangelist from the Holiness Church. Park later reported that he saw tongues of fire descending from heaven as a sign of the Holy Spirit descending on him and others attending that revival meeting (Kim Chongsŏk 1999:12-13).

However, for the first time he also began to become involved with people on the outskirts of mainstream Christianity. In 1957, he met a woman evangelist named Chŏng Tŭgŭn (정득은); like Park, she was born in 1897 in the northwestern part of Korea. Chŏng had moved south in early 1947 soon after the Communist take-over of the north. According to Seoul newspaper reports from 1957, after she had established herself in Seoul she introduced Park to a practice she called “exchanging spiritual essence.” The ritual entailed a person who already had eliminated the taint of original sin from his or her body having ritual sex with a member of the opposite sex who had not yet done so in order to share his or her sinless essence with his or her partner. This ritual sexual encounter was believed to replace contaminated bodily fluids with pure bodily fluids free of the contamination of original sin. Although this event was reported to have happened in 1949, Park denied it vehemently when a newspaper report appeared in 1957. Park’s wife was also reported to have participated in this ritual, though that was denied as well (Choe Joong-hyun 1993:145-57).

Whether or not he really was involved with Chŏng Tŭgŭn in the late 1940s, he quickly returned to mainstream Korean Protestantism. However, he soon had to withdraw from public displays of his Christian faith for a few months. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and quickly conquered Seoul. Christians were not safe in North Korea-controlled Seoul. Neither were capitalists, and Park was both. The first three weeks that Seoul was occupied, Park hid in a hole in the ground he had dug under his house and did not show his face in public.

While in hiding at his home, Park reports, he had a mystical experience. His mouth and throat were dry when unexpectedly he found cooling water appearing on his lips, and he suddenly felt refreshed. He decided he had been given water from heaven, bestowed by God in answer to his prayers. He called that water “the water of life,” a term he used later for water distributed to those who later came to follow him after he inaugurated his Olive Tree Movement (Ch’oe 1998:54-55).

Park had a second mystical experience after he escaped from occupied Seoul and hid in a town several kilometers to the south. There he suddenly found that when he urinated, blood was mixed in with his urine. Much to his surprise, after urinating blood he felt stronger rather than weaker. He realized, he says, that the blood he was expelling from his body was the contaminated blood of original sin. He then had a vision of Jesus bleeding from his wounds on the cross appearing before him and telling Park, “Drink my blood.” Park says Jesus then placed some of his blood on Park’s lips. When he swallowed that blood, Park says he realized his contaminated blood was replaced by the sacred blood of Jesus and therefore he had become one with Jesus (Ch’oe 1998:55-56).

By the end of September 1950, Seoul was back in South Korean hands, and Park was able to return to Seoul that fall. However, the war dragged on until the summer of 1953. The South Korean economy was devastated, and for years after the cease fire was signed in July 1953, the Korean people desperately searched for any way out of their poverty. Many of them found that search was made more difficult by the wounds (and, in some cases, the loss of the use of their limbs) they had suffered during the war. Their search for help extended to the supernatural realm. After the war, many Koreans began flocking to revivals in the hope that God would save them from the terrible situation in which they found themselves.

By 1954, Park was assisting in those revivals as an assistant to preachers and faith-healers. That summer he volunteered to step in when one particularly popular faith-healer, a woman named Pyŏn Kyedan, had attracted a large number of people seeking healing to a revival but had to leave town before she was able to provide all of them with the laying on of hands that was supposed to channel the power of God into their bodies and heal them. When Park began offering anch’al (the name Pyŏn had used for the strong massage she gave those who came to her to be healed), according to at least one report “the blind opened their eyes, those with disabled legs stood up, those stricken with paralysis walked…” (Choe 1993:80) That was the beginning of Park’s career as an evangelist-faith healer. [Image at right]

In December of 1954, Park was named an elder in Ch’angdong Presbyterian Church. Soon afterwards, he began to be listed on the marquee for major revivals. (Ch’oe 1993:80-82) Attracting large and larger crowds because of reports that the Holy Spirit was manifesting itself as tongues of fire or drops of sacred dew when he preached, he established his own evangelizing organization, which he called the Korean Association for Christian Revival. That, along with his claims to unusual faith-healing powers, aroused the ire of many of Korea’s other Presbyterian preachers. In 1956, he was formally expelled from the mainstream Presbyterian community in Korea. (Choi 1993:84-87)

