History, Christian Scholarship, and Learning to Re-embrace Our Missionary Past

History, Christian Scholarship, and Learning to Re-embrace Our Missionary Past February 13, 2014

Many young Christians probably have some mixed feelings about our missionary past. For those of us growing up in the Church, the big heroes are the brave families who head out to spread the Gospel, risking comfort and danger for the sake of the call. In some settings, the 19th-century mission movement is still held up as a halcyon high-mark of the Gospel’s progress in the world, shrouded in mythic glory. Of course, then you go to school, read modern critical accounts, and find accusations (some substantiated and quite damning) of the colonialism, cultural imperialism, and destruction associated with the movement, and the glow fades, leaving a hazy, uncomfortable shadow in its place. Awash in the realization that the history of Christian missions has included atrocities and wide-spread practices deeply at odds with the Gospel, it’s easy for younger, sensitive Christians to become ashamed at any mention of our missionary heritage.

Recently though, there’s been a bright ray of light slowly piercing its way through the gloom. According the latest research, 19th-century Protestant missionaries were not the source of everything wrong with the modern third world. Witness the story of John Mackenzie:

For some reason, no one has written a best-selling book about the real-life 19th-century missionary John Mackenzie. When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

In fact, sociologist Robert Woodberry has determined through an exhaustive study that Mackenzie was not an isolated instance of missionary awesomeness. As Christianity Today reports, his research has determined that:

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 do this, he conducted years and years of exhaustive research. He pored over yellowed tomes, tracking missionary presences across the globe, traveling to Africa, Thailand, India, and the UK, in search of specific case studies, talking to historians as well as gathering statistical data.

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.

After all of this data-gathering, Woodberry starting running the numbers and found that missionaries were not simply one factor among many that contributed to flourishing, but the main one. What’s remarkable about this is that “Woodberry’s results essentially suggested that 50 years’ worth of research on the rise of democracy had overlooked the most important factor.” Missionary efforts to share the Gospel led the missionaries to love the people they were working with as best they knew how, in every way they knew how. They educated them, created printing presses, fed them, in many cases lobbied for them, and organized them politically in the face of invading colonial powers. All of these efforts had long-term effects that echo on into the present socio-political realities of the nations they loved.

There are so many takeaways from this remarkable story that we simply can’t give the reflection they deserve. Still, what captured my attention is the way Woodberry’s research stands out as a model Christian approach to history, truth, and scholarship that is instructive, both for aspiring Christian scholars, as well as for young lay-people trying to navigate a complicated relationship to our own past. Three qualities in particular mark Woodberry’s scholarship:

  1. Bravery. Woodberry’s research was brave. For a young scholar to choose a potentially controversial line of research—rehabbing somewhat, the unpopular 19th-century missionary—in pursuit of truth is difficult. It would have been far easier for a young doctoral student play it safe, elect to engage a more conventional topic, shore up some more academically fashionable opinion, and move on from there. Woodberry’s willingness to take an academic risk is a testimony to the weight Christians ought to place on the pursuit of truth over popularity and acceptance within the guild. Of course, his pursuit of truth also drove him to the rigor that enabled him to risk as he did.
  2. Intellectual Rigor. Woodberry’s research is nothing if not meticulously rigorous in nature. Woodberry aimed to leave no stone unturned in his search for the truth. As he put it, he was his greatest skeptic, looking at variable after variable, testing possible weak-point after weak-point, to see if his theory held up. In the process, he delivered a piece of research that is a model of academic rigor across the discipline; study after study since have only served to confirm it. Because of this, non-Christian scholars have sat up and taken notice of this in a way that brings glory to God—both because of the stories themselves and because of the level of scholarship involved. This research is changing the way economists and historians across the field are approaching the issue of democracy and development.
  3. Honesty. Finally, the bravery and diligence of Woodberry’s work required a radical honesty about history. In order to track down all of those leads, rule out variable after variable, he had to be willing to be wrong. Good scholarship required an openness to the truth of history despite the consequences to his own thesis.

For Christians looking to engage with the bright glories and darkness of our history, Woodberry’s pursuit of truth offers us deep wisdom. Many of us, when first faced with the accusations of missionary malfeasance, shut down, bury our heads in the sand, begin to defend the indefensible, and refuse to face the dark truth of Christian sin. We think that any admission of guilt brings unbearable shame on the Church and unacceptably impugns the character of God. Others swing the opposite direction and adopt an unrelentingly negative view of our missionary forebears, and in a self-flagellating fashion, trumpet Christianity’s failures and follies. If we don’t own up to the Church’s failings, or even admit it had any successes, we might get too arrogant and fail to learn humility from our mistakes.

Woodberry’s research reminds us that neither approach—neither hagiographic blindness, nor confessional calumny—does justice to history the way truth demands us to. No, Christian honesty requires facing both the bad and the good, the sin and the grace of our Christian past. God is most glorified and the Church edified, when Christians evaluate with clear eyes the failures that stand under the judgment and grace of God, as well as bravely celebrate the sovereign movement of God through the Church to bless the nations, unpopular though it may be. Of course, this requires a willingness to engage in the hard work of study, as well as a refusal to accept the simplistic pictures and stances offered to us by critics and apologists. Embracing that tension will involve us in the risk of facing the dark, as well as hopefully and surprisingly welcoming the light we find along the way.

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