Christian Missionary Work at the Roots of Modern Democracy?

So, word of a pretty amazing piece of research by Robert Woodberry is floating around social media at the moment. You can have a look at a summary of it here:

Basically, Woodberry’s thesis is this:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

Now, when something like this comes out, many Christians are probably going to be pretty excited about it. Already, I’ve seen just a hint of a ‘stick that in your pipe and smoke it’ attitude emerging, and I can only imagine the sorts of wild claims people will use such research to make. Equally, many who are opposed to Christianity (or religion in general) will seek to write the research off without critically and authentically engaging with it.

We need to be very careful not to forget that Christian missionaries did sometimes do some truly terrible things (whether intentionally or not), and in some cases the ripples of those actions are still being felt. This needs to be balanced, though, with a recognition that it is rare to find anyone as dedicated as these missionaries were, who often gave their lives (and life’s work) in seeking to embody the message of Jesus of Nazareth. They also preserved numerous languages as a regular part of their work, and taught women, and the poor, and others who would usually miss out (and who were thus assisted in being empowered by the actions of the missionaries).

As such, these things need to be held in tension, noting the complexity of it all. The good and the bad often went hand-in-hand.

I think there are a couple of worthy quotes from the article, though, to help highlight the specific point that’s being made. The first concerns the fact that the types of missionaries being spoken of here were not those acting on behalf of (or tied closely to) the State:

Independence from state control made a big difference. “One of the main stereotypes about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism,” says Woodberry. “But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.”

The other thing to note is that this wasn’t anything that was ‘added to’ the Good News the missionaries were seeking to share; it was just part and parcel of what they were on about:

“Few [missionaries] were in any systemic way social reformers,” says Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. “I think they were first and foremost people who loved other people. They [cared] about other people, saw that they’d been wronged, and [wanted] to make it right.”

Food for thought.

Sooooo, thoughts?


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

2 thoughts on “Christian Missionary Work at the Roots of Modern Democracy?”

  1. I agree that we need to engage with these ideas fairly and critically. I can hear the over enthusiastic acceptance of these studies already!

    I think missionaries definitly get the rough end of the stick in many discussions and so it’s good to get some academic research to support the good work that a lot of them did and still do.

    However, it would be insensitive and dissapointing that over keen proponents of ‘Judeo-Christian’ society would use this to steam roll the other side of the coin: the harm, the racism, murder and horrendous torture that these ‘Christian Values’ waged upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

    1. I agree completely, Samuel. Correcting the overzealous views of those who want to dismiss missionary work entirely should not be an opportunity for overzealous Christians to ‘whitewash’ history either.

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