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missionary biographies

David Livingstone, 1813-1873

by J. Theodore Mueller

Went to Africa in 1840

David LivingstoneOf all the great missionary heroes of Africa, David Livingstone is perhaps the best known. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the last resting place of Britain's greatest sons, with the highest honors. His memorial tablet bears the following inscription: "Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests DAVID LIVINGSTONE, missionary, traveller, philanthropist. Born March 19, 1813, at Blantyre, Lanarkshire. Died May 1, 1873, at Chitambo's village, Ulala. For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize 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."' In this inspiring epitaph is condensed the whole life work of the greatest of African explorers. In the present brief biographical sketch we, too, must condense the many interesting facts and incidents of his rich and fruitful life, for if we were to relate everything there is to be said, even the entire volume could not contain the exceeding wealth of worthwhile material.

Livingstone went to Africa in obedience to Moffat's stirring appeal for missionaries, and though the last years of his life were given largely to exploration, he always regarded himself as a missionary. All he planned and all he did was to open the Dark Continent to the Christian religion; and in this he succeeded since he was the great pathfinder for hundreds of missionaries that were attracted to Africa by his great work.

David Livingstone was born at Blantyre, Scotland, on March 19, 1813. The great Napoleonic wars were just coming to an end, and since England was victorious over France, the country had time for more worthy pursuits. But the wars of Napoleon left Europe in great poverty and this was felt even in remote Scotland. Livingstone's parents were very poor, his father being an itinerant tea dealer who earned barely enough to support his family. But he was a pious man, and moved by religious zeal, spent his leisure hours in selling Bibles and Christian literature. David's mother was a woman whose entire life was singularly passed in the fear of the Lord. Because of her deep faith she was always in good spirits, gentle and patient, although the little two-room house in Blantyre was overcrowded by the family of seven. As soon as David was old enough, he had to contribute to the support of the family, and at the age of ten was sent to a cotton mill, where he worked from six o'clock in the morning until eight in the evening. Then after a frugal meal, the industrious boy would rush off to pursue his studies at an evening school, which was open from eight to ten o'clock. On returning home he usually sat at his desk until midnight when his mother would come into his room, take away his books and send him to bed.

Even at this early point in his career it was his ambition to become a missionary in China, and had not the good Lord directed the path differently he would have proceeded to China as a medical missionary, equipping and supporting himself at his own expense. But when he had completed his studies, he was induced to apply to the London Missionary Society, since England's war with China had closed that door. After having heard one of Moffat's impelling appeals he said to himself: "What's the use of my waiting for the end of this abominable opium war? I will apply for service at once in Africa." And to Africa he went, leaving England on December 8, 1840. The voyage occupied three months, and during that time he diligently studied navigation and perfected himself in the use of the quadrant and other instruments by which to determine location in unknown regions. This knowledge signally helped him on the great exploration ventures in unknown Central Africa which lay ahead of him.

From Cape Town Livingstone at once proceeded to Kuruman, the famous mission station of Robert Moffat, six hundred miles north of Cape Town. Here he recalled the stirring words of that great pioneer-missionary:

"Many a morning have I stood on the porch of my house, and looking northward, have seen the smoke arise from villages that have never heard of Jesus Christ. I have seen, at different times, the smoke of a thousand villages—villages whose people are without Christ, without God, and without hope in the world."

"The smoke of a thousand villages without Christ!" Livingstone could never forget these words, and when Robert Moffat had returned to Kuruman, he at once told him of his plan to proceed north to "the thousand villages without Christ." So in 1843 he went on his journey, selecting for his mission field "the beautiful valley of Mabotsa." Here, in the course of his missionary travels he was attacked by a wounded lion, and had it not been for the bold interference of his native teacher, Mebalwe, he would have lost his life. But though his life was spared, his left arm was shattered above the elbow, producing a false joint, and he remained a cripple to the end of his life, with one arm so maimed that it was painful for him to lift up a gun or raise his hand to his head.

