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Lecture explores missionary roots of democracy

| Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In a lecture Jan. 27, Robert D. Woodberry, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, explained the role of Christian missionaries in the growth of liberal democracy.

The Kellogg Institute sponsored the lecture, titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

“The narrative of democracy is usually told in a secular way,” Woodberry said. “I argue that, building on earlier foundations, Protestant missionaries are responsible for a lot of reforms that lead to liberal democracy.”

By examining consistent historical patterns and statistical data from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the influence of religion on the growth of liberal democracy can be demonstrated and compared to the influence of the Enlightenment or various economic systems, Woodberry said. His statistical analysis considered other contextual factors to show the political impact of missionaries.

Woodberry said the word “liberal” is an important qualifier because it means governments have ensured rights for opposition groups and minorities. He also said there are significant distinctions between different types of missionary groups, including their denominations and relationships with states.

“The four major reforms of the missionaries were mass education, mass printing, nonviolent social movements and colonial reform,” Woodberry said.

In terms of education, Woodberry said missionaries espoused the growth of literacy as means of reading scripture and thus prepared students to embrace democracy.

“They pioneered classrooms techniques using texts designed for children,” Woodberry said.

Citing the example of the Belgian Congo, he said missionaries were responsible for reporting abuses and reigning in abuses of colonial power.

“Missionaries limited colonial abuses but were not necessarily anti-colonial,” he said.

Woodberry said missionaries advocated the idea of trusteeship particularly in British colonialism because they believed it was their duty to bring salvation to the colonized areas. He showed the results of a study he performed comparing female literacy and infant mortality rates across regions in India with the locations of missionary centers to fortify his argument.

“Christianity profoundly shaped modernity and the religious incentive of missionaries, and their reforms are crucial to the spread of liberal democracy,” Woodberry said.

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