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David Livingstone: Finding a Wife on the Field

by Belle M. Brain

David LivingstoneDavid Livingstone was fancy free when he sailed for Africa in 1840. He had ideas of his own on the subject of matrimony and missions, and no fair young girl crossing his path had as yet led him to change them.

The Directors of the London Missionary Society had asked him the usual questions when he applied to them two years before. One of them was in regard to his matrimonial prospects. In answering this he was very explicit. "I am not married," he said, "nor under any engagement of marriage, nor have I indeed been in love! I would prefer to go out unmarried, that I may, like the great apostle, be without family cares, and give myself entirely up to the work."

His interest at that time was centered in China, but the Opium War broke out and prevented his going. Just then Robert Moffat came home and won him for Africa.

Good, motherly, wise Mary Moffat did all she could to persuade him to marry. She could not forget what her own Robert had suffered in Africa before her parents allowed her to go to him, and was loath to see another young man go out with such prospects. But Livingstone thought he knew best and declined to take her advice.

The first weeks in Africa did not change his opinion. He still thought he had done well to go out alone, with no wife to hamper his movements. To his friend Watt, a missionary in India, who, like himself, had elected to go out unmarried, he wrote, soon after landing:

"Mrs. Sewall writes that she believes you are heartily sorry you had not a helpmate with you. I have told her I am sure you are not. I am conscious myself that I am better without. All the missionaries' wives I have seen denounce my single blessedness in no measured terms. Some even insinuated that the reason I am thus is that I have been unable to get a spouse. But I put that down very speedily by assuming that it is a great deal easier for a missionary to get married in England than to come out single. In the latter case a vigorous resistance must be made, but in the former only yield up the affair into the hands of any friend, and it is managed for you in a twinkling! This is a digression, but perhaps it may come in seasonably if your colleague's spouse is hard on you."

But bachelor life in Africa did not prove the ideal thing he had thought it. Seeing none but black faces for weeks at a time gave him a great sense of loneliness; and being his own housekeeper, laundress, and seamstress was hard work and took up too much of his time. Besides, there was work for the women and children that only a woman could do.

After three years of roughing it, he began to wonder if marrying for a missionary was such a bad thing after all. Perhaps, if he could find the right kind of wife, he might do it himself after all—not now, but some time far off in the future.

A letter from Watt put his mind on it harder than ever. From the "apologetic-for-marriage strain" in which it was written, Livingstone inferred that his friend was about to marry, and wrote him as follows:

"I hope you will be happy. Here there is no one worth taking off one's hat to. Daughters of missionaries have miserably contracted minds. Colonial ladies are worse. There's no outlet for me when I begin to think of getting married than that of sending home an advertisement for the Evangelical Magazine, and if I get old it must be for some decent sort of widow. In the meantime I am too busy to think of anything of the kind."

The next year a dreadful thing happened. Livingstone's station at Mabotsa, two hundred miles northeast of Moffat's station at Kuruman, was infested with lions which did a great deal of damage. Nine sheep were killed in one day, and Livingstone started out with the natives to put an end to the lions.

But instead of Livingstone's killing a lion, a lion nearly killed him. Springing on him unawares from the bush, it caught him by the shoulder and shook him as a terrier dog shakes a rat. His life was saved by a kind of miracle, but the bones of his arm were crunched and broken, and the flesh torn in a terrible manner.

In this pitable condition his thoughts turned to Kuruman as affording the best haven of rest near at hand. No place in Africa could seem so much like a home to him. For three years, while the Moffats were absent in England, it had been his headquarters, and now the Moffats were back. He had ridden a hundred and fifty miles on horseback to meet them on their way up from the Cape a few months before. So to Kuruman he went to rest and recuperate.

Notwithstanding the pain, he found himself greatly enjoying his visit. Doctor and Mrs. Moffat were both very kind to him; and Mary and Ann, their charming young daughters, whose education, begun at the Cape, had been completed in England, soon led him to feel that there were, after all, young ladies in Africa "worth taking off his hat to"! Ere long his prejudice against the daughters of missionaries vanished away, and presently the last remnants of his long-cherished objections to marriage disappeared likewise. Finding in Mary, the elder, his ideal of a wife, he (to use his own words) "screwed up courage to put a question beneath one of the fruit-trees," the answer to which being "Yes," the two were betrothed.

Livingstone had found his heart at last. Yet he had not obeyed its dictates without due deliberation. He had so long regarded a wife as a hindrance that he dared not "put the question beneath the fruit-tree" without carefully considering what effect it might have on his future career as a missionary. This he made plain in a letter to the Directors announcing that he had at last decided to marry.

