Sunday, January 26, 2014

The gift the Protestant missionaries bequeathed the world

There's a great article in the current issue of Christianity Today, about the influence of Protestant missionaries in the Third World over the past century and a quarter. Far from being mere enablers and apologists of imperialism, they succeeded in creating broad, lasting uplift for the indigenous people, even in ultimate opposition to colonialism itself. In brief, the Protestant missionaries felt it imperative to spread the Gospel among all people. This meant teaching the Bible, which required teaching people to read. So missionary schools were founded, and thus literacy spread among the people in the areas where the Protestant missionaries operated. (The Bible did not have such primacy among Catholic missionaries.) There was of course more to it, as Western civilization made its way through the colonized lands. Medicine, law, technology, coupled with the Christian imperative to share those blessings with "the least of these" helped give credence to the missionaries' message. The liberating aspects of the Gospels themselves had their effects, as well. The end result is that areas that were ministered by Protestant missionaries were more well-disposed to democracy. The CT article details one researcher's quest to nail down these findings in statistical form, and to overcome the revulsion of deracinated secular academics at such a thing.

In search of answers, Woodberry traveled to West Africa in 2001. Setting out one morning on a dusty road in Lomé, the capital of Togo, Woodberry headed for the University of Togo's campus library. He found it sequestered in a 1960s-era building. The shelves held about half as many books as his personal collection. The most recent encyclopedia dated from 1977. Down the road, the campus bookstore sold primarily pens and paper, not books.

"Where do you buy your books?" Woodberry stopped to ask a student.

"Oh, we don't buy books," he replied. "The professors read the texts out loud to us, and we transcribe."

Across the border, at the University of Ghana's bookstore, Woodberry had seen floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with hundreds of books, including locally printed texts by local scholars. Why the stark contrast?

The reason was clear: During the colonial era, British missionaries in Ghana had established a whole system of schools and printing presses. But France, the colonial power in Togo, severely restricted missionaries. The French authorities took interest in educating only a small intellectual elite. More than 100 years later, education was still limited in Togo. In Ghana, it was flourishing.

Enough examples like that added up to this:

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.

To wit:
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.

It's sad to think of such an important bit of the Western heritage being downplayed or denied in modern academia. In at least one country I know of, South Korea, they remember and honor the missionaries that came in the late 19th Century, the Bells, the Junkins, and many others. It's too bad Christopher Hitchens isn't around anymore; I'd like to see how he would have reacted to this. The same effects took hold in their native anglophone nations too, of course; and still do to this day. It's too bad we are as ignorant of them as fish are ignorant of water.

Edit: Dr. Horace Jeffrey Hodges, the Gypsy Scholar, has excerpts of the original academic paper and further thoughts here.