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David Livingstone: Early Life

by Mrs. J. H. Worcester, Jr.

David LivingstoneDavid Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, March 19th, 1813. His father and mother were people of lowly station, and he was reared in poverty. The story of his origin is briefly told in the simple inscription which he caused to be placed upon the monument to his parents, at a time when the highest in the land were showering compliments upon him.

"To show the resting place of
and AGNES HUNTER, his wife,
and to express the thankfulness to God
of their children,
John, David, Janet, Charles and Agnes,
for poor and pious parents."

An inscription whose last deliberately chosen "and" he distinctly refused to exchange for a "but."

Both of Livingstone's parents were earnestly devout, the mother an active, sunny, loving woman, and the father, as David himself bore witness, of the high type of character portrayed in the Cotter's Saturday Night. Neil Livingstone was a strict teetotaler, a Sunday-school teacher, an ardent member of a missionary society, and a promoter of prayer meetings, at a time when none of these things had ceased to be regarded as badges of fanaticism. While travelling through the adjoining parishes in his vocation of tea-merchant he often acted as colporteur, distributing tracts and showing in various ways that his was the true missionary spirit.

The home in which David Livingstone grew up, although enriched by little beyond the bare necessaries of life, was brightened and made happy by industry, cheerfulness, love for one another, and faith in God.

Of David's early boyhood we know little, except that he was a favorite at home, always contributing to the happiness of the family, and that he seems to have been from his earliest childhood of a calm, self-reliant nature. It was his father's habit to lock the outer door at dusk, at which time all the children were expected to be in the house. One evening David found the door barred when he reached home. He made no outcry or disturbance, but sat down contentedly to pass the night on the doorstep. There, on looking out, his mother found him. It was an early application of the rule which did him such service later in life, to make the best of the least pleasant situations. As a proof of his perseverance, we read that at the age of nine he received a New Testament from his Sabbath-school teacher for repeating the 119th Psalm on two successive evenings; with only five errors.

His parents were so poor that at the age of ten he was set to work in a factory. With a part of his first week's wages he purchased a Latin grammar. Though working from six in the morning until eight at night, with intervals only for breakfast and dinner, he attended an evening class from eight to ten, and pursued his studies with much enthusiasm. Often, indeed, he continued his labors after reaching home, until midnight or later, unless his mother interfered. At the age of sixteen he was thus familiar with Virgil and Horace, and many of the classical authors. In his reading he devoured everything but novels, placing his book on a portion of the spinning-jenny, so that he could catch sentence after sentence as he passed at his work. The utmost interval that Livingstone could have had for reading at one time was less than a minute, but, as he afterwards writes: ''I thus kept up a pretty constant study, undisturbed by the roar of the machinery. To this part of my education I owe my power of completely abstracting my mind from surrounding noise, so as to read and write with perfect comfort amidst the play of children or the dancing and songs of savages."

Like other boys he was fond of play and fun, but with a growing thirst for knowledge. Books of travel and of science were his especial delight, and when a rare half-holiday came round he was usually to be found at the quarries collecting geological specimens, or by the hedge-rows gathering herbs and flowers. He early formed the opinion that a good herbalist has in his hands the panacea for all bodily diseases. David was not very fond of religious reading, and he tells us, with that quiet humor which never deserted him, that his last flogging was received for refusing to read Wilberforce's Practical Christianity. This dislike continued for years, until he lighted upon Dick's Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of a Future State, which he found, to his delight, enforced his own conviction that religion and science were friendly to each other.

It was while reading the last-named book that he became convinced that it was his duty and highest privilege to accept of Christ's salvation for himself. This was in his twentieth year. He had had many earnest thoughts about religion for years, but only now did the great spiritual change occur. "This change," he says, "was like what may be supposed would take place were it possible to cure a case of 'colorblindness.' The fullness with which the pardon of all our guilt is offered in God's book drew forth feelings of affectionate love to Him who bought us with His blood, which in some small measure has influenced my conduct ever since."

There can be no doubt that Livingstone's heart was very thoroughly penetrated by the new life that now flowed into it. He did not merely apprehend the truth. The truth took hold of him.

