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.
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.
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