His work at Mabotsa was fairly successful, but illness compelled him to return to Kuruman, where, after his recovery, he married Mary Moffat, who gladly followed him to Mabotsa. Here they spent the first happy year of their married life. In 1846, the young couple moved to the kraal of Sechele, the chief of the Bakwains, and at his town, Kolobeng, they remained till 1852, when Livingstone set out on his great journey across Africa. It was the only home of his own he ever knew, and twenty years later, when his wife had been taken from him, he recalled the happy hours they had spent together and regretted the fact that he had not found more time to play with his children. But, as he says: "Usually I was so tired at night that I had no fun left in me."

The chief of the Bakwains, Sechele, on first hearing the Gospel of Christ, was much affected and asked Livingstone:

"How is it that your forefathers did not send to my forefathers news of these things? Why did you keep the good message all to yourselves?"

He soon became an eager student of the Bible and in 1858 accepted the Christian faith. The spirit in which Livingstone worked among the natives, is evident from a letter which, in 1848, he sent to his father. In it he writes:

"For a long time I felt much depressed after preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ to apparently insensible hearts, but now I like to dwell on the love of the great Mediator, for it always warms my own heart, and I know that the Gospel is the power of God, the great means that He employs for the regeneration of our ruined world."

To this conviction he held to the last, and always remained a preacher of the Gospel of Christ.

Since the country in which the Bakwains lived was barren and thinly populated, Sechele conceived the idea of moving his tribe north beyond the Great Kalahari Desert, where rumor reported fertile lands and large rivers with plenty of pasture for the cattle. After two unsuccessful attempts Livingstone, in 1851, finally reached the Zambezi, where he received a hearty welcome by Sebituane, the chief of the Basutos, who had left their old home in the south many years before and had conquered the Barotsi, the inhabitants of the Zambezi Valley, and imposed upon them their own language...

The valley of the Zambezi is about fifteen hundred miles north of Cape Town, and in Sebituane's country Livingstone found himself pretty well near the heart of Africa, the unexplored interior, which he was to make known to the world by his great travels. Today, the railroad connects Cape Town with Alexandria and every part of the country is known, but before Livingstone explored the interior it was believed that it was a huge desert, and that the Kalahari was merely a continuation of the Sahara. How thoroughly Livingstone meant to place his entire work of exploration in the service of Christian missions is clear from a statement he made in 1850. He said:

"When we burst through the barrier on the north, it appeared very plain that no mission could be successful there, unless we could get a well watered country having a passage to the sea on either the east or west coast."

Another reason why Livingstone turned to the exploration of Central Africa was the hostility of the Boers, who were determined to break the chain of English missions, forbade the Bechuanas to permit missionaries in their country, and threatened to attack any tribe that received a native teacher. Livingstone writes: "The Boers have resolved to shut up the interior, and I have determined to open it. We shall see who possesses the most resolution—they or I."

Livingstone knew that his explorations would forever break up his home, and so he returned to Kolobeng, took his family to Cape Town, where Mrs. Livingstone embarked for Scotland with her four children, and secured the supplies for so extended a journey as he contemplated. Afterwards he wrote to his wife:

"How I miss you now, and the dear children! My heart yearns incessantly over you. You have been a great blessing to me. Let us do our duty to our Saviour, and we shall meet again. Gather the children round you and kiss them for me. Tell them I have left them for the love of Jesus, and they must love Him, too."