Without doubt his choice was a wise one. Had he searched the world over he could not have found a more suitable bride than the one God had ready in Africa. Born and bred in the country, adept in all the arts of the household, and already at work in the mission, she had every qualification for the wife of a pioneer missionary such as Livingstone then expected to be. At the same time, she had the culture and refinement that made her an acceptable companion for a man of such scholarly bent.

Livingstone was jubilant over the prize he had won, and become the most ardent of lovers. His betrothed was not blessed with very much of what the world would call beauty—"a little, thick, black-haired girl, sturdy, and all I want," was his description of her. Yet she had a true beauty that he was not slow to appreciate. "I see no face now to be compared with that sunburnt one which has so often greeted me with its kind looks," he wrote her long after.

Their courtship was short, but exceedingly happy. Livingstone was fond of his jokes, and Mary Moffat knew how to take them. Notwithstanding their deep piety they were very merry together, and even in later life, when David was so famous, and both were, to all appearances, so decorous and sober, they continued to be playful at home.

The happy days at Kuruman soon came to an end. Toward the close of July, Livingstone returned to Mabotsa to build a house and lay out a garden in anticipation of the coming of his bride.

At Motito, eighteen miles up from Kuruman, he wrote, on August 1, 1844, the first of his many love-letters to her. In it he talks much of their plans for the future, and asks if her father will write to Colesberg about the license for their marriage. "If he cannot get it we will license ourselves," he jokingly says. Then he closes as follows:

"And now, my dearest, farewell. May God bless you! Let your affection be much more toward Him than toward me; and, kept by His mighty power and grace, I hope I shall never give you cause to regret that you have given me a part. Whatever friendship we feel toward each other, let us always look to Jesus as our common Friend and Guide, and may He shield you with His everlasting arms from every evil!"

At Mabotsa, though his arm still gave him much trouble, he began at once on the house. He had almost no help, and it proved a slow and laborious task. But love spurred him on. In a letter giving an account of his progress, he wrote: "It is pretty hard work, and almost enough to drive love out of my head, but it is not situated there; it is in my heart, and won't come out unless you behave so as to quench it!"

Mary Moffat treasured the letters he wrote during their courtship as long as she lived. Years after, when they were far apart and feeling the separation most keenly, he wrote her as follows: "You may read the letters over again that I wrote at Mabotsa, the sweet time you know. As I told you before, I tell you again, they are true, true; there is not a bit of hypocrisy in them. I never show all my feelings; but I can say truly, my dearest, that I loved you when I married you, and the longer I lived with you, I loved you the better."

Before the year closed the wedding took place, and she who bore the honored name of Moffat exchanged it for one, little known at the time, but soon to be famous throughout the whole earth.

It was a joyous and happy occasion, with few tears and no anguish at parting. The Livingstones, back in the old home in Scotland, rejoiced that their son had found such a wife, and the Moffats thanked God that their first-born was marrying such a promising young pioneer. They would miss the dear daughter, in both the home and the mission, but she was not going very far from them and would still be in the same work as they.

The young couple proceeded at once to Mabosta. Strange to say, the name means "marriage-feast." The house was ready and the garden in beautiful order, and Mary Livingstone took up her new tasks with great ardor.

To her husband it was all joy, having her with him. "I often think of you," he wrote to his mother, "and perhaps more frequently since I got married than before. Only yesterday I said to my wife, when I thought of the nice clean bed I enjoy now, 'You put me in mind of my mother; she was always particular about our beds and our linen.' I had had rough times before. "

Livingstone's marriage, connecting him with the Moffats, was one of the great providential things in his life. "No family on the face of the globe could have been so helpful to him in his great work," says Dr. Blaikie.

And no wife could have done more than his own Mary Moffat. When God called him to open up Africa, after their marriage, she could not make the long journeys with him on account of their children. She tried it at first and proved a great traveler. "Your mamma was famous for roughing it in the bush, and was never a trouble," Livingstone wrote to their daughter, after the death of her mother.

But the children suffered so much that at last she consented to take them to England and let her dear David plunge into the forest alone. It was hard, yet she had no thought of holding him back. The interests of the great continent was as dear to her as to him, and she endured, for years at a time, suffering and suspense and separation that he might be free for the work.

Opening up Africa cost them both sore, but many shall rise up and call them blessed because of it.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Love Stories of Great Missionaries by Belle M. Brain. New York: Fleming H. Revell, ©1913.

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