On the invisibility of missionaries

Robert Woodberry was surprised by the results of his own research – until he wasn’t anymore.



Robert Woodberry was surprised by the results of his own research – until he wasn’t anymore.


A lot of the things that I found were a surprise to me, and that’s true both historically and statistically.

Missionaries have been written out of a lot of history – they’re just sort of ignored, and there’s a lot of stereotypes that people think are historically true just because they get repeated a lot. So as I began to look at it very carefully and sort of follow through: how did you get the spread of printing, and how did you get the spread of newspapers, and how did you get the spread of modern education, and how did you get abolitionism, why do you get forced labour ending in some societies earlier than others? And kept on seeing the role of missionaries – it was quite extraordinary, and after a while I started to feel frustrated because I felt like the people who are writing this know this, there’s no way you cannot know this if you’re actually looking at primary documents. There’s no way that you can ignore it. But when they write it up, they just disappear, and the impact of missionaries just disappears.

And so some of that was frustrating in terms of the history. The same thing is true in terms of the statistics. Now I wouldn’t have put the amount of effort I put into – in terms of locating all the mission stations, and figuring out what was at each mission station, and then adjusting the data – if I didn’t think there would be something there. So I hoped there would be something there, but I didn’t know how strong the results were going to be. So the first time I ran a regression (a statistical model that tries to predict something) – in this case I was looking at political democracy, and I’d spent a few years entering all this data and getting everything ready and I hoped there would be something there and when I ran the first model I was just like, “Oh, that’s too big”. And that sort of scared me because, I mean, the impact of missions on something like democracy or economic development is just … they’re just huge, and I was like, “That is too big, like, something’s wrong. I need to be really careful”.

So then I spent a few more years just trying to think of all the things that would shape where missionaries went, and all the other factors that might shape economic development or democracy and how can I measure these, how can I measure them well? Well the effect of missions stayed, and a lot of these other things that people have been writing about for 40 or 50 years would be totally removed once I controlled for missions. So these effects are really, really strong and really robust. And so it surprised me how strong the effects were, and the history also surprised me at how influential they were on so many things.

At this point I don’t feel surprised any more. I actually have become a little bit cynical, maybe, of some of the standard histories and particularly when it comes into social sciences, political science, sociology, economics, and where they generalise. So often, histories, some of them you’ll find the missionaries in there – although their role, generally, is minimised – but once you get to comparative analysis, they just disappear. So if I’m working on a question and I don’t see anything about missionaries in the secondary sources, I don’t assume that missionaries were not important any more. I just assume I haven’t found their influence yet and I search for it in the primary documents.