Missionary Statistician and Sociologist of Religion
David Brian Barrett was born in Llandudno, Northern Wales, United Kingdom on August 30, 1927. As a child, he attended the Keble House School and Berkhamsted School. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1945 with a Bachelor’s, and in 1952 with a Master’s, in Aeronautics. He worked at Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment from 1948 to 1952 in aviation design, more specifically, as a Scientific Officer and Aerodynamicist. He quit the air force upon re-assignment to bomb design and entered the ministry of the Church of England. He received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1954. He was ordained a deacon in that year and a priest the following year in the Anglican Province of York.
From 1956–1957, Barrett attended the Church Missionary Society Missionary Training College in Chislehurst, UK. Halfway through the year, he felt a distinct ministerial call to overseas missions, in particular, to reach the “unevangelized millions” as described in a lecture by Bishop Stephen Neill.
In May 1957, Barrett was assigned as a missionary to Kisii in Nyanza Province, Kenya. His first introduction to African Christianity was confusion amidst division. He immediately stepped into controversy—the largest Anglican schism to date in Kenya was underway in Nyanza province. The Johera (“people of love”) movement was on the brink of leaving the Anglican Church. Barrett received conflicting information about the nature of his work in Kisii. CMS officials encouraged him to live simply and develop personal relationships with schismatic Africans. Diocesan officials in Kenya, however, compelled Barrett to reinforce the Church’s authority and discipline regarding Africans leaving the Church. Barrett sided with the CMS office and a newer style of missions. Further, he sided with the new, growing African separatist movements against the institutionalized, British, Anglican Church.
Work in Kisii was lonely and isolated for Barrett. He spent mornings reading the Bible, letters, missionary literature, and engaging in language study. In the afternoons, he performed visitations and in the evenings attended meetings of various kinds. He undertook a series of failed ministry efforts to reach post-Christian African youth in the township. He had no progress winning them back to belief in Jesus or implementing various kinds of Christian programming. There was still a great separation between white Christians and what he called “revival Christians”—Luo who followed indigenous African Christianity. After two years of service, Barrett was disappointed that his only progress consisted of building an inter-racial congregation of blacks and whites and successfully working alongside African revival Christians. Barrett had difficulty persuading revival Christians to accept any new teaching that looked anything like European or Western Christianity because they were devoted to their indigenous experiences of Jesus. Barrett’s missionary task was to overcome divisions between the two groups because he saw revivalists as authentically Christian, and even called them “brothers.” He stated, “We have found that God rewards ‘colourblind’ co-operation richly.” Also at this time, the Anglican Church moved in the direction of having all African nationals in the hierarchies of overseas dioceses.
Barrett desired to use his scientific training in missions. He lived in a remote area with hardly any technology, a very different situation than his time at Clare College and the British Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE). Perhaps he was not sufficiently challenged intellectually in his ministry, or he felt he had wasted many years of scientific training. At the same time, however, his missionary calling was to direct evangelization of unevangelized people, which was not his task in Kisii. It did not appear that this calling was satisfied in the slightest. These factors contributed to his desire for further education after his initial service in Kisii. He felt theologically inadequate for the future and contemplated furthering his education in contemporary theology in the modern world. He wrote to Bishop Stephen Neill: “After four years in an isolated pastoral situation confined mainly to one small area, I feel I need to do something entirely different for a time – to work in a stimulating team, to travel and see something of the rest of the world church, to live a less leisuredly and easy-going life than the Church here expects of us.” After 1961 Barrett’s ministry—indeed, his entire life—took a sharp turn toward his eventual career in studying the science of mission and world evangelization.
Barrett took a leave from the CMS after his first missionary tour ended in 1961. He attended Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University and received a Ph.D. in Religion—which he studied sociologically—in 1965. His studies were a tremendous stimulus. He discovered, for the first time, a relationship between his previous life in scientific work and his desired missionary vocation: Columbia University called it “the social scientific empirical study of religion.” In New York, Barrett discovered how the apparently separate worlds of scientific research and Christian mission could be related. In 1968, Barrett published his doctoral dissertation as Schism and Renewal in Africa (Oxford University Press), which launched him onto the world stage as an expert in new religious movements in Africa.
