David Livingstone :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

David Livingstone

There was probably no one event in 1997 that so captivated the attention of the world as did the death and royal funeral of Princess Diana. All the pomp and ceremony of the British throne was demonstrated.  Westminster Abbey has been the place of many a funeral over the centuries, but none was more lavish than that of Princess Diana.

However, it is interesting that as the royal cortège proceeded down the central nave of the cathedral, it made a detour. On entrance into the main nave of the cathedral, the first grave is that of the British unknown soldier.  As one proceeds up this long central nave, the next grave that is encountered as you proceed into the cathedral is marked by a black marble slab in the very center of the aisle.  It was around these two graves that the cortège detoured.  The second marked the final resting place of a very humble Scotsman whose remains had been interred there 123 years earlier.

David Livingstone was born March 19, 1813, in Blantyre, Scotland.  His paternal grandfather had come from the Island of Ulva in the Hebrides.  His parents, Neil and Agnes Livingstone, were poor and pious believers.  His father was of Highland stock; his mother came from a long line of Covenanters.  Livingstone had the courage of a Highlander and the reverent devotion of a Covenanter.

His father was an itinerant tea merchant-a very godly man, a strict teetotaler, a Sunday school teacher, an ardent member of a missionary society, and a promoter of prayer meetings.  While traveling from village to village as a tea merchant, he distributed Gospel tracts and other Christian literature and, in various other ways, showed that he had a true missionary spirit.

David Livingstone had a very devout mother in the home.  He was the second of seven children born to Neil and Agnes Livingstone; and it was in this godly but very poor home that Livingstone grew up.  It was really only one, not very large, room.  I've had the privilege of visiting there.  He often referred to his father's conducting family devotions and of his father's praying not only for the family but also for missionaries around the world.  David had little opportunity for education and, at the age of 10, went to work in the cotton mill of Blantyre as a piecer.  With part of his first week's pay, he bought a Latin grammar and, as he worked, propped the Latin book on a jenny and caught a moment of study here and there.  He, in this fashion, learned the rudiments of the Latin grammar.  He worked from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., with brief periods for meals, and then the mill supplied a tutor for the mill children from 8 to 10 p.m.

Livingstone was insatiable as far as his desire to learn was concerned; and many a night at midnight or later, his mother would snuff out the candle, telling him to go to bed since a mill whistle would blow at 5:00 in the morning.  This was his life until his late teens, at which time he came to know Christ as Savior and Lord and felt the call to further service.

Through some of his readings, he had come under the influence of the German missionary Charles Gutzlaff and had been challenged by that great scholar and missionary to China to meet the needs of the people of the great empire of China.  Therefore, he pursued the study of medicine at Glasgow University, located 7 or 8 miles from his home in Blantyre.  For the next number of years, he studied during the winter months and worked in the mills during the summer to earn money for continuing his education.  In this fashion, he studied both medicine and theology.

He volunteered to the London Missionary Society for service in China, but at that time the door was closed because of the opium wars.  The missionary society encouraged him to go to the West Indies; but it was at this juncture of his life that he heard the renowned Dr. Robert Moffat, who was back in England on his only furlough during 52 years of service in South Africa.  Among other things, Moffat said that "Of a morning he could stand at his mission station at Kuruman and, looking to the north, see the smoke of the cook fires of a thousand villages without Christ."  This challenged Livingstone, and subsequently when speaking with Moffat, he asked if he would be suitable for missionary service in South Africa.  Moffat said that he would and that he should go north to those unreached tribespeople.

The London Missionary Society accepted him as a volunteer to South Africa, and he left his home for South Africa in December of 1840. The outgoing voyage to Cape Town took three months, during which time he was not idle but took every advantage to learn any profitable information.  He spent many an hour on the bridge of the sailing vessel with the captain of the ship, who taught him the use of the sextant, compass, and watch to determine latitude and longitude reading.  He became extremely skilled in making these determinations; and throughout his long years of missionary service in Africa, on every day that was at all feasible, made these determinations and recorded them in his journal.  Even today cartographers are amazed at the accuracy of his geographical notations.

Upon arrival in Cape Town, he spent about a month making preparations for his first long 700-mile trek to Kuruman.  He was distressed to see so many missionaries concentrated in the city, competing one with the other and evidencing so little desire to reach out to the unreached peoples of South Africa.

He took to African travel very well.  He likened it to one prolonged picnic as, with ox-cart and lumbering oxen, he traveled north to Kuruman.  Here, likewise, he was disappointed with the bickering between the missionaries and soon set off into the villages and spent many a month living with the nationals.  He saw that it was going to be necessary for him to learn the language, culture, and thought patterns of the Africans by living with them; and these he learned as few men have before or since.

