On missionaries: fact vs fiction

Robert Woodberry looks at the historical reality behind the stereotyped Christian missionary as villain.



Robert Woodberry looks at the historical reality behind the stereotyped Christian missionary as villain.


There’s a lot of novels and movies that portray missionaries in horrific ways – just destroying the cultures that they go to, really unconcerned about them. And there are bad missionaries, just like there are bad any group. But most of those are an exaggeration or very highly selective examples, and a lot of them are just made up, they’re things that people think when they write a novel or a movie without knowing the history. So there’s novels like Hawaii and there’s The Poisonwood Bible and At Play in the Fields of the Lord – various things like that, they have very, very extremely negative views of missionaries. But they’re not history.

We can’t cover over the negative parts, but we shouldn’t exaggerate them either. So much of my work is not only looking at broad historical trends of what missionaries did, but also measuring them statistically. And if on average missionaries were like the people in The Poisonwood Bible, for example – just very destructive of the cultures were they went – we would expect to find the places where they were more missionaries per capita, where missionaries had a longer period of service, and places where they were more free to do whatever they wanted to be worse. But we don’t find that, we find exactly the opposite.

On average, societies that had more missionaries per capita, longer exposures to missionaries, and greater freedom of missionaries to do what they want end up being a lot better on all kinds of outcomes.

They have more economic development, they have longer life expectancy, they have lower infant mortality, higher educational enrolment, higher literacy, more political democracy, lower corruption, more book publishing, more newspaper circulation – all kinds of things. And the evidence that the link is causal is quite strong, both historically and statistically. And you can show that in all different types of ways and you can do it in lots of different places and you find a very similar pattern.

Now when I’m making claims like that, it’s always difficult to evaluate them when I’m just talking. And you always have to worry about, well, were missionaries just going to places that were already better? So the easiest example I can think of that makes it clear is there’s a strong relationship between where missionaries were and current health. So longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality. Well, maybe missionaries just went … they wanted to live, and they wanted their children to live, so they just went to places that were already healthier and then they end up being more missionaries in places that are already healthier. Or, alternatively, maybe they go equally to healthy and unhealthy places, but more of them die in the unhealthy places so you end up having more missionaries in places that are healthy. And then, lo and behold, I come along later and I go: “Look, it’s healthier where there’s more missionaries” – well maybe the health caused where the missionaries went, rather than missionaries causing the health.

So we always have to worry about that type of thing but I’ve done tons of work to try and remove that. So I measure directly, for example, the health of missionaries when they arrived, and so then I can control for, statistically, the health that existed when they arrived. Or look at arbitrary borders, like there’s lines that colonisers made and they said: “Missionaries, you can’t go north of this line or you can’t go east of this line,” and you just look on either side of those lines – which no longer exist – and you find differences in health. So it’s unlikely that the health just sort of radically changed at this arbitrary straight line that a coloniser drew. So there’s lots of ways you can get around it but you still have to deal with that problem.