Literacy, Education and the Spread of the Gospel

Literacy, Education, and the Spread of the Gospel by Mark Rogers

This is a post by Mark Rogers to The Gospel Coalition Blog on January 13, 2010.

Christian mission does not get much respect in the academy or in the broader culture. Whether it is through the biased studies of some anthropologists or popular novels like The Poisonwood Bible, Christian missionaries are often caricatured as the “ugly American” and the entire missions enterprise is regularly maligned as unhelpful at best and culturally destructive at worst. Jesus said this kind of thing would happen (Matt 10:24-25), so we should not expect it to end anytime soon. But I think it is helpful to be able to point to a few of the many good things Christianity has brought with it wherever it has spread.

Dana Robert’s 177-page book, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, does a lot of things (including a chronological and thematic study of 2000 years of Christian mission!). Along the way, Robert points out that Christian missionaries have done much good for the societies they have entered. The book could have fittingly been titled, In Defense of Christian Mission. Robert shows that missionaries have defended human rights, advocated for indigenous peoples, advanced women’s rights, improved medical care, cared for the weak and marginalized, and supported ecological sustainability and conservation.

One theme that appears throughout the book is that as Christianity has spread, so has literacy and education. Here are a few examples of this truth along with some of its consequences:

Christian Missions and the Advancement of Education

  • “The first modern colleges and universities founded in India, China, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, and Africa were the products of nineteenth-century educational missions. . .  . By 1935, missions were operating 57,000 schools and over 100 colleges worldwide” (50).

Christian Missions and the Education of Women

  • “In many countries, missionaries were the first to insist on the education of girls, despite public opposition.” (50)
  • In 1869 Methodist missionary Isabella Thoburn founded a women’s college in India – the first in all of Asia. (137)
  • “By 1909 . . . American missionary women were operating 3,263 schools, ranging from primary level to colleges” (50).
  • “By the early twentieth century, the majority of girls’ schools in Japan, Korea, China, and other locations, had been founded by missionaries despite social prejudice against women’s education” (136).
  • “In China, Korea, and Japan, women trained in missions schools pioneered women’s higher education” (66).

Christian Literacy and the Preservation of Ethnic Identity

  • In 314 Gregory the Illuminator (d. c. 337) became a bishop and established the church in Armenia. Soon after, “An Armenian script was developed for the purpose of translating the Scriptures.” In the early fifth century, “the patriarch developed an alphabet and assembled a team of scholars to translate the Bible . . . . With a national identity molded by the acquisition of their own written language, a written history, and Scriptures, the Armenians were able to maintain their ethnic solidarity over many centuries despite the loss of their political independence” (19).
  • “In the late ninth century, the brothers Cyril (d. 869) and Methodius (d. 885) put the language of the Macedonian Slavs into written form, [and] translated the Bible into the language known as Old Church Slavonic. . . . [which] became the sacred language of Slavic Orthodoxy, and helped the Russians and other Slavic peoples to retain their identity despite the attacks of Tartars, Mongols, and others who sought to destroy them” (36).
  • Protestant efforts in the sixteenth century to translate the Bible into the vernacular (rather than Latin) helped pave the way to the modern idea of nationhood and distinct cultural identities. “Unlike Islam, in which Arabic is seen to be the very word of God and the translation of the Koran is technically forbidden, Christianity delights in the translation of the Bible into languages that represent a multiplicity of cultural identities” (36).
  • “What [the missionaries] offered – literacy, education, medical care, social services, support for individualism, and the gospel message – were tools that ultimately equipped indigenous peoples to challenge European empires on their own terms” (52).

Christian Literacy and the Advancement of Culture

  • When unlettered, “barbarian” tribes of northern Europe invaded the Roman Empire in the fifth century, “with the help of church leadership, they acquired written scholarship” (21).
  • As missionary monks spread out through Europe, beginning in the fifth century, they brought written language with them. “The literacy of monks meant they introduced the technologies of reading and writing into the oral cultures of Europe. . . . [M]onasteries became places where important Latin and Greek manuscripts were copied, and where oral traditions of the people could be preserved in writing. Without the writings of Christian monks, such pre-Christian classics as the poem ofBeowulf would not exist today” (26).
  • “Former slave Samuel Ajayi Crowther (d. 1891), the first black Anglican bishop, made critical contributions to Bible translation that became the basis for Yoruba literature” (49).

Christian Missions and Western Understandings of Other Cultures

  • John Eliot (d. 1690), a Puritan missionary to the Indians, translated the Bible into the Algonquin language, and published it “as the first Bible printed in North America” (42).
  • Western missionaries helped Western societies come to understand and appreciate other cultures. For example, after Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg (d. 1719) took the gospel to the Tamil people of India, “A Tamil convert went to the University of Halle and began the first teaching of an Indian language in Germany. . . . Ziegenbalg, [who] produced a Tamil grammar for the aid of German students . . . . helped to spread positive ideas about Indian cultures among Germans” (42).

Mark Rogers is a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. A former college pastor and associate pastor, Mark is the editor of “Glimpses of Christian History.”