Christian Missionary & Explorer: David Livingstone (1813-1873)

Even though David Livingstone had spent extensive time exploring Africa during his lifetime, it was not normal and certainly worrying when no one heard from the famous missionary-doctor-explorer for several months in 1871. Henry Stanley, a journalist for the New York Herald and explorer, set out to find Livingstone. He finally found the old man in October 1871 near central Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. The wearied journalist greeted the aged doctor with the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” With new supplies provided by Stanley, Livingstone was able to continue his efforts to find the source of the Nile.[i] He died on May 1, 1873, a result of years of poor health.[ii]

Livingstone’s grit and determination were apparent even in his boyhood. The second son of a poor family living in Blantyre near Glasgow, he began working a 14-hour day in a local cotton factory when he was only 10 years old. Determined to educate himself, he learned Latin from a grammar book propped up on his spinning jenny, and by means of attending a company school after an arduous day’s work, he went on to acquire a knowledge of geography, science, and other subjects which eventually enabled him to enter Glasgow University at the age of 23 to study Greek, medicine, and theology. Accepted in 1837 as a probationer by the London Missionary Society, Livingstone dreamed of becoming a missionary in China but was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of the Opium War. Instead, he received his call to Africa while attending a meeting addressed by another great missionary, Dr. Robert Moffat, who was speaking about his mission station at Kuruman in South Africa. When he heard Moffat say, “On a clear morning, I can see from the hills near Kuruman, the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been,” Livingstone knew what his life’s work would be.[iii]

From 1840 until his death in 1873, Livingstone traveled the length and breadth of Central Africa, penetrating and mapping its interior, preaching the gospel to tribesmen who had never been reached before, healing the sick, and showing the natives how to irrigate their fields and improve their agriculture. The London Missionary Society, then the British government, and finally private donors financed his travels.[iv] He explored over 11,000 miles of unknown country and was the first white man to cross Africa from west to east. During his many and varied journeys he recorded his observations of the geology, botany, and wildlife of the regions he visited, and most important of all, he discovered and exposed the dreadful cruelties of the Arab-dominated slave trade. As well as freeing slaves whenever he could, Livingstone’s published diaries and reports persuaded Britain to take action against the slave-trafficking Sultan of Zanzibar in the 1870s—though Livingstone himself did not live to see it.[v]

Perhaps his most telling legacy, however, is the untarnished memory of himself left in the minds and hearts of generations of ordinary Africans. Many towns, streets, and buildings were named after him, and although decolonization led to many name changes in Africa, most of those named after Livingstone have remained.[vi] Generations of missionaries and evangelists, white and black, have followed in his footsteps. To quote the testimony of an old African who saw Livingstone in his boyhood: “…there was love in his eyes, he was not fierce. He made a path through our land, and you his followers have come, God’s Light-bringers; and more come today.”[vii]

The Bible teaches that “perfect love casts out fear,” and surely this was the source of David Livingstone’s courage.

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Endnotes

[i] “David Livingstone (1817-1873),” BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/livingstone_david.shtml (accessed June 15, 2017).

[ii] The inscription on his tomb in London’s Westminster Abbey read, “For 30 years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelise the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, to abolish the desolating slave trade of Central Africa, where with his last words he wrote, ‘All I can add in my solitude, is, may Heaven’s rich blessing come down on every one, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.’” See Rob Mackenzie, David Livingstone: The Truth behind the Legend (England: Kingsway, 1993), 377.

[iii] R. J. Unstead, People in History: From Caractacus to Alexander Fleming (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1957) 446-447; and John Canning, ed., 100 Great Lives (London: Century, 1975), 488-489.

[iv] Livingstone was an official missionary in Africa with the London Missionary Society from 1840 to 1856. From 1858 to 1864, he carried out official explorations for the British government. He returned to African again from 1864 until his death, funded by private support.

[v] See Unstead, 455-457; Canning, 489; and Mackenzie, chapters 13 and 19.

[vi] Like Blantyre in Malawi, for instance. See Mackenzie, 16.

[vii] Ibid., 374.

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