Park then changed the name of his now completely independent organization to the Korean Christian Evangelizing Hall and Revival Association (“Evangelizing Hall” in Korean is chŏndogwan (傳道館) (Ch’oe 1993:71). That became the way his movement was formally referred to in Korean until 1980. Now on his own, in November he began publicly referring to himself as “the Olive Tree” (감람나무), a reference to Revelations 11: 4. This line in Bible refers to two Olive Trees who serve as powerful witnesses to the power of God above. Clearly, Park was already seeing himself as special and apart from the run-of-the-mill evangelists on the Korean peninsula at that time. Non-Koreans, finding that an unusual title for a Christian leader to assume, began to refer to Park’s movement as the Olive Tree Movement (Kim 1999:21-22).

Park’s followers also began referring to him as the Victorious One (이긴 자) and as the “righteous one from the east” (東方一人). The Victorious One is referred to in Revelations 3:12 as he who God will make a pillar of God’s temple. The righteous one from the east is referred to in Isaiah 41: 2 as someone God has raised up to rule over kings. Another term that came to be used to refer to Park later, though it has no counterpart in the Bible, was “spiritual mother” (靈母) (Pak 1985:336-42).

As the community centered on his spiritual guidance grew even while mainstream Christianity began to ostracize him, Park decided to create separate communities in which his followers could live and work. The first such community, which he called “Villages for the Faithful” (信仰村), was constructed in the district of Sosa west of Seoul. He promised that there would eventually be 144,000 people chosen by him who would live there and enjoy eternal life in what would become a paradise on earth (Kim 1999:23). That first Village for the Faithful, however, could only house a few hundred of his believers. So that those chosen few who lived there would not have to leave that community and mingle with non-believers outside on a regular basis, it also contained several factories in which believers worked to produce textiles and other consumer products for sale to the outside world (Moos 1967:16; Ch’oe 1998:74).

Ordinary consumer goods were not the only goods they sold. They also sold what they called the “water of life (生水),” which they promised would not only wash away the stain of sin but also would also restore youthful vigor to the old and frail. The water of life was water which had been blessed by Park. It was a substitute for Park’s faith-healing and salvation-granting massage (anch’al 按擦 ), which required the actual laying on of hands by Park and was therefore difficult to provide for the many believers who requested it (Pak 1985:347-52).

In the late 1950s, the vigor with which Park administered anch’al and the healing promised by the “water of life” got Park in trouble with the government of South Korea. In early 1958, he was charged with a number of offenses, including causing injury and even death with anch’al, and with defrauding his followers by promises to heal them in exchange for “offerings.” He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail in 1959, though he was released after only fifteen months behind bars. However, he was thrown back in jail a few months later on a charge of helping rig a presidential election in favor of the political party whose leader, President Syngman Rhee, had granted him an early release. This time he spent slightly less than a year in jail. (Moos 1967:23-24)

While he was still serving his first sentence, some of Park’s followers took out their anger on the way he was being treated by the authorities by attacking the offices of a major newspapers. About 2,000 mostly female members of his community forced their way into the offices of the Donga Ilbo to demand an apology for that newspaper having claimed that photos of tongues of fire descending from heaven while Park preached had been faked (Kim Chang Han 2007:217). [Image at right]

1962 was the last year Park spent any time behind bars. Soon after he was released, he began building a second, and larger, Village for the Faithful, this time in an area called Tŏkso in Yangju county east of Seoul. Like the first Village for the Faithful, this was a total community for Park’s followers, providing not only housing but also workplaces as well as schools. The consumer products produced in the factories in those Villages for the Faithful, marketed under the Zion brand, were very competitive in the consumer markets in Korea at that time, earning a substantial income for Park and his religious organization. The factories in Tŏkso also moved Park’s community beyond textiles and snacks into steel industry products, such as ball bearings (Kim Chongsŏk 1999:27-28). Park was constructing both a religious and a commercial empire.

After the second Village for the Faithful was constructed, Park introduced an important ritual to his religious community. On the third or final Sunday of every month Park’s followers were expected to gather in Tŏkso Village for the Faithful for a Day of Blessings. During the religious service, they would receive blessings via bottles of “water of life” (Kim Chongsŏk 1999:29-30; Kim Chang Han 2007:219).

