Christian Living

The True Story of Christian Missionaries

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/15/2014

It seems the reports of missionaries harming the world have been greatly exaggerated. From John Piper:

In 2012, sociologist Robert Woodberry published the astonishing fruit of a decade of research into the effect of missionaries on the health of nations. The January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today tells the story of what he found....

Titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” [Robert] Woodberry’s article in the American Political Science Review, defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries...turns out to be the single largest factor in insuring the health of nations” (36). This was a discovery that he says landed on him like an “atomic bomb” (38)....

To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this 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. (39)

He concedes that “there were and are racist missionaries...and missionaries who do self-centered things.” But adds: “If that were the average effect, we would expect that 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” (40).

Woodberry applies this result specifically to missionaries who were “conversionary Protestants,” which he defines this way: “Conversionary Protestants (1) actively attempt to persuade others of their beliefs, (2) emphasize lay vernacular Bible reading, and (3) believe that grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments.”

Here’s a quote from Woodberry’s article, then I’ll have two points in response:

[M]uch of what we think we know about the roots of democracy needs reevaluation. The historic prevalence of CPs is not the only cause of democracy, but CPs seem both important and neglected in current research. This does not mean that CPs consistently directly supported democracy nor is mass conversion to Protestantism necessary. Yet in trying to spread their faith, CPs expanded religious liberty, overcame resistance to mass education and printing, fostered civil society, moderated colonial abuses, and dissipated elite power. These conditions laid a foundation for democracy and long-term economic growth.

First, it’s quite possible that the role of CPs has been ignored (and false conclusions previously drawn) because it is currently fashionable among intellectuals to think of Christianity as being silly and small (a phenomenon I wrote about in “Atheists’ Small View of Christianity”). This is simply false—and it’s false whether or not Christianity is true.

Nevertheless, this idea seeps into us from the culture—whether it comes explicitly from atheist spokesmen or implicitly from the fictional world of television, where God and Christianity, if they ever make an appearance at all, are inconsequential to the important characters and events. As apologists, we need to purposefully push back against this view of Christianity with the truth, as Tom Gilson argues in “Why We Must Tell Christianity’s True Story.”

Second, the CPs didn’t set out to create democracies; they set out to make disciples of Christ. But worldviews have unintended consequences as they work their way out through people’s actions. Despite the truth of this, very little care is taken today to consider the consequences of undermining and replacing the worldview that created Western civilization with one that has a very different understanding of the human person and its value (to name only one area of disagreement).

The problem described in the first point has led to the problem of the second. That is, because the truth of how Christianity shaped our society has been ignored, there’s 1) an ignorance of which aspects of our culture are uniquely grounded in Christianity and 2) a false assumption that these beloved ideas will thrive in a new worldview when their foundation is discarded.

(See also “Values Fight Poverty” and “Virtues and the Economy.”)