Although Barrett worked at the height of the secularization narrative, in 1970 he estimated in the International Review of Mission that Africa would be home to 350 million Christians by the year 2000. In 1968, Kenneth Grub turned the popular World Christian Handbook over to Barrett. He produced the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press) after 13 years of research and travel to 212 of the world’s 223 countries. The World Christian Encyclopedia was conceived, developed, and produced in Africa and utterly transformed modern understandings of world Christianity. Unlike prior definitions of “world Christianity” framed in terms of unity, Barrett’s research and travels revealed a world Christian movement that was diverse, but highly fragmented.
Upon returning to Kenya in 1965, Barrett joined a team of researchers supported by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Council of Churches for a project titled, “The Evangelization of West Africa Today: A Survey Across 21 Nations and 150 Tribes.” He visited nearly every country in Africa and began collecting massive amounts of data about African religion, evangelization, Christian adherence, and tribal groups. Also in 1965, Barrett became Research Secretary of the newly-founded Unit of Research of the Church of the Province of Kenya. There were many tensions between the Unit and the CPK that illustrated Barrett’s larger struggle as a British missionary who sided with African independent movements. Barrett’s conflicts with the Unit demonstrated tensions in Kenya between white missionaries and an African-led Anglican Church. The core of the disagreement between Barrett and church leadership was the focus of the Unit’s research: Barrett was decisively global-focused, whereas the CPK wanted him to have a narrower, national focus. The CPK admired Barrett’s study of Anglicanism at the provincial and national levels. However, when his focus turned global, the nationalists in the Province interpreted Barrett’s actions as a turn away from the CPK. The disconnect became stronger over time and led to the Unit’s demise and Barrett’s departure from Kenya in 1985.
Barrett married Pam Stubley in 1972 and they had three children: Claire Elizabeth (b. 1975), Luke John Paul (b. 1977), and Timothy David (b. 1979). The Barrett family left Nairobi in 1985 for Richmond, Virginia, USA. Barrett was appointed a Research Consultant for the Foreign (now International) Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, where he worked until 1993. He helped the board re-orient their missionary sending toward unreached people groups around the world.
Until his death in 2011, Barrett continued as an independent researcher of world Christianity through the World Evangelization Research Center in Richmond, and its later successor, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (established by Todd Johnson at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA, USA in 2003). Barrett and Johnson produced the second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia in 2001.
Barrett contributed to the development of world Christianity as an academic discipline with the World Christian Encyclopedia due to its copious statistical material. However, he also provided a new, post-colonial intellectual framework within which to understand the tremendous amount of change that occurred in global Christian adherence since 1900. The Encyclopedia indicated that a new era of world Christianity had come, and its center of gravity had moved from white Europe to black Africa.
Barrett, David B. “AD 2000: 350 Million Christians in Africa.” International Review of Mission 59, no. 233 (January 1970): 39–54.
———. “Interdisciplinary Theories of Religion and African Independency.” In David B. Barrett, ed. African Initiatives in Religion: 21 Studies from Eastern and Central Africa, 146–159. Nairobi: East African Pub. House, 1971.
———. “Reaction to Mission: An Analysis of Independent Church Movements Across Two Hundred African Tribes.” Ph.D. diss, Columbia University, 1965.
———. Schism and Renewal in Africa: An Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1968.
———. “Urban Pressures on Religion and Church: A Study of the Luo of Kenya.” S.T.M. thesis, Union Theological Seminary, 1963.
Barrett, David B., ed. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, A.D. 1900–2000. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Barrett, David B., and Todd M. Johnson, eds. World Christian Trends, AD 30–AD 2200: Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2001.
Barrett, David B., George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, eds. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Barrett, David B., George K. Mambo, Janice McLaughlin, and Malcolm J. McVeigh, eds. Kenya Churches Handbook: The Development of Kenyan Christianity, 1498–1973. Kisumu: Evangel Publishing House, 1973.
Johnson, Todd M. “David B. Barrett: Missionary Statistician.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 36, no. 1 (January 2012): 30–32.
Zurlo, Gina A. “’A Miracle from Nairobi’: David B. Barrett and the Quantification of World Christianity, 1957–1982.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2017.
This article, uploaded on May 17, 2017, was written by Dr. Gina Zurlo, associate director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary (South Hamilton, MA), research associate at the Institute on Culture Religion and World Affairs (Boston University), and post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Mind and Culture (Boston, MA).