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4 dead-end ideas after reading ‘The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy’

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.

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.

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

32 replies

  1. So I’ve read through the article, with a deliberately critical eye to the statistical methods used in establishing the results. I buy his story, at least from an historical ‘these were common factors’ perspective, even though I’m unsure about a claim of universal causality. I would be very interested to play a bit with the data, as I still have some questions. (Perhaps they are answered in the supplementary material, which I haven’t had time to delve in to.)

    To my mind, the weakness of the article is its scope – by trying to consider all countries with mission history, it has to ignore details of history, which will be relevant. For example, there seems to be no statistical assessment of the effect of intellectual conflict – the paper doesn’t look at whether competition between competing views was critical in the development of democracy, instead focusing on the direct effect of Protestant and Catholic mission. No statistical work is done assessing Islamic, Buddhist and other missionary activities. Particularly Islamic activity may be quite relevant, given this is related to at least some attention on widespread literacy. This is simply collated into a ‘literate society prior to missions’ variable. This is also problematic, as Catholic missions in general were much earlier than Protestant, which raises issues given that literacy in Europe and elsewhere was at a different stage.

    Further, there isn’t much statistical consideration of the various cultural backgrounds of countries – this is swept away with a claim that ‘if we see the effect in many places, then it must be real’. Different countries (and hence mission groups) focused their mission activities on different parts of the world (and hence cultural groups), and the interaction between these could be a key determinant of the result. (This cannot be dealt with using these regressions, as it corresponds to a lack of independence in the observations given predictors.) Measuring this will be exceedingly difficult, but is clearly relevant.

    There’s also only limited attention given to other factors in political history – eg how the transition to the current system came about, the role of the military and violent uprising, etc. (This appears only in which country was the colonizer (which is related to the break-up process) and whether the colony varied between catholic and protestant colonizer. I don’t like his lumping together all Catholic colonizers, as the break up of the Portugese, French and Belgian empires were different.) Arguably these other factors are both causes and effects of ‘cultural democracy’, which muddies the waters significantly.

    The paper also proposes various mechanisms (Figure 1) by which CPs could have affected democratic processes. It would be interesting to see whether these effects are real, and it is conceivable that we could estimate (some) of them.

    Overall, I agree with your comments regarding the issues with how we interpret these results – my assessment is that the paper is as good as many others in the area (from a statistical perspective), even if there are things which I’d do differently (and I still want to have a good play with the data at some point).

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Sam, and for giving us a bit more perspective about the data and the methodology. I was also struck by the lack of a ‘culture’ variable for missionary provenance, if not also for host countries (like you say, the interaction must be relevant!). ‘Conversionary Protestant’ sounds like it is a ‘religious’ group, but to what extent was their uniqueness ‘religious’?

  2. Hi Arthur, Jason in Moshi here. I’ve given the article a lot of thought, very intriguing stuff. One of the least successful approaches was John Piper’s. I respect him but he’s too eager to argue against what I think are healthy transformational approaches (folks like Christopher J H Wright).

  3. I have an Aboriginal mate, Steve, who lives in his traditional country in Cummeragunja. We often talk about the contrast between Christian missions, Government-with-Church missions, and straight Government missions. Anecdotally, it seems pretty clear. The most robust Aboriginal communities today are the ones who had independent Christian missions. Communities like Maloga (which became Cummeragunja), Ernabella and Hopevale. Interestingly, the most effective Aboriginal leaders, from William Cooper to Noel Pearson, have come out of these communities. The Government-created, government run communities, like Cherbourg, Carowa Tank, Utopia and Toomelah are, even today, places of ongoing social and economic dysfunction. Mind you, this is just anecdotal, it would be great to get some Woodberry-level investigation going.

    1. Hi Matthew and welcome! Have you read ‘We Wish We’d Done More’ by John Harris? No statistical analysis but an interesting historical analysis of the work of CMS in Australia’s top end.

  4. I think a better term than “conversionary Protestants” would be “Guerrilla Protestants” because the heroes in Woodberry’s examples are all individuals who were roped in to doing something for the locals, it was not what they set out to do.

    And the moral of these stories is the same as the bible: we are the means, God is the subject, salvation is the object, as unpacked in Jens’ Christensen’s stunning book, Mission to Islam and Beyond.

