I am a missionary, heart and soul. God had an only Son, and He was a missionary and a physician. A poor, poor imitation of Him I am, or wish to be. In this service I hope to live; in it I wish to die.
David Livingstone (1813-1873)
At 10 years old, David Livingstone sat at a busy spinning jenny in Blantyre, Scotland, from six in the morning until eight at night, undoubtedly never suspecting that one day a figure as well respected as Florence Nightingale would describe him as the "greatest man of his generation" (110).
Propped up before him was a Latin grammar. From time to time he was able to read for almost a minute. In this way he did his homework and then attended classes from eight to ten pm. By the age of 16 he was familiar with Virgil and Horace, and many of the classical authors, as well as works on travel and science.
Later, he would recall, "I thus kept up a pretty constant study, undisturbed by the roar of the machinery. To this part of my education I owe my power of completely abstracting my mind from surrounding noise, so as to read and write with perfect comfort amidst the play of children or the dancing and songs of savages" (9).
He committed his life to Christ when he was 20 years old. He did not merely apprehend the truth, it took hold of him. He wrote, "The fullness with which the pardon of all our guilt is offered in God's book drew forth feelings of affectionate love to Him who bought us with His blood, which in some small measure has influenced by conduct ever since" (9). He later made a resolution that, "as the salvation of men ought to be the chief aim of every Christian, he would give to the cause of missions all that he could earn beyond what was required for his subsistence" (11).
Call to Missions
At first, Livingstone was interested in China. He was challenged for Africa by the veteran missionary, Robert Moffatt, who spoke of seeing in the mist of the morning the smoke from fires of a 100 villages where the gospel had never been preached. After completing studies in medicine and theology he was accepted by the London Missionary Society for service in South Africa.
Upon his arrival he separated himself from the missionary community to immerse himself for six months in the habits, way of thinking, the laws and the languages of the Bakwains, a native tribe. Gaining facility in the language he preached on the great themes of the Love of Jesus, the Fatherhood of God, the Resurrection, and the Final Judgment.
His longing was to see men and women genuinely converted, to give their lives to Christ, then illustrate their commitment through change in character. He wrote his father, "I know that the Gospel is the power of God—the great means which He employs for the regeneration of our ruined world" (32). Though he found his work difficult, his source of encouragement was his confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit and the example of Jesus "who did more for us than anyone else" (32).
About this time he fell in love with Mary Moffatt, the daughter of the man whose impassioned addresses had challenged him for Africa. They had several children and together established a mission station where they enjoyed a happy and peaceful time together. They lived and shared the gospel, established a school, and taught their own children.
The Vision Grows
But Livingstone was not content with his pioneering efforts among the Bakwains. He longed to reach other communities with the gospel, and thus began to travel northward. He was concerned with the approach of European colonizers, especially the Boers, who were invading the lands of native peoples and establishing their large farms and ranches. He was also bothered by the scourge of malaria and the lack of rain. He began to search for a suitable place to establish a permanent station. With this in mind he crossed the Kalahari Desert several times, convinced that the Boers would never be able to take their cattle over this inhospitable terrain.
The rigors of travel with several children were increasingly difficult for Mary who continued to bear children. Livingstone finally decided to send the family to England where they could establish a home and organize the youngsters' education. He wouldn't see them for four years.
North of the Kalahari, he discovered the mighty Zambezi River, followed it westward to its source, then across the Continental Divide, and on to the Atlantic Ocean. He then continued on down the Zambezi to the Indian Ocean. In the process he became the first white man to gaze upon what the Africans called "smoke that thunders," which he named Victoria Falls. In these four years he had traveled 5,000 miles, the first European to traverse Africa from one coast to the other. In his journeys he had formed a deep friendship with two African helpers, Chuma and Susi, who loved him as a brother. He had also come face to face with chattel slavery, what he would call "the open sore of the world" (99).
Sharing the Vision Back Home
When he returned to England he was lionized, welcomed to the society of the best and most eminent in the land, and became the recipient of innumerable honors and distinctions. He was referred to as "traveler, geographer, zoologist, astronomer, missionary, physician, and mercantile director" (56, 57). Apart from the lecture circuit, he spent most of the year writing up his experiences in a book entitled Missionary Travels. Its sale was prodigious and enabled him to set up a fund for the education of his children and a resource with which to underwrite future travels.
