Two hundred years ago, one of my greatest heroes was born. David Livingstone, born on the 19th March 1813 in the town of Blantyre, Lanarkshire, was the second son of Neil and Agnes Hunter, a God-fearing couple who worshipped with the Congregational church in Hamilton. David was to become the greatest of African missionaries, determined to open up the Dark Continent “for Commerce and Christianity”. His achievements were awesome, his sufferings extraordinary, and his devotion to Christ unquenchable. I recently re-read the short biography by James MacNair and was left in tears by the mixture of triumph and tragedy it records.
Childhood, Conversion, Commission
From childhood, Livingstone’s character was marked by extraordinary self-discipline. From the age of ten, he worked in a cotton-mill for twelve hours a day, tending the spinning jenny and tying up broken threads. After work he went on to attend night school for two hours, and then return home to study Latin grammar until midnight. During any short periods of leisure during his working day he would prop up the grammar book on the machine and use the opportunity to revise the lesson. He later claimed that it was this early discipline which prepared him for the intensity of his missionary labours: he found that he could continue to concentrate on whatever task he had in hand, “amid the dancing and singing savages” of African villages.
Converted around the age of twenty, he began almost immediately to prepare himself for missionary service: his original ambition was to go as a medical missionary to China. In 1836 he began to study at Anderson’s College in Glasgow; from 1838 to 1840 he studied at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School. It was after meeting Robert Moffatt, pioneering missionary in South Africa, that Livingstone resolved to devote his life to Africa. Moffatt spoke eloquently of the vast unexplored regions to the north, where he had glimpsed “the smoke of a thousand villages where the gospel had not been proclaimed”. Livingstone shyly approached Moffatt and asked him if he thought “he would do for Africa”. “Yes”, replied Moffatt, “if you are willing to leave occupied ground and push on to the North”. On November 20th 1840, Livingstone was commissioned by the London Missionary Society; a fortnight later he sailed for Africa.
He stepped ashore at Simon’s Bay, Cape Town on the 15th March 1841. And from that day until the day of his death, early in May 1873, he lived with one thought in mind – to serve Christ by serving Africa.
To boldly go
His original plan was to follow Moffatt’s example, settle in one place, establish there a missionary presence and a church. And for the first eleven years that continued to be his goal, although it was interrupted by long journeys of exploration. In later years, exploration became the overriding priority of his work, though always with the missionary motive in view. He was determined to blaze trails: to find places where other missionaries could survive and establish churches. And he believed that if Christian missionaries did not get there first, godless traders would bring corruption and ruin to the heart of Africa.
Already Arab and Portuguese merchants were reaching the interior, and trading guns for slaves. Stronger tribes, armed with muskets, would raid neighbouring villages, seize men, women and children, abandon the old and infirm to their fate, and sell their captives to the traders. Livingstone believed that the only way the slave trade would be countered was by legitimate commerce, conducted on Christian principles. In a famous speech, delivered to the University of Cambridge in 1857, he appealed to his hearers:
“I direct your attention to Africa. I know in a few years I shall be cut off in that country which is now open. Do not let it be shut again. I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for Commerce and Christianity. Do you carry out the work I have begun. I leave it with you!”
Some Christians questioned Livingstone’s obsession with exploration. He resigned from the London Missionary Society after some of the directors expressed doubts as to whether his work could really be described as missionary service. He became an employee of the British Government: “an agent of Her Majesty, for the promotion of Commerce and Civilisation with a view to the extinction of the slave trade”, and held office as “Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa”.
His last expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, and had as its official purpose, to find the source of the Nile. Yet, Livingstone never wavered in his certainty that this was the work by which he could best serve the Lord Jesus. On March 19th, 1873, six weeks before his death, he wrote in his journal,
“My birthday – My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All, I again dedicate my whole self to Thee. Accept me and grant O gracious Father, that ere this year is gone, I may finish my work. In Jesus name I ask it. Amen”.
And God did not refuse his prayer. He died on the 1st May at Ilala, near Lake Bangweulu in present day Zambia, kneeling at his bedside in prayer.
A life of failure?
There is a fashion among modern writers for debunking Victorian heroes and heroines, whether it’s Florence Nightingale, Lord Baden-Powell or Captain Scott. Recent biographers have taken delight in highlighting Livingstone’s weaknesses, faults and failures. James Morris sums him up: “largely a life of failure, personal and professional”. And indeed it is easy to pick holes in Livingstone’s character and achievements. Even his closest friends admitted that he was not an easy man to work with. One of them, Cotton Oswell wrote, “One trait in his character was to do exactly whatever he set his mind on…. It was not …imperiousness, but a quiet determination to carry out his views in his own way without feeling himself bound to give any reason or explanation further than he intended doing so and so”.
