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David Livingstone, to Africa With Compass and Bible

by Thomas John Bach

David LivingstoneIn all the history of missionary work, David Livingstone is one of the best-known foreign missionaries. He was born at Blantyre, Scotland, on March 19, 1813. His parents were of sturdy stock and were earnest Christians. His father, Neil Livingstone, made a meager living for the family as a traveling merchant selling tea.

At the age of ten years, David Livingstone began work in a cotton mill, where his hours were from six in the morning until eight in the evening. With part of his first earnings he bought a Latin primer. The cotton mill owner provided a school teacher for the young men who wanted to make use of their evenings for studies. Young Livingstone resolved especially to master the study of medicine and Latin. In due time, the faculty of Glasgow's University of Physicians and Surgeons licensed David Livingstone.

At the age of twenty years, he entered into a deep spiritual experience; and from that time on God's truths, commands, and guidance became Livingstone's deepest interest. The reading of the biography of Henry Martyn, missionary to India and Persia, stirred him to give to missions. After hearing Gutzlaff speak on the spiritual needs in China, Livingstone said: "It is my desire to show my attachment to the cause of Him who died for me by devoting my life to His service."

The London Missionary Society, because of its undenominational character, appealed to him. Livingstone wanted, at first, to go to China as a medical missionary; but the political friction between Great Britain and China, because of the Opium War, prevented his going to that field. At the same time, missionary Robert Moffat came home to Great Britain from South Africa and David Livingstone's attention was directed toward the "Dark Continent."

He left home in October, 1840, for the land which was to see so many years of his service. Although Africa at first was Livingstone's second choice as a mission field, he never manifested any regret later that his life and labors had been laid down there.

Into the Dark

When Livingstone arrived at Cape Town, he was disappointed to find a concentration of missionaries in one central city. His firm conviction was that, after a native church had been founded, native leadership should be trained and the missionary should move on to new, unevangelized territories.

From Cape Town he proceeded to [Kuruman], about seven hundred miles inland, where Robert Moffat was carrying on his missionary work. In 1844 [Jan. 1845], he married Moffat's daughter, Mary. As the Boers hindered his missionary efforts in southern Africa, he proceeded northward, crossing the Kalahari Desert, and in 1849 discovered Lake Ngami. Twice his family accompanied him on the pioneer journeys through dangerous, pathless, steaming jungles where lions and other wild animals abounded and unfriendly tribes of black people ruled. On one of these trips his youngest child died.

Livingstone sent his family home to Great Britain in 1852 while he continued his missionary and exploration trips. He was anxious to open up a path to the heart of Africa so that the people and their needs might be better known to the Christian and civilized world. He penetrated into the Zambezi Valley and discovered Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River.

Following the Zambezi to its mouth, he reached the east coast of Africa, and from there he returned to England in 1856, carrying with him the valuable records of his explorations.

He now severed his connections with the London Missionary Society. He believed that he could better serve his general interest for missions and, in a more effective way, prevent the continuation of slave traffic by so doing. In 1857 he gave addresses at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He charged his audiences with the question: "Will you carry out the work which I have begun?" As one of the results, foreign missionary societies were organized within the student bodies.

In 1858 Livingstone returned to Africa as an agent of the Royal Geographic Society. He had also been appointed British Consul of Quilimane for the east coast and interior of Africa. Mrs. Livingstone died in 1862, but he continued his trips across Africa, organizing groups of natives to accompany him. He explored the regions of the Zambezi River and discovered Lake Nyasa.

Stanley's Search

In 1864 he visited Britain again. Besides fulfilling his many speaking engagements, he published a book, The Zambesi and Its Tributaries, in which he exposed the cruelty of slave traffic. By 1866, he was again exploring in the very heart of Africa and was very little heard of for the next five years. In his endeavors to find the source of the Nile he discovered Lake Bangweulu.

When men feared that the missionary-explorer might have died, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, commissioned Henry M. Stanley, at any cost, to find Livingstone, dead or alive. He found him at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Stanley was very deeply impressed by the faith and the life of Livingstone as well as the devotion of the African natives to him. Stanley tried to influence him to return to civilization and its comforts, but Livingstone felt that he should remain to continue his unfinished work.

On May 1, 1873, David Livingstone's faithful native followers found him dead on his knees in his little hut at Ilala. They buried his heart under a tree but his embalmed body was carried for nine hundred miles to the coast. From there he was transported to London, England, where he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The natives said of him that "Livingstone lived the life of the Book (the Bible) that he carried and preached." He had found his way to the heart of Africa and to the hearts of her people.


While trying to find a way to the west coast, he wrote: "Cannot the love of Christ carry the missionary where the slave-trade carries the trader? I shall open up a path to the interior or perish."


"If we wait till we run no risk, the gospel will never be introduced into the interior," he wrote to those who urged caution.


"I place no value on anything I have or possess except in relation to the kingdom of Christ. It is not the encountering of difficulties and dangers in obedience to inward spiritual promptings which constitutes tempting Providence, but the acting without faith, proceeding on our own errands with no previous convictions of duty and no prayer for aid and direction. Help me, Thou who knowest my frame and pitiest me like a father!"—Livingstone.


"I am a missionary, heart and soul," he wrote to his father. "God had an only Son, and He was a missionary and a physician. A poor imitation of Him I am, or wish to be."


"For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has called me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in heartful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind and bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view and with such a thought. It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink, but let this be only for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father's throne on high to give Himself for us."—Livingstone.


"I am immortal till my work is accomplished," he wrote. "And although I see few results, future missionaries will see conversions following every sermon. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom with few rays to cheer, except such as flow from faith in the precious promises of God's Word."

From Pioneer Missionaries for Christ and His Church by Thomas John Bach. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, ©1955.

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