SEOUL — The Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the charismatic founder of one of the world’s largest megachurches, whose preaching of “can-do positive thinking” helped fuel the explosive growth of Christianity in a once-war-ravaged South Korea, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Seoul. He was 85.
Mr. Cho, an emeritus pastor at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, had been hospitalized for more than a year after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, the church said in a statement confirming his death.
The church, which once claimed a congregation of more than 800,000 worshipers, has shrunk since Mr. Cho retired a decade ago amid scandals, accused by church elders of embezzling church funds and other transgressions.
But it is still the largest church in South Korea, with more than 570,000 people attending services at the main building on Yoido Island, in the Han River, which bisects Seoul, as well as at five sanctuaries scattered around that capital city. Separately, hundreds of smaller churches affiliated with Yoido Full Gospel operate in South Korea and around the world.
Mr. Cho’s life coincided with South Korea’s rapid transformation from a war-torn agrarian country into one of the world’s wealthiest industrialized economies. At the same time, Christianity became the largest religion in South Korea, encompassing 28 percent of the population and supplanting Buddhism, Confucianism and shamanism.
Yoido Full Gospel and a handful of other churches accommodated millions of people who had migrated from rural South Korea to the cities, especially Seoul, in search of jobs and a sense of spiritual belonging.
“The Rev. Cho was a symbol of the megachurch boom in South Korea,” said Hwang Gui-hag, an author of several books on Christianity in South Korea and the editor in chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which specializes in church news. “He has helped globalize the South Korean church too.” South Korea’s megachurches have long been one of the world’s biggest sources of missionaries.
But like that of other megachurch founders in South Korea, Mr. Cho’s legacy became tainted by corruption scandals and squabbles within his family and his organization. Once-loyal church elders accused him and other family members of embezzling church funds and demanded reform. In 2017, he was found guilty by a South Korean court of breach of trust and embezzlement, though he received a suspended sentence and avoided prison.
Cho Yong-gi was born in 1936 in Ulju, in southeastern South Korea, when the Korean Peninsula was still a colony of Japan. As a student at a vocational high school in Busan, a southern port city crowded at the time with Korean War refugees, he came down with tuberculosis. He later called his recovery miraculous, attributing it to a religious awakening. He was also influenced by Kenneth Tice, a Pentecostal Assemblies of God missionary from the United States.
Mr. Cho and Choi Ja-shil, a Pentecostal pastor who would become his mother-in-law, started a church in a Seoul slum in 1958, under a tent that had been discarded by the U.S. military. Only five churchgoers showed up on the first day, three of them Ms. Choi’s relatives. Another was an old woman who had come into the tent to get out of the rain.
But Mr. Cho and Ms. Choi soon drew more and more worshipers as word spread that they could heal the sick at a time when millions lived without access to medical services. Mr. Cho preached “hope” and “positive thinking,” convincing impoverished worshipers that religious faith would bring three rewards: wealth, health and spiritual comfort.
In 1973, to accommodate his growing congregation, Mr. Cho opened the church building on Yoido, which was then an undeveloped island. (The island is now home to the country’s National Assembly and top financial institutions.) By 1993 the church had 700,000 worshipers and was recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest congregation on the globe. The church continued growing as Mr. Cho divided Seoul into several proselytizing sectors, assigning deputies to each.
Mr. Hwang said that when he was studying in Canada in the 1990s, he was surprised to learn that more Canadians had heard of Mr. Cho than they had of the South Korean president.
Mr. Cho started charity programs for the needy, including raising money for children with heart diseases. His $17 million plan to build a hospital for patients with heart ailments in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is on hold as relations between the two Koreas remain tense over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Cho is survived by three sons. His wife, Kim Sung-hae, died in February. She had once led Hansei University, which is affiliated with the Yoido church.
By the time Mr. Cho retired, at 75, his church empire had become engulfed by the scandals. Family members were also criticized for dominating key posts in the church and in church-affiliated organizations, including Kukmin Ilbo, a daily newspaper.
“There is an end to our life,” Mr. Cho said in a frail voice in his final sermon in July 2020, shortly before he was hospitalized. “When our life ends in this world, everyone must stand before God for judgment. So the most important thing you can do in this world is to believe in Jesus Christ and win your salvation.”