Homophobia and Colonial Christian Missions in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Maxim Ananyev and Michael Poyker

The late 19th century saw a dramatic expansion of Christian missionary activity all over the world and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Motivated by a desire to convert indigenous groups to Christianity and financed by their congregations, colonial governments, or sympathetic donors, missionaries flocked to Africa, learned local languages, organized schools, and built churches. Despite all these efforts, they worried about the sustainability of their influence. Would Christianity survive once they left?  One of the first missionaries, Scottish physician David Livingstone, in his best-selling book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, expressed major concern about “whether Christianity, as planted by modern missions, is likely to retain its vitality without constant supplies of foreign teaching.” Of course, we already know the answer: the influence of missions on the religiosity of the African population proved profound and persistent. Today, a quarter of all Christians in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Social scientists have produced a voluminous body of research about the long-term effects of Christian missions. Many of these studies show an unambiguously positive impact: missions were good for education, democracy, intergenerational income mobility, and social trust. Recently, however, some scholars have begun to doubt that the impact of missions was uniformly positive – for example, Julia Cagé and Valeria Rueda showed that people who live closer to historical mission locations are more likely to become infected with HIV. One of the mechanisms they discuss is the neglect of safe-sex practices in some Christian teachings.

Our recent article, “Christian Missions and Anti-Gay Attitudes in Africa,” published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, follows this somewhat revisionist agenda of exploring the potential negative effects of historical Christian missions, but it focuses on a different outcome: modern-day homophobia. According to data from Afrobarometer, a survey conducted in 33 African countries, more than 60 percent of respondents would avoid having gay persons as neighbours. Homosexuality is illegal and publicly denounced by political leaders in many countries of the region.

Public anti-gay sentiment and harsh anti-gay laws constitute a stark reversal from pre-colonial times, when homosexual practices were often socially acceptable. Anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe found 56 African groups with documented expressions of homosexuality—among them, for example, the Kikuyu in Kenya. Today this group is almost entirely Christian, with the majority of Afrobarometer respondents preferring not to have gay persons as neighbours.

Why would Christian missions promote anti-gay sentiment? First, the Bible explicitly prohibits male homosexuality (“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Lev: 18:22)). Following this prohibition, Catholics and Protestants, despite their many differences, were unified during the colonial period in considering same-sex attraction sinful. Second, the atmosphere in missionaries’ home countries certainly contributed to their views. This is especially true for British missionaries: anti-sodomy laws and the Victorian culture of “silence” on issues of sex undoubtedly influenced the way they taught the Bible and presented Christianity. Finally, while missionaries often operated quasi-independently from colonial administrations, the ideological needs of the colonial powers might have influenced their teachings as well. As long as the production of cash crops relied on “traditional” families, it was in the interest of colonial powers to promote heteronormativity.

To explore the influence of colonial missionary activity on modern anti-gay sentiments, we use several sources of data. Information on the locations of missions comes from maps meticulously compiled by Nathan Nunn, Julia Cagé, and Valeria Rueda. To measure anti-gay sentiment, we use the 2016 Afrobarometer survey, which asked whether respondents would like to avoid having gay persons as neighbours. In our estimations, we control for a variety of potential factors that could influence both the location of the missions and the opinions of respondents: geography, ethnic group, demographics, and many other variables.

We find that respondents located 100 km closer to a mission are 1.3 percentage points more likely to be intolerant of gay persons than are those living farther away. As the distance to a mission varies from 0.1 km to 1400 km, this explains almost 20 percentage points in variation in intolerance. Given that the average level of anti-gay sentiment, according to the Afrobarometer measure, is 63 percent, this is a large effect.

Correlation, of course, does not necessarily imply causation. When one studies whether missions influenced the anti-gay sentiments of the local population, one needs to consider that the location of missions might have been influenced by numerous factors that may also have been associated with norms about homosexuality. In the published article, we consider several alternative explanations, but the one that deserves special mention concerns pre-Colonial acceptance of homosexuality. It is possible that missionaries might have gone to places where local groups already shared at least some of Christianity’s teaching about sex. Or, maybe, just the opposite was true: missionaries, seeking a challenge, tried to convert groups that did not have any stigma attached to homosexuality. This is an important concern, which if true would invalidate our results. Luckily, anthropologists have accumulated a significant body of knowledge on indigenous societies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Using the list of ethnic groups with documented pre-colonial same-sex practices from Murray and Roscoe’s book Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities, we find that the locations of historical missions are not correlated with pre-colonial acceptance of homosexuality. Thus, it is unlikely that our results are driven by this confounding factor.

Groups with documented same-sex practices, as identified by Murray and Roscoe (1999).

While our paper explores the impact of Christian missions on anti-gay sentiment, it in no way exhausts the agenda of quantitative exploration of the impact of historical religious conversion on modern anti-gay sentiment in Africa. The impact of Islam, for example, may have been just as important. Recent years have witnessed many instances in which Muslim religious leaders and communities have openly supported anti-gay campaigns. Moreover, some scholars have argued that competition between Islam and Christianity might amplify anti-gay tendencies among their adherents. Systematically exploring these relationships is an important topic for future research.

In sum, the legacies of historical religious conversion continue to shape modern societies. The impact of these legacies and their interactions with current political and economic factors will remain a fascinating topic that is bound to attract scholars from across the social sciences for decades to come.


  • Maxim Ananyev

    I am a Research Fellow in The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at The University of Melbourne. I am interested in applying methods of causal inference, and, more broadly, computational social science to the problems of political economy. I have received Ph.D. in Political Science and M.Sc. in Statistics from The University of California, Los Angeles in June 2018. I received M.A. in Economics from The New Economic School and B.Sc. in Physics from The Novosibirsk State University.

  • Michael Poyker

    I am an Assistant Professor of Economics at the School of Economics, University of Nottingham. ​ I received my Ph.D. in Management from The University of California, Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management in 2018, and worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia Business School from 2018 to 2020. I received M.A. in Economics from The New Economic School and M.A. and B.A. in Oriental and African Studies from The Moscow State University. ​​ My research interests focus primarily on cultural norms and social justice.

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