The people among whom he lived were cattle people, and lions were devastating their herds.  He was the only one in that area who had a gun and, on one occasion, was entreated to go out on a lion hunt.  In the process, he was attacked by one of these great beasts that took him by his left arm, and by his own testimony, he was like a rat shaken by a terrier—deep wounds penetrating into his left upper arm and crushing the bone in multiple places.

He was severely injured and was taken back to Kuruman for recovery. 

As has been the case on many occasions, nurse and patient fell in love.  In this case, the nurse was Mary Moffat, the oldest daughter of Robert and Mary Moffat.  They eventually married, and she mothered his seven children.  Although they spent many years separated, there was a very warm relationship between them; and he loved his wife and children dearly.  I have two volumes of family letters in which are included letters written by David to his wife Mary-some of the most beautiful love letters you would ever want to read. 

In those early years, they founded two mission stations north of Kuruman.  The last was at a place now located in the country of Botswana called Kolobeng.  It was from this place that he would strike out north and east and west with his family in a covered wagon drawn by oxen to search out and evangelize these thousands of villages where Christ had never been preached.  He soon learned that this was no life for a woman with small children, who oftentimes were ill due to the conditions under which they were living.  Reluctantly, he sent his family back to England. 

He made many outstanding geographical discoveries but said repeatedly in his writings that his primary ministry was that of preaching salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ. 

I had the privilege of crossing the path of Livingstone on one occasion while visiting missionaries in the extreme southwest of Tanzania.  On their property, there was a large tree referred to as the "Livingstone Tree;" for when Livingstone was exploring and traveling in that area, he camped for a number of weeks under the shade of this great tree.  Local villagers, through oral tradition, refer to him as a very kind, compassionate man who ministered to their physical and spiritual needs.

We will come forward many years in the life and ministry of Livingstone to the early 1870's.  Livingstone had been "lost" to the outside world.  No fellow countryman had seen or heard of him in more than three years.  Many rumors had been circulated that he had died of tropical disease or had been murdered by hostile tribes people or, even more likely, by the Arab slave traders whose vile trade he had been fighting.

Lost?  No.  He knew exactly where he was and why he was there.  He was in the very heart of Africa. For what purpose?

1.     to preach Jesus Christ,

2.     to open the way so that others could follow him in missionary endeavor, and

3.     to wield a death blow to the terrible slave trade.

Henry Stanley was sent out by Mr. Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, to find Livingstone  He met with him in the small village of Ujiji on the east shores of Lake Tanganyika on November 10, 1871.  During the four months  spent in Livingstone's company, Stanley came to realize that he was the one lost; and, through the witness of the life and lips of Livingtone, he found the Savior.  Listen to Stanley's testimony:   

"For four months and four days, I lived with him in the same hut, or the same boat, or the same tent; and I never found a fault in him.  I went to Africa as prejudiced against religion as the worst infidel in London.  To a reporter like myself, who had only to deal with wars, mass meetings, and political gatherings, sentimental matters were quite out of my province. But there came to me a long time of reflection.  I was out there away from the worldly world.  I saw this solitary old man there, and I asked myself, ‘Why does he stop here?  What is it that inspires him?'  For months after we met I found myself listening to him, wondering at the old man carrying out the words, ‘leave all and follow me.'  But little by little, seeing his piety, his gentleness, his zeal, his earnestness, and how he went quietly about his business, I was converted by him, although he had not tried to do it."

Stanley urged Livingstone to return to England with him.  Had he done so, it would have been to a hero's welcome and to a reunion with his children (his wife had already died and had been buried in a lonely grave on the banks of the great Zambesi River); but Livingstone said, "Oh, when will Christ's holy Gospel enter into this dark region?"  The poignancy of his despair seems as fresh today as when it was expressed over 130 years ago, but his task was not finished.  In his journal he wrote, "Nothing earthly will make me give up my work in despair.  I encourage myself in the Lord, my God, and go forward.  I'll not swerve one hair's breadth from my work while life is spared." 

After this companionship with Henry, Livingstone, who in the past preferred to be alone, was thoroughly homesick.  The fifth day after Stanley's departure was his 59th birthday, and he made this entry in his journal:

"19th March, 1872. Birthday.  Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me.  Lay any burden on me, only sustain me. Sever any ties save the tie that binds me to Thy heart.  My Jesus, my King, my life, my all, I again dedicate my whole self to Thee."