In 1969, Park began to run into trouble. In January of that year a fire swept through the Tŏkso Village for the Faithful. Further damage was created by a major flood of the same area that summer. Further, Park’s daughter died from a stomach ulcer this same year (Kim Chongsŏk 1999:31) Park’s claim to be able to cure disease, defeat death, and create a paradise on earth began to lose credence among some of those who had been following him. However, Park bounced back and the very next year, in 1970, began transferring his main Village for the Faithful to a new, and even larger, site near the southeastern tip of the peninsula, in Kijang outside of the city of Pusan. That same year his followers published Park’s guide to reading the Bible the way he then wanted it to be read. That book, Omyo wŏlli (奧妙元理  Profound Principles), was the primary scriptural guide for his followers until the end of the decade, when he abandoned his previous interpretations of the Bible and moved even farther away from mainstream Protestant Christianity (Park Yŏnggwan 1993:141-59).

In 1972, Park’s first wife, Park Chŏngwon, passed away, possibly due to a traffic accident (Kim Chongsŏk 1999:33-34). His failure to give her eternal life must have caused a moment of doubt for some of the members of the Olive Tree movement, but there is no evidence that there was a substantial drop in membership at this point in time (although there are no reliable figures for membership at any point in time). Two years later, he remarried. His new bride was Ch’oe Oksun, at that time a devout follower of his. However, that changed in 1974. One morning she discovered him spitting up blood and appearing to be in fear of imminent death. That caused her to lose her faith in his ability to grant eternal life. Five years later, in 1981, she left him and his Village for the Faithful (Ch’oe Chunghyŏn 1998:81-82, 90-94).

Ch’oe Oksun’s discovery of Park’s mortality might not be the only reason she lost faith in him and left him in 1981. In 1980, he ordered that she be isolated within the Village of the Faithful and have no contact with other members of his community. He also announced a dramatic change in what he expected his followers to believe. He declared that the Bible was ninety-eight percent lies and that Jesus was not the son of God but instead was the son of Satan. The true God, the creator of the universe and the one who will preside over the Final Judgement at the end of time, and the only one who can offer salvation to human beings, is none other than Park T’aesŏn himself. He also declared that he had lived on earth for 5,780 years already and would never die (Ch’oe Chunghyŏn 1998:85-89) Soon afterward, he changed the name of his religious community to “The Proselytizing Hall of the Revival Society of the Korean Church of the Heavenly Father.” The Heavenly Father was a reference to Park, not to the traditional Christian Supreme Being. Stunned by this sudden change in the theological foundations of the Olive Tree Movement, many followers left his movement. Cho Hee-seung (1931-2004) was one of those who left, and he went on to found a rival religious community, Victory Altar.

Undeterred by the departure of so many of those who had once looked up to him as their spiritual guide, Park tightened control over those followers who remained. He declared that his followers could no longer sleep with their spouses. Instead he demanded that men and women live apart. From that point on, his movement has had separate worship halls for men and women. Many of the married couples who had joined together divorced, with the men leaving the community, creating a majority female community (Kim, Chongsŏk 1999:45-47).

In 1990, Park, who had declared that he was immortal and had promised immortality to his followers, passed away at the age of seventy-three. His death was probably the greatest shock of all for those who still believed in his message. Park had tried to prepare his few remaining followers for his death by explaining that he had come to earth as a sacrificial lamb to take on the sins of this world but now that he had completed that task, it was time for him to leave (Kim, Chongsŏk 1999:51-58) Nevertheless, after this death his Church of the Heavenly Father went into decline.

His third son, Park Yunmyŏng, assumed leadership of both the religious community and its business enterprises and has remained in charge. He arranged to have his father’s sermons from the 1980s (after Park T’aesŏn had declared he was God Himself) compiled into a book to replace the 1970s doctrinal guide, Omyo wŏlli. Instead of that early handbook for reading the Bible, members of the Church of the Heavenly Father began to rely on Hananim ŭi malssum (the Word of God), published in 2014, to direct their spiritual life.

Although there are no reliable membership estimates, it is clear from the decline in the number of worship halls that membership has been shrinking. In 1970, when his movement still called itself the “Evangelizing Hall” (chŏndogwan), it claimed to have over 1,700 worship halls on the peninsula. (T’ak Myŏnghwan 1994:202) In the 1990s, the Church of the Heavenly Father claimed to have around 300 worship halls (Kim, Ryu, and Yang 1997:734). In 2020, the church website lists only 124 churches in Korea itself plus four in the United States.

