How missionaries changed the world

Recent research challenges the stereotype of the imperialist, destructive colonial missionary.



Recent research challenges the stereotype of the imperialist, destructive colonial missionary.


JUSTINE TOH: We’re all familiar with the stereotype. Missionaries destroyed local cultures, by forcing civilisation on native peoples who did not want or need it.

If the coloniser subdued the body of the native, the missionary sought to tame their soul, by replacing indigenous spirituality with the white man’s god. And yet, research suggests that missionary influence has been far more positive than we might expect.

ROBERT WOODBERRY: When we look at the missionary movement as a whole, its average effect has been profoundly beneficial for the vast majority of people who have interacted with them. They have more economic development, they have longer life expectancy, they have lower infant mortality, higher educational enrolment, higher literacy. And then that has had both economic and political outcomes. So, for example, you can explain about 14 percent of the variation in current GDP, economic development, based on the historical prevalence of Protestant missionaries. You can explain about half the variation in current political democracy based on the historical prevalence of Protestant missionaries. I mean these effects are huge, they’re quite huge.

JUSTINE TOH: It’s a big claim to make, that missionaries were “profoundly beneficial” to the societies where they went. But it’s more than borne out in the lives of the three missionaries, or four to be exact, known as the “Serampore Trio”.

William Carey, William Ward, Joshua and Hannah Marshman, came to India to win converts. Now they weren’t terribly successful on that front. But what they did accomplish is absolutely staggering.

This is Serampore College, the most visible outcome of their efforts. But beyond advances in education, the Serampore Trio also achieved the outlawing of not only infanticide, but also the killing of lepers, and the ritual sacrifice of widows, known as sati.

DANIEL JEYARAJ: The word sati is interesting. Sat means “truth” – “are real” – and i is the woman. So, a sati is the true woman or the real woman. In other words, according to this particular Sanskrit or Hindu tradition, a real widow should not live, she should be with her husband. Even the husband is dead so she should voluntarily offer herself to be burnt and to embrace her husband even in the other world, the next world.

JUSTINE TOH: When William Carey arrived in India, sati was widespread. Hindu tradition or not, it horrified him. In 1799, he wrote about the first time he saw the practice.

ACTOR (WILLIAM CAREY): I talked until reasoning was of no use, and then I began to exclaim with all my might against what they were doing. I told them that it was an act of shocking murder. And they told me that it was a great act of holiness, and added in a very surly manner that if I did not wish to see then I might move farther off.

I exhorted the woman not to throw away her life; but she, in a most calm manner, mounted the pile, and lay down next to the corpse. Two bamboos were placed over them and held fast down, and fire put to the pile, which immediately blazed very fiercely.

We could not bear to see more, but left them, exclaiming loudly against the murder, and the true horrors of what we had seen.

JUSTINE TOH: Carey wasn’t the only one to oppose sati, but he was among the first, and the most persistent. He worked with Indian social reformer Ram Mohan Roy, who had lost his own sister-in-law to the tradition.

In December 1829, Carey was at his desk preparing for a church service when news arrived from the British Governor-General. The practice of sati had finally been outlawed.

He immediately sent for someone to take over and started work on the official translation for the Bengali Gazette. If a single life could be saved, then getting the news out just couldn’t wait.

Did the Serampore missionaries impose their cultural values on others? Perhaps they did. But our commitment to universal human rights today makes it hard to argue with the results.

ROBERT WOODBERRY: So, there were lots of movements that they got involved in, in terms of women’s rights, not many of which were popular at the time, and many of which they lost converts over. But now, most people, even in those societies, would support.

JUSTINE TOH: Missionaries like Carey were committed to the idea of human dignity. That meant they opposed anything they saw as dehumanising. It also meant they fought to make education available to as many people as they could.

The Serampore missionaries were self-educated and from humble backgrounds, so it’s not surprising they were big believers in education for all. In fact, they were so successful in lobbying the government on this point that there was state funding for education in India long before it existed in England.

Crowning these contributions to Indian education was the founding of Serampore College, established in 1818 to educate Hindus, Muslims, Christians, anyone, regardless of nation or creed.

From the day its doors opened, a wide variety of subjects were on offer. The Bible, of course. But also, science and history, botany and physics, Sanskrit and Arabic.

This is the first map of India published in Bengali. The Trio insisted that, whenever possible, students should be taught in Bengali and Hindi. English instruction would only begin once a student had completed the subjects offered in their native tongue.

They wanted students to be well versed in their own culture’s contributions to knowledge. It was a remarkably non-Eurocentric approach, and well ahead of its time for its cultural sensitivity.

In 1836, Joshua Marshman wrote, “Mass education would sow the seeds of economic development.” In other words, the Serampore trio weren’t simply concerned with saving individual souls, but the renewal of an entire society.

ROBERT WOODBERRY: They just thought they were trying to help people, and they thought Christianity would help people, and they thought modern science would help people, and they thought modern health would help people, and so they viewed all of these things as part of their job in terms of helping people.

DANIEL JEYARAJ: There are memorials for the colonial masters with big swords and other things but the symbols and memorials for the missionaries are in the hearts of the people.

JUSTINE TOH: At the age of 72, William Carey lay dying in the India he’d called home for more than half his life. We’re told one of the last men to visit him was the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff.

During his visit, Duff spoke at length about everything Carey had achieved in his long career. As he turned to leave, Carey called him back, saying in a weak voice, “Mr Duff, you have been speaking about Dr Carey, Dr Carey. When I am gone, say nothing about Dr Carey; speak about Dr Carey’s Saviour.”

Humble to the end, Carey was always pointing to Jesus as the source and inspiration for his efforts. Along with Ward and the Marshmans, Carey helped to bring about amazing social, economic, and cultural change in India. In doing so, he showed how the followers of Jesus could be a powerful force for the common good.