On the democracy link

Robert Woodberry explains how missionaries inadvertently laid the groundwork for global democratisation.



Robert Woodberry explains how missionaries inadvertently laid the groundwork for global democratisation.


Most of the links between missionaries and democracy are indirect. Missionaries were not setting up democracies. They were trying to convert people. But the things that they did shaped the power structure in societies.

So at the time, most people didn’t believe that everyone should be able to read or everyone should have access to books – that was something that elites needed but ordinary people did not. Protestant missionaries, for religious reasons, believed that everyone needed to be able to read the Bible in their own language. Which meant that wherever they went, they almost immediately made a written language, if none existed; started to do education of ordinary people – men, women, and people from poor backgrounds as well as wealthy; and started printing in that language, tens of thousands of texts, and expanding access to information and expanding access to education, which helped create a new elite, a Western-educated, a missionary-educated elite.

They created the first newspapers all around the world – even in places like China, which had printing way before Europe did – which expanded access to information. They introduced new forms of organisation and protest. So they introduced the types of tactics that we tend to think are normal when you make a social movement. So creating an organisation with a board of directors that has a newsletter, that has travelling speakers; having boycotts and marches and various types of things like that, of non-violent protest. Not only were they crucial in developing those behaviours in Western Europe and North America, they were crucial in them spreading about the world – which then ordinary people learned and used both in terms of anti-colonial movements, but also in terms of democratisation afterwards.

Because they did this during the colonial period, at the point of independence, in places where you had greater strength of non-state Protestant missionaries, you had newspapers in place; you had civil society, voluntary organisations in place; you had political parties in place; you had a broader educated population in place. And that made the transition to democracy easier. But the effects are mostly indirect, they’re not missionaries setting up democracies.