Posted by: gmscan | May 22, 2015

Christian Missions and the Spread of Democracy

It has long been evident to me that the most successful societies in the world are former British colonies – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and to a lesser extent India and South Africa. I have usually attributed this to the British embrace of capitalism, merit-based civil service, and widespread education.

As long as these nations followed that model they prospered, but when they went off the tracks and experimented with socialism (as India did for a while) or dictatorship (as Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, is still doing) they failed.

Now comes Robert Woodberry of the National University of Singapore to argue that I have missed the point. The American Political Science Review has published a breathtaking article by him, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

I say breathtaking because of the comprehensive statistical analysis underlying his argument. He doesn’t just correlate missions with democracy, he also accounts for most other plausible explanations and he looks at conditions in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceana and even regional differences within many of these countries.

What he finds is that wherever “conversionary Protestant” (CP) missionaries went, they laid the roots for modern democracy. Often these were associated with British colonies, but not always. There were British colonies that had few missionaries and these areas were not especially well equipped for democracy, and missionaries went to places the British were not and had the same democratizing effects.

As we have seen with recent efforts in the Middle East, democracy is far more than a matter of elections. There are underlying conditions that must be met before democratization can succeed. Woodberry writes –

 “… Conversionary Protestants were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary associations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely – regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.”

He goes on to explain that fundamental to the beliefs of Protestants is the idea that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. This was much less true for Catholics prior to the twentieth century. This one factor lead to a number of missionary activities, including helping indigenous people develop a written language (for the first time ever in some cases), printing Bibles and religious tracts in local languages, setting up schools to teach people how to read, organizing non-governmental (and often non-religious) associations. They also worked to reform abusive colonial governments, especially in the British colonies, where they had more influence.

None of this is to say that all Protestants were kind or enlightened. –

“Of course, Protestant economic and political elites were as selfish as anyone else. Protestant slave owners fought slave literacy, and Protestant settlers exploited indigenous people: however when missionaries were financially independent of the state, of slave owners, and of white settlers, missionaries undermined these elite co-religionists in ways that fostered democracy.”

So it wasn’t Protestantism per se that created the conditions for democracy, but the presence of missionaries who respected indigenous people enough to find them worthy of conversion. Woodberry explains –

“… Non-state missionaries moderated colonial abuses, particularly when abuses undermined conversions and in British colonies (where CPs had greater influence). To reach their religious goals, non-state missionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anticolonial political organizations, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.”

Today we may think of missions as mere footnotes in the historical sweep of economics and ideology, but Woodberry argues that prior to the mid-twentieth century, “missionaries were the main source of information about life in the colonies.” They were well educated and dwarfed the presence of other organizations such as labor unions and NGOs. They had financial resources that were greater than all but the largest commercial banks.

Their interest in printing and distributing Bibles and religious tracts largely drove the growth of printing throughout the Western world and in the 19th century, Bible societies were among the largest corporations of any kind. The American Bible Society printed and distributed over one million Bibles between 1829 and 1831, at a time when the total number of households in the United States was only about three million. He writes –

“CPs printed so many vernacular texts that it forced (indigenous) elites to respond. For example, within 32 years of importing a press to India in 1800, three British missionaries printed more than 212,000 copies of books in 40 languages and, along with other missionaries, created the fonts and paper that dominated South Asian printing for much of the nineteenth century.”

Woodberry notes that the availability of printing itself was not sufficient reason for the creation of mass literacy and newspapers. China, Korea and Japan all had printing hundreds of years before Europe, they had moveable metal type long before the Europeans and they had thriving mercantile classes, but literacy was largely confined to the elite and newspapers were never developed before the arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century.

Wherever the missionaries went, they started schools for mass education of indigenous people, often against the wishes of white colonizers. They also imported the organizational models and tactics they developed during the movements for abolition, temperance, and other social reforms back home to third world countries in the 1800s.

Finally, the Protestant missions were mostly not sponsored by the state. This gave them a level of independence from colonial rulers that made it possible for them to actively oppose abuses in several ways, especially in British colonies. The missions were financed by a broad mass of the faithful back home. These supporters could be mobilized to lobby parliament against abusive colonial governors. The missionaries generally came from reformist traditions back home and could apply those lessons with indigenous people, and the missionaries realized that colonial abuses made religious conversion much harder. As a result, wherever missionaries were most active, the colonial governments were pressed to curtail forced labor, apply similar legal standards to whites and non-whites, and allow the creation of organizations of local people.

All of this – mass printing, literacy, activism, and civic organization – created the conditions, skills and experience for local populations to better run their own affairs and participate in democratic governance independently not only of colonizers but also of the traditional elite in their own countries.




  1. Loved these comments, specially since I am a missionary kid myself, and the grandson and great grandson of missionaries. Both the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches at one time had vast missionary endeavors that included the triad of churches, hospitals and schools. All of them implicitly and explicitly planting the seeds of Democracy.

    It is, I think, the strongest case for denominationalism in the first place. Large numbers of churches can pool their resources under the umbrella of a denomination.

    The link between Democracy and Protestantism is the rejection of the Roman Catholic form of church government with the Pope at the top, and successive layers of power and authority beneath him, in a pyramid structure much like corporate America is organized. That model was replaced by an egalitarian rule-by-council model, where no one person is ever allowed to have final ruling authority. Clearly a rejection of Monarchy and Dictatorship.

    I think something that has not been written about, but would be a fantastic PhD thesis for some young enterprising student in, say, Fuller’s School of Missions, is how the cold war affected the world wide missionary movement.

    The Church has always had its hand in the hearts and minds of the people. It is no secret and no surprise then that political and ideological movements who seek access to the hearts and minds of the people will seek to short circuit the process by co-opting the Church. In Latin America it was “La Revolucion” that tried. But with faith and focus it is possible to dance with such movements, and even necessary to do so, because the Holy Spirit is bigger than all of them, and the end result is most often a reverse co-opting. Today in Latin America the Protestant church has never been stronger. Democracies – corrupt and clunky as they seem to our eyes – have never been stronger, and “La Revolucion” as a Communist movement has failed completely.

    But not before the right wing in America killed their own missionary movement out of fear of the dance. They blinked and didn’t trust God, and took matters in their own hands, doing more damage to Missions than all the leftist attempts to co-opt them put together.

    The sad result I think is that the Protestant church has lost its ability to regenerate Democracy here at home, and Democracy, Health Care, and Education in America are at their highest peril ever.

    Even in my home congregation I find that most elders on Session believe that the pastor is supposed to be the CEO of the congregation, instead of the radical egalitarian democracy of a rule by council. Corporate America, with its top down autocratic authoritarian model of governance has become the overriding paradigm by which we understand organizational and political structures, and with its money and influence it is slowly co-opting our own people away from the paradigm of government by council, convincing the public that such models lack the competence and skill to serve. What happens when they succeed? Will our government be replaced by a corporate model and the President become the CEO of America? How will that be any different than a dictatorship? Or maybe to avoid that we will destroy the Federal Government altogether and decentralize, reverting to a federation of smaller but weaker corporate states, each run by their own smaller but centralized deciders?

    There is a lot to be studied and learned here…

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