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013 Those Awful, Exploitive Missionaries

We modern Christians have been subjected to routine disparagement about how our missionaries exploited native peoples in other countries and stole their goods and land. We've been shown examples of fools who brought diseases and stupid practices to innocent groups. We have been made to feel ashamed of 19th century missionaries.

There really were a few bad missionaries, but they were provably not the norm. That's the subject of the research I'll be telling you about in this week's letter.

The research was published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review by Robert Woodberry, entitled "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy." It became the cover story of Christianity Today's January/February 2014 issue, and it is revolutionizing the views of sociologists around the world concerning what produces liberty and prosperity.

Woodberry, you see, discovered that the best indicator of what produced a stable, prosperous, liberal democracy in the third world is the earlier presence of Protestant missionaries--in particular, the ones sent by Western congregations to make converts to biblical Christainity. And this was true even in places where they made few converts.

Says Woodberry,

"In particular, conversionary Protestants (CPs) were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codifcation of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely‚ÄĒregardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism. Moreover, religious beliefs motivated most of these transformations." (Woodberry, p. 244-245)

Even those researchers who do not accept the influence of Protestant missions as the cause of prosperous, liberal democracies are having to find new variables to consider, as their older favorites--secular rationality, economic development, urbanization, industrialization, the expansion of the state, and the development of new class structures--have been refuted by Woodberry's research.

Of course, this is just one study; but Woodberry's results have been replicated by a dozen other studies so far, and nobody has significantly disproved his thesis.

As advocates for Christianity in the West, we need to be aware of several things revealed by Woodberry's research, both by his statistical analysis and by his examples reported from actual missions:

  • It was the missionaries who championed social reforms that liberated ordinary people from corrupt politicians and domination by colonialists. They defended the interests of the people they reached, often arguing their cases in front of their own governments.
  • It was the missionaries who championed the legal equality of non-whites in the countries they influenced.
  • It was the missionaries who built the education systems in the nations where they went. Nearly all the leaders of the social movements that produced liberal democracies in those countries were educated in Protestant mission schools. The liberal democracies are still the most literate nations in those regions.
  • Women in those places thrive, far more than women in other countries in their regions. They have better health, lower infant mortality, and higher educational attainment. The claim that Christianity suppresses women is false.
  • Contrary to the critics of "the prosperity gospel," it appears to be the case that God cares very much whether people prosper, and that He responds to the work and prayers of His servants by causing entire nations to prosper.

It is especially important to notice that what people believe does affect, not only their own outcomes, but the outcomes of the entire nation surrounding them. It is likewise important to understand that what you work for and pray for really does affect the people around you, even if they don't seem to respond to you.

Work, pray, do good, and trust God for the outcome. If you sow love, you may reap a thousand fold in good results for people you don't even know.

Phil Weingart

For further reading:

Andrea Palpant Dilley, "The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist,
Proselytizing Missionaries," Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2014. Available at http://bit.ly/29wprVy

Robert Woodberry, "The Missional Roots of Liberal Democracy," American Political Science Review, Vol. 106, No. 2, May 2012. Available at http://bit.ly/1dLSg8l


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