Did Protestant Missionaries Spur the Spread of Democracy?

In an important article from the current issue of the American Political Science Review (ungated), Robert Woodberry argues that Protestant missionaries played a powerful role in catalyzing the development of liberal democracy in countries around the world. In contrast to the usual fare on the subject, however, the connection Woodberry sees does not depend on a cultural affinity between Protestantism and capitalism. Instead, the causal chain Woodberry identifies runs through the secondary economic and sociological consequences of missionary work that emphasized literacy and sought to subvert colonial and religious power structures. To wit:

[Conversionary Protestants (CPs)] such as Protestant missionaries wanted people to be able to read the Bible in their own language and wanted to facilitate lay religious involvement. Thus, as CPs tried to spread their faith, they catalyzed mass education, mass printing, and civil society—hampering elite attempts to monopolize these resources. Protestants themselves did not always provide the most educational, printing, and civil society resources, but Protestant initiatives spurred others to invest heavily in these areas and to pressure governments to create schools that restricted Protestant content. These resource transfers to non-elites helped alter the class structure, fostered the rise of political parties and nonviolent political movements, and facilitated broader political participation.

In addition, Nonconformists (i.e., non-state-supported Protestant denominations) historically suffered from discrimination and persecution by governments and state churches. Thus they fought for religious liberty and against state interference in civil society. In addition, both Evangelicals in state churches and Nonconformists wanted a “converted clergy.” Thus in the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, CPs generally sided with the Enlightenment elites against state churches and their conservative allies. When they lacked this religious support, Enlightenment elites had a small power base and typically set up either autocratic or unstable and illiberal democratic regimes.

Finally, nonstate missionaries moderated colonial abuses, particularly when abuses undermined conversions and in British colonies (where CPs had greater influence). To reach their religious goals, nonstate missionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent, repression of anticolonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization. Of course, Protestant economic and political elites were as selfish as anyone else. Protestant slave owners fought slave literacy, and Protestant settlers exploited indigenous people; however, when missionaries were financially independent of the state, of slave owners, and of white settlers, missionaries undermined these elite co-religionists in ways that fostered democracy.

Crucially, this argument does not depend on a beneficent view of missionaries’ intentions. As Woodberry said in a presentation on this research at Wheaton College, “Most missionaries were not anticolonial. They didn’t go out there to fight colonialism. They went out there to convert people.” It’s really a story about unintended consequences—only in this case, those consequences happen to be ones many of us now like.

Like any single piece of research on a complex subject, I think Woodberry’s narrative implicitly downplays the roles of other actors and forces, including the urban working class. What I like very much, though, are 1) the emphasis on agency—human choices and actions—rather than structure as the driving force in political change and 2) the deeper assumption that history is not destined to move in specific directions but instead proceeds by the accumulation of many small accidents.

Whatever your own reaction to the particulars, I think it’s clear that Woodberry has cast light on a piece of the democratization story that scholarship until now has largely overlooked.

Leave a comment


  1. Not sure about your conclusions. More than structure/agency, meaningful/accidental, it appears to me that we’re talking about different strategies and different goals, because I assume the nonconformist protestants talked to each other in some way…i.e. they weren’t isolated individual actors who all just happened to keep having the same ‘accidents’ over a prolonged enough period of time to foster democracy across a nation. It seems they were more like a bunch of religious guerillas struggling against the extant hegemonic attitude, and their struggle had the secondary consequences.

    • I think we’re on the same page here, actually. The last line of your comment is more or less how I see the process, too. From the little I know, though, I gather that these actions weren’t especially coordinated across countries and missions. It seems like individual missionaries had a lot of autonomy, and their goal was not specifically to foster democratization—ergo my reference to “many small accidents.”

      • Maybe we could say they had a unifying mission or unity of action, though, that they were perhaps literally singing from the same hymn sheet… :-). There was a plan.

  1. Did Protestant Missionaries Spur the Spread of Democracy? « Dr. Bahman Baktiari

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