Robert Woodberry explains how and why conversion and social improvement generally went hand in hand.
Generally, missionaries viewed conversion and improving people’s lives as something that did go hand in hand. Now there was a lot of debate about what came first, conversion or education, social uplift, other things like that. But a lot of missionaries, certainly into the early 20th century, viewed science as something that grew out of Christianity. Particularly Protestant missionaries viewed it that way. And so they viewed science as getting rid of superstition, which then would pave the way for conversion to Christianity.
They also, in places like East Asia and South Asia, places that had a literate culture and an amazing civilisation that existed prior to missionary contact, they were trying to prove that the West, that Christianity also had something valuable to contribute. So Chinese and Japanese and Koreans viewed Westerners as barbarians and wouldn’t let them in for a long time and killed people who converted and various things like that. So missionaries were trying to say: “No, we’re not barbarians, we actually have an important civilisation too that’s valuable and important.” And they used science and technology as one of the ways to demonstrate that European civilisation had value, and it wasn’t just barbaric.
And they also used science and technology as a way to attract students to their schools, which then they would be exposed to Christian content as well. But … some of it was instrumental, but some of it was also, they just thought, they were trying to help people and they thought Christianity would help people, and they thought modern science would help people, and they thought modern health would help people. And so they viewed all of these things as part of their job in terms of helping people.