When the Portuguese arrived in Goa in 1510, they were welcomed (supposedly) as liberators from Muslim rule. For a few decades, the colonizers practiced religious toleration toward the local population.
It didn’t last. From 1540, the authorities began a concerted campaign to dismantle Hindu worship and pressure Goans to convert to Christianity.
Things would soon get even worse. In 1560, the dreaded Inquisition came to Goa. It would not finally be abolished until 1812 – 250 years later. It ushered in the systematic destruction of local culture, banning Hindu customs and names, as well as the Konkani language.
Some reports describe priests patrolling the streets in advance of a staged mass baptism, apprehending locals and smearing their lips with a piece of beef. This would make them “untouchable” among their people, leaving them no choice but to convert.
Not many people know about the Goan Inquisition. But this is exactly how we imagine colonial-era missionaries: despoilers of culture, insensitive at best, domineering, violent, and racist at worst. The cold and contemptuous Nathan Price, from Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible, is the culmination of at least a half-century of loathsome pop culture missionaries.
Our association of Christian missionaries with the monstrous colonial past is so absolute that we can be taken aback to find them still popping up in the occasional news report today – in relation to the fight against Ebola in West Africa, for example, or when Australian missionaries Ken and Jocelyn Elliott were kidnapped by an Islamist group in Burkina Faso last year. Journalist Brian Palmer, in an article written at the peak of the Ebola crisis in 2014, voiced a discomfort many readers no doubt share with the ongoing presence of missionaries on the frontlines of healthcare in Africa and elsewhere. “It’s great that these people are doing God’s work,” he wrote, “but do they have to talk about Him so much?”
Sociologist Robert Woodberry has been working on the global impact of missionaries for more than fifteen years, from the time he was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. And the results of his research have been shocking, even to him. He says:
“If on average missionaries were like the people in The Poisonwood Bible, for example – just very destructive of the cultures where they went – we would expect to find the places where there 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.”
Statistical modelling and deep-dive historical analysis together suggest a robust causal link between the presence of – particularly Protestant – missionaries during the colonial period and the health of nations today. The more missionaries that came, the longer they stayed, and the more freedom they had, the better the outcomes, even a century or two on. Woodberry checks these off: longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, higher literacy and educational enrolment, more political democracy, lower corruption, higher newspaper circulation, higher civic participation, and on and on.
“Missionaries have profoundly shaped the world, in all kinds of outcomes,” he explains, fully aware of how unlikely this sounds.
“For example, you can explain about 14% of the variation in current GDP based on the historical prevalence of Protestant missionaries. You can explain about half the variation in political democracy based on the historical prevalence of Protestant missionaries. I mean, these effects are huge. They’re quite huge.”
Woodberry expected resistance to his findings, and got it. First, disinterest: he’d give talks at conferences, and only a couple of people would show up. Then, hostility: those who did come along, he recalls, “sometimes would stand up in the middle of the talk and yell at me.”
When he submitted his findings to a flagship journal in his field, the American Political Science Review, he says the reviewers offered no objections to his work. Instead, they demanded further evidence – more case studies, more regressions – and eventually insisted he make all his data public. In the end, his 30-page article came with 192 pages of supporting material.
Woodberry says he understands the scepticism. Not only does his hypothesis break with long-held assumptions about Christian missions as both unimportant and at the same time destructive, it also suggests that one of the strongest contributing factors to the rise of democracy has been overlooked by decades of research.
“The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” was published in May 2012, and has since won a slew of awards from the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association. This is no fringe theory – or not anymore.
Woodberry is quick to point out that he’s not trying to whitewash the history; the stereotypes are not so much mistaken as exaggerated. Some missionaries certainly were racist, he agrees. Some were responsible for the extinction of local languages and customs, irretrievable losses which continue to be felt by those who should have been their inheritors. Some were complicit, or worse, in colonial abuses. Yet if such violations were the norm, if most missionaries were like that, their overall measurable impact could only be a negative one.
We don’t want to be ethnocentric towards missionaries in ways that we accuse them of being.
Of course, missionaries didn’t leave their homes and families – frequently, for life – in order to spread democracy. Rather, they sought converts. But even when they more or less failed in their objective, the way they went about it had a dramatic effect on the places they went.
For example, Protestant missionaries in particular believed strongly that everyone needed to read the Bible for themselves. This meant that wherever they went, education and literacy – including for women – were at the top of the priority list. It also meant that, rather than trying to supplant indigenous languages with European ones, missionaries were disproportionately responsible for writing down oral languages for the first time. They translated the Bible and other texts into those languages, and key works from other cultures into their own tongues, sometimes bringing them to the attention of Western readers for the first time. In many places, they introduced printing and newspapers – crucial infrastructure for democratic societies.
They developed the social movement form as we recognize it today, mobilizing public opinion back home against both colonial exploitation and local customs of which they disapproved.
This sounds imperialistic; and yet the modern secular Westerner, along with the vast majority of people living in these countries today, would side with the missionaries in opposing traditional practices like foot-binding in China and sati in India (in which a widow could be burned alongside her husband on his funeral pyre). The complexities of balancing cultural respect against inalienable rights have not been resolved in the post-colonial era.
Our discomfort around missionary endeavour is not a question of only historical accuracy. A striking feature of the media coverage of Ken and Jocelyn Elliott’s abduction by terrorists last year was a reluctance to name them as missionaries. Aged 81 and 76, the couple had run a medical clinic in Djibo, near the border with Mali, for more than four decades, and labels like “doctor,” “surgeon” and “humanitarian worker” rolled far more comfortably off the tongue. An attack on humanitarian workers is an outrage; a missionary doctor (goes the subtext) shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Most of us, of course, are hardly in a position to quibble about the motivations of those altruists out there on the ground. “Until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa,” self-confessed atheist Brian Palmer concludes, drily, “I suggest we stand aside and let God do His work.”
Robert Woodberry, in his mild-mannered, social-scientist way, is more circumspect. “We don’t want to be ethnocentric towards missionaries in ways that we accuse them of being,” he shrugs. His research dares us to consider some of our own cultural blinkers – and what the world might look like without them.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age. Quotes from Robert Woodberry are drawn from a series of interviews with the Centre for Public Christianity, available here, here and forthcoming in the documentary For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.