An Eye for What Others Failed to See

In early March 2009, Susan and I found our way through a maze of hallways into the office of Dr. Robert Woodberry, then a sociology professor on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  His mother had grown up in the Minneapolis area, and he was doing some interesting work on missionaries and their effect on societies around the world.  We were launching Wilberforce Academy, and had come to South Texas to introduce our new mission to some friends.

Surrounded by literally piles of research materials that covered virtually every inch of floor space, with soft-spoken intensity he began to tell us about his work.   “I’m looking for and finding all kids of data about religion and missionaries, the sort of thing that other sociologists just never see,” he said.  The results of his research were already becoming clear: What he calls “conversionary Protestant missionaries” have had a profoundly positive impact on nations’ prospects for democracy and economic growth. 

I co-wrote about his stunning research in an article recently published in Kairos, a Croatian theological journal, and David Koyzis has written a fine article on the exact dynamics that connect missionary behavior to democratic behavior. But far more significantly, the preeminent American Christian magazine Christianity Today has picked up the story in the January/ February 2014 issue.  The article title is “The World the Missionaries Made.”  This theme that Vishal Mangalwadi first articulated in the 1990s has now received enormous statistical and historical validation through Woodberry’s painstaking work: The Protestant missionaries who went around the world in the spirit of William Carey---sacrificially committed to Christ, hoping to win people to Him, desperate to help the people they served in any way possible, and almost always at odds with colonial authorities---have literally impacted nations in a much more positive way than almost every scholar imagined.

I have long contended that we evangelicals have not done a good job of telling the world about how we have, often unaware and always in simple obedience to Christ, made the world a better place.  We call ourselves salt and light, but we have little awareness of how profoundly true that is.  There should be no occasion to boast (we have far too much that is wrong with our movement), but we ought to get out this word in public forums and university classrooms.

Speaking of university classrooms, though Woodberry’s research has received top awards, the University of Texas-Austin refused him tenure several years ago.  Their loss was a victory for National University of Singapore where he now teaches.  As one blog writer noted, Woodberry is “an American who apparently found more academic freedom for his research in Singapore than the United States.”