Although Park T’aesŏn’s movement is no longer as visible on the Korean peninsula as it once was, it continues to influence Korea’s religious landscape. There are several new religious movements in Korea which have their roots in the Olive Tree Movement. Victory Altar, mentioned above, is one. Another is Shincheonji. The founder of Shincheonji, Lee Man Hee (1931—), was active in the Olive Tree Movement from 1956 until 1967. The name of his religious organization, taken from Revelations: 21, is a term that was first given prominence in the early sermons of Park T’aesŏn, who promised that he was building a New Heaven (shincheon) and a New Earth (Shinji) for the righteous.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

The defining belief of the Church of the Heavenly Father is that the man known as Park T’aesŏn is actually the Supreme Deity. Believers refer to him as Hananim, a term for God also used by conservative mainstream Protestant denominations (Don Baker 2002:118-19). He was not always considered God, however. At first he was simply Elder Park, the title he earned in a Presbyterian church before he set out on his own. (He was not called Rev. Park because he was never ordained a clergyman.) Then, starting in 1956, he picked up other titles, such as the Olive Tree, The Victor, the Righteous Man from the East, and even the Spiritual Mother. It was not until 1980 that he told his followers that he was both the creator of the universe and the judge who would preside over the Final Judgement and therefore should be addressed as Hananim.

When Park’s movement was known as the Olive Tree Movement, the Evangelizing Hall was considered a Christian denomination. That changed in 1980 when Park declared that ninety-eight percent of the Bible was false and that Jesus was actually the son of Satan. His religious community, under the new name of Church of the Heavenly Father, no longer described itself as Christian. However, it still retains many beliefs that reflect its roots in Christianity. A core belief is that God came down to earth to wash away the sins of human beings. It is those sins which keep human beings from enjoying eternal life in the Heavenly Kingdom. That much the Church of the Heavenly Father shares with Christianity. However, its explanation for why sin keeps human beings from eternal life is very different from the explanation given by mainstream Christianity.

According to Park T’aesŏn’s teachings, before they are saved human beings are made up of diabolic components, proof of which is that they have to regularly excrete feces. However, the most contaminated part of human beings is their blood (Hananim ŭi malssum, “The Only Holy Spirit that Gives Salvation”) Their blood can be cleansed, and their bodies transformed to eliminate its diabolical components, but only with the Holy Dew which the Heavenly Father provides. In some of his sermons, Park appears to suggest that there is a limit to how many human beings can be thus transformed and therefore be allowed to enter heaven. He suggests that he will save 144,000 human beings only (Hananim ŭi malssum,“The Lamb is God”).

Sometimes that Holy Dew which makes salvation possible appears as the Water of Life (Hananim ŭi malssum, “Three Steps Toward Perfection”), which is bottled by members of the church and sold to those who believe in its efficacy. At other times, however, that Holy Dew appears to drop from the heavens during a church service. Both the Water of Life and the Holy Dew are believed to not only cleanse the body of sin, they also are said to heal ill and damaged bodies (Pak Kiman 1985:346-50).

In a nod to its Christian origins, the churh calls the Holy Dew the “Dew of the Holy Spirit.” However, it is the Heavenly Father Park T’aeson who sends that Holy Dew down from Heaven and it is the Heavenly Father who, while he was on this earth, turned ordinary water into Water of Life by blessing it. Since 1990, Water of Life had been obtained from water which bubbles up from a spring underneath Park T’aesŏn’s tomb in the Kijang Village for the Faithful.

In another nod to its Christian origins, the church shares with most of Korea’s Christian denominations an emphasis on the end of the world as well as the belief that the end is near. However, the church is set apart by its doctrine that at the final judgement, which will follow the end of the world, the Final Judge will be Park T’aesŏn, since he is God Almighty himself. Park also taught that at the time of final judgement, all human beings who have ever lived will be transformed temporarily into gods, by which he means they will be spiritual beings who can see clearly what every other human being has done when they were alive. This will render visible for all to see who sinned and who merits salvation, so that when sinners descend to hell and the holy ascend to heaven, no one can claim that the Final Judgement is unfair (Hananim ŭi malssŭm, “God’s Judgement, all too fair”). However, salvation is for families, not for individuals. When one individual is saved, his family will be able to ascend to heaven with him or her.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

On ordinary Sundays, believers worship in a building that is similar in appearance to Korea’s Protestant churches. [Image at right] Moreover, men and women worship in separate worship halls. That is not the only significant difference with the worship services of Korea’s mainstream Christian denominations. The service begins with the congregation engaging in choral hymn singing, just as in Christian churches. Since 1980, however, the words of those hymns have become very different from what mainstream Christians sing. Since the church teaches that Jesus is a son of the devil rather than the son of God, there are no hymns praising Jesus. Another distinctive feature of church services is that members of the congregation clap loudly as they sing. That has been the practice of Park T’aeson’s followers since the 1950s. Since 1990, the singing of hymns has continued to be led by Park T’aesŏn himself. As he is no longer on this earth, he now appears in videos leading the singing.

