Civil Rights Movement

How Christian Missionaries Changed the World

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Teach public school students how the world benefits from Christianity

Too many public school students only learn about Christianity by studying the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Salem Witch Trials. It is important that they learn the rest of the story. Students of all faiths, and no faith, should understand the impact of Jesus on the world.

Robert Woodberry, a political science professor at National University of Singapore, conducted extensive research on missionaries’ impact around the world. His findings were published in the highly respected American Political Science Review with the title, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

Woodberry and his research team found that:

“Conversionary Protestants [missionaries] were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely— regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.”


In a later lecture, Woodberry explained, “missionaries wanted people to read the Bible in their own language, which meant poor people and women needed to be able to read — which now we think is normal but at the time was a revolutionary thing.”

He gave specific examples of his findings. For instance:

“The people of Nagaland and Mizoram (North-East India) did not have a written language before the 1890s; they were hunter-gatherer people. And now they are almost all Baptists. Kerala and Goa have large Catholic populations and a significant number of Protestants by Indian standards. These areas have the highest literacy rates in India, particularly women’s literacy.”


Woodberry found similar patterns regarding mass printing. He points out that “for hundreds of years, people knew how to print and didn’t do it….nobody copied printing until you get Protestant missionaries coming along and printing tens of thousands of texts trying to convert people.”

Economic Prosperity

Woodberry also spoke about the missionaries impact on economic prosperity. For example:

“Missionaries also taught other things in addition to reading; they taught concepts of private property, they spread new skills, they spread new crops. In Ghana they introduced cocoa and cotton, various things like that where they were trying to help indigenous people make money and have self-supporting churches.”

Social Movements

The history of nonviolent social movements is also linked to missionaries. Woodberry points out that, today, people think the activities in social movements (organizing, printing pamphlets, public speaking, petitions, etc.) arise naturally. “However,” Woodberry found, “those techniques were pioneered, for the most part, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they were pioneered mostly by nonconformist Protestants and evangelical Protestants in England and the United States. And they are the people who spread them around the world.”

Reflecting on the impact of Christian missionaries, he tried to find other explanations for the civilizing effects. He admitted, “It startled me certainly when I first found those results, and I spent a lot of time trying to make them go away…and they didn’t go away.”

He acknowledges the complexity of both good and bad actions of missionaries. “You can find examples of almost anything if you look hard enough.” However, he concludes his research with this:

“What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.”

Woodberry’s research adds to what Historian Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success :

“Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and rest of you would be reading hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800.”

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Curriculum Connections

Teachers can introduce students to Woodberry’s findings in academic topics such as:

  1. European colonial activity in Africa and East Asia

  2. How democracy spread around the world

  3. Economic development in the world

  4. The history of social movements in underdeveloped countries

  5. How scientific knowledge spread globally

  6. The role of literacy in modern development

SHARE YOUR IDEAS for how to use Woodberry’s research in your classroom. CLICK HERE

Additional Resources

How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin Schmidt

The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy, American Political Science Review

Religion and the Roots of Liberal Democracy, The Centre for Independent Studies

Woodberry Lecture: The World the Missionaries Made

A Little-Known MLK Sermon - "Rediscovering Lost Values"

Black History Month

An inspiring sermon America needs to hear,

"Rediscovering Lost Values" (1954)

The Rev. King, motivated by his Christian faith, stood, marched, and spoke to advance civil rights. While many people know about his "I Have a Dream..." speech, few have heard the inspiring sermon he delivered in Detroit in 1954 - "Rediscovering Lost Values."

His message, then, is just as relevant for America today:

"My friends, all I'm trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we've got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind. That's the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world, and to make of this world what God wants it to be and the real purpose and meaning of it. The only way we can do it is to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind."

  • For a more powerful experience, read the printed text while listening to Rev. King deliver his 1954 message by clicking here or watching below.