  5. Thank you so much for these comments, Arthur. I read the CT report with interest, as I am a historian and have done quite a lot of work on missions (primarily Aboriginal missions). History of missions has tended to swing between hagiography and demonisation – my experience and my theology suggest that a healthy doctrine of sin as well as a hopeful confidence in the ultimate power of the gospel to ‘jump the wall’ of human ignorance, misunderstanding and racism is helpful in approaching missions history. I would be sorry to see this kind of study leading to a defensive/triumphalist attitude among white proponents of mission.

    1. Joanna – would love an expansion of your thoughts here if you have time. Do you think we’ve seen the same patterns in Aboriginal missions as have been sketched out by Woodbury on the global scene? Have the independent Christian mission areas led to less corruption, better health, greater prosperity? Do share what you’ve learnt.

      1. Thanks Matthew. A few brief observations, though there are so many variables that it is hard to generalize about outcomes:
        In Australia, it is very difficult to talk about genuinely ‘independent’ missions. Christian missions were only established after colonization. As Australia was a settler colony (settler colonies!) the major European missionary societies very quickly withdrew, seeing it as the responsibility of local settler churches to finance and establish missions. For various reasons, settler churches were slow to do this and even where they did (Presbyterians and Anglicans were the leaders) they consistently struggled to finance or staff missions through settler congregations. Thus church missions relied on partnerships with the state for resources and consequently were subject (often willingly) to the policies of the colonial state. This is not to say that individual missionaries didn’t sometimes oppose government policy, but they had limited space to manouevre. There were some exceptions – Coranderrk in Victoria, which was established through a partnership between the Wurundjeri leadership and lay Presbyterians. It was shut down by the Board for Protection of Aborigines because of its independent tendencies and the land grabs of local settlers. Cummeragunja is another significant example and it undoubtedly produced an unprecedented generation of Aboriginal activists and leaders. This can certainly be tied to its relative independence from the state and mainstream denominations, but another key factor with regards to educational and health outcomes was the presence of a Mauritian Christian called Thomas James who moved to the mission with the original missionaries and stayed long after they left. He married an Aboriginal woman, was school teacher and provided medical care. He was crucial in educating several generations of Aboriginal leaders and his partnership with (and enculturation with) the community was exceptional in Aboriginal missions history.
        In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while missions were being established in places that had not been fully colonized, missionaries were still generally reliant on the good will of Aboriginal people – if there were options for Aboriginal people off the mission, missionaries had to be able to offer an attractive alternative and this meant that missionaries’ power was limited – a good thing!
        In the twentieth century, however, state control over all Aboriginal people increased and almost all missions were taken over completely by the state. I certainly agree that this had negative consequences for Aboriginal people, in terms of their capacity to negotiate with mission managers, as well as the quality of education offered etc.

  6. Thanks for this Arthur. Your comments seem spot on to me. A very helpful perspective from someone in the field.

  7. Sometimes people make it sound like the missionaries were sidetracked from their original intention, which was “only” to go and make disciples. However, I think that the mindset/worldview of some of those missionaries influenced their being change agents in the places they found themselves. Before they ever left their home countries they felt the unfairness of the situation: that people will die and go to hell if I don’t do some thing about it, and God has given me the means and the gumption to do it. They saw a wrong, unfair situation and realized that God had called them to do something about it. They were willing to lay their lives down, to die alone, or worse yet, to live in shame and degradation for the sake of the Gospel. The Gospel is more than telling people about Jesus. It’s living your life out before others so they see your actions and reactions, your imperfect life: how you get up after you fall, how you stand up for the rights of the oppressed, how you teach thg as well as how they teach you, your joys and sorrows, your laughter and your tears. The Gospel includes righting wrongs, not leaving things to chance or kharma, or letting people wallow in the consequences of their own or other people’s misdeeds.

    1. Arthur, Your insights are much appreciated. Thank-you for “sharing the wealth” with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA’s Emerging Scholars Blog :)

  8. Western ideas; which include democracy, accountability of leaders, the use of wealth for social institutions (hospitals, schools, libraries, relief work); may play the dominant role in societies that are “progressing.” Until recently Western culture had a hidden base of Judeo-Christian values. Also, a correlation does not always mean a causation. In some cultures Westernization has caused social change for the good, not evangelical proclamation. Countries like Turkey, Korea, China, Indonesia, Egypt, Syria, Russia and India must be examined. Even Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan can help us focus on counterexamplary cultures. The question is more than simply did Christian missions of the past 2 centuries help the countries where the gospel was preached. Is westernization and modernization shaping nations for the good?

