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.
This is the claim of a statistical study led by Robert Woodberry, which has been given a pretty gushy write-up in Christianity Today, The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries.
- Read Woodberry’s academic article, The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy
- Check out the study’s website, Project on Religion and Economic Change
A study demonstrating social benefits of Christian influence is something that plays into Tamie’s and my own interests: we work in a ‘Bible teaching’ role alongside university students, and we do so in part because we want to see transformation in Tanzania. In other words, we are ‘professional missionaries’ who are part of what Woodberry calls the ‘conversionary Protestant’ tradition — the good guys, according to Christianity Today.
Woodberry’s description of positive missionary influence is not new. Scholars like Lamin Sanneh and Olufemi Taiwo have already unraveled the stereotype of the Evil Missionary. We know that while missionary forces and colonial forces were often related, they were certainly not always identical, and they were sometimes in competition. Missionaries themselves adopted various stances towards both local cultures and occupying powers.
Woodberry’s research is interesting, and not being a maths kind of guy, I’m not even sure I fully comprehend it. In the cases when missionaries did have a marked positive impact, it’s definitely worth exploring what factors were actually associated with that (independence from state powers seems to have been especially important).
But is there something a little too self-congratulatory about all this?
The Christianity Today report takes an apologetic angle, providing a counterpoint to the Evil Missionary myth, and that’s valuable — but not if it involves a whitewash of missionary history. Perhaps the nature of Woodberry’s study lends itself to this sort of a whitewash: the ‘wide-angle lens’ of statistical analysis can obscure local differences, and can therefore be used to form exactly the ‘pleasing mosaic’ that the CT article warns against. Woodberry’s study attempts to evaluate the net effects of missionary presence, but that doesn’t make it a catch-all statement about the nature or value of Western missionary movements.
All of which is to say that we need to be clear about what this research is, what it is and is not capable of describing, and how to avoid using it in inaccurate or self-righteous ways.
4 dead-end ideas
1. Missionary history is straightforward and positive. Statistical analysis accounts for different variables, but unless we’ve got our maths hats on, that can mean burying complexities. Missionary history is polyphonic and multifactorial. The stories it tells are checkered and ambiguous. The missionaries themselves were often agents of empire. It’d be a shame if we came away from the CT article with a feeling of, ‘Well, we did alright in the end’. That sort of triumphalism, however muted, steers us away from acknowledging and repenting of our mistakes, and it prevents us from coming to terms with the current postcolonial issues of countries with a missionary past. While this research highlights some benefits of missionary work, it’d be foolish to let this sum up our conception of missionary history. Replacing a negative one-dimensional story with a positive one-dimensional story is still irresponsible.
2. Missionary history determines the present-day health of nations. Woodberry’s research demonstrates that conversionary Protestants helped catalyse democracy in various societies, but this doesn’t really tell us much about the state of those societies today — or even how healthy their democracies are. Unfortunately that’s exactly where the CT article takes us, with an anecdotal comparison between present-day Ghana (‘flourishing’ education) and Togo (‘limited’ education). But anecdotes just invite other anecdotes. My own family of ‘conversionary Protestants’, CMS Australia, has been highly active in Tanzania for several generations, but in several respects Tanzania lags behind neighbouring Kenya — which has its own ‘conversionary Protestant’ story, and its own recent struggles with political violence. Of course there are other factors in play — Ujamaa in Tanzania, for example — but you can see how a sweeping statistical study quickly becomes messy at the local level.
3. Missionary history means ongoing spiritual reform. In a blog post called Rescuing from Hell and Renewing the World, John Piper appeals to Woodberry’s study in order to claim that individual conversions are of supreme importance (that’s debateable). However, the study is not actually about conversions at all, but about the sociological effects of people with conversionary aims. Even though I believe that communities transformed by the gospel will have positive influences on the surrounding society, it is not clear that the nations with more converts are in fact healthier — but in any case Woodberry’s research simply doesn’t speak to that. The enduring success of ‘conversionary Protestants’, as far as Woodberry’s study goes, lies in the presence of democracy. The study has isolated a unique effect associated with ‘conversionary Protestants’, but what are its underlying factors? It’s too simple to say, ‘It’s the gospel’.
4. Westerners are the world leaders in mission. If the CT article bathes us in a warm glow of bygone pioneer missions, we need to check our ideas against the shape of world mission today. If the glory days of Western mission ever existed, they’re well and truly over now. Of today’s cross-cultural Christian missionaries, no more than 15% are Westerners. Even the pioneering work was never a solo achievement, and it would be a shame if Woodberry’s study led us to obscure local agency, as is so often the case. The methods of the colonial mission era are no longer appropriate, especially as Westerners are now partners rather than leaders in the world Christian movement.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.