In August, 1852, Livingstone was back in Kuruman, where he was detained by the breaking of a wagon-wheel. This was indeed fortunate, for the Boers, under Pretorius, had attacked Kolobeng, burned it to the ground, and captured or slain the people. Had Livingstone been in the town, he, too, would have suffered a similar fate, for the hatred of the Dutch against all British missionaries was very great. His house was plundered, his library destroyed, and his medicine stock disposed of, while his furniture and clothing were sold at public auction. This outrage only made Livingstone more determined to cut a road through Africa. So, in June, 1853, he crossed the Kalahari Desert, and proceeded northward. At the town of Sesheke, near the present city of Livingstone, he with his large following under Sekeletu, the son of his old friend Sebituane, embarked in canoes and sailed up the river to find a suitable place for planting a mission station. But the whole country was a vast plain which was unhealthy at all seasons, since each year it was inundated by the river.

Livingstone now conceived a daring scheme which was to surpass everything which a white man had hitherto attempted in Africa. His plan was to ascend the Zambezi as far as possible and then to strike northwest to the city of Loanda on the west coast. The distance was about a thousand miles, but never had the foot of a white man touched this unknown territory. The journey to Loanda occupied six and a half months, from November 11, 1853, to May 31, 1854. It was the most daring feat of African travel yet accomplished, and it at once made Livingstone famous throughout the whole civilized world; moreover, although many of the tribes were hostile, Livingstone accomplished his great journey without losing a single one of his servants or killing a single foe. Though he was no pacifist, his gentle conduct and kind words, together with his unfailing good sense, helped him through every difficult experience. By the time he arrived at Loanda, however, he was little more than a walking skeleton and had to be nursed back to health in the home of the British consul. At Loanda he was urged to return to England and recover from his health-wrecking experience, but he had promised to take his faithful followers back to their homes and this promise he felt bound to redeem. Still weak and sick from the journey, he retraced his steps and by a different route, which occupied a whole year, from September, 1854, to September, 1855. He returned to Sesheke, where to his great joy he found supplies which Robert Moffat had sent, and he was overjoyed to receive them since his long and perilous journey had exhausted his entire stock of provisions.

No sooner had Livingstone returned than he resolved to make a similar journey to the east coast of the continent. He started out on November 3, 1855, and reached the city of Quilimane on May 21, 1856. This second caravan was equipped at the expense of Sekeletu, the chief of the Makololo, as the Basutos were now quite generally called in this region. The journey was full of peril and once Livingstone and his whole expedition were in danger of annihilation at the hands of hostile tribes. But he comforted himself with the promise of Christ: "I am with you alway," and on what he sincerely believed was to be his last night on earth he wrote in his diary:

"I shall take observations for latitude and longitude tonight, although they may be the last. I feel quite calm now, thank God!"

In the course of time he arrived at the Portuguese settlement of Tete and was received with great kindness. He was the first white man to cross Central Africa.

At Quilimane Livingstone received a letter from the directors of the London Missionary Society which informed him that they could not support his plans because they were only remotely connected with the spread of the Gospel; hence he could no longer be retained in their service. On receiving this communication he was much grieved and wrote back:

"I had imagined in my simplicity that my preaching, conversation, and travel were as nearly connected with the spread of the Gospel as the Boers would allow them to be."

However, he now resolved to pursue his work in his own way. Before the interior of Africa could be evangelized, it had to be explored, and this he regarded as his God-given duty. Later as a British consul he made himself responsible for the salary of John Moffat for five years, besides paying for his complete equipment. This fact alone proves how keenly Livingstone was interested in the evangelization of Africa.

Livingstone, now returned to England, and reached London in December, 1856. In March, 1858, he was back at home in Scotland, once more happily united with his family, which he had not seen for six years. In England he was received with great honors and was appointed British consul of Central Africa and commander of an exploring expedition. As soon as possible he left his home country, together with his faithful wife, and in May, 1858, once more saw the Zambezi. The remainder of his life was devoted to further exploration work which he carried on incessantly. On April 27, 1862, "the last Sabbath of April," his beloved wife died, and was buried in the Portuguese town of Shupanga, not far from the house in which they lived. Around the grave others were buried later on, so that her burial ground became a small cemetery. When he buried her, Livingstone exclaimed:

"Oh, my Mary, my Mary! How often have we 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 heaven."