I have often been blessed and challenged by that quotation and frequently have used it as I have given missionary challenges.  A few years ago, after the passing of my wife, I downsized from a large home into a much smaller facility.  My daughters, helping me to execute this move, found a cross-stitch that my wife had apparently been working on for quite some time, no doubt intending to give it to me as a gift.  It was this very statement in beautifully executed cross-stitch.  There was one small portion of the margin that was incomplete, and one of my daughters finished and framed it and presented it to me.  It is a cherished possession in my office at home.

David Livingstone struggled on for more than a year until he became so weakened that he had to be carried in a crude hammock because he was, in  his own words, "reduced to a mere ruckle of bones."

Finally, exhausted and with his body wracked with pain, he was laid on a rough cot in a thatched hut in a small village of Ilala.  His voice so weak his African companions could hardly hear him.  On a box beside that cot was placed a candle, his Bible, his watch, and some medicine.  A little later, he asked Susi, his most faithful African companion, to boil some water, which he did.  "All right, you can go now" were the last words heard by human ears from the lips of David Livingstone.

What a painful struggle it must have been to lift his emaciated, pain-wracked frame from that cot to kneel—his last breath a prayer to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It was May 1, 1873.  He was 60 years old.  I have outlived him by 25 years.  How I would have liked to have knelt beside him!  What was his heart cry?  His last prayer?  I dare say it was not for himself but for the soul of Africa.  Lost?  In Bangweolo swamps?  No!  He knew where he was and so did God for Whom he lived and died.

What was to be done?  Susi, Chuma, and Jacob Wainwright, along with Chief Chitambo held counsel. These three men agreed that the heart of Livingstone should be buried in Africa, the land to which he gave his life. He gave everything to share the Good News of the redeeming grace of God to all the peoples of that great continent.  They were aware that most of the pagan tribes between Ilala and the coast were very much afraid of dead bodies and, in all probability, would never allow the corpse to be transported through their territory.  They concluded that they must first of all mummify (embalm) the body.  This they did by opening the body and removing the heart and other internal organs, which were placed in a metal box and buried under a large spreading tree in the village of Ilala.  The body was then liberally salted  and placed in the bright desiccating sunlight of the African tropics to help preserve the body.  This process lasted for approximately a month.  Then they bound up the body making it look like trade goods of some kind.  They bent the legs to shorten the body and make it look less like the object being borne was indeed the remains of a dead person.  It was wrapped in mats and sailcloth.  Then in one of the marvels of missionary history, his body was carried by his faithful African companions for more than 1500 miles, detouring around hostile tribes people, until finally they reached the Indian Ocean.  This was a trek of nine months. 

They were able to transfer their bundle across to Zanzibar where it was delivered to the British Consul, Dr. Kirk.  Dr. Kirk had been a companion of Livingstone's on his Zambezi exploration and knew that his left arm had been mauled by a lion many years earlier and had never healed properly.  That left arm that had a false joint due to the lack of healing of the mangled bone identified the body.  It was then transported to England and laid out on a table at the Royal Geographical Society in London where it was prepared for burial. 

The official funeral was held at the majestic Westminster Abbey April 18, 1847, almost a year after his death.  His father-in-law, Dr. Robert Moffatt, now an aged man, led the cortege into the main nave of that majestic cathedral.  The final resting place of his remains is just inside the massive doors that enter into the main central nave of that great cathedral.  The first tomb—that of the British Unknown Soldier—has a very ornate tombstone.  As one proceeds up the nave, the next grave is that of Livingstone. It is marked by a plain flat black granite slab, engraved with some biographical information: dates of birth and death and something of his great exploits in Africa.  Along the edge of that gravestone on one side is engraved John 10:16, "Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:  them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice  . . . ."  On the other side in Latin (which has been translated as follows) is inscribed, "So great is my love of truth that there is nothing I would rather know than the source of the River Nile which lay hid for so many centuries."  Livingstone's funeral was honored by a very large congregation, including many of the great men and women of the British Empire.

By his life and death, Livingstone challenged the living church to send out some of their choice youth to carry on where he left off—not only in Africa but also to the whole world. Where are those other sheep?  On every continent.  Who will go and bring them to the Good Shepherd?

We all need these great heroes of the faith after whom we can model our lives.  Who is your hero or heroine?  Whom do you build up before your children, grandchildren?

Is it some sports figure? Their accomplishments are so fleeting.

Some political personage? They can be toppled so easily.

Or perhaps some wealthy business person? Money can be lost so quickly.

I praise God that my widowed mother held up great missionaries of the past as examples for me.  My heroine was Mary Slessor; my hero, David Livingstone.  Who are your heroes?


JAD 11/11/05