Nineteenth-century missionaries were culturally insensitive colonials, colluding with the colonial powers to oppress local culture and impose their own values, to the detriment of those they were proselytising. Right? Wrong, according to some remarkable research reported in this month’s Christianity Today.
For many of our contemporaries, no one sums up missionaries of an earlier era like Nathan Price. The patriarch in Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Price tries to baptize new Congolese Christians in a river filled with crocodiles. He proclaims Tata Jesus is bangala!, thinking he is saying, “Jesus is beloved.” In fact, the phrase means, “Jesus is poisonwood.” Despite being corrected many times, Price repeats the phrase until his death—Kingsolver’s none-too-subtle metaphor for the culturally insensitive folly of modern missions.
But Robert Woodberry, a sociologist, has demonstrated that just the opposite is the case. He explored the reasons why some countries became flourishing, democratic societies with a good level of equality and education, whilst other countries in similar situations with regards to geography, climate and resources, turned out very different, with much higher levels of inequality, poor education and less prosperity. The answer, he found, was that the single biggest factor was whether the country has a high proportion of Protestant, non-colonial missionaries—missionaries who were there with the primary purpose of seeing people come to faith.
As an example, you can see Woodberry here explaining his findings in relation to the Belgian Congo. Protestant missionaries were instrumental in highlighting and ending the appalling abuses involved in the rubber industry—in contrast to neighbouring French Congo.
One of those was instrumental in campaigning against the abuse was John Hobbes Harris. (Have you heard of him? No, neither had I.) You can see one of the pictures he and his wife took if you Google for ‘Father gazing at his daughter’s remains Belgian Congo.’ The picture actually appears on the Wikipedia page on the Congo Free State—but you have to look hard to find him credited. In fact, the role of Protestant missionaries in helping bring this to an end is hardly mentioned. But Woodberry went further than this case study, and showed there was a consistent, widespread relationship:
Woodberry already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy. Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren’t just part of the picture. They were central to it.
Although Woodberry was in part motivated by his faith, he was pursuing this research in an academic context, and had to demonstrate this connection to the highest standards of academic rigour, satisfying his academic peers.
“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.”
In fact, his research was published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top journal, and it has won four major awards, including the prestigious Luebbert Article Award for best article in comparative politics. You can read it on Academia.edu for yourself—though you will need to wade through quite a bit of statistics!
But his concluding paragraphs are worth considering further, for a range of important reasons:
Still, regardless of the details of cultural theory, social scientists should take culture and religion more seriously. Religious groups are not merely interchangeable with any other organization: Distinct theologies and organizational forms lead to distinct outcomes. Thus, if new forms of Protestantism put less emphasis on education than previous versions (e.g., Pentecostals), competition with these groups is less likely to spur an educational response.
Moreover, many assume class structure, education, and “material” factors are “hard” and determine “malleable” culture. Thus, scholars often give “hard” factors pride of place. If religion is associated with an outcome, many assume it is “really” caused by omitted “hard” variables, but if income inequality is associated with this outcome, they do not assume it is “really” caused by omitted cultural variables. Yet, CP religious competition seems to have influenced class structure by dispersing education to women and the poor, making texts widely available, spawning civil society among non-elites, and moderating abuses of power—with demonstrable economic and political consequences. Although class structure may shape elites’ economic and political incentives, it is not as solid or foundational an explanation as it seems. In fact, class structure is caused, partially by religion. Like yin and yang, material and cultural factors continually influence each other.
In the context of this article, Woodberry’s aim is to make a professional point about sociology—you cannot relegate ‘religious belief’ to being a malleable issue of secondary importance in understanding society. But in doing so, he makes really important points of relevance to Christians.
The first, and most immediately significant result of Woodberry’s research, is that the parody of colonial missionary influence (as set out in the example from Barbara Kingsolver) is untrue. That is not to say that there were no abuses or harm done—just that this was not the overall picture. This is the main point drawn out in article in Christianity Today, but it has also been set out helpfully in Six Modern Myths by Philip Sampson.
Secondly, and even more controversially, Woodberry emphasises that what he has observed is not just a question of ‘faith’—it concerns a particular faith, with a particular set of convictions. For those in Western Europe or North America, we tend to think of ‘faith’ as a rival to ‘non-faith’, those without any particular religious affiliation. But of course for most of history, in most parts of the world, all people have been people ‘of faith’; the question is, what do they have faith in? The Protestant missionaries were working in a context of ‘faith’, mostly animism, but were seeking to proclaim a different faith. And Woodberry, rather uncomfortably, highlights the difference it made to a country for it to host Protestant missionaries, who had a particular understanding of faith and its goals.
When I was studying phenomenology as part of my theology degree, I came across the influential work of Mircea Eliade and his seminal writing The Sacred and the Profane (think ‘hierophany’ and ‘sacred space.’) What I found fascinating was that his influential description and categorisation of religiosity failed at one point—his attempt to categorise Protestant Christianity! There is a sense in which Reformed Christian faith is actually quite distinct from other forms of religious faith, and we should be cautious about simply pressing the case for ‘faith’ (in general) rather than (Reformed) Christian faith in particular.
Thirdly Woodberry’s work goes even further in specifying the effectiveness of a particular kind of Protestant mission—that which was independent of the colonial power in question. For me, this signals that it really matters that our faith is critically reflective of our cultural context, and is not in hoc to the power structures of our day. In 2006, Tony Robinson presented The Doomsday Code, exploring the impact of premillenialist readings of Revelation on contemporary politics. In Uganda he found that ‘missionaries preach that safe sex, school work, indeed anything to do with making this world a better place are not important, because all that matters is preparing yourself for Jesus’ second coming.’ This is a striking contrast to what Woodberry found in the activity of nineteenth-century missionaries. And he hints at this in his comment above about ‘forms of Protestantism [which] put less emphasis on education than previous versions’. Not many people reason that the almost universal view of the Clapham Sect and other Protestant reformers was postmillenialism. You see, the Book of Revelation, and how you read it, really matters!
Fourthly, Woodberry paints a picture of Christian mission as essential empowering and enabling. In some contexts today, mission is portrayed very much as ‘us doing things for others’, which is almost the opposite of what Jesus taught when sending out the 12 in Luke 9 and the 72 and Luke 10. Although the missionaries Woodberry studied were clearly ‘doing things’ for others, these were things that were empowering for all, and enabled them to develop and take responsibility themselves. Education and literacy, historically the hallmarks of Christian mission, are always enabling. The first thing Wycliffe Bible translators do in a new country is codify the native language into a script if it doesn’t have one—and this is the greatest single global force in the preservation of native cultures, the only defence against the obliteration of globalisation. The Chinese invented the printing press long before Europeans, but kept printing as the preserve of the elite. It was Reformed Christianity which disseminated the benefits of it, and transformed culture.
All this is nothing more or less than the ‘democratising’ effect of the Apostle Paul’s gospel:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.28)