In general, it was not the aim of Christian missionaries to establish any form of political rule in foreign lands, although they did have a central role in shaping some institutions, in particular through the abolition of slavery. Their primary objective can be interpreted as a form of spiritual imperialism, achieved by bringing Christianity into all the newly colonised territories. The conversion mission was relatively effective; today, in countries such as Angola, DRC, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, or Zimbabwe, Christians represent 80% or more of the population. However, throughout history, religious change is known to have brought about significant economic change in many countries – conversion to Christianity in Africa was no exception.
The long-term consequences of religious incentives on economic success have been widely studied in the social sciences, the most well-known theory being Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’ (Weber 1930). According to Weber, the “intrinsic character of the religious [Protestant] belief” is a possible, although not unique, explanation for the development of ‘economic rationalism’ (p. 49). Weber’s simplified argument is that, for the more ascetic branches of Protestantism, devotion to one’s work is a form of religious piety because, in the dogma, salvation is predetermined by God. Continuous hard work and asceticism, as a sign of having a calling, were thus interpreted as signs of salvation. In Weber’s work, the more ascetic branches of Protestantism incentivised continuous hard work, which in turn explains the relatively higher economic performance of Protestant regions compared to Catholic ones. Chapter 7 in Volume 3 of Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2017) also presents the modern economic research on the economic change brought by the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Another fascinating example of the long-lasting economic effects of religion is the case of Judaism. In their book, The Chosen Few, Botticini and Eckstein (2012) claim that the over- representation of the Jewish population in high-skilled and high-earning jobs results from the reforms of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the beginning of the Talmud era 150 years later. These reforms centred the practice of religion on the study of the Torah at a young age and on the codification of Jewish law in the written Talmud. According to the authors, this new practice of Judaism is in fact the central explanation for the Jewish population shifting out of agriculture towards more skilled and urban professions.
Religions affect individuals’ decisions because they establish a set of values that have an impact on individual decision making. In many cases, religions also impose constraints on economic decisions, such as the possibility of accumulating assets or education. In this column, we will show that Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa had long-lasting consequences on development. In particular, we show that the diversity of investments brought by Christian missionaries to the region had different, and sometimes conflicting, effects on long-term development.
The missionaries brought printing press to the continent leading to benefits. Apart from this, the impact on health etc is varied:
By looking at the detail of missionary activity, our investigation sheds new light on previous literature about the role that missions play in development. And the devil lies in the detail: missionary activity was extensively heterogeneous and analysing the investments conducted by missions is a way to capture this heterogeneity. Depending on the type of investments conducted, missionary activity had different effects on different dimensions of development. Another way to capture heterogeneity is to look at differences between missionary organisations, which is Valencia-Caicedo’s (2015) approach: he compares human capital accumulation around Jesuit and Franciscan missions among the Guaraní populations in South America.
Our more recent work (in progress) provides further evidence on the intricate development effects of the Christian influence in Africa (Cagé & Rueda 2016b). We study the role played by early missionary investments in sub-Saharan Africa to explain HIV/AIDS prevalence nowadays.
On the one hand, missionaries were the first to invest in medicine in a number of countries. The history of modern medicine in sub-Saharan Africa is indeed closely linked to the development of missionary activity. According to the World Missionary Atlas (Beach and Fahs 1925), there were 150 missionary physicians in Africa in 1925, and more than 235 nurses working with nearly 500 trained native nurses in 116 hospitals and 366 dispensaries.
Moreover, the early Christian provision of health care persisted after colonisation and is particularly influential in the design of health care in poor countries (Idler 2014).
On the other hand, health investments are not the only way through which missionary activity may have affected the propagation of HIV/AIDS. Christian values also affect sexually transmitted diseases and there is quantitative and historical evidence that missionaries actively changed sexual behaviours (Vaughan 2007, Doyle 2013, Mantovanelli 2014).
How these things shaped and continue to shape so many countries till date..