Five years Livingstone had spent on the exploration of the Zambezi—from 1858 to 1863. From 1864 to 1865 he was back in England to arouse the British Isles to a deeper appreciation of Africa's missionary needs and in an effort to stop the dreadful slave trade which was carried on most brutally in Central Africa. He was sent back to Africa on further explorations, and in August, 1865, left England never to return. For seven years he traveled from place to place, exploring the Congo, the great lakes of Africa, the country around Lake Nyasa, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Mweru, etc. He made discoveries which were fully as great as when he discovered Victoria Falls, the largest and most wonderful falls in the world, which he first saw in 1855. But now he was lost in the wilds and the world gradually regarded him as dead, for his letters never reached the coast. In his great loneliness he found comfort in the Bible, which on his last expedition he read through four times.

On October 23, 1871, Livingstone returned to the town of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, "a mere ruckle of bones," when suddenly his faithful servants, Susi and Chuma, reported that a white man was approaching. It was Henry Morton Stanley, whom James Gordon, the owner of the New York Herald, had sent out to find Livingstone and bring him back, dead or alive. Livingstone was glad to meet Stanley, who afterwards became his successor in the African exploration work; but the Scotsman would not return home. His mission was not yet finished, and he would not leave his work but partially accomplished. So, with the expedition which Stanley fitted out for him, he set out on his last journey, which was to circle Lake Bangweolo. But his strength was exhausted and his weakened body could no longer resist the heat of the sun and the terrible fevers which were caused by the climate.

On April 27, 1873, he made the last entry in his journal. Each day he got worse as in a primitive litter he was carried ahead. On May 1, 1873, his mind wandered when he was laid to bed in a rudely constructed hut. His faithful servant, Susi, came to see him at midnight and brought him hot water with which to mix his medicine. "All right, you can go now," the intrepid explorer said to Susi. A boy was left near the hut to guard the master. At four o'clock in the morning he entered Livingstone's hut and there found him dead on his knees at his bedside in the pale morning light.

The faithful servants proceeded to prepare his body, after they had buried his heart beneath a tree upon which his name was carved. This sacred spot is now marked by an obelisk and held in trust by the United Free Church of Scotland, which supports a mission at Chitambo, close to Ulala, where the great missionary explorer passed away. Then for nine months these same faithful servants—Susi, Chumba, and Jack Wainwright—together with others, journeyed through the jungle, swamp, and plains to bring the dead hero back to his own people. The body, dried and embalmed, was carried slowly as a sacred and precious possession. On their way to the coast they were met by white men who had come to aid Livingstone. They advised the natives to bury the body, but they refused and after nine months of toilsome and perilous marching the servants reached the African coast opposite Zanzibar, and delivered Livingstone's body to the British consul. It was promptly brought back to England and laid to rest in the nave of Westminster Abbey, Sunday, April 18, 1874.

At the solemn burial service the officiating bishop uttered the following words:

"We will see to it that the door he has opened to the heart of Africa shall not be closed. We will see to it that the message which he carried to the children of the shadows shall be taken farther, until all have heard it. We will see to it that the outstretched hands of Ethiopia shall be linked with the outstretched hands of the Son of God."

Of Africa and her needs Livingstone had testified during his life. Livingstone's testimony in death was still more impressive. Thirty thousand miles through the heart of the Dark Continent he had traveled, and wherever he passed he left a trail of light. Every exploration expedition of Livingstone was a missionary journey, during which he spoke of Jesus Christ and declaimed against the vicious and iniquitous slave trade. He spent his life that he might lead the dark-skinned children of the Dark Continent to the Light of Life, and at his burial a bishop said:

"Let us seek from God the strength and wisdom needed to carry through this work until the tribes of Africa have found their way into the light of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Copied by Stephen Ross for WholesomeWords.org from Great Missionaries to Africa by J. Theodore Mueller. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, ©1941.
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