An Unexpected Impact of Missionaries

Missions Work Rochester NY_01

A year ago, I came across two articles that point to research by a sociologist named Robert Woodberry.

If I were to ask you how to change the world, I wonder what you’d say. I would guess we know that to change the world, we need to get the Gospel there through missionaries. That is true. But what if we weren’t including the Gospel. What is the best way to improve the economy, the health, lower infant mortality, and dozens of other life-improving changes around the world? The answer? Send missionaries.

His research claims that “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”. What great news that is!

This information comes two sources. One is an article in Christianity Today called “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”. The second is from an article written by John Piper, called “Missions: Rescuing from Hell and Renewing the World”.

Since the articles are relatively long, here are a few things that stuck out to me from the articles and the research:

  • “In essence, Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies – in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely – while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict.”
  • “In fact, the work of missionaries…turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.”
  • “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.”
  • Philip Jenkins, a professor from Baylor, said, “Woodberry presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how ‘conversion protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies…Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up.”
  • “Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact.”
  • Because of missionaries, African land was protected from white settlers. “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 non-state missionaries mobilizing them. They [were] the ones that transformed these movements into mass movements.'”
  • “Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any place where ‘conversionary Protestants’ were active in the past, and you’ll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita. You’ll find, too, that in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools.”
  • Robin Grier, a professor from the University of Oklahoma said, “I’m not religious. I never really felt comfortable with the idea of [mission work]; it seemed cringe-worthy. Then I read Bob’s work. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. They left a long legacy. It changed my views and caused me to rethink.”
  • “…So far, over a dozen studies have confirmed Woodberry’s findings. The growing body of research is beginning to change the way scholars, aid workers, and economists think about democracy and development.”

The Gospel doesn’t just change eternities. It makes a difference here and now.

You can read the original articles HERE and HERE.

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