Christian Missions and Colonialism

There are plenty of objections which have been raised against Christianity over the centuries. One common complaint is that the history of Christian missions is really the history of oppression, imperialism, chauvinism, exploitation, Eurocentrism, and ugly colonialism.

This is standard fare found in the writings of those who dislike Christianity. Atheists, secularists, humanists and others dish up these charges quite often. But the question is, are they true? Have Christian missions been a force for evil in the world, or, on balance, have they been a force for good?

There has been plenty of discussion on these issues, and here I wish to draw upon three leading experts, whose commentary spans a fifty year period. The first is Stephen Neill, Bishop in South India. In 1966 he wrote a very important volume entitled Colonialism and Christian Mission.

My second witness is Dr Charles Stanley, an English church historian with a PhD from Cambridge University. His 1990 book, The Bible and the Flag (IVP) is another important document worth consulting here. Finally, I call upon Robert D. Woodberry, Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

His 30-page article in the May 2012 issue of the American Political Science Review, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” also serves as a very helpful corrective to the usual misotheist criticisms. Taken together these three authorities have done a great job of debunking many of the myths about Christian mission.

Five outcomes from the research become apparent: One, the evidence in all this is mixed. Yes there was of course some exploitation taking place, and some unwise equation of the biblical gospel with western culture. Often missionaries glued the western way of life to the gospel, when they are not always the same.

missionWestern civilisation does not always equal biblical Christianity obviously. However, often the best of the West coincided with the best of biblical Christianity. Many of the great social goods of Western civilisation were in fact the direct outgrowth of the Christian faith. Indeed, much good was done when Christianity and Western civilisation were imported into other cultures. Much of the good we enjoy in western culture is the direct result of Christian influence.

Two, many non-Christian ideas went into colonialism as well. For example, Greek and Roman culture did not believe in equality for all, with slavery widely supported. The Enlightenment wasn’t so enlightened, in other words, with a rather low view of barbarians and the “uncivilised races”.

Consider the full title of Charles Darwin’s 1859 classic: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Most Europeans had such a mindset. It certainly was not just some Christians who may have held to such views.

Three, many Christian missionaries in fact sided more with the natives than the settlers in many of the disputes which arose. Traders and colonialists often battled with the missionaries. Bartolomé De Las Casas, the Spanish missionary, for example, worked tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed Indians in the West Indies (1474-1566).

He was a social reformer, historian and Dominican friar who did so very much to defend and promote the wellbeing of the natives over against the colonialists. He even became known as the “Protector of the Indians”. And there were many other Christian workers who did the same.

Four, the truth is, the spread of Christianity was the greatest force of civilization and good the world has known. Everywhere Christians went, they set up schools, taught literacy, established hospitals, improved the conditions of women, children, and workers, fought corruption, improved prison conditions, opposed barbaric practices, etc.

Missionaries did more good than any other group. One can rightly ask how many humanists or atheists or secularists founded hospitals, set up schools, worked for the wellbeing of women and children, etc? It was overwhelmingly Christian missionaries who spent as much time helping the material and physical needs of the people as their spiritual needs.

Think of some of the many cultural practices of the host cultures which really were evil, and were brought to an end, or at least strongly curtailed, by Western Christian missionaries: things like human sacrifice, cannibalism, head-hunting, ritualistic killing of slaves, infanticide, and suttee. Most people living there would have argued that it was a good thing that these barbaric practices were eliminated or suppressed.

Finally, while it is not politically correct to say so today, not all cultures are morally equal. Some cultures were just evil, and stopping their evil practices was a God-send. Think of not only the Canaanites of long ago, but the Aztecs and Incas, where things like child sacrifice were rife, and millions of innocent lives were cruelly snuffed out because of pagan religious and cultural beliefs and practices.

Let me offer some concluding comments by my three experts. Bishop Neill concludes his 400-page study by stating that those who hated colonialism, and those who fully sided with it, were in the minority. The majority of Christian missionaries were “between the two extremes”.

In much of the world missionaries were on the scene before Western governments took an interest in such outposts. Moreover, “it is plain from the records that the primary concern of almost all missionaries was the well-being of the people whom they had come to serve.”

Sometimes the only way to ensure that whole peoples were not exterminated was for missionaries to long for western powers to occupy a territory and prevent such negative outcomes. Finally, it was inevitable that some westernisation of converts occurred: “converts are imitative, and have always been inclined to [imagine] that things which are merely western trappings ought to be accepted by the new Christian as evidences of the sincerity of his faith.”

Stanley offers four broad concluding considerations in his volume. One, not all “imperialism” is necessarily illegitimate. He argues that some forms in fact have moral and political legitimacy, and the overall impact has been a positive one.

Two, he looks at the understanding of providence that informed so many British evangelical missionaries. They felt God was working out his purposes through them, but it was a bit of a mixed bag: there were some genuine biblical views along with some secular Enlightenment thinking.

Three, by and large missionaries were more motivated by gospel concerns than secular motivations. Lastly, he asks if Christianity is inherently an “imperial” religion. The missionaries certainly believed that they had biblical truth which the native peoples needed to hear. In today’s climate of tolerance that makes them appear to be imperialistic. In their minds they were being true to the commands of Jesus to bring the gospel to every nation.