    1. Good question, Brent. Maybe the missionaries weren’t unique, they were just the first. I mean, for a short while, missionaries were the agents of modernisation, whereas now modernising influences are multiple and pervasive. We’re currently reading Olufemi Taiwo on this…

  9. Hi Arthur,
    Thanks for this and, like other people who have commented, I also feel your comments are spot on. I just wanted to ask peoples view as to whether these research findings should force us rethink the current expression of mission groups which tend to be more individually focused instead of institutional? My understanding is that the CPs under discussion here probably tended to be more of the old mission society types as opposed to the more popular modern day non-institutional ministry types (i.e. your Heidi Bakers, Billy Graham’s and other similar Tele-evangelists).

    Secondly, for those interested, I wanted to note that in a way this research extends on similar-ish work in economic development (looking at income growth which is closely related to democracy) but the variable that this CP effect comes under is essentially institutions. A good bit of reading would be an influential paper by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson titled “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” This paper found that “Europeans adopted very different colonization policies in different colonies, with different associated institutions. In places where Europeans faced high mortality rates, they could not settle and were more likely to set up extractive institutions. These institutions persisted to the present. Exploiting differences in European mortality rates as an instrument for current institutions, we estimate large effects of institutions on income per capita. Once the effect of institutions is controlled for, countries in Africa or those closer to the equator do not have lower incomes.” My guess is that Woodridge’s findings would closely mirror the findings of Acemoglu et al with the same group of countries featuring positively in both.



    1. Yeah, I assume Woodberry’s work is referring to the “mission station” approach, with jack-of-all-trades people who would come simply to live as a witness and do whatever they thought needed doing: preaching, schooling, doctoring, etc. In a lot of ways I guess it was more integrative than what we see today! But times have changed, and infrastructure (for example) is spread over a huge range of parties and organisations. Maybe there’s only room for targeted approaches now..?

      Thanks for noting Acemoglu et al!

  10. Bula Arthur!
    FYI – CT seems to have locked down the article – now only available to subscribers.
    Thanks for this – always stimulating, always plenty to disagree with!
    In terms of your 4 points:
    1. “missionaries themselves were often agents of empire”. Isn’t one of the key findings of the paper the very opposite of this point? That in fact the missionaries he identifies as ‘conversionary Protestants’ were not like this – and actively worked for the protection and independence of the locals over and against the Empire? While other missionaries may indeed have been agents, it seems that Woodberry’s group does not fit this description. David’s labelling of them as “guerilla missionaries” seems apt – for they ended up not only doing things differently to what they thought but were guerillas against the empire from which they came.
    2. ‘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’. Well – yes and no. What Woodberry does about these societies today is that they are more likely to have stable democracy (as a result of ‘the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ p 244-245).
    ). You might want to argue about the value of stable democracy or call for further research to show the value of stable democracy to a nation – but that would seem to be beyond the scope of this work (ie its an unfair charge to level against him).
    3. ‘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.’ Actually – it does – he states ‘these innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely—regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.’ p244-245. In this, I think Woodberry’s work supports the very point you are trying to make (when you suggest that conversion as supreme importance is debatable – that is Woodberry’s work suggests that if you wanted to transform the society of a 19th country (by means of it having the best possible conditions for the maintenance of a stable democracy) then you were best of being/sending conversionary Protestant missionaries.
    4. It would be easy to take from the line ‘the methods of the colonial mission era are no longer appropriate’ – that there is nothing to learn from the activities and actions of the missionaries who have gone before and who have brought some lasting socioloical benefit to the peoples who have come after them. I’m not sure whether you’d call this method or intention – but the focus of these missionaries on conversion (with all its unintended consequences) might be something we can learn from.

