Researchers find enduring missionary effect in developing nations

The role of missionaries has long been recognized as consequential, but can the missionary effect endure long after the missions have closed and been replaced by indigenous churches and leaders? That was the question that several scholars examined at the mid-March conference of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, which RW attended at Harvard University. Research on the relationship between missionaries and social change has received attention in recent years, involving their effects on everything from the growth of democracy to racial relations. According to economist Vinicius Okada da Silva of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is not the presence of missionaries in general that has a long-term impact on societies but the kind of missionaries active in particular areas. He looked at Jesuit missionaries in the colonial Brazilian Amazon and found that their presence had a long-term effect on human capital. The Jesuits were the most successful missionaries in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries, promoting literacy, the use of new technology, and protecting natives against colonial settlers. Using census and historical records, da Silva found that even after the Jesuits were expelled from the region in the 18th century, literacy rates remained higher in proximity to the Jesuit missions. According to him, this long-term effect was not seen among other missionary orders.


Gabriel Brown of the University of British Columbia looked at missionaries’ Bible translation efforts in Africa and how such activity was related to later patterns in education, development, and ethnic identity. Brown used a dataset listing the times and places of Bible translation (particularly translation of the whole New Testament rather than just the Gospels) and the establishment of missions and found that they correlated with areas higher in literacy and years of schooling. Prior to the Christian revival and Bible translation efforts brought by the missionaries, there was a diversity of languages and a loyalty to subgroups that led to conflict between ethnic groups. The missionaries, particularly through the mission schools, created a shared and standardized language and a distinct ethnic identity. According to Brown, greater levels of economic development and higher rates of schooling are found in those areas closest to the translation points. Economist Pablo Alvarez of the Universite de Namur in Belgium looked at colonial and post-colonial changes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, finding that the post-colonial Protestant and Catholic missionary aftereffect on villages depended on their distance from the historical mission stations. Proximity to the Catholic and Protestant missions had the strongest impact among Catholic women in terms of literacy and demand for education. But the schools carried generally positive effects on surrounding areas, even for those who did not attend them. There was an increase in parents’ demand for schooling, particularly in historical Protestant mission school areas.

Turning to Ghana, Daniel Jaramillo Calderon of the University of British Columbia focused on the long-term effect of missionary activity on non-deadly conflict and demonstrations. He compared districts that historically had a missionary presence with those not having such a history, looking at their incidents of non-deadly conflict and demonstrations. Calderon used a database listing such incidents between 1997 and 2019, along with records of missions established between 1751 and 1932, and was able to control for population density, distance from borders, and ethnic divisions. He found that those districts with mission histories had more exposure to non-deadly conflicts and demonstrations than those without such histories, also finding that this pattern was not due to Christian-Muslim ethnic conflicts or the effects of colonialism. He proposed that it might be explained either by the way religion can increase polarization between groups or the way it can generate high trust in leaders who can mobilize followers to demonstrate. Given that it was non-violent conflict he was studying, Calderon acknowledged that “democracy” could be another name for this phenomenon.