In 2012, sociologist Robert Woodberry published the astonishing fruit of a decade of research into the effect of missionaries on the health of nations. The January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today tells the story of what he found in an article called “The World the Missionaries Made.”
There is a lesson implicit in these findings that I would like to draw out for the sake of the eternal fruitfulness of missions as well as her power to transform cultures.
Titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” Woodberry’s article in the American Political Science Review, defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries . . . turns out to be the single largest factor in insuring the health of nations” (36). This was a discovery that he says landed on him like an “atomic bomb” (38).
A Sweeping Claim
To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this sweeping claim:
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. (39)
He 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).
An Atomic Nuance
Then comes the all-important observation which, inexplicably, Woodberry calls a “nuance” to his conclusion. I would call it a thunderbolt. He observed, “There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked” (40).
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