Although at first he had no thought of becoming a missionary himself, he made a resolution that, as the salvation of men ought to be the chief aim of every Christian, he would give to the cause of missions all that he could earn beyond what was required for his subsistence. It was about a year later that, after reading Dr. Gutzlaff's "Appeal" on behalf of China, he resolved to give himself to the work in that country. "The claims of so many millions of his fellow-creatures, and the complaint of the want of qualified men to undertake the task" were, as he informs us, the motives which led him to this high resolve; henceforth his "efforts were constantly directed towards that object without any fluctuation." In addition to the necessary theological training, he determined also to acquire that needed by a physician. Though it was never his lot to exercise the healing art in China, his medical knowledge was of the highest use in Africa, and it developed wonderfully his strong scientific turn.

While pursuing his medical studies in Glasgow it involved much self-denial on Livingstone's part to make the wages earned during the summer suffice for all his needs, and many less determined would have ended the struggle there and then. But Livingstone was made of different stuff, as these words of his, written years later, show:

"Were I to begin life over again, I should like to pass through the same hardy training. I never received a farthing from any one, and I should have accomplished my project of going to China as a medical missionary by my own efforts, had not some friends advised my joining the London Missionary Society, on account of its unsectarian character. It sends neither Episcopacy, nor Presbyterianism, nor Independency, but the gospel of Christ, to the heathen.' This exactly agreed with my ideas of what a missionary society ought to do; but it was not without a pang that I offered myself, for it was not agreeable to one accustomed to work his own way to become in a measure dependent on others."

Livingstone had already connected himself with the Independent, or Congregational Church. He had very strong views of the need of a deep, spiritual change as the only true basis of Christian life and character, and his preference for this branch of the church universal arose mainly from the feeling that the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, and the Established Church in particular, were at this time too lax in their communion. But never was a man more free from sectarianism than he.

It was in 1838 that Livingstone applied to the London Missionary Society, offering his services as a missionary, and his application was provisionally accepted. In September of that year he was summoned to London to meet the directors, and after passing two examinations he was sent to study with Rev. Richard Cecil, to whom most missionary students were sent for a three months' probation. One part of his duties was to prepare sermons, which, when corrected, were committed to memory and repeated to village congregations.

Once Livingstone was sent for to preach in a neighboring pulpit, the pastor having been taken suddenly ill. He took his text, read it slowly, and then—all was a blank. Not a word could he remember of his carefully prepared sermon. Saying abruptly, "Friends, I have forgotten all I had to say," he hurried out of the pulpit and left the chapel. Owing to this failure and to general lack of fluency in prayer, an unfavorable report was sent in when the three months had elapsed; but some one urged that he should have a still further probation, and a few months later he was accepted.

It was a disappointment to him that he could not carry out his original intention of preaching the gospel in China, but the opium war had closed that country to the English, and while it continued no new appointments could be made. It was in these circumstances that he met Robert Moffat, who, after twenty-three years of labor in South Africa, was thrilling England with the story of his work and adventures there. He fired the soul of his young countryman with a desire to explore and evangelize that "dark continent" with which both their names are now identified.

Under Moffat's influence, then, Livingstone determined to go at once to Africa, and in this decision the directors concurred. Henceforth Africa was to be his sphere. It was felt that a medical diploma would be of service, and Livingstone received this in November, 1840.

A single night was all he could spend with his family, and they had so much to talk about that David proposed they should sit up all night, though to this his mother would not listen. "I remember my father and him," writes his sister, "talking over the prospects of Christian missions. They agreed that the time would come when rich men and great men would think it an honor to support whole stations of missionaries, instead of spending their money on hounds and horses. On the morning of 17th November we got up at five o'clock. My mother made coffee. David read the 121st and 135th Psalms, and prayed. My father and he walked to Glasgow to catch the Liverpool steamer." On the Broomielaw father and son looked on each other's faces for the last time on earth. The one walked slowly back to Blantyre, his heart full of mingling emotions of sorrow and joy. The face of the other was now set in earnest towards the "dark continent."

Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Life of David Livingstone by Mrs. J. H. Worcester, Jr. Chicago, Ill.: Fleming H. Revell, ©1888. Chapter 1.

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