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On the outsize impact of missionaries

Summary

Robert Woodberry offers some context for how mission organisations changed history.

Summary

Robert Woodberry offers some context for how mission organisations changed history.

There are not a huge number of missionaries, but there were not a huge number of colonial officials or European military people overseas either. So in terms of proportion, they were a very large group.

And these mission organisations were huge for organisations of their day. For example, in the 19th century and early 20th century … so in the 19th century the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, a US mission organisation, was the largest corporation in the United States other than a couple of banks. Now we tend to think of labour unions and banks and other things like that as being important – well, missionaries were bigger. They controlled more resources and more personnel than lots of things that we think are really important.

They also tended to be among the most educated group in the colonies. So most missionaries had university degrees. And many male missionaries, the majority had beyond university degrees because they were pastors, they had to go to seminary, in a time when very few people had university degrees.

They also had disproportionate influence because they introduced things for the first time. So they were the first people to introduce printing, the first people to change printing into a mass technology, the first people to introduce newspapers, the first people to introduce education for women, the first people to introduce education for poor people on a broad scale, the first people to introduce Western medicine for non-whites – you know, all kinds of things that they pioneered and then grew from there.