A recent paper argues that Protestant missionaries increased educational awareness, mass dissemination of information that encouraged social justice and curbed the abuses of colonialism.
By Sonja DeWitt, Esq.
A familiar and pervasive stereotype in popular and academic history is the predatory, colonialist missionary, who subjugated and pacified the natives with oppressive religion to exploit them politically and economically. The missionary who, as James Michener put it, “came to do good and did right well,” and “stole everything that wasn’t nailed down.” 1 Or, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”2
While there are valid examples in history of missionaries abusing their sacred trust and oppressing native people in the name of God, is the stereotype a fair representation of the overall social and economic impact of missionaries? A recent study says it is not, and provides extensive analysis to prove it.
In “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” a paper published in the American Political Science Review, Robert D. Woodberry, of the National University of Singapore,3 makes a compelling case, supported by extensive research and statistical analysis, that missionaries–specifically non-state-affiliated Protestant missionaries (“conversionary Protestants” or CPs)–had a significant positive impact on the development of democratic institutions and governments worldwide.
The paper presents “the historical evidence that CPs inﬂuenced democratic theory and institutions and expanded mass printing, mass education, civil society, and the rule of law. This dispersion of power and resources increased GDP, expanded the middle class, and forced most “Protestant” colonizers to devolve power to non-Europeans via elections earlier than “Catholic” colonizers did. These conditions altered elites’ incentives and engendered both party systems and electoral experience before independence, thereby increasing democratic stability after independence.” (244)
These bold claims upend conventional wisdom regarding the role of missionaries.
The study documents several areas of public life in which the activity of Protestant missionaries had a profound effect. These included:
Areas in which Protestant missionaries were active showed a significant increase in printing of periodicals, tracts and other publications for mass consumption. This increase in printing and media had a ripple effect even among people of other faiths who opposed the missionaries, as they felt the need to create their own publications to counter those the Protestants were producing. The net effect was a notable increase in the public dissemination of information.
Protestant missionaries started schools wherever they settled and, in some cases, pressured colonial governments to offer public education. Other religious groups did not find this a priority. And colonizers tended to prefer small groups of educated native people who they could more easily control.
Social justice/protest movements
The study showed a strong correlation globally between active Protestant missionaries and the development of social justice organizations and non-violent protests. Missionaries provided the models for native people to engage in social protests and supported their causes.
Curbing the abuses of colonialism
According to the study, conversionary Protestants “also dispersed power by publicizing colonial abuses, advocating for changes in colonial policy, and transferring ideas, skills, and networks that helped colonized people organize anticolonial and nationalist movements.” (252)
The study compares the impact of CPs with that of comparable groups–state-sponsored Protestant missionaries, Catholic missionaries and non-religious entities–and concludes that CPs had a substantially greater effect in fostering freedom and democratic values.
So the question arises, “What are the qualities of Protestant mission work that allowed them to have so much more profound an impact than comparable groups?”
Although explaining the reasons for the difference is not the primary focus of the study, a close reading reveals fascinating insights. Two primary qualities shared by the CPs were their religious philosophy; and their social role.
Several central tenets of the CPs’ religious philosophy had a direct relationship to their effectiveness as agents of social change.
1. The belief that all people have the right and duty to read the Bible and religious texts to learn the truth for themselves led to mass printing and a strong emphasis on universal education.
2. The belief that all people are equal before God led to attempts to protect the rights of the people they served against abusive governments.
3. Religious freedom–the belief that each person has the right to choose for themselves their own religious belief and practice.
4. The integration of reform and social justice as an element of their faith led to vigorous activism against social injustices. In British colonies, for example, “Protestant missionaries spurred immediate abolitionism as well as movements to protect indigenous land rights, prevent forced labor, and forced the British to apply similar legal standards to whites and nonwhites. ” (citations omitted) (254)
5. Independence from state control. The most powerful factor responsible for CPs notable success in fostering democracy was their social role–i.e., their independence from state control. The data showed a close relationship between missionaries’ independence and their positive social impact. CPs had the by far the strongest impact because their independent status gave them the freedom to oppose state policy when necessary. “In British and American colonies, religious liberty and private mission ﬁnancing weakened ofﬁcials’ ability to punish missionaries and freed missionaries to critique abuses, while popular support allowed missionaries to punish colonial ofﬁcials and settlers. For example, colonial magistrates and governors were reprimanded or removed, military ofﬁcials were put on trial for murder, conﬁscated land was returned to indigenous people, and so on. (citations omitted)” (254) On the other hand, Catholic and Dutch Protestant missionaries, who were subject to state control, had a much less significant impact on the development of democracy.
In using these methods, CPs empirically demonstrated the truth of the principle eloquently articulated by Martin Luther King. “The church…is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
The compelling evidence shows that when the church resists affiliation with the state and maintains its independent role, democracy, social justice and human rights flourish.
Sonja DeWitt, Esq. is an attorney specializing in discrimination law. She has handled Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) cases, both for private sector companies and federal agencies, for over 20 years. She is passionate about religious liberty, and was involved in the North American Religious Liberty Association’s political advocacy efforts for several years. During this period, she received the A.T. Jones Award from NARLA for her advocacy work. She has also been published in Liberty Magazine.
- Michener, James, Hawaii, Random House, 1959
- Source of Desmond Tutu quote could not be verified.
- Woodberry, Robert D., “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy, ” American Political Science Review 106, No.2, (May 2012) 244
- King, Martin Luther, “A Knock at Midnight,” June 11, 1967
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in this subject, you might want to read the story of Fernando and Ana Stahl.