Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. (2 Corinthians 3:17)
Protestant ministry is motivated by the love of God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Protestant missionaries also understand the importance of meeting daily human needs.
There’s more. Missionary work has historically exerted a profound impact on modern Western society, shaping societal changes for the better and influencing its spread and adaptation over time. What follows is an overview of research by Robert Woodberry, at the National University of Singapore, which supports that conclusion. Prof. Woodberry defines conversionary Protestant missionaries as those who…
- Actively attempt to persuade others of God’s gift of Jesus
- Emphasize Bible reading by the masses
- Believe that grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments
His research reveals that Protestant missionaries wanted common people to read the Bible in their own language and increase their religious involvement. Therefore, as they tried to spread their faith, they stimulated mass education, mass printing, and civil society.
Education. Protestant missionaries served as a catalyst in developing mass education, voluntary organizations, and most major colonial reforms such as legal protections for nonwhites in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely.
Printing. To most elites, printing seemed ugly. They were afraid that giving books to those “not qualified” would erode elite status and control of public discourse. Catholics printed few texts. Jews, Eastern Christians, and trade companies only printed materials for their own consumption (mostly in “foreign” languages). When Muslims, Hindus, and Theravada Buddhists engaged in printing, it was usually in response to mass printing by Protestant missionaries or people they trained.
Protestant missionaries printed in local languages, forcing 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. Along with other missionaries they created the fonts and paper that dominated South Asian printing for much of the 19th century.
Societies that excluded protestant missionaries started mass printing later, with slower expansion. In fact, the historic prevalence of Protestant missionaries predicted the variation in per capita newspaper circulation in different countries throughout the 20th century!
Civil society. Social scientists tend to ignore religion, but Prof. Woodberry states that historical and statistical evidence accounts for about half of the variation in democracy among countries in Latin America, Oceania, Africa, and Asia; and removes the impact of most variables that dominate current statistical research about democracy.
Among European-settler colonies, “Protestant-based” United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been more democratic than “Catholic-based” Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. This, despite the fact that these countries share similar precolonial conditions (eg, temperate climate, communal land holding, small indigenous populations). When Protestant missionary work is included, it over-rides theories based on climate or pre-Protestant class conditions.
Following the fall of communism, Eastern European Protestant (and Catholic) countries (Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic) had earlier, more stable democratic transitions than Orthodox Christian and Muslims ones (Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia). Similarly, Protestant and Catholic former Soviet republics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) had earlier, more stable transitions compared to Orthodox and Muslim ones.
All of these countries shared similar pre-transition institutions and entered a similar international environment. All had large secular populations and comparable exposure to Marxist and Enlightenment ideas via monopolistic state education. It is religious differences that predicted who mobilized against communism and how smoothly states made the transition to democracy.
Moreover, the view of religion by leaders of Enlightenment-linked revolutions influenced subsequent events. Protestant English and Scottish Enlightenment, for example, were not anti-Christian; and where they spread, democracy flourished. The French Enlightenment (more Catholic by comparison), was virulently anti-Christian; and where it spread, stable democracy suffered through violence and totalitarianism.
Even in 19th-century Great Britain, suffrage and electoral system reforms were related directly to pressure from Evangelical Anglicans and Nonconformists — including nonstate Catholics. Similarly, in Sweden, Norway, and Netherlands, competition between religious groups with Evangelicals, Nonconformists, and Enlightenment elites spurred suffrage to the lower classes and facilitated democratic consolidation despite opposition by conservative defenders of the state church.
A century ago Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist, argued that, “Protestantism helped spur the rise of capitalism.” Prof. Woodberry concludes, “Religious beliefs and institutions matter. What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment.” Activist Protestant missionaries profoundly shaped the process of development.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, (Ephesians 3:22)
The ground shaking implication of all this is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation. Rather, we should attend to the “conversion” of individuals to faith in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life.
To learn more, listen here to Prof. Woodberry being interviewed about his work. Start at about 26:45 minutes.
Editor’s note: It took several years to publish this research. Skeptical reviewers asked Prof. Woodberry to include a wide array of variables in his analysis. Prof. Woodberry even had to provide the assistant editor of the journal (American Political Science Review) with his dataset, the code used to estimate statistical models, printouts of all the models in the article, tables from unpublished articles cited in the text, as well as the results from five custom-made case studies that don’t even appear in the article. After all this the results did not change and the journal published his research findings.