I finish with some words about and from Woodberry as found in a lengthy interview with him last year:

One afternoon he attended a required lecture that brought his vocational drift to a sudden end. The lecture was by Kenneth A. Bollen, a UNC–Chapel Hill professor and one of the leading experts on measuring and tracking the spread of global democracy. Bollen remarked that he kept finding a significant statistical link between democracy and Protestantism. Someone needed to study the reason for the link, he said.
Woodberry sat forward in his seat and thought, That’s me. I’m the one.
Soon he found himself descending into the UNC–Chapel Hill archives in search of old data on religion. “I found an atlas [from 1925] of every missionary station in the world, with tons of data,” says Woodberry with glee. He found data on the “number of schools, teachers, printing presses, hospitals, and doctors, and it referred in turn to earlier atlases. I thought, Wow, this is so huge. This is amazing. This is why God made me.”
Woodberry set out to track down the evidence for Bollen’s conjecture that Protestant religion and democracy were somehow related. He studied yellowed maps, spending months charting the longitude and latitude of former missionary stations. He traveled to Thailand and India to consult with local scholars, dug through archives in London, Edinburgh, and Serampore, India, and talked with church historians all over Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa.
‘One stereotype about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism. But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.’
In essence, Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies—in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely—while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict. Public health and economic growth can also differ dramatically from one country to another, even among countries that share similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources….
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
To convince skeptics, however, Woodberry needed more than case studies. Anyone could find the occasional John and Alice Harris or John Mackenzie, discard the Nathan Prices, and assemble a pleasing mosaic. But Woodberry was equipped to do something no one else had done: to look at the long-term effect of missionaries using the wide-angle lens of statistical analysis.
In his fifth year of graduate school, Woodberry created a statistical model that could test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations. He and a few research assistants spent two years coding data and refining their methods. They hoped to compute the lasting effect of missionaries, on average, worldwide. “I felt pretty nervous,” he says. “I thought, What if I run the analysis and find nothing? How will I salvage my dissertation?”
One morning, in a windowless, dusty computer lab lit by fluorescent bulbs, Woodberry ran the first big test. After he finished prepping the statistical program on his computer, he clicked “Enter” and then leaned forward to read the results.
“I was shocked,” says Woodberry. “It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model—factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years—and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important.”
Cause or Correlation?
Woodberry already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy. Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren’t just part of the picture. They were central to it.
“The results were so strong, they made me nervous,” says Woodberry. “I expected an effect, but I had not expected it to be that large or powerful. I thought, I better make sure this is real. I better be very careful.”
Determined to be his own greatest skeptic, Woodberry started measuring alternative theories using a technique called two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis….
In spite of Smith’s concerns, Woodberry’s historical and statistical work has finally captured glowing attention. A summation of his 14 years of research – published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top journal – has won four major awards, including the prestigious Luebbert Article Award for best article in comparative politics. Its startling title: “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”
“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how ‘conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”
“Why did some countries become democratic, while others went the route of theocracy or dictatorship?” asks Daniel Philpott, who teaches political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. “For [Woodberry] to show through devastatingly thorough analysis that conversionary Protestants are crucial to what makes the country democratic today [is] remarkable in many ways. Not only is it another factor—it turns out to be the most important factor. It can’t be anything but startling for scholars of democracy.”

The entire interview is well worth reading. And of further interest, you can watch this 8-minute video featuring him discussing his discoveries here:

Despite what the critics say, it seems that on the whole, Christian mission was a force for good around the world. It was not without its faults, but all things considered, much good has come out of such missionary work.

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8 Replies to “Christian Missions and Colonialism”

  1. Brilliant essay. All I would add to it is perhaps more emphasis on the difference between Rome’s laborers & Evangelical missionaries. For example, where I serve as a missionary (the Philippines), papal minions did much evil to empower rule by an elite minority as well as oppression of the masses. But eventually Protestant & Evangelical missionaries did much to influence the nation for good in all of the ways your article documents, though much of Rome’s damage is still largely entrenched.

  2. Wow!

    Dan 2:35 …and the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

  3. This is very interesting because I have often wondered if any Christians do high quality, acceptable research on such topics. There must be others too. I have been reading some missionary books that show how much scholarship went into their work: people such as William Carey, Henry Martyn and Hudson Taylor. They wore themselves out for the people to whom God sent them and gave more than they took?

  4. John Allcott’s assertion that Catholic Spain brought about the oppression of the masses, which is still entrenched today is unconvincing when we consider that Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States 117 years ago in 1898. If he is correct, why did the (mainly Protestant) Americans not have the wherewithal to rectify the country’s problems?

    Both he and Robert Woodberry seem to be perpetuating, probably unwittingly, the historical lie called the Black Legend. This legend says that the Spanish were cruel and brutal to the peoples they conquered, and brought nothing but death, disease and servitude to them. As Diane Moczar says in her book _Seven Lies about Catholic History_, “This historical fairy tale was originally the product of English and Dutch political propaganda, and as such was motivated by nationalism and colonial rivalry in the New World…”. The reality was that the Spanish government did not condone mistreatment of the local inhabitants and sought their betterment. Pope Paul II said in 1537 that the Indians should not “be treated like irrational animals…. They must not be deprived of their freedom and their possessions”. Accordingly, in the 16th century in Mexico Governor Cortes established schools. colleges and a university for the Aztecs, and the King of Spain appointed the Bishop of Mexico “Protector of the Indians”. Compare that to, for example the mistreatment of the natives of the United States and Australia. Professor Lewis Hanke of Columbia University in his book, _The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America_, wrote that no European nation, possibly except Portugal “took her Christian duty toward native peoples so seriously as did Spain”.

  5. Thanks for the effort here, I love being encouraged, and love hearing about people’s passionate efforts to find truth. On a similar note, I loved reading Vishal Mangalwadi`s book “The Book that made your World”, the title is so apt.

  6. Here in Australia we have the fairly recent political mantra of the ‘stolen generations’ which is routinely peddled as a new truth that reveals the seamy side of missionary activities in bygone days amongst our indigenous populations. It even earned an official ‘sorry’ from former PM Kevin Rudd. This must all be true because the ABC & SBS tells us it is – right??

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