Protestant Missionaries and the Health of Nations
January 25, 2014 2:22 PM   Subscribe

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. The annals of Western Protestant missions include Nathan Prices, of course. But thanks to a quiet, persistent sociologist named Robert Woodberry, we now know for certain that they include many more John Mackenzies. In fact, the work of missionaries like Mackenzie turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also: Protestant Mission Stations, 1839-1925, from the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the University of Texas.

And also John Mackenzie, South African missionary and statesman, a biography on Archive.org, written by John's son.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:28 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


The annals of Western Protestant missions include Nathan Prices, of course.

If this is "of course", why is your cite a fictional character?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:35 PM on January 25


I imagine it is because The Poisonwood Bible is a fairly well-known story of Protestant missionaries in Africa, a topic of which there aren't a lot of competing tales told. The article counters with the example of a missionary who was a positive influence on the history of the region in which he worked, but "of course" there were also insensitive, selfish missionaries.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:01 PM on January 25


That article is kind of gross. You get the feeling the author really wants to justify their family's involvement in missionary work, and presumably that of the target audience. There's this undertone that Woodberry's paper means missionaries 'saved' the 'savages' and deserve credit for democracy. Or something. The paper itself isn't so bad, though it does rub me the wrong way in places. But I'll assume that political scientists are better able to vet it than I. (Though surely the part about Protestantism and the spread of printing wasn't news. It definitely came up in multiple German classes I took in college.)
posted by hoyland at 5:12 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Between defenders of missionaries and sweatshops I sometimes wonder how some Westerners think people in other cultures survived before Westerners turned up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:25 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


"Between defenders of missionaries and sweatshops I sometimes wonder how some Westerners think people in other cultures survived before Westerners turned up."

Considering that the missionaries discussed in this post were defending indigenous peoples from other exploitative colonialists and their influences, your comment is a non sequitur.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:13 PM on January 25 [8 favorites]


As a supporter of missionary work, even I am surprised at how effective their effects are based on this article. Would love to read more about it.
posted by fraxil at 6:38 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


fralix, the last link is an online view of a scholarly article by Woodberry in American Political Science Review, and you can read the write-up in a slightly different format (PDF), hosted by Harvard. Woodberry has written more on this general topic, available as scanned PDFs through the Project on Religion and Economic Change.


There's this undertone that Woodberry's paper means missionaries 'saved' the 'savages' and deserve credit for democracy.

I was skeptical of the general idea, but this factoid from the article jumped out at me:
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.
It's not that Christianity set these countries up for a beautiful future that was not available to neighboring "heathens," but rather that the missionaries set up systems that lead the regions to a sort of development, educational and otherwise, that was lacking where other colonial powers claimed territory.

I won't argue about the impacts of trying to convert whole regions to a new religion, but Woodberry is pointing to missionaries bringing more than religion to the world at large.


Between defenders of missionaries and sweatshops I sometimes wonder how some Westerners think people in other cultures survived before Westerners turned up.

Please read the article. I realize it's hosted by Christianity Today, and that might raise your hackles, but please make some effort to see what is being said before dropping off a neat one-liner.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:57 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


If you want an example that's still going on, Randall Borman is a missionary's son, who grew up among the Cofan Indians of Equador and has served as their chief. Cofan.org is the tribe's web site.
posted by ocschwar at 8:39 PM on January 25


It's not that Christianity set these countries up for a beautiful future that was not available to neighboring "heathens," but rather that the missionaries set up systems that lead the regions to a sort of development, educational and otherwise, that was lacking where other colonial powers claimed territory.

This is what the paper is asserting. Sort of. I don't know that Woodberry is talking about missionaries 'setting up systems' as it seems to give missionaries too much credit, but that their presence would spur other people to do things. But anyway. I'm complaining about the Christianity Today article, which feels like it wants to credit (Protestant) missionaries with personally guaranteeing the democracy or something. It's the the religious political science version of bad science reporting.

There's stuff in the paper that makes me cringe a bit--France seems to appear and disappear when it's convenient for Woodberry's argument. The first couple pages give you the impression he'd like to credit Protestantism for democracy everywhere (see the bit on Eastern Europe, though I was confused enough by where he was going that maybe I misread his intentions) and settled for looking at the presence of missionaries in colonial possessions. The tl;dr version of this was I wasn't really a fan of first several pages, but the statistics part was interesting.*

*Well, I do have one quibble, which is me not knowing a ton about statistics. He drops a load of variables (everything but Dutch-ness, I think) at says "look, R-squared increased!" and it did increase, from .45 to .452, iirc. But is that enough to actually tell us something?
posted by hoyland at 4:43 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Just off the top of my head, when reading an article funded by the Templeton Foundation, it's worth asking whose version of reality is being promoted, and why. It would be interesting to hear the perspective of anthropologists on this issue, not just sociologists and political scientists who might not have any actual experience working with native peoples.
posted by sneebler at 8:33 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


sneebler, that is a very good idea. I searched around for any extensive counters or reviews of Woodberry's work, but everything I've come across is fairly thin.

hoyland, I don't know enough about statistics, either, but some other readers seem to be impressed enough, and it was a sound enough research to get published, for whatever that's worth. I agree that there isn't much review of the systems that existed around the Protestant missionaries, if they happened to come in and flourish in places that would have benefited on their own (or because of other events/ influences).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:35 AM on January 26


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