At Work & Public Square

Robert Woodberry and the Benefits of Protestant Missions

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What if we had empirical, long term, statistically significant evidence that Christianity increased the general well-being of surrounding populations?

It turns out we do.

The basic assumption of many in our culture is exactly the opposite. Many argue a Christian ethic is repressive, detracting from human flourishing.

When 19th century history is considered by some scholars, the legacy of colonialism, which is far from positive in most cases, is blended with the history of Protestant missions. Christian missions are sometimes described as cultural imperialism, viewed as negatively as the economic and social colonial oppressions.

This confusion of missions and colonialism, though, appears to be in error.

Who Is Robert Woodberry?

In his ongoing work on the history of Protestant missions, sociologist Robert Woodberry has done an amazing amount of statistical analysis using a vast volume of historical data entered by an army of student workers to demonstrate the benefits of Protestant missions.

In fact, in an article in American Political Science Review from May 2012, Woodberry

Demonstrates historically and statistically that conversionary Protestants (CPs) heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that CPs were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.

In a recent lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Woodberry presented his statistical case and talked about the data in layman’s terms. He describes some of the important ways he controlled the data to evaluate his model.

Despite trying to poke holes in his conclusions, both he and independent reviewers have accepted the validity of his findings, which are overwhelmingly positive about the impact of the gospel.

This is monumental as we seek to make a case for faithful Christian practice in the public square.

What Are the Benefits of Protestant Missions?

Woodberry notes that, contrary to some portrayals, importing the Protestant missionary enterprise is distinct from imperialism.

In fact, in many cases European governments or corporate interests limited the areas in which missionaries could live. In some cases, as in the life of David Livingstone on the African continent, there was open discord between traders and missionaries.

Some of the limitations placed on missionaries actually help Woodberry prove his case. In some instances, missionaries were given a latitude or longitude they could not go beyond. These artificial boundaries often divided tribes arbitrarily. They also create an excellent experimental control to show the positive impact of Protestant missions.

As Woodberry remarks, by looking at a variety of conditions within a few miles of either side of one of the arbitrary limits, he is able to show that there are consistent, statistically significant differences between the wellbeing of populations on either side of the line.

The recurring pattern shows long term positive effects of missionaries spreading the gospel.

Benefits Beyond Evangelism

The influence of conversion for populations is significant, but Woodberry explains that missionaries tended to have a positive influence beyond evangelism.

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.

The Gospel Bears Implications for the World Around Us

As we seek to live as God’s people in our world, we need to keep in mind that the gospel is not just good for our eternal destiny, but it has implications for the world around us.

The gospel leads us to fight human trafficking, to seek healthy solutions to poverty, and to be good stewards of our physical environment.

It also leads us to be honest in our dealings at work, kind to our coworkers, and diligent in our duties. These things bring about healthy competition and will lead to a better world around us.

If the gospel is effective amid colonial imperialism, it can certainly have an impact in our lives today.

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