    I was struck reading this piece, and others on your blog (and having heard you speak) is that I would be interested to read an explanation of what you mean when you say you want to see ‘the transformation of Tanzania’ and how that is to be brought about. You’ve labelled in this piece that you find Pipers contention about the supremacy of individual conversion as ‘debatable’ – but also seemingly objected to the sweeping reforms that Woodberry identifies as a result of missionary work.
    If there is something – that I’ve missed on your blog – please send me the link.

    1. Love a good chunky comment, Tony!

      Woodberry’s research looks good to me. I also think it’s good news, because it bears out our intuition that the presence of God’s people is beneficial for a society.

      That said, to what extent is democracy a viable indicator of spiritual renewal? I think we need to be careful about spiritualising structural changes, which is what I think Woodberry’s research is being used for.

      Anyway, my post is directed at the use of the research, in particular the CT article. I take issue with any sense of triumphalism that might lead us to whitewash our past; with any sense that CP-influenced countries do not experience significant problems, sometimes as a direct result of missionary influence; with the idea that we only need to worry about conversion because the rest will take care of itself (Piper).

      Transformation..? I expect “conversion” to involve more than individual lives, or modernisation, or the sum of those parts. This is an ongoing question Tamie and I are exploring, especially in terms of mission as transformation and engaging the university.

  11. Thanks for the reply Arthur. I’m not quite so sceptical of the CT article in and of itself – but the point you make about how the research is used beyond itself is certainly a concern. I think I’m not as concerned about the CT article is because I didn’t see it drawing a link between structural/societal changes and spiritual change (it’s a shame I can’t re-read it) – rather I think the emphasis of the article was the way in which the research over-turned/challenged the prevailing mood in the academy (and wider society) that missionaries were bad for society, especially those missionaries that sought to convert people (whereas missionaries that wanted to simply “help” people were acceptable). In this regards there is a triumph – for the research convincingly that in this particular measure (stable democracy) that conversion missionaries were the key factor in helping them get established (in part by establishing other societal “goods”).

    As you’ve pointed out – this is not to say every conversionary missionary was great/good, or didn’t do some damage or make a hash of it, or at times act in a way that supported Empire. It shouldn’t lead to a whitewash – but – in terms of this particular measure – if you think stable democracies are a good thing – then its a win.

    Conversionary missionaries (and those who support them) – 1.
    Liberal atheiests – 0.

    Thanks for the link to mission as transformation piece.
    It was interesting reading that and then reading Piper.
    I think how the story of missionary endeavours is told will make all the difference.

  12. Hi Tony, I just wanted to let you know that the original CT article is available on the Disciple Nations Alliance website, here is the link, so you can re-read it as you wanted! :

    Click to access CT-Article-On-Missionaries-And-Global-Democracy.pdf

    We are a missionary family living and working in Uganda and I am fascinated by the issue of societal change and transformation and how it can take place. A very interesting BBC documentary “A History of Scotland” narrated by Neil Oliver has an incredible section called “How the Celts Saved Britain” which explains how big the part that Christianity had in transforming Ireland from a backwater in Europe to the leading light. It is a great watch from the point of view of what a Christian way of thinking and living can do in a nation!

  13. Many thanks for your article, Arthur. Very stimulating. I hope you don’t mind, but like Tony Wright, I’d disagree with your article. I understand that you say that you are critiquing not Woodberry’s paper but how it’s being used. But I’m not sure that it’s so clear that it is being misused. Even where you point to John Piper, I find that he is by no means unaware of the complexities and nuances. You quoted from Piper’s article: “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today …”. But Piper writes in the paragraph immediately following:

    “He [Woodberry] 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).”

    Personally, I think we read Woodberry’s paper wrong if we deal with the specifics and exceptions, such as are found in a number of your points. As mentioned, Piper is not unaware of exceptions, and clearly, neither is Woodberry:

    “In this blunt form, without evidence or nuance, these claims may sound overstated and offensive. Yet the historical and statistical evidence of CPs’ influence is strong, and the cost of ignoring CPs in our models is demonstrably high.”

    “Of course, the relationship between Protestantism and democracy has never been automatic or uncomplicated.”

