David Livingstone was born as the second son to Niel and Agnes Livingstone at Blantyre, Scotland, on March 19, 1813, into a devout Congregational family whose spiritual convictions caused them to maintain “family worship morning and evening, regular attendance at church and strict observance of the Sabbath”.
David worked in a cotton mill at age 10 and studied at night. He had a determined nature which stood him in good stead. Books greatly influenced him. Dick’s ‘Philosophy of the Future State’ led him to confess Christ and the examples of Henry Martyn, first modern missionary to Moslems and Charles Gutslaff, medical missionary to China, fixed his life purpose.
As a young medical student his first desire was to serve His Lord in China. But the infamous “Opium War” had closed the door to that land, and Livingstone turned his eyes to the fever-ridden jungles and arid sun-burned deserts of Africa. This course was influenced by Robert Moffat, pioneer Missionary to Africa.
Livingstone farewelled his father at age 27 and never saw him again.
Livingstone’s venture into Africa is an epic story of human endurance … the attack by the lion (“which shook me as a terrier would shake a rat!”); the tortuous crossing of the Kalahari Desert; the trek across Africa and discovery of “the smoke that thunders!” (Victoria Falls); the clash with Portuguese slave traders; the incredible saga of the Ma Robert, a paddle-steamer that had engines “not even fit to grind coffee in!”
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On arrival in Cape Town, Livingstone was offended by the European attitude toward the natives. He showed compassion and gave medical care and was convinced that treating them nobly would be much more effective than the abusive attitude taken by others.
In 1844 David married Moffat’s eldest daughter, Mary, and they enjoyed a happy marriage which produced six children. However their dedication to the lost meant that the couple sacrificially spent long periods apart.
Livingstone’s heart for the lost caused him to feel indignant that good men were sitting back at home splitting hairs about theology while the interior of Africa had not been penetrated. His letters home raised the appeal, “Who will penetrate the heart of Africa?”
Eventually he saw that he had to do it on his own. He took his family to Cape Town and tearfully shipped them back to England. Then he ventured north, finding opposition from the Dutch Boers who destroyed his dwelling and his goods. The depravity of the natives, with polygamy, incest and cannibalism was matched by the murderous brutality of the slave trade. These horrors shook Livingstone as much as the fevers and physical deprivations.
After 16 years in Africa Livingstone made his first visit back to England, arriving December 9, 1856. He received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society among many other honours. He was a hero, as one who had come back from the dead. However the London Missionary Society felt that his explorations were not true Missionary endeavour and so he withdrew from their membership and returned to Africa engaged with the Royal Geographical Society and as the Queen’s consul.
March 10, 1858, Dr and Mrs Livingstone sailed from England with their son Oswell. At Cape Town Mrs Livingstone became so ill that she had to remain behind and did not rejoin her husband for several years. The list of Livingstone’s discoveries is significant. He found sites for mission bases, preached, healed the sick and exposed the horrors of the slave trade.
When Mary died in 1862 the fearless Livingstone said, “For the first time in my life I want to die“. Then, after a final visit to England, Livingstone set off again, not to explore but to preach. In the heart of Africa this man of God “preached to thousands and tens of thousands of natives”.
In 1871 his health failed. “Feet sore from ulcers; teeth falling out through sickness; weary of body and sick of heart, he lay in his hut for eighty days, longing for home, now far beyond his reach. His sole comfort and help was his Bible, which he read through four times during this period, and upon the flyleaf of which he wrote these significant words: ‘No letters for three years. I have a sore longing to finish and go home, if God wills.’ Supplies and letters had been sent, but were intercepted by the Portuguese. The Royal Geographical Society had sent out a search, but found him not.
After Livingstone virtually disappeared in central Africa Henry Morton Stanley of the New York Herald set off in search for the missing missionary. That hard-bitten reporter testified after living with Livingstone: “For four months and four days I lived with Livingstone in the same house, or in the same boat, or in the same tent, and I never found a fault in him … Each day’s life with him added to my admiration for him. His gentleness never forsakes him; his hopefulness never forsakes him” (How I Found Livingstone, by H.M. Stanley).
Livingstone refused to return with Stanley, choosing to keep pressing forward. And so he died in Africa – on his knees beside his bed – at the furthest point of all his exploratory journeys, on 1 May, 1873.
A blog post about Henry Morton Stanley and his discovery of Dr Livingstone can be found at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/ministry/church-history/stanley-finds-livingstone
A blog post about Robert Moffat, who preceded and outlived Livingstone can be found at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/ministry/church-history/robert-moffat-opens-africa
Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com