Livingstone could be self-willed, stubborn, cantankerous. When his mother-in-law, Mary Moffatt, protested against his plans to take his wife and young children on an uncharted journey across the Kalahari desert, he replied to her brusquely: “I have occasionally met with people who took upon themselves to act for me and have offered their thoughts with an emphatic ‘I think’ but I generally excuse them on the score of being a little soft headed in believing that they could think both for me and for themselves’ .”
Such rudeness was inexcusable. And it is not the only instance. Livingstone at times treated colleagues rashly and unfairly. MacNair comments ruefully,
“It must be admitted frankly that while Livingstone was supremely gifted in his management of Africans, he was not in his right place as a leader of Europeans”.
How should we react when we see such faults in our Christian heroes? Should we be surprised or shocked? Hardly. The Bible is very frank in revealing the sins and failings of the godliest men. Noah’s drunkenness; David’s adultery; Simon Peter’s boasting; James & John’s desire to call down fire on the unwelcoming Samaritans… These were all men who failed and fell – and grieved over their failures. Ungodly men do terrible things, and make excuses for themselves. Godly men recognise their own sins and weep over them. Readers of Livingstone’s journals will very quickly become aware of Livingstone’s faults, but will also see his humility. Again and again when robbed, abused or deserted by others, he found he could forgive them – because he saw his own faults so clearly.
“The recollection of my own shortcomings makes me charitable”. “Consciousness of my own defects makes me lenient”. “I had my own faults”.
If he could be harsh in his judgment on colleagues, he could be extraordinarily forebearing in his judgment on “natives” who failed him. “These Yao had few advantages as they were sold into slavery in early life, they were in the worst possible school for learning to be honest, and they behaved well for a long time…”
Of all the accusations that have been levelled against Livingstone, perhaps the one that is hardest to answer is that he neglected his wife and children. When he first applied to the London Missionary Society as a candidate for missionary service, he wrote in his application form that he was “under no obligation as to marriage; never made proposals of marriage; nor so conducted myself to any woman to cause her to suspect that I intended anything related to marriage”. He seems at that time to have believed that he could serve best in singleness. Yet few others agreed. He soon discovered that Africans had little respect for an unmarried man. And when he met Robert and Mary’s oldest daughter, also Mary, he was convinced that she was the ideal wife. He seems to have been genuinely in love – and that love endured down through the years.
No-one can criticise Livingstone for choosing marriage. But his single-minded passion for exploration cost his wife dearly. Mary and the children came close to death again and again. David’s mother-in-law was right to caution him against taking the family across the Kalahari. On that journey the water tank leaked. For four days the family was without water. MacNair tells the story: “The poor children, their tongues parched, and their lips cracked, whimpered all day long. The possibility of their all perishing in this horrible place became near and terrible”. Livingstone wrote,
“It would have been a relief to me to have been reproached with being the entire cause of the catastrophe, but not a syllable of upbraiding was uttered by their mother though the tearful eye told of the agony within. On the afternoon of the fifth day to our inexpressible relief some of the men returned with a supply, only a little, but it saved our lives…”
The children were afflicted not only by thirst but by mosquito bites. They were “covered with their marks so that not an inch of whole skin could be found on their tender little bodies”.
To drag wife and children on yet more demanding and dangerous journeys into unknown territory was impossible. Should Livingstone then have abandoned his dreams of exploration and settled with his wife and children on a mission station? To him that was unthinkable. But the only other alternative was to leave the family for years on end. In 1852, Mary and four children returned to England. They would not see David for four long years.
And for Mary they were desperately unhappy years. “A daughter-in-law arrives tense and nervous, worn out after a long sea-voyage, in charge of four boisterous children she can barely control; she is plain, lacks charm, speaks in an unfamiliar accent… she shivers all the time, and complains of the cold, though it is only autumn; she appears to have no money at all and contributes nothing to the household; and – worst of all – she drinks. Only a little brandy to steady her nerves , such as she has been used to since her mother recommended it, and partook of herself on sea-voyages to settle the stomach, but none the less, this counted as drinking….” (Margaret Forster, Good Wives pp 53).
“… a young unhappy wife in a strange environment struggling to look after four confused children and missing her husband desperately… a house so cold she is never warm and so cramped the children whine constantly to go out but can’t, because outside it is freezing and raining, and they haven’t clothing; all her attempts to be pleasant misunderstood and disappointment evident on every face; no husband to negotiate on her behalf and stand up for her. No wonder she turned to drink.” (Forster pp 54).
David returned to England and rejoined the family in December 1856. But by 1858 he was itching to return to Africa. Mary and the youngest son accompanied him. But her ill-health meant that they soon parted company. She and the child stayed with her parents the Moffatts while David set off on his most demanding expedition yet – to explore the Zambesi. Mary was able to join the expedition in January 1862. She and David were together only for three months. On the 27th April she died of malaria. She was forty-one years old.