As is standard in Protestant communities in Korea, scripture is read during the Sunday service, but the scripture in this case is Hanannim ŭi malssŭm (The Word of God). There is also a sermon, though normally it is a videotaped sermon Park T’aesŏn delivered before his death. Moreover, rather than sitting in pews to listen to that sermon, worshippers are expected to kneel on the floor as a sign of respect.

In addition to regular Sunday services, the Church of the Heavenly Father has four special holy days. Since it is no longer Christian, it does not celebrate Christmas or Easter. Instead, believers are asked to gather in the Kijang Village for the Faithful for those four special services.

Around the second to last or last Sunday of every month, believers gather in Kijang Village for the Faithful for what is called a Celebration of Blessings to celebrate the gift of the Water of Life from God incarnate (Park T’aesŏn). They believe that Water of Life contains the Holy Dew that washes away sins. There are separate gatherings for male believers, female believers, and young students.

In addition to those regular monthly meetings, they also meet in February every year for what they call Sŏngsin samoil (“paying respect to the Holy Spirit,” the celebration of Park T’aesŏn’s birthday). On the third Sunday in May every year, they come together to celebrate Yisŭl sŏngsinjŏl (the celebration of the day the Holy Spirit came down as Holy Dew to wash away sins). And every year on the first Sunday in November they gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. On all of these special holy days believers are supposed to come together for special services in the Kijang Village of the Faithful.

Beyond attending worship services, believers are instructed to obey the Ten Commandments in both their actions and in their hearts. For example, if a man or a woman only thinks about engaging in an adulterous relationship, they have already committed the sin of adultery. The Church of the Heavenly Father calls this the Law of Liberty (Hannim ŭi malssŭm, “Not to Sin in the Eye, Heart, or Thought is to Keep the Law of Liberty”). The Law of Liberty refers to free will. The church shares the mainstream Christian belief that human beings are free to choose to either follow the laws of God or to disobey those laws. If they choose to follow the laws of God, they will be rewarded with eternal life, but if they willfully disobey those laws, they will be punished for eternity. As the church scriptures state, “hell is inevitable if you steal even a penny” (Hannim ŭi malssŭm, “Three Steps Toward Perfection”). The scriptures go on to add that “no one destined for hell can complain, because my guidance had already been offered countless times and ignored during their mortal lives” (Hannim ŭi malssŭm, “God’s Judgement, All Too Fair”.)

In addition to obeying the Ten Commandments both inwardly and outwardly, church members are also instructed to abide by certain additional prohibitions. Since 1980, they have been required to abstain from conjugal relations. They  are told to refrain from consuming pork, peaches, and eels, as those foods have been declared to be unclean. They are also prohibited from eating food that has been offered to ancestral spirits in Korea’s traditional ancestral memorial ritual and to refuse to participate in such a ritual. Finally, the dead are to be buried rather than cremated.

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

After Park T’aesŏn died in 1990, the leadership of both his religious community and his business enterprises passed to his third son, Park Yunmyŏng. The new leader does not have the charisma his father had. In fact, the heir is hardly ever seen in public. The church’s web bulletin, Sinang sinbo (known in English as the Weekly), does not mention Park Yunmyŏng’s name when it reports on important meetings or worship services. He is not mentioned as giving any sermons, or publishing any exhortations to the members of this religious community to remain faithful to his father’s teachings. Nor is he mentioned as presiding over important rituals. In 2014, a few of his former acquaintances who had left the church held a press conference in which they announced that they believed he was no longer alive since he had not been heard from since 2005. The church neither confirmed nor denied that report; it simply ignored it.

