Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea

A major South Korean movement in which multiple members committed suicide in anticipation of a failed doomsday prediction.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Baptist
Founder: Yoo Byung-eun
Founded: 1962
Location: South Korea
Size: 20,000
Other Names: Evangelical Baptist Church; Korean Evangelical Baptist Church (기독교복음침례회); Korean Evangelical Layman’s Church; Salvation Sect, Young Nak Presbyterian Church
Website: ebc.or.kr

The Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, also known as the Salvation Sect or Guwonpa, was founded in 1962 by Yoo Byung-eun and Pastor Kwon Shin-chan. Initially, it functioned as a conventional Baptist church but gradually adopted unique doctrines and practices under Yoo’s leadership. With a membership estimated between 10,000 to 200,000 followers worldwide, the church has been a subject of interest and controversy both within South Korea and internationally.

Yoo Byung-eun’s leadership was central to the church’s identity and he exerted significant control over the congregation, both spiritually and financially. The church had a hierarchical structure with Yoo at the top, and it operated several businesses, including a lucrative ferry service, to fund its activities.

The church’s theology centered around an imminent apocalyptic event, with Yoo positioning himself as a spiritual authority who could offer salvation. The doctrines emphasize a form of assured salvation, where once saved, a member is considered permanently free from the consequences of future sins, undermining the traditional Christian emphasis on continual repentance. This theological stance has led to significant criticism from more conservative Christian groups, labeling the Salvation Sect as a cult, but the sect maintains a substantial following, with some members venerating Yoo Byung-eun in a messianic manner, while others view him purely as a church leader​​.

The Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea is infamously known for it’s connection to a mass suicide incident in 1987. On August 29, 1987, the bodies of 32 members of a religious group known as the Odaeyang Trading Company a splinter group of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, were found in a factory owned by the group in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. The victims, including the group’s leader, Park Soon-ja, and her family, were discovered in a state that suggested a collective suicide.

The Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea came under intense scrutiny following the incident as investigations revealed complex financial and organizational ties between these two groups, including allegations of fraud and other illegal activities. The incident shocked the South Korean public and raised significant concerns about cults and religious extremism. The precise motives behind the mass suicide remain a topic of speculation and investigation, with theories ranging from religious fanaticism to attempts to escape legal and financial troubles.

Yoo Byung-eun also gained notoriety for his connection to the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, when the ferry sank, leading to the deaths of 304 passengers and crew. This tragic event cast a spotlight on Yoo and his affiliations, revealing his dual role as a religious leader and a businessman with considerable influence. Despite initial suspicions of financial improprieties linking the church to Yoo’s business ventures, subsequent investigations cleared the church of direct involvement in the embezzlement or misuse of donations for Yoo’s businesses​​.

In the wake of the Sewol tragedy, the Evangelical Baptist Church faced increased scrutiny, with authorities raiding its offices and properties associated with Yoo Byung-eun and his family. Members of the church protested against what they perceived as unjust media coverage and investigation into their beliefs and practices, reflecting the complex relationship between the sect and broader South Korean society​​.

The Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea’s story is interwoven with South Korea’s broader experience with new religious movements and cults. The country has seen a significant number of such groups gain prominence, often amid controversy over their teachings, recruitment practices, and the social and psychological impacts on their members. These movements reflect a search for belonging and meaning in a society grappling with rapid modernization, economic pressures, and the highest suicide rates among OECD countries​​.

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