Devotion and Duty
On the face of it, the story of Livingstone’s marriage is tragic. He has been indicted by his biographers for neglecting and abandoning his wife, and condemning his children to a life virtually as orphans. Too often they picture him as a loveless husband and father. But again, the records show another side to the story. Livingstone, heart-broken by his wife’s death, wrote in his diary,
“In our intercourse in private, there was more than would be thought by some as a decorous amount of merriment and play. I said to her a few days before her fatal illness, ‘We old bodies ought to be more sober and not to play so much’. ‘Oh no’ she said. ‘You must always be playful, as you always have been. I would not like you to be grave as some folk I have seen…’ ”.
He wrote to his eleven year old son,
“With many tears running down my cheeks, I have to tell you that your dearly beloved mamma died last night about seven o’clock. I was with her night and day and trust she was tended by the all-powerful arms… She loved you dearly and often spoke of you and all the family, especially little baby. You must think of her now as beckoning you from heaven…”
Was Livingstone right to continue his travelling – even after his wife’s death – and leave the children to the care of others? I don’t know. I know many other missionaries made the same decision. And I know Livingstone did not make it lightly. Many times he reproached himself that in the early years of his missionary service he did not spend more time with the children. “Oh why did I not play more with my children in the Kolobeng days? Why was I so busy that I had no time for my bairns. Now I have none to play with…”. And when he left them to continue his travels, he wrote, “To orphanise my children will be like tearing out my bowels. For they will forget me…”
It is easy to question Livingstone’s judgment. But one thing is unquestionable: his utter devotion to Christ. For him, in every situation, the great question was simply, what is my duty to Christ? He was determined that nothing would stand in the way of fulfilling that duty. Family, friends, comforts…nothing must interfere with the work he believed Christ had given him to do. He wrote to Mary,
“How I miss you now, and the dear children. My heart yearns incessantly over you. How many thoughts of the past crowd into my mind. You have been a great blessing to me. I see no face that can be compared with the sunburnt one that has so often greeted me with kind looks. My dearest, I loved you when I married you and the longer I lived with you, I loved you the better. Let us do our duty to Christ and He will bring us through the world with honour and usefulness…”
And most famously, he wrote,
“I place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of Christ. If anything will advance the interests of the kingdom, it shall be given away or kept, only as by giving or keeping it I shall promote the glory of Him to whom I owe all my hopes in time and eternity”.
The triumph of faith
I quoted above James Morris’s verdict on Livingstone: “largely a life of failure”. As a missionary, an explorer, an ambassador for commerce and civilisation, an opponent of the slave trade, Livingstone has been criticised and his achievements belittled. As far as is known, as a missionary, he baptised only one convert, Sechele, a chief of the Kwêna tribe (and Livingstone himself had doubts about the reality of Sechele’s profession). As an explorer, his two greatest ventures both failed, the Zambesi expedition and his quest for the source of the Nile. His dreams for the expansion of commerce and civilisation were largely frustrated. His attempts to find a suitable home for a great British colony in the heart of Africa foundered. His attempts to combat the slave-trade failed: he himself feared that by opening up routes into the interior of the Continent, he had actually made the work of the slavers easier.
And yet in one respect Livingstone did not fail. Amid all disappointments, despite loneliness, illness, pain, frustration, Livingstone’s faith did not fail. Livingstone’s journals are one long testimony to the fact that real faith, God-given faith, is indestructible, even though refined by fire. Let me give you just one example.
Livingstone is about to cross the Loangwa River. He is aware that a band of hostile warriors plans to attack him and his party as they cross. He writes, conscious that this could be his last hour. “A guilty weak and helpless worm, into thine arms I fall”. He prays for his family. “They are thine: they are in the best of hands. I cast myself and all my cares down at Thy feet.” The tone is sad and dejected. But a few hours later, he picks up his pen again.
“Evening. Felt much turmoil of spirit in view of having all my plans for the welfare of this region and teeming population knocked on the head by savages tomorrow. But I read that Jesus came and said, ‘All power is given unto me in Heaven and in Earth. Go you therefore and teach all nations and Lo I am with you always even unto the end of the world’. It is the word of a gentleman of the most sacred and strictest honour and there’s an end on’t. I will not cross furtively by night as intended. It would appear as flight and should such a man as I flee? Nay verily. I shall take observation for my Lat. and Long. tonight thou they may be my last. I am quite calm now. Thank God.”
“Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith.” (1 John 5:4).
The story of David Livingstone is a story of victorious faith. And it is a faith that has been abundantly vindicated. Livingstone may have seen few of his hopes fulfilled or prayers answered in his lifetime. But every gospel church that exists across Africa today is testimony to God’s faithfulness to His servant. Livingstone’s heroic life and lonely death inspired countless young men and women to follow the paths he had blazed and preach the gospel across Africa. Seed that Livingstone sowed is still being reaped today, two hundred years on.
Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord! David Livingstone will hear those words on the Last Day. Will I? Will you?