Evangelizing Freedom

Have Protestant ideas of human dignity and the importance of the individual impacted modern conceptions of human and civil rights? We have previously looked at the metaphysical ideas behind modern conceptions of human rights, and the rooting these ideas had in Protestant conceptions of human dignity and the priesthood of believers. It is one thing, however, to make arguments of logic, and another to find these sorts of connections actually existing in the historical record. Such strong connections, however, between certain Protestant mission groups and the rise of global democracy and human freedoms and liberties have been analyzed.

Robert Woodberry, in his groundbreaking article “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” published in the flagship secular political science journal American Political Science Review, makes the historical and statistical case for this connection between dissenting Protestantism and global democracy.1 He demonstrates a very strong correlation between nonconformist Protestant missions and the implementation of mass education, implementation of mass printing, rise of social institutions, and rule of law, all necessary building blocks of functioning democracies. Protestant workers contributed to these factors, Woodberry shows historically, because of their ideology of the equality and dignity of the individual before God.

After the catalyzing influence of these missionaries, other religious and secular groups also became involved with mass education, printing, and institution building, often to compete with the Protestant efforts in these areas.

On the face of it, this seems an ambitious and even audacious claim. Yet Woodberry’s thesis withstood secular and skeptical peer reviewers at APSR, as well as the larger academic community. The strength of his documentation is causing political scientists and historians to rethink and reevaluate the causative role of religion in political and social development. Previously it had often been dismissed as a “soft,” or secondary, factor, itself driven largely by “hard” factors, such as economic, political, or social class interests. Woodberry makes a compelling case that this is not so, and that religion matters, and often helps shape these other factors.

The paper is too complex to summarize fully in this article, but the following points are directly relevant to the issues of human dignity and rights.

1. Woodberry notes that it is not just Christianity or Protestantism in general that is associated with the growth and spread of liberal democracy and civil freedoms, but that of what he terms “conversionary Protestantism,” which overlaps significantly with what I call “dissenting Protestantism.”2 He notes that the positive correlation between widespread education of laity, spread of printing, and resistance to abuse by the commercial and political interests of the colonizers is connected only with nonstate-connected or nonstate-sponsored missionaries. So missionaries from state-connected churches, whether they be Catholic or magisterial Protestant churches, did not show such correlations.3

Thus, those missionaries that advanced democratic structures were from churches that took most seriously the human dignity of stewardship rooted in the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This belief emphasized the importance of individual Bible study leading to personal belief and faith by all. It led to arguments for the separation of church and state, eventually systematized by John Locke’s political philosophy.

As Woodberry puts it in his discussion of the rise of mass printing catalyzed by nonconformist, or dissenting, Protestant missionaries: They “expected lay people to make their own religious choices. They believed people are saved not through sacraments or group membership but by ‘true faith in God’; thus, each individual had to decide which faith to follow.”4 These views “changed people’s ideas about [whom] books were for. According to CPs (conversionary Protestants), everyone needed access to ‘God’s word’—not just elites. Therefore, everyone needed to read, including women and the poor.”5

2. Woodberry’s analysis makes clear that it is not just a generic belief in human worth and dignity that spreads democratic institutions, but a commitment to helping people actualize that dignity by providing them the educations, tools, and resources to do so. Along with commitments to human equality, the dissenting Protestants engaged in mass education (not just education of the elites, as other groups carried out), development and spread of mass printing, the activation of nonstate civil organizations, and the promotion of the rule of law (equality before the law). All of these elements contributed to the shaping of a culture where liberal democracy could take root and flourish.6

Thus, it was not just support of human dignity in the abstract that mattered, or even an implementation of a legal scheme to protect rights. Rather, such a legal structure could operate meaningfully only when these other conditions were in place: an educated populace who could read and write, spread ideas and interests in print, organize societies to share and further their views and interests, and ultimately shape political and legal patterns.

3. The programs and assistance of the dissenting missionaries were not such that made persons dependent on their long-term care, or nurture, or support. Rather, they gave people the ability to care, nurture, and support themselves and others in an engaged and active civil society. Indeed, after the catalyzing influence of these missionaries, other religious and secular groups also became involved with mass education, printing, and institution building, often to compete with the Protestant efforts in these areas. Many countries that developed the features of a liberal democracy soon did not require the Protestant involvement to keep it going, and many forgot that they were involved at all. But Woodberry has statistically documented the strong correlation between Protestant missions and the rise of democracy in no less than 142 non-European societies.7

4. A significant feature of what made the non-state Protestant missionaries effective was their willingness to oppose abusive colonial practices by commercial or governmental officials. It was not that the missionaries were not “racist” in some sense; they were products of their time in many ways.8 Yet they did possess a commitment to the equality of human dignity, as all persons were made in the image of God. Because CP missionaries were not connected with the state, they were able and willing to fight abuses of natives and locals in a variety of ways, including writing to supporters and newspapers back home, rallying legislative support for proposals reigning in commercial and government leaders, and, in some instances, confronting abuses openly in the field.9

