David Livingstone (1813 – 1873)
Born: Blantyre, Scotland
Role: Missionary to Africa; Explorer; Scientist
Emphases: Reform of Africa through the spread of the gospel and benevolent British trade and colonisation
Protested against: Oppression of Africans through slavery
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” – the question posed by American reporter Henry Morton Stanley upon discovering a long-lost British missionary deep within the African continent – has become a well-known phrase throughout the western world. It encapsulates some of the public fascination, in Britain and America, with the fate of the famous explorer David Livingstone in the mid 19th century.
David Livingstone was a unique figure in the history of Christian missions and of the British Empire. He traveled to Africa with his family as a missionary while still a young man in 1840-41. He made an enormous impact upon the continent and its religious future – but is only connected to one convert directly.
Over time he would turn his efforts to other endeavours, such as inland exploration and scientific expeditions, which he saw as complementary to the advancement of God’s Kingdom in Africa. From 1858 until his death in 1873, he was not a missionary as such, yet he regarded his pursuits as pivotal for opening Africa up to further Christian influence and combating the pernicious exploitation and human trafficking of Africans by Arabic and European merchants.
The early years of his time in Africa were dedicated to mission work on the frontiers – moving progressively inland and away from European settlements. During these years, Livingstone baptised an African chief named Sechele, who despite his questionable personal conversion, went on to have an enormous impact on the religious outlook of his fellow tribesmen. When missionaries came to the area many years after Livingstone had been there, they found the locals practicing a form of Christian worship initiated by the Christianised chief.
Livingstone’s ‘discovery’ of Lake Ngami (a fascinating body of water which is prone to disappearing completely and then reappearing for decades at a time) in 1849 appears to have been a significant event that paved the way for Livingstone to turn to more and more expeditionary activities. His quests to chart and locate water courses and sources served as the central element in his strategy to see Africa gospelised and the inhumane enslavement of Africans gradually eradicated.
His aim of Christian control over the Zambezi River would enable non-slave free enterprise in the inland regions of Africa to severely diminish the profitability of the trade routes used by slave owners and traders. Furthermore Livingstone sought the personal acclamation that would come if he could locate the source of the Nile, which he intended to use as social capital to mobilise the British Empire against the slavers. Thus he became a sort of heroic explorer, not as an end in itself, but with the constant goal of seeing the soul and societies of Africa reformed through the gospel of Jesus and the benevolent actions of the empire.
Livingstone’s lifestyle was very hard on the health and well-being of his family and some have suggested that his minimalising of the harsh realities of life in Africa contributed to an unpreparedness that resulted in the deaths of other missionaries. Like so many frontier missionaries from this period, his determination is admirable (He famously said “I am prepared to go anywhere, so long as it is forward”), but his methodology and practice are questionable. Without a certain amount of stubbornness, tenacity and perseverance there is certainly no way he could have functioned in 19th century Africa to the extent that he managed.
Livingstone remains one of the greatest British explorers of the Victorian era and was voted one of the 100 Greatest Britons (in history) in a 2002 BBC survey. He has a wide range of places and institutions named or founded in his honour around the world.
But Livingstone is better remembered by his fellow Protestant Christians as someone who attempted to look at the big picture and strive for the African continent to be transformed by Christianity and its derivative blessings. He was by no means a typical missionary, nor an ordinary explorer, but a man who endured great hardship and suffering while seeking the spiritual, physical and social welfare of the African peoples – whose humanity and dignity he recognised and defended.
T.J. Thompson, “LIVINGSTONE, David” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
“David Livingstone,” wikipedia.org