Fourteen years ago, Woodberry was a graduate studen t in sociology at the University of North Carolina– Chapel Hill (UNC). The son of J. Dudley Woodberry, a professor of Islamic studies and now a dean emeritus at Fuller Theological Semi nary, started studying in UNC's respected PhD program with one of its most influential figures, Christian Smith (now at the University of Notre Dame).
But as Woodberry cast about for a fruitful line of research of his own, he grew discontented.
"Most of the research I studied was about American religion," he says of early graduate school. "It wasn't [my] passion, and it didn't feel like a calling, something I could pour my life into ."
One afternoon he attended a required lecture that brought his vocational drift to a sudden end. The lecture was by Kenneth A. Bollen, a UNC–Chapel Hill professor and one of the leading experts on measuring and tracking the spread of global democracy. Bollen remarked that he kept finding a significant statistical link between democracy and Protestantism. Someone needed to study the reason for the link, he said.
Woodberry sat forward in his seat and thought, That's me. I'm the one.
Soon he found himself descending into the UNC–Chape l Hill archives in search of old data on religion. "I found an atlas [from 1925] of every missionary station in the world, with tons of data," says Woodberry with glee. He found data on the "number of schools, teachers, printing presses, hospitals, and doctors, and it referred in turn to earlier atlases. I thought, Wow, this is so huge. This is amazing. This is why God made me. "