    “Unfortunately, differentiating cultural and instrumental causes is always difficult. In any given context, possible causes are so enmeshed that they are difficult to untangle. For every proposed cultural or religious “cause,” scholars can find an alternative economic or political “cause,” and vice versa. To escape this swamp of indeterminate causality I use several approaches: …”

    To me, the whole point of Woodberry’s paper, and its strength, is that it helps us to see the wood for the trees; if we look at the broad pictures, what is it that we see? And the strength of the paper, and what won him accolade and awards, is that 1. He has tried to take into account such exceptions to the satisfaction of unsympathetic secular institutions – no small achievement! And 2. His numbers are so robust that they had to concede that it is extremely difficult to come to any other conclusion than Conversionary Protestants predict liberal democracy when you look at the picture as a whole.

    Therefore, apart from your 4th point, I actually don’t think these ‘dead-end ideas’ are dead-end ideas at all. And, actually, regarding the 4th, I’m not even sure that we are claiming “Westerners are the world leaders in mission” anymore. So for myself, I’m more than happy to draw similar conclusion to Piper. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say that, if we read Woodberry’s paper carefully (and the stated complexities), these are precisely that sort of conclusion we should be drawing to God’s glory. I’d be encouraged rather than discouraged.

    1. Hi Ray, and welcome! Thanks for your response. It’s fascinating to re-read and revisit all this two years on. I agree with your second-to-last paragraph, and I think Woodberry’s study has indeed demonstrated a global trend: the presence of CPs was a key factor in promoting the development of liberal democracy.

      Piper’s point is that social transformation is a result of the conversion of individuals. The CPs focused on producing faith and in the process sparked positive social change. He says ‘this is ultimately why Robert Woodberry found what he found’.

      But Woodberry’s study finds that democracy was promoted ‘regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism’ (246 etc), and that the relevant (and often indirect) ‘religious’ factors were the activities of the CPs themselves: their promotion of literacy/printing, mass education, and civic structures. The number or nature of conversions is apparently beside the point as far as the study is concerned.

      So it’s not that Piper’s commentary is necessarily wrong or unwarranted, just that it seems to bear little relationship to the study. Again, Piper’s point is that faith comes first and liberal democracy follows naturally, but Woodberry’s actual finding is that liberal democracy remained, while faith may or may not have.

      That’s where I think we have to be careful not to ‘faith-wash’ the legacy of the CPs — and Woodberry’s study may actually raise further questions about their legacy. One of his key points seems to be that ‘conversionary, nonstate religions seem particularly able to undermine elite social reproduction’ (269). It has been famously said of liberation theology in Latin America that the Roman Catholics opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals. Of Woodberry’s study we might almost say that the CPs opted for evangelism, and the evangelised opted for modernity. I say this not as a criticism of the study, but to stress that the interpretation is much more ambiguous than Piper indicates…

      1. Hi Arthur (and Ray)

        You state that “Piper’s point is that social transformation is the result of the conversion of individuals”. As you rightly point out that is not what the original article says – but I think you are mistaken in saying this what Piper says/thinks.
        What Piper actually says is “The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.”
        That is – he is not commenting on the conversions per se – but the intention and modus operandi of the missionaries themselves (and thus they stand in contrast to Catholic and other Protestant missionaries). It is not their “success rate” in conversion that is significant for social outcomes – but their purpose in their missionary endeavours.
        I strikes me reading this afresh that possibly the heart of the issue that you have with both the CT and Piper material is found in your phrase ” John Piper appeals to Woodberry’s study in order to claim that individual conversions are of supreme importance (that’s debateable)”. I think you are suggesting that individual conversions are of supreme importance is debatable (not that Piper mistakenly appeals to Woodberry’s study). If I have read you rightly – then it is this debate that underlies the heart of the disagreement – that is what is being debated/discussed is really what is the missionary’s raison d’etre.
        If this is the case – then the suprising finding of the study (which Piper draws our attention to) is that those missionaries who went to convert (and not change society/improve people’s lives) did a better job of changing society than those who went there to “fix things” (rather than to save souls).
        It would be interesting to know whether the CP’s were old-school evangelists who eschewed the social gospel or were more transformational in their approach (to anachronistically apply these terms to those who pre-dated them) – but it would seem that however they applied their convictions – their convictions were that they went “to save souls”.

      2. Hi Tony

        I reckon Piper is concerned about more than just the motivations of the CPs, as he goes on to talk about ‘the fruit of conversion’ — not an evangelistic ‘hit rate’, but actual conversion nonetheless. Lasting social change happens because individuals are in fact converted — but this is seemingly called into question by Woodberry’s ‘surprising finding’, because the study discounts conversions.

