The major contribution of 19th century Protestant missionaries to the rise of democracy

In secular western societies today, proselityzing missionaries are viewed very negatively, but Robert Woodberry (son of J. Dudley) has demonstrated conclusively, through massive research, that one of (if not the) major contributing factors to the rise of democracy was the work of 19th century Protestant missionaries with a focus on conversion. I find this exciting. The story is told in the cover story of the Jan-Feb/14 issue of Christianity Today, from which I provide a few excerpts below to whet your appetite.

Robert Woodberry

With these results and his dissertation research, Woodberry could now support a sweeping claim:

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.

  . . .

A summation of his 14 years of research—published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top journal—has won four major awards, including the prestigious Luebbert Article Award for best article in comparative politics. Its startling title: “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how ‘conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

“Why did some countries become democratic, while others went the route of theocracy or dictatorship?” asks Daniel Philpott, who teaches political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. “For [Woodberry] to show through devastatingly thorough analysis that conversionary Protestants are crucial to what makes the country democratic today [is] remarkable in many ways. Not only is it another factor—it turns out to be the most important factor. It can’t be anything but startling for scholars of democracy.”

“I think it’s the best work out there on religion and economic development,” says Robin Grier, professor of economics and international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s incredibly sophisticated and well grounded. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”

When Woodberry talks about his work, he sounds like a careful academic who doesn’t want to overstate his case. But you also pick up on his passion for setting the record straight.

“We don’t have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries,” says Woodberry. “We don’t have to deny there were and are missionaries who do self-centered things. But if that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact.”

 . . .

There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to “conversionary Protestants.” Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in the areas where they worked.

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.”

For example, Mackenzie’s campaign for Khama III was part of his 30-year effort to protect African land from white settlers. Mackenzie was not atypical. In China, missionaries worked to end the opium trade; in India, they fought to curtail abuses by landlords; in the West Indies and other colonies, they played key roles in building the abolition movement. Back home, their allies passed legislation that returned land to the native Xhosa people of South Africa and also protected tribes in New Zealand and Australia from being wiped out by settlers.

“I feel confident saying none of those movements would have happened without nonstate missionaries mobilizing them,” says Woodberry. “Missionaries had a power base among ordinary people. They [were] the ones that transformed these movements into mass movements.”

He notes that most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists. Locals associated Christianity with their colonial abusers, so in order to be effective at evangelizing, missionaries distanced themselves from the colonists. They campaigned against abuses for personal, practical reasons as well as humanitarian ones.

“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.”

While missionaries came to colonial reform through the backdoor, mass literacy and mass education were more deliberate projects—the consequence of a Protestant vision that knocked down old hierarchies in the name of “the priesthood of all believers.” If all souls were equal before God, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language. They would also need to know how to read.

“They focused on teaching people to read,” says Dana Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. “That sounds really basic, but if you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty. Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can’t have democratic movements.”

Praise the Lord for the sacrifices made by 19th century Protestant missionaries, who bore fruit for eternity but, as a byproduct, brought great temporal good to the lives of people in the societies in which they labored.

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