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Three cheers for missionaries

OPINION | Natasha Moore

Eternity # 71, July 2016

Over at the Centre for Public Christianity, we’ve been doing a lot of research lately into some of the worst bits of Christian history. The Spanish Inquisition. Sectarian violence. Early-modern witch hunts, and torture techniques I didn’t know existed (see: “squassation”). The casualness with which Crusaders massacred peoples not remotely connected with their war aims.

The end result of such disheartening research will, I hope, be worth it: CPX’s next documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined (due out in mid-2017), will deal candidly with the skeletons in Christianity’s closet – but also tell widely forgotten stories about the ways it’s transformed the world, dramatically, for the better.

it’s important to get our history straight too: to figure out which things truly are even worse than we imagined, and which are much more the legacy of Victorian stereotypes or fictional reimaginings of the past.

The suspicion that “religion poisons everything” (as Christopher Hitchens put it) has been gaining traction in the Western world – in exactly those countries whose cherished traditions of equality, human rights, care for the vulnerable and (yes) empirical science have roots deep within the Christian worldview.

As Christians, there’s plenty for us to be ashamed of, and to grieve over. But it’s important to get our history straight too: to figure out which things truly are even worse than we imagined, and which are much more the legacy of Victorian stereotypes or fictional reimaginings of the past.

Irene Gleeson fed orphans in Uganda.

Irene Gleeson, a missionary in Uganda before she died in 2013, fed and educated thousands of orphans.

Nowhere can this distinction be more starkly drawn than in the way we think about colonial missionaries. One of the people we’ve spoken to for the documentary is Robert Woodberry, a sociologist whose research has been making serious waves in his secular field over the last few years.

Woodberry’s research tracks the long-term impact of missionaries on countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania, and (contrary to anybody’s expectations and everybody’s caricatures) unearths a remarkably robust link between the presence of Christian missions during the colonial period and the health of nations today.

“Missionaries have profoundly shaped the world in all kinds of outcomes,” Woodberry explained in an interview with CPX at Baylor University, where he’s currently heading up a project to construct a massive dataset of missionary activity.

“They introduced lots of new crops, they introduced the idea that everyone should be able to read – particularly Protestant missionaries – that everyone should have access to texts. They introduced printing all around the world, or where [it] existed already, they turned it into mass printing. They introduced newspapers, they introduced modern Western healthcare, they introduced all kinds of things … and then that has had both economic and political outcomes.

“So, for example, you can explain about 14 per cent of the variation in current GDP – economic development – based on the historical prevalence of Protestant missionaries. You can explain about half the variation in current political democracy based on the historical prevalence of Protestant missionaries. I mean, these effects are huge, they’re quite huge.”

(When asked about the distinction he makes between Catholic and Protestant missionaries, Woodberry notes the more stringent state control that Catholic missions were often subject to, as well as the Protestant emphasis on universal education so that everyone could read the Bible for themselves. He explains that where Catholic missionaries competed with Protestants, they too became heavily involved in education – and have tended to persevere in it around the world long after many Protestant educators handed the reins over to state authorities.)

His research on the global effect of missions has won a record-breaking eight prestigious awards.

Woodberry himself was taken aback by how strong these results were – and his work faced significant resistance from within a field that has tended to downplay or dismiss the contribution of missionaries as negligible or just plain pernicious. After an uphill battle, however, his research on the global effect of missions has won a record-breaking eight prestigious awards in sociology and political science.

Of course, Woodberry doesn’t deny that some missionaries were racist; that some missionaries did terrible things; that some were certainly complicit in the immeasurable damage done by colonial authorities. But as he points out, if this were at all the norm, we would expect the places missionaries went to be worse off overall than places they didn’t go. What the data shows is quite the opposite.

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. This was, of course, a large part of their motivation for doing things like educating local populations, including women and the poor (so that everybody could read the Bible for themselves); for campaigning for the abolition of slavery (partly because slave-owners wouldn’t allow missionaries to work with their slaves); for introducing mass printing or newspapers (to get the word out).

It’s a difficult and very mixed history, but to the question “Does religion poison everything?”, the missionary enterprise – according to the data – offers a joyful and decisive “no”.

But their impact on the health of nations today is not restricted to places where local people embraced the Christian faith in significant numbers.

This is a suggestive answer to the question: Is Christianity good or bad for the world? If the gospel is true – re-connecting people to the One who is the source of true life and the ground of ultimate reality – then it makes sense that the things the gospel motivates people to do would conduce to human flourishing, well beyond the borders of the Christian community.

The interaction of cultures has always been fraught with the possibility of missteps and lasting harm. Missionaries were at the forefront of fighting cultural customs like foot binding in China, and the practice of sati (where an elite man’s wife was expected to burn herself alive on his funeral pyre) in parts of India.

They worked hard to raise the age for consummation of marriage in India to 12, to stop female genital mutilation, to provide women with education – all efforts that were seen as imperialistic and deeply offensive within those cultures.

Yet on all these issues, the modern secular Westerner would side with the missionaries – as would most or many citizens of those countries today. The complexities of balancing cultural respect and integrity with the idea of universal human rights have not been resolved in the post-colonial era.

Many of these missionaries were utterly remarkable people, who worked humbly and courageously for the gospel and for the good of the people they moved halfway round the world to make their neighbours. It’s a difficult and very mixed history, but to the question “Does religion poison everything?”, the missionary enterprise – according to the data – offers a joyful and decisive “no”.

Dr Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and writes regularly for the media on the intersection of faith and culture.

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