        Rather than being a lacuna in the study, I would say this incongruity is the result of various dichotomies which Piper is pursuing: belief comes before behaviour, individual before social, eternal before temporal, tree before fruit, etc. For me, that is ‘the issue behind the issue’ with Piper’s response.

  14. Many thanks for the welcome, Arthur!

    And great comment Tom. I think you’re spot on: “the suprising finding of the study (which Piper draws our attention to) is that those missionaries who went to convert (and not change society/improve people’s lives) did a better job of changing society than those who went there to “fix things” (rather than to save souls).” I’m wondering if we could take this further …

    I think you’re right. Arthur, when your say, “The number or nature of conversions is apparently beside the point as far as the study is concerned.” A study of similar quality to Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy would be very helpful. Likewise your statement, “But Woodberry’s study finds that democracy was promoted ‘regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism’” is, in a sense right. So all things being equal, it seems one could predict CPs’ effect on society regardless, which is actually very encouraging – which is Tom’s point, and I think that’s also more the point Woodberry was trying to make. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect, again looking at the big picture rather than being overly influence by anomalies here and there, there would be a strong statistical link between CP missionaries and protestant conversions. (Probably an understatement!)

    There’s another very interesting paper by Woodberry: “Ignoring the Obvious [!!]: What Explains Botswana’s Exceptional Democratic and Economic Performance in Sub-Saharan Africa.” (2011) [My emphasis, I’m afraid!] Here’s how Woodberry introduces the paper:

    “… In this article I compare the history and development of Botswana, Lesotho and Zimbabwe (three landlocked, former British colonies, with limited post-colonial ethnic diversity) to try to understand why Botswana has done so much better than other similar countries… I completed these case studies as part of the review process for Robert D. Woodberry. 2012. “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” American Political Science Review… If picked these cases because I knew they had very different political outcomes, but knew almost nothing about their missionary and colonial history. Thus, I thought they would serve as a good test of my theory about Protestant missions and democracy …”

    Though I’ve not had time to carefully read through the entire article yet, I think we can see where he’s going with it. Just a few quotes …


    “Since independence, Botswana has had the most consistently high level of democracy of any country in continental Africa, whereas Lesotho and Zimbabwe have been primarily autocratic.
    The historical evidence suggests that Protestant missionaries consistently promoted democratization in all three contexts …” (If you read his account, Botswana is really quite a remarkable story.)

    “Khama III had a close mentoring relationship with John Mackenzie. Mackenzie and other missionaries had already popularized Khama III internationally as an ideal Christian chief who had worked hard to Christianize and reform his tribe. Khama had already banned polygamy, witchcraft, bride price, extreme corporal punishment, killing of twins, and enslavement of Bushmen.”

    “But Khama III and Tshekedi were more devout converts than other chiefs and Khama, Tshekedi, and Seretse had closer relationships with missionaries than did the other chiefs. …”

    “Finally, in Botswana religion did not become stratified along class lines. Protestantism spread among both chiefs and commoners. … Thus, religion linked chiefs, the new educated elite, and ordinary people – fostering stability.”


    “In 1912 the Paramount Chief Griffith Lerotholi converted to Catholicism and the fortunes of the Church changed radically. Chief Griffith actively promoted Catholicism, gave choice land to the Church, and pressured other chiefs to convert (Hincks 2009, 485, 566-567; Haliburton 1977, 55, 155). From 1912 until Griffith’s death in 1939, the Catholic Church grew from about 10,000 members to about 143,000 members, becoming by far the largest religious group in the country – a position it still retains.”

