Don’t Imperialist Missionaries Screw Up Cultures?

After taking an advanced course in British Caribbean Literature, and dabbling in sociology and religious studies, I felt like a knew a few things about colonialism, missionary work, and western hegemony. I felt informed, and even elite when I used those words. As I read past texts, I sniffed out imperialistic ugliness in the most magnanimous passages. Simultaneously I grew as a Christian, developing a foreboding sense that my religion, far from solving these problems, deepened them.

Missionary journals disturbed me. Although I wanted indigenous peoples to hear the gospel, I also felt appalled by the white men and women sharing it. None of the missionaries I read about were violent. They did not fit into my prefabricated picture of evil, culture-hating, racists colonialists. (It turns out many missionaries often stood against the evils of colonialism). Many of these missionaries wanted to help, and did help. My ideas about proselytizing and imperialism began to crumble.

A recent study shows a surprising link between protestant missionary efforts and democracy. Lest we smirk and say, “See they just forced the west upon those peoples,” humbly remember that we live in a global world and few peoples escape it. Moreover, democracy is one of the greatest engines of human well-being in history. No, it’s not perfect, but if we value quality of life, health, and well-being, we must at least acknowledge its worth.

A recent article in Christianity Today explains how sociologist Robert Woodberry uncovered the link between missionaries and democracy,

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. Public health and economic growth can also differ dramatically from one country to another, even among countries that share similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources. 

In search of answers, Woodberry traveled to West Africa in 2001. Setting out one morning on a dusty road in Lomé, the capital of Togo, Woodberry headed for the University of Togo’s campus library. He found it sequestered in a 1960s-era building. The shelves held about half as many books as his personal collection. The most recent encyclopedia dated from 1977. Down the road, the campus bookstore sold primarily pens and paper, not books. 

“Where do you buy your books?” Woodberry stopped to ask a student. 

“Oh, we don’t buy books,” he replied. “The professors read the texts out loud to us, and we transcribe.” 

Across the border, at the University of Ghana’s bookstore, Woodberry had seen floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with hundreds of books, including locally printed texts by local scholars. Why the stark contrast? 

The reason was clear: During the colonial era, British missionaries in Ghana had established a whole system of schools and printing presses. But France, the colonial power in Togo, severely restricted missionaries. The French authorities took interest in educating only a small intellectual elite. More than 100 years later, education was still limited in Togo. In Ghana, it was flourishing.

After 14 years of research Woodberry came to a conlcusion that even he found difficult to believe:

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.

His conclusion received vast academic affirmation. It poses a threat to high-minded secular critiques of the missionary movement, because it Woodberry’s research shows that the most change-effecting missionaries were “conversionary” protestants. Yes, those seeking conversion of peoples. Woodberry discovered that these missionaries were the single greatest causal factor for the development of democracy (and all of it’s health and lifestyle benefits) outside of the west.

Perhaps Jesus’ great desire for disciples who loved God and others in both word and deed, actually changed the world. Woodberry put it well,

We don’t have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries. We don’t have to deny there were and are missionaries who do self-centered things. But if that were the average effect, we would expect 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. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact.”

You can read the rest of the story, and Woodberry’s findings here.

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