On what makes missionaries invisible

Robert Woodberry dissects some of the dynamics at play when academics study Christian missions.



Robert Woodberry dissects some of the dynamics at play when academics study Christian missions.


I think there’s multiple reasons that it’s left out.

One of them is … academia, particularly the social sciences, are a pretty secular discipline. So social scientists are mostly not religious, and mostly don’t know much about missionaries, and so they don’t ask the questions – or they’re sort of embarrassed, I mean, they sometimes find it embarrassing that missionaries have these things that they … effects that they like.

I think also, even if there’s not as many Marxists in the social sciences as there used to be, they’re still shaped by Marxist ways of thinking, they tend to be class analyses, economic things, are the things that drive things. Power drives things. And it does, all those things are important. So they don’t tend to look at something like beliefs or religious things shaping the world. But I think they did.

Three, I think there is an embarrassment about Western colonisation and Western dominance and Western arrogance. So there’s a reaction, there’s an anti-colonial reaction, a reaction against colonialism and European dominance, and not wanting Europeans to be the only or main actors in history. So there’s a desire to find non-European, non-North American, non-Australian, New Zealand people who are doing things and shaping their own history, which they did. So I think there’s an embarrassment when they’re sort of like oh, the “great white missionary” who comes along and does these things which transform another society. I also think there’s, among nationalists or local historians, there’s a sort of desire to create our history and not wanting white people to be crucial actors in it, except in a bad way, except in sort of causing the problems that are there.

So I mean there’s lots of different reasons that missionaries, I think, are ignored or stereotyped in a bad way. I think we shouldn’t … it’s like a pendulum, it’s swung too far the other way and it needs to come back to the middle again, to something more balanced, where missionaries and Europeans are not the only actors but they are one important set of actors.