Hundreds of consecrated Christian missionaries went out from Scotland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of them faithfully, capably served Christ Jesus in relative obscurity. Some of them gained a degree of eminence for their sacrificial, fruitful service.

Scotland’s preeminent missionary was David Livingstone (1813-1873). In addition to his consecrated missionary service, he explored a vast region of southcentral Africa which had been previously unknown to Europeans. He opened the way for Christianity (of first importance) and commerce (of secondary importance) to be introduced throughout that immense area. He also played a primary role in exposing the evils of and helping bring an end to the slave trade in that part of Africa.

I’m currently writing a comprehensive biography of Livingstone’s life and ministry. So when my wife Leeta and I recently visited Scotland, one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting was the David Livingstone Centre and Birthplace Museum in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire (a fourteen-mile drive from Glasgow). The museum has extensive displays and items relating to Livingstone’s upbringing and career. But unfortunately I had somehow overlooked the fact that the museum is currently closed for major renovations.

David Livingstone Centre & Museum in Blantyre, Scotland

We ended up investing the day which we had intended to spend at that museum, instead, in seeing some of the sights in Glasgow. While doing so we unexpectedly came across two significant indications of the high esteem in which Livingstone came to be held in Scotland. The first instance of this was at Glasgow’s Saint Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. There the one modest display we found concerning “Missions and Missionaries” prominently featured David Livingstone.

“Missions and Missionaries” display in St. Mungo Museum

Though I’m not at all a proponent of religious relics, it was a treat for me to see a copy of the Bible Livingstone used during his first decade of service in Africa, as well as the trademark consular cap with gold band which he characteristically wore throughout his exploring years.

David Livingstone’s Bible from early years of service in Africa.
David Livingstone’s Trademark Consular Cap

Looking out a second- or third-story window of Saint Mungo Museum, we took pictures of the nearby Glasgow Cathedral, which is also called the High Kirk of Glasgow.

Glasgow Cathedral

On the paved plaza leading to the front of the cathedral stands a magnificent monument with an impressive statue of David Livingstone atop it.

David Livingstone monument near Glasgow Cathedral

Three sides of the monument bear large metalwork plates depicting (1) Livingstone teaching the Africans, (2) Livingstone taking astrological observations to use in determining latitude and longitude, and (3) an Arab slave trader attacking an African mother and her child with a whip. [pixs of metalwork plates on DL monument]

Slave Trader Attacking African Mother
David Livingstone Taking Astronomical Measurements
David Livingstone teaching Africans

I was delighted but not surprised to discover these two outstanding tributes to Scotland’s premier missionary in Glasgow. Livingstone grew up near Glasgow then received his initial theological and medical training in that city. He later qualified as a medical doctor, receiving the license of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow. He went on to gain tremendous acclaim in all of Britain, from Christians and non-Christians alike, for his career of missionary service, his wide-ranging explorations and geographical discoveries throughout southcentral Africa, and his steadfast determination to help end the African slave trade. All that was carried out with marked self-sacrifice, perseverance, courage and humility. He was not only admired but also lionized. Little wonder then that all of Scotland came to proudly esteem him as one of its most-honored sons.

Livingstone would have considered such honoring and lionizing of himself by others as tosh (to use a good British term). Livingstone’s goal in life was not self-promotion but faithful, humble service of his Savior Jesus, by helping to advance Christ’s spiritual kingdom and by bringing God’s love and blessings to others.  

Copyright 2019 by Vance E. Christie

David Livingstone as a younger adult.

David Livingstone as a younger adult.

David Livingstone’s storied thirty-three-year career as a missionary, explorer and slave trade opponent in the southern half of the African continent led to his becoming a missionary legend and a British national hero. He was honored with a burial in Westminster Abbey.

But initially his qualifications for missionary service were seriously questioned, and he was nearly not approved to serve with the missionary society under whose auspices he first went to Africa. His early history as a would-be missionary suggests important lessons about persevering through discouragements in preparing for and pursuing the ministries we sense God is calling us to undertake.

Livingstone was raised in a pious but poor family in Blantyre, Scotland. From the time he was ten years old he worked long, taxing hours in a cotton mill while pursuing his education on the side. He came to saving faith in Christ Jesus at age nineteen. Two years later he sensed God’s leading to prepare to become a medical missionary.

Thoroughly independent, at first he planned to work his way through medical school then pay his own way in going to the foreign field. But during his second year of medical training, friends encouraged him to apply for service under the London Missionary Society (LMS).

The LMS Directors provisionally accepted Livingstone as a possible missionary candidate and, in the fall of 1838, sent him for a period of probationary training under Rev. Richard Cecil at Chipping Ongar, not quite thirty miles northeast of London. Livingstone and six other probationers studied theology as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew under Cecil’s tutelage.

The students were also given the responsibility of leading, in rotation, the daily family worship sessions that were held in Cecil’s home. They were further required to prepare sermons that were submitted to Cecil for editing. Those sermons were then committed to memory and delivered to village congregations in the area.

David Livingstone buying a book as a boy - London Missionary Society painting

David Livingstone buying a book as a boy – London Missionary Society painting

Livingstone’s first attempt at preaching proved a disaster. One Sunday he was sent to deliver the evening message at a church in nearby Stanford Rivers. After reading the scripture text for his sermon very deliberately, Livingstone suddenly found that he could not recall a single word of his intended discourse. After a painful silence, he blurted out, “Friends, I have forgotten all I had to say,” then hastened, humiliated, out of the chapel.

