23 November 2020

The cultural influence of missionaries

Andrew Spencer writes about Robert Woodberry and the Benefits of Protestant Missions. Although missionaries have had a bad reputation in recent decades due to their supposed connection with European colonialism, it turns out that their influence has been almost wholly positive. This was the finding of political scientist Robert Woodberry in his path-breaking article in the American Political Science Review eight years ago. Here is an excerpt from Spencer:

Christianity is a religion of the book, therefore Christians tended to teach people to read and write. They often brought in printing presses so they could publish religious literature. In some cases they invented alphabets for previously unwritten languages. This led to societal advances that enabled more people to prosper.

Not only did they educate people, but missionaries brought in the concept of private property so traders wouldn’t take advantage of them. They taught new skills, like carpentry and advanced agricultural techniques. Missionaries introduced new crops to countries, which gave indigenous people opportunities to engage in trade with products that were desirable in Europe.

Woodberry outlines multiple ways in which the presence of missionaries indirectly led to improved conditions in colonies.

In many cases, the impact of Protestant missionaries went beyond their direct actions. In order to compete with the missionaries, indigenous religions began to print religious texts and educate people to resist Christianity. Competition improved conditions for everyone.

The case Woodberry makes is convincing. When people selflessly live out the gospel, both through evangelization and through practical application, it changes cultures for the better. Though there are clearly cases of abuse and sin by missionaries, there is a strong correlation between the advance of gospel people and the common good.

 This article is posted on the website of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.

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