Six Years a Slave

Who was the first person to go on record against slavery? Here’s a little known fact that kids won’t learn in school (unless you change that): according to historian Thomas Cahill, the first person in history to write against slavery was Saint Patrick. Both his Christian faith and experience led him to do it.  Patrick was born in the 4th century to Christian parents who were Roman citizens in Briton. As a boy he was kidnapped and become a slave for six years in Ireland. He prayed daily that God would rescue him, and eventually he escaped and returned home. But he felt God calling him to return to Ireland with the Gospel. 

By the end of his life he had baptized over 120,000 Irishmen and established 300 churches. Within his lifetime, or shortly thereafter, the Irish slave trade ended – the result of a transformed people. St. Patrick’s Day (March 17, the day of his death) is the honoring of a Christian for his missionary work. Unfortunately, the true history of Patrick is seldom told in schools today. But, you can change that simply by telling the real story.


Why "Under God" Must Remain in the Pledge of Allegiance

This Wednesday (Sept. 4), Massachusetts’ highest court will consider the constitutionality of having students recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The practice is being challenged by an anonymous atheist couple who object to the words “under God” in the Pledge. The clamor by some people about this acknowledgement of God stems from a misunderstanding of why the phrase is so important to the American concept of government. Here are five reasons why “under God” must remain in the Pledge of Allegiance:

1. Thomas Jefferson explained why being "one Nation under God" is important.  Thomas Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers understood that the government does not give us our freedom. Our freedom comes from God, and the government was established to protect that God-given freedom. That was their justification for the American Revolution as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote: 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government laying its foundation on such principles…"

No king or emperor, no president or congress, no court or crowd gives us our rights. They come from God himself and are unalienable. And the Founders built America's "foundation on such principles."

2. Abraham Lincoln explained why being "one Nation under God" is important.

Abraham Lincoln understood that the nation's unity and freedom depended upon being one nation under God. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln used the exact phrase, "nation, under God," echoed in the Pledge of Allegiance. He began his address by referring to the Founding Fathers' foundation in God-given rights:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

As Lincoln closes his remarks honoring the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg, he offered this inspiring vision:

"...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth." (emphasis added)

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained why being “one Nation under God” is important.

Dr. King's famous "I have a dream" speech reflects his ideals rooted in the Founders’ belief that our rights come from God. King relied on the Declaration of Independence’s reference to the Creator when he said:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"

In every century of American history, arguably the most significant document or speech of that century references the rights of Americans being derived from our Creator: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in the 18th century, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in the 19th century, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in the 20th century.

4. It doesn't matter that the phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge in the 1950s.

Some people argue that "under God" was not in the original Pledge and was inserted over 50 years later. But, that only proves it took over 50 years to get it right!

5. The phrase "under God" does not make the Pledge a prayer.

Some people argue that "under God" is a form of prayer, and thus it is unconstitutional to have schoolchildren recite it. However, a careful reading of the Pledge of Allegiance reveals that we are not pledging allegiance to God. We are, instead, pledging allegiance to a republic. The Pledge describes the republic as one nation under God and indivisible. In other words, it is a statement of fact. It is a fact that our Founders established our government on the proposition that freedom comes from God, not the state.

As Jefferson, Lincoln, and King attest, the American people's freedom--the freedom of your neighbors, your co-workers, your children, and their teachers, are because we are one nation under God. Take that principle away, remove it from our national consciousness, and we will lose the very basis for the freedoms we so easily take for granted.

Thomas Jefferson warned of the dire consequences of forgetting this important principle. On the Jefferson memorial his warning is carved:

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?

Lincoln said it well, "Now we are in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

In this war of ideas, people will not defend what they do not cherish, and they will not cherish what they do not understand.

MLK and Religious Freedom - Mark the Day

By Chuck Colson

What better way to honor Martin Luther King than to celebrate our religious freedom?

Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day. Most schools recognize the day — as they should. But will they teach students about Dr. King’s Christian faith, which motivated and guided his campaign for civil rights?

During his Birmingham civil rights campaign, Dr. King required every participant to sign a pledge committing to do ten things. The first was to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” Others included the expectation that all participants would “walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love;” and “pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.”

To read more of Chuck Colson's commentary, CLICK HERE.