The stereotypical view of Protestant missions, particularly in past centuries, saw missionaries as closely associated with colonial powers, detrimental to local cultures, and condoning or even participating in the oppression and exploitation of nations and peoples. A recent study by sociologist Robert Woodberry paints a very different picture of missions and missionaries. This alternative view finds that missionaries actually exercised a strong and lasting positive influence wherever they were present. It found that nations influenced by missionaries are better off than neighboring countries that didn’t receive Christian workers from overseas.


The Study

Woodberry’s study was extensive and thorough, taking years to complete. Analyzing extensive global data, he compared countries where Christian missionaries were sent to preach the Gospel and help those in need with countries that were not influenced by missionaries. The results showed areas with a strong missionary presence led to stronger nations than their counterparts in several aspects.

  • Economic Development. Countries influenced by missionaries did better economically than their neighbors that did not have a significant missionary presence. Their economies are stronger and the quality of life better.

  • Literacy and Education. Countries significantly influenced by missionaries have a higher literacy rate and overall level of education when compared with nations with less influence from Christian workers.

  • Health and Quality of Life. Countries influenced by missions have lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, just to mention a few.

  • Governance and Institutions. This is perhaps the most surprising result; greater missionary presence resulted in stronger democracies with stronger sociopolitical institutions and less corruption than similar nations with less missionary influence.

Important Caveats

There are two important things we need to understand about this study. First, Woodberry is not stating that countries with missionary presence are necessarily rich, stable, or prosperous. While many are still in poverty, they now have stronger economies, more stability, and a better quality of life when compared to places without the same missionary presence.

The second detail is an important aspect of the study. The positive influence didn’t come with every kind of “missionary.” During the colonial era, state-sponsored “missionaries” were sent to the colonies and paid by the colonial government. These missionaries were closely associated with the Colonial masters and generally supported colonialism. However, there was another kind of missionary who responded to God’s call and served as a representative of their denomination or sending agency, rather than the government. These missionaries exercised this surprising positive influence for good.

Missionaries responding to God's
call rather than other motivating
factors showed a surprising
positive influence for good.

A Bold Conclusion

In the end, Woodberry boldly concludes the most significant factor in the development of democracy and strong institutions in our modern world has been the presence of Christian missionaries (particularly Protestant). This conclusion directly contradicts the common perception that has been questioned by secular scholars.

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*This post is inspired by an article published in Christianity Today. I highly recommend it.