    “Even Chief Leaubua Jonathan, who later led the Catholic-linked Basutoland National Party, attended a PEMS school and was a BCP member before converting to Catholicism ”

    “The BNP leader Leabua Jonathan framed the victory in theological terms: “The present government of Lesotho is an answer to the prayer of the Church of God that God’s Will be Done. Any group or individuals who might attempt to defeat the aims and purpose of this government would in effect be offering a challenge … to God’s own disposal sought through the prayers of His Own Church” … Leabua Jonathan labeled anyone who supported the BCP a communist (Frank 1981, 186). The Catholic press also labeled the BCP as communist and anti-Christian”

    “At independence Lesotho had a small police force and no army. However, the BNP immediately began expanding the police and guided controversial security laws through Parliament. BNP leaders heavily recruited BNP supporters into the police force and civil service and dismissed BCP supporters…” (You can see where this is going)

    “Compared to Botswana, at independence Lesotho had more education, greater experience with democratic institutions, a more vital civil society, less ethnic diversity, a more diversified economy (less dependent on mining), and more economic development. Both countries had virtually identical constitutions, tribal consultative institutions, and financial dependence on South Africa. Both also had no militaries and small police forces. But Botswana has been stably democratic and Lesotho has not. The differential pattern of Protestant and Catholic missions in the two societies seems to be a plausible explanation.”


    “Zimbabwe is a third land-locked, southern African country colonized by the British. If white settlers, direct British colonization, or healthy climates promoted democracy, we would expect Zimbabwe to be democratic, but it has not been.”

    “Zimbabwe also had significant Protestant mission influence, but white settlers and colonial officials repeatedly undermined the education, civil society, and other means through which Protestant missionaries promoted democratization.” (Notice it says influence and not conversion)

    “… the Ndebele chief … kept missionaries away from the centers of power, did not consult with them regularly, threatened to kill Ndebele who converted to Christianity, and forbad missionaries from working with other tribes under his domination. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries working in the region believed that unless the Ndebele were defeated and/or colonized, Ndebele slaving and tyrannical rule would continue and would prevent effective missionary work”

    “Still, even during the 1960s and 1970s Methodists and Protestant ministers played a disproportionate role in forming and leading the major African political organizations. In fact, of the main party leaders during this period (Rev. Canaan Banana, Robert Mugabe, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Joshua Nkomo, and Rev. Nadabaningi Sithole), four were Protestant, three Methodist, three ordained ministers and one a Methodist lay preacher (Nkomo), all had studied at Protestant mission schools, two had worked with Garfield Todd at Dadaya Mission School (Mugabe and Sithole), and four had been sponsored by Protestant missions or individual Protestant missionaries to study abroad. One was Catholic (Mugabe) – but he first became interested in politics while studying at a Protestant missionary university (Fort Hare) and he later worked at a Protestant mission school (Dadaya) … In the 1970s, as the liberation struggle became increasingly violent, the religious leaders who formed the moderate wing of the nationalist movement were increasingly marginalized, and guerilla leaders like Robert Mugabe came to the fore (e.g., Bhebe 1995, 207). Guerilla military leaders were armed and trained by the Soviets and Chinese – and thus heavily exposed to communist ideas about religion.”

    “The initial waves of African nationalists were trained almost entirely at Protestant mission schools … The association between particular missions and nationalism is not merely the result of education … Thus, the pattern of the spread of education and nationalism mirrors Botswana and Lesotho – Protestants initiated education and others followed. … As African nationalism flourished, the Rhodesian government increasingly tried to undermine missionary education and keep it under white control.” (I find it interesting, again, that Woodberry speaks of influence but not conversion)


    As I said, I’ve not had time to dig into this paper, and it is probably too premature to draw any strong conclusions, yet I’m tempted to infer that there is a link between CP, protestant converts and liberal democracy to be teased out here. Apparently, Woodberry was asked “to complete case studies of India and China and matched case studies from somewhere else in the world”. Not sure if he did, but it would be very interesting to analyse them if they too exist. Apologies for a rather long response.

  15. Very interesting discussion! I have lived in India most of the time since 1985 and I can confirm that Missionaries had great influence, even here in India. In this context I like to recommend Vishal Mangalwadi’s “The Book that made your World”. He was raised and he studied and worked here in India. Later he moved to the USA and he researched through many years and he has published this excellent book. For more details and lots of reviews look for this book at

  16. Vielen Dank, Juergen! (Hope that’s appropriate!) Yes, looks like a really interesting book. I think I’m compelled to get it!

  17. Robert Woodberry’s research has been picked up in Australia for a documentary by the Centre for Public Christianity. This write-up notes the fascinating point which was perhaps obscured in 2014: “What’s particularly interesting in all this is that the positive impact missionaries can be shown to have had is not necessarily linked to their success in converting indigenous peoples to Christianity.”

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