During an address at Cambridge University, he summed up his vision:
If you knew the satisfaction of performing a duty as well as the gratitude to God which the missionary must always feel in being chosen for so noble and sacred a calling, you would have no hesitation in embracing it. For my own part I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office.
People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?… Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father's throne on high to give Himself for us…(57).
Back to Africa
Livingstone planned to return with his family, but Mary's ill health made this inadvisable. He returned alone, full of plans for his discoveries. He was convinced that his travels, documented with his carefully drawn maps and careful descriptions of the flora and fauna, would open the eyes of the world to this vast country as well as impressing upon them the evils of the slave trade.
He paid a tremendous cost: early on he had been attacked by a wounded lion that left an arm permanently maimed; though many Africans said he was the kindest European they had ever met, he and his party were attacked by warring tribes; he was betrayed by his workers who stole his supplies; the slave traders hated him; frequent fevers ravaged his body; and often his supplies were so depleted that he nearly starved to death. He also suffered greatly the separation from his family, especially his dear Mary.
Before she unexpectedly contracted fever and died, Mary was able to join her husband for three happy months together. When she passed, he wrote:
It is the first heavy stroke I have suffered, and quite takes away my strength. I wept over her who well deserved many tears. I loved her when I married her, and the longer I lived with her I loved her the more… Oh, my Mary, my Mary; how often we have longed for a quiet home since you and I were cast adrift at Kolobeng. Surely the removal by a kind Father who knoweth our frame means that He rewarded you by taking you to the best home, the eternal one in the heavens…For the first time in my life I feel willing to die (67).
On one of his trips, ill and exhausted, providentially—and totally unexpectedly—he was found by the Englishman Henry Morton Stanley who had been sent out by an American newspaper publisher to find him and write up his adventures. Stanley nursed him back to health and traveled with him for four months. Later Stanley would give a description of Livingtone's character.
I grant he is not an angel; but approaches to that being as near as the nature of a living man will allow. His gentleness never forsakes him; his hopefulness never deserts him. No harassing anxieties, distraction of mind, long separation from home and kindred, can make him complain. He thinks "all will come out right at last;" he has such faith in the goodness of Providence…
His religion is not of the theoretical kind, but it is a constant, earnest, sincere practice… In him religion exhibits its loveliest features: it governs his conduct, not only toward his servants, but toward the natives…and all who come in contact with him… From being thwarted and hated in every possible way by the Arabs and the half-castes…through his uniform kindness and mild, pleasant temper, [he] won all hearts (122).
Stanley added that he had left on his African adventure "the biggest atheist in London," but through working and living with Livingstone came to confess faith in Christ, not so much through the missionary's preaching as by the quality of his life.
When Stanley returned to England, Livingstone continued all alone, searching for the source of the Nile. But his weakened body had given its best. One morning his dear friends Chuma and Susi found him in his tent, kneeling by his bed in an attitude of prayer; but his soul had departed on its last journey.
The two men buried his heart beneath a tree and then carried his embalmed body, his journals, and his papers 3,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean where it was taken to England. His body was buried in Westminster Abbey following an impressive funeral attended by throngs of people which included Stanley, and the aged Robert Moffatt, his mentor and father-in-law.
Livingstone's life and work struck a mortal blow to the African slave trade as Europeans awoke to its horrors. Stanley returned to continue to the work of exploring the continent. Mission societies began to follow in the footsteps of these pioneers to plant the Church where Livingstone had first preached the gospel on his lonely travels.
Pennington, Piers. The Great Explorers. London: Aldus, 1979.
Worcester, Jr. Mrs. J.H. David Livingstone. Chicago: Moody, n.d. (Mrs. Worcester notes that much of her material was drawn from Blaikie's "Personal Life of David Livingstone," and from Livingstone's three books, "Missionary Travels in South Africa", "The Zambesi and its Tributaries," and "The Last Journals." She quotes liberally from his letters and journals.) Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this source for which I only give the page numbers.