Early in 1839 Cecil submitted his report on the current mission students to the LMS Board. Due to Livingstone’s hesitating manner in leading family worship and while praying during weekday chapel services, as well as his failed first attempt at preaching, Cecil’s report on Livingstone was rather mixed:

“His heaviness of manner, united as it is with a rusticity, not likely to be removed, still strikes me as having importance. But he has sense and quiet vigor; his temper is good and his character substantial, so that I do not like the thought of his being rejected.” Cecil thought Livingstone was “hardly ready in point of knowledge” to go to a theological college but stated his hope that his plodding Scottish charge “might kindle a little.”

Having read the report, the Mission Board was about to decide against Livingstone as an acceptable missionary candidate. But one of the Directors “pleaded hard” that Livingstone’s probationary period should be extended, with the result that it was. Six months later Livingstone was finally approved to serve as a missionary with the LMS. After finishing 1839 under Cecil’s further training in Chipping Ongar, Livingstone moved to London for a year of additional medical education. He sailed for South Africa in December 1840.

Gravestone of David Livingstone, Westminster Abbey.

Gravestone of David Livingstone, Westminster Abbey.

What does Livingstone’s example in this early phase of his history have to teach us?  When we sense God leading us to a particular ministry, we should diligently prepare for it. Even if at first we don’t seem (to ourselves or others) highly qualified for our future course of service, we should persevere in preparing for it if we remain convinced that the Lord is still leading us that direction. If God is, indeed, leading us into a particular course, He will give us success in becoming well prepared for it and will direct others to affirm and support us in pursuing it.

From a different angle, perhaps the Lord has us in a position to guide and encourage along an individual of less-than-obvious qualifications who nonetheless senses God’s leading to a particular ministry. Let’s seek to be careful and to be guided by God’s Spirit ourselves in how we advise that person. The Lord may use us to help bring to light a diamond in the rough.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

David Livingstone

David Livingstone

My primary publisher, Christian Focus Publications, has blessed me with a grand opportunity this year – to write a new biography on David Livingstone, the eminent missionary explorer to Africa. I’m deeply grateful to both God and CFP for this privileged opportunity, and greatly look forward to carrying it out with the Lord’s help.

Here are five main reasons I’m looking forward to writing this book:

(1) David Livingstone (1813-1873) is one of the premier missionaries in the annals of Christian missions. Through his extensive pioneer explorations in southern Africa, he prepared the way for the spread of Christianity and helped bring about an end to the slave trade throughout that portion of the Dark Continent. He gained tremendous acclaim during his lifetime. Since his death, untold thousands have been inspired by his example to undertake missionary or other forms of active, sacrificial Christian service. It truly is a privilege to research and write the life story of such a prominent, significantly-used servant of Christ.

(2) Livingstone has good name recognition, especially through Henry Stanley’s immortal greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” But a relatively small percentage of people know much about the good doctor other than that he was a famous missionary and explorer in Africa. This is a wonderful opportunity to help many people learn a great deal about Livingstone’s:

  • challenging and formative upbringing
  • Christian convictions that motivated and guided him
  • expansive (and sometimes controversial) missionary vision
  • phenomenal explorations – remarkable for their distances, difficulties and discoveries
  • tireless determination to stamp out the African slave trade
  • honest struggles as a husband and father.

David Livingstone & Family

David Livingstone & Family

(3) Livingstone possessed many outstanding strengths, including: his granite convictions; his unwavering devotion to fulfill what he perceived to be his divine mission and duty; his huge vision in various undertakings; his astounding determination and perseverance through all types of hardships and sacrifices; his unflagging courage; his highly respected character; his effectiveness in working with different races and classes of people. Such an individual has much to teach us.

(4) To be sure, Livingstone had weaknesses and failures as well. His fierce independence sometimes created marked relational difficulties. He was rather neglectful of his family. As a leader he could be dictatorial. A few of his cherished ambitions and undertakings failed to materialize or even turned out poorly.

Recent Livingstone biographies, apparently eager not to portray him as a plaster saint or larger than life, seem to relish the opportunity to emphasize his shortcomings and failures. They often judge him by contemporary standards and perspectives rather than by those of his own day. Some secular biographies of Livingstone exhibit little or no understanding of or appreciation for his spiritual perspectives and convictions. While I intend to acknowledge rather than ignore Livingstone’s shortcomings, I also anticipate being able to rightly provide a more positive and accurate assessment of his life and ministry.

Sculpture of David Livingstone Being Attacked by a Lion

Sculpture of David Livingstone Being Attacked by a Lion

(5) One aspect of pioneer missionary biography I’ve always enjoyed is the real-life adventure side of it. Who needs fiction when there’s such thrilling history to read?! Livingstone’s entire career as a missionary, explorer and slave trade opponent in Africa brims over with adventure and excitement, harrowing dangers and fascinating discoveries, triumphs and tragedies.

I’ll likely provide periodic perspectives from David Livingstone’s life in this blog as I write his biography. In the meanwhile, for a brief, beneficial summary of Livingstone’s life, see “David Livingstone,” by Brian Stanley, in Great Leaders of the Christian Church, ed. by John Woodbridge (Moody, 1988), pp. 329-333. A number of informative and helpful articles on different aspects of Livingstone’s life and ministry can also be found in Christian History, Issue 56 (Vol. XVI, No. 4), published by Christianity Today, Inc., 1997.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie