The Truth About Missionaries

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

– Matthew 28:18-20

The often-repeated comment, “When the white man arrived, he had the Bible and we had the land; now, we have the Bible and he has the land,” epitomizes the negative view many have today about Christian missionaries.

Historian Edward Andrews echoes this view when he writes,

Christianity became not a saving grace but a monolithic and aggressive force that missionaries imposed upon defiant natives. Indeed, missionaries were now understood as important agents in the ever-expanding nation-state, or ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them.

Yet, contrary to many history texts’ treatment of the subject, there is much evidence to support the positive Christian influence on the values, beliefs, and practices of Western culture, including books like How the Irish Saved Civilization and What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? In the latter work, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe write,

Christians, for distinctively Christian motives, have vastly influenced Western culture in such areas as help for the poor, teaching of literacy, education for all, political freedom, economic freedom, science, medicine, the family, the arts, and the sanctity of life.

But what about Christianity’s historical influence on the cultures of countries in Africa or the East?

A Mystery of Modern History

A recent article in Christianity Today points to new research by sociologist Robert Woodberry showing Christianity’s positive influence on countries in Africa and the East over the last century.

Woodberry’s research explores a mystery he calls “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.

His research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.

But the most surprising finding of Woodberry’s research was the idea that the missionary movement had the strongest, most positive influence on the development of democracy. Even in places where few people were converted, Christian missionaries left a legacy of profound economic and political impact.

Andrea Palpant Dilley, author of the Christianity Today article, concludes,

In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.

A Lasting Impact

Woodberry’s work was not an insignificant analysis based on a few case studies. While in graduate school, he created a statistical model that could test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations. With the help of a few research assistants, he spent several years statistically demonstrating the lasting effect of missionary work on numerous countries.

Years later at the University of Texas, Woodberry and a team of fifty research assistants amassed more statistical data and did more historical analyses, further confirming his original theory. His research was published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top journal.

As Woodberry’s research has shown,the important work of missionaries like William Carey, David Livingstone, and Hudson Taylor had a lasting impact not only on the individuals they ministered to, but also on the cultures that their faith helped shape.

This study should be a great encouragement to us all as we labor in the fields to which God has called each of us, knowing that the power of the gospel has the power to save souls and transform cultures.

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