Whether or not their leader is still alive, the Church of the Heavenly Father continues to operate 124 worship halls in Korea itself as well as four churches in the United States. A pastor of a church is called a kwanjang (head of a proselytizing hall). The church does not use the mainstream Korean Christian term for a pastor, which is moksa, nor does it use the traditional Korean term for a church elder, changno, since that term was reserved for Park T’aesŏn. Instead, it calls its elders sŭngsa. Titles for those lower than elders in the church hierarchy are kwŏnsa and chipsa, both of which could be translated as “deacon” or “deaconess.” Some other active contributors to the various projects of the church are given the title chŏndosa, “evangelist.”

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

There was a steep drop in church membership after Park T’aeson declared in 1980 that he was God and that the Bible was full of lies. A further drop followed Park’s death in 1990. Today the Church of the Heavenly Father is much smaller than the Olive Tree Movement was in the 1960s. In 2011, the church reported to the government in Seoul that they had 407,000 members. Most external observers, however, suspect that figure is closer to 10,000.

There are a several reasons for that decline. First, the Olive Tree Movement attracted people who were looking for a Christian denomination. Once Park declared in 1980 that he was superior to Jesus, most of his Christian followers left. Second, Park promised his followers immortality. When he died in 1990, many of his followers decided that was a promise he could not keep. Third, his successor Park Yunmyŏng not only is not the charismatic preacher his father was, it is not even clear that he is still leading the movement. In fact, it is not clear who is now running the church. Since the Olive Tree Movement and later the Church of the Heavenly Father was based on the charisma of the founder, without a comparable leader after Paek T’aesŏn’s passing, it was inevitable that the movement would go into decline. Finally, through its own rule that men and women must not live together, the church has ensured that the faith will not be passed on from one generation to the next. It has tried to overcome that problem by attracting young people but has not been very successful.

The church has also been subjected to harsh criticism from mainstream Korean Christians. Korean Christians tend to be very vocal in their condemnation of what they label “idan” (heresy).” The Olive Tree Movement was already labeled idan in 1956 because of Park’s claims of supernatural powers. When he denounced the Bible in 1980, those cries grew much louder. The animosity toward the church has even led to accusations that the church secretly buried over 1,000 bodies in an unauthorized cemetery, and that these graves suggest that there may have been one or more murders on the grounds of the Kijang Village for the Faithful. A police investigation failed to substantiate those charges. Nevertheless, a stain remains on the reputation of the church because of these accusations.

In another sign that the Church of the Heavenly Father is not doing as well as it once did, the various factories it ran which used to bring a lot of money into the Church of the Heavenly Father community (by producing such items as high quality blankets, socks, and electric heaters) have now shut down. They were unable to compete with large corporations such as Hyundae and Samsung. However, they are still manufacturing some foodstuffs. Recently they introduced tofu made with the Water of Life and a soy sauce also made with the Water of Life in addition to a low-calorie yogurt called Run.They sell these goods in small stores, called “Village for the Faithful shops,” which are found in neighborhoods throughout the Republic of Korea. [Image at right]

The future of the Church of the Heavenly Father is not bright. Most of its current members are elderly remnants of those who began attending Park T’aesŏn’s revivals in the late 1950s and the 1960s. They are not attracting enough new members to maintain their current membership levels, much less return to prominence on the Korean religious landscape. The first two Villages for the Faithful, in Sosa and Tŏkso, are now the site of high-rise apartment buildings for the general public. There is little evidence, other than a remaining worship hall, that they were once the site of communities of members of the Olive Tree Movement. Kijang Village for the Faithful survives but it has now been incorporated into South Korea’s second largest city, Pusan. It is not clear how much longer it will be able to maintain its identity as a separate community in which believers live and work. In fact, it is not clear how much longer the Church of the Heavenly Father itself will continue to exist. With a few decades, it may become nothing more than a memory, studied by scholars as part of Korea’s religious past.

IMAGES

Image #1: Park T’aesŏn preaching at one of his early tent revivals. Photo courtesy of Sinang sinbo.
Image #2: Tongues of fire appearing above worshippers at one of Park T’aesŏn’s early revivals. Photo courtesy of Sinang sinbo.
Image #3: A dove, the symbol of the Church of the Heavenly Father, rising above the roof of  a Church of the Heavenly Father worship hall. Photo courtesy of Yuri Kim.
Image #4: A small shop run by the Church of the Heavenly Father. Signs above the shop windows advertise tofu and soy sauce made from Water of Life. Photo courtesy of Yuri Kim.

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Publication Date:
2 April 2020

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Updated: — 7:03 pm

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