In carrying out these efforts to curb colonial abuses, the missionaries made explicit their underlying philosophy of the obligations of stewardship in relation to human dignity. As Woodberry puts it, they “popularized the idea of ‘trusteeship,’ [another term for stewardship]—that the only justification of colonization was the ‘social uplift’ of the colonized people.”10

This notion of “social uplift” may have had a paternalistic air to it, and this was undoubtedly reflected in some of their practices. But the missionaries generally did not forget that the social uplift was to put colonized people into a better position to carry out their own roles as stewards of themselves and their countries. Hence, their emphasis on education, printing, and the creation of structures and systems that would give those locals willing to apply themselves the tools to manage themselves and their countries in a world rapidly becoming much more globally connected, industrialized, and commercialized.

This argument about the correlation between free-church Protestantism and the growth of civil rights does not claim that only free-church Protestants are supportive of the growth of human dignity and civil rights. Any religion or even ideology that chooses to take human dignity seriously, in terms of stewardship, can support and produce such results. Protestants that were more paternalistic in their outlook and connected with state churches, the so-called magisterial Protestants, did not have such a politically significant impact in the mission field. On the other hand, at various times in history, both Jewish and Muslim groups have taken this type of dignity seriously, and have had periods of cultural growth and enlightenment as a result. The relative peace and flourishing of Jewish and Christian “heretical” groups in medieval, Muslim Spain is one such example.11

In response to Protestant educational and printing efforts, Catholics also made significant contributions to these institutions, in many instances eventually outstripping Protestant achievements. After Vatican II, Catholics also made human dignity and freedom formally a central part of their philosophy of social and political engagement.

The reality is that most religious or even political groups that take this thick sense of human dignity seriously, and acknowledge the stewardship role of helping others actualize their own role as stewards, can promote meaningful growth and protection of human rights and liberties. It is just that during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the evidence strongly indicates that it was dissenting Protestantism that was the primary vessel for the worldwide spread of these values.

Thus, the lesson that should not be lost on us today is the alleged superiority, not of any particular religious tradition, but of the importance of a certain kind of human dignity to the creation and maintenance of a meaningful and robust system of human rights in a society. It must strike the balance between too much, or too mediated, a transcendence and the absence of any notion of transcendence, the collapse of all values into the subjective, autonomous self.

Further, it must recognize that commitments to the importance of human rights in speech or on paper is insufficient in itself to guarantee that these rights will be protected. Rather, there must be a constant safeguard of the institutions that ensure the implementation of these rights: education for all, a vibrant and free print culture, civic organizations that provide a buffer against state institutions, the checks and balances that provide a meaningful rule of law—and all of this sustained in the popular mind by an ethos of the transcendent dignity of the individual.

The potential paradox or irony this represents is that the dissenting Protestants did their jobs in good part because of their separation from the state. So any attempt to enforce or even promote some kind of minimal civil religion will actually undermine the very spirit and ethos it is seeking to promote. But the state does not necessarily need to become “religious” or promote “religion” to recognize that there is a power greater than itself, a transcendent realm that will limit its own power in dealing with its citizens.

It is also a realm that can provide value and guidance to the concept of stewardship. Rightly defined, stewardship will provide guidance to create a minimal set of common values that provide the stronger and richer in society with obligations to the poorer and weaker; but they will be obligations to equip and empower, rather than to dominate and dictate, either in a hard or soft paternalistic tyranny. Let all people of faith do what we can, during and now beyond this five hundredth anniversary of our Protestant heritage, to recover and promote the transcendent dignity of stewardship as a check and barrier to the rising tide of paternalism and tyranny in our modern world.


1 Robert Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012): 244-270.

2 Ibid., p. 244, n. 1; “conversionary Protestantism” is an unfortunate label, as it implies that only nonstate churches were concerned with conversion. This is not true, as many state church missionaries, including Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists, were concerned with the individual experience of conversion of the believer. Better language would focus on the relation of the church to the state, which often indicates the ability of the church to be an independent actor. Thus, in this article I use the language “dissenting,” or “nonconforming,” Protestant.

3 Ibid., pp. 246, 247.

4 Ibid.,p. 249.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., pp. 247-254.

7 Ibid., p. 245.

8 Woodberry notes that, ironically, racism was worse among more educated missionaries, who had absorbed ideas about “scientific racism.” Still, “missionaries were typically far less racist than other colonial groups.” Ibid., p. 255, n. 28.

9 Ibid., pp. 254, 255.

10 Ibid., p. 255.

11 Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York: Back Bay Books, 2002). While claims of a “golden age” of toleration may be overstated, Jews, and even certain minority Christian groups, were treated with greater freedom and dignity in medieval Spain, especially during the tenth and eleventh centuries, than in most other places in Europe.


Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.