The title of my forthcoming biography David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist (to be published this July) indicates the three primary focuses of Livingstone’s storied career. In this Perspective, I’d like to highlight the first two of those primary emphases in his ministry.
Livingstone’s thirty-two-year career as a missionary and explorer in Africa was reflective of a unique personal “wiring” that God had given him and a special set of purposes the Lord had for him to fulfill. Perhaps Livingstone’s example will encourage us to reflect on the unique wiring God has given us and the special purposes He would have us fulfill in serving Him.
Livingstone initially went to Africa in 1841 as a missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS). At that time the LMS mission station of Kuruman, located about 500 miles north of Port Elizabeth on the coast, was the northernmost station of any missionary society in southern Africa. Livingstone arrived in Africa with the desire and determination to carry the Gospel of salvation further inland and to establish a new mission station there.
During the next eight years, he conducted several missionary journeys hundreds of miles to the north and northeast of Kuruman and planted a succession of three new mission stations 220-300 miles north of it. He had the mindset of the Apostle Paul not to build on another man’s foundation but to take the Gospel where it had not been previously heard (Romans 15:20). He once stated that he was willing to go wherever the Lord would lead, provided it was forward.
From Livingstone’s earliest months in Africa, it was also clear that he had a natural affinity for travel and exploration, not as ends in themselves, but ultimately as means for taking God’s Word to previously unreached areas. While venturing for the first time from the coast to Kuruman (by ox-drawn wagon at a top speed of just two miles per hour), Livingstone wrote enthusiastically of the enjoyment and freedom of that mode of travel. By contrast, most such travelers complained much of the many discomforts and inconveniences as well as of periodic dangers. During that same initial trek to Kuruman, Livingstone was already writing of his desire to take the Gospel to people at a large lake (later identified as Ngami) which was reported to be several hundred miles beyond Kuruman and which had never before been reached by Europeans.
Throughout his entire career in Africa, Livingstone repeatedly endured extreme difficulties, deprivations, and dangers in prosecuting his numerous journeys. Yet he was able to maintain a remarkably positive outlook on his many travels, and even derive a good degree of enjoyment from them, despite the fact they often proved to be so extremely trying.
After his first eight years in Africa, Livingstone began a series of exploratory journeys that led not only to his discovering Lake Ngami but also to his learning about and eventually visiting a number of sizable tribes that populated a large region containing many substantial rivers, far north of the Kalahari Desert and Ngami. Always before that, Europeans thought that vast inland region was nothing more than an enormous unpopulated desert, like the Sahara Desert in northern Africa.
Over the course of seven years (1849-1856), Livingstone explored and was the first European to discover Lake Ngami and the northern reaches of the Zambesi River, including his most outstanding geographical discovery ever, the mighty Victoria Falls on the Zambesi. In addition, during the last two and a half of those years, he became the first European ever to carry out a transcontinental journey across Africa.
While such exploration and geographical discovery were very appealing to Livingstone, they were never his chief objectives. Rather, he was always motivated primarily by his desire to help bring the message of Christianity to formerly unreached people groups. One of his most oft-quoted statements was: “The end of the geographical feat is but the beginning of the missionary enterprise.”
Livingstone’s discoveries provided Britain and other Western nations with a largely revamped understanding of the interior of southcentral Africa, including its: peoples and their customs; geography and geology; animal and plant life; climate and natural resources. His extraordinary accomplishments and discoveries brought him widespread acclaim throughout Britain and high honors from officials in the British Government and Britain’s Royal Geographical Society.
During the second half of his career, Livingstone served in the employ of the British Government (as Commander of the Zambesi Expedition, 1857-1864) and of the Royal Geographical Society (exploring the watersheds of southcentral Africa, 1865-1873). In those capacities, Livingstone continued to make many significant geographical discoveries and to add much more to Britain’s and the world’s understanding of various aspects of southcentral and southeastern Africa as already mentioned.
Some criticized Livingstone with forsaking his original call to missionary service. But even while serving with the British Government and the Royal Geographical Society, he always viewed himself first and foremost as a Christian missionary. Thus while planning to head up the Zambesi Expedition, Livingstone declared: “I don’t mean to be a whit less a missionary than heretofore.” And when about to set out on his final explorations of the watersheds of southcentral Africa he wrote: “I mean to make this a Christian expedition, telling a little about Christ wherever we go. His love in coming down to save men will be our theme.”
Throughout the latter half of his career Livingstone continued to have as his chief motivation the opening of southern Africa to Christianity. Helping bring Christianity to Africa was one of the primary objectives which was repeatedly and publicly stated of the Zambesi Expedition and of Livingstone’s role in leading it. He believed he was pioneering the way into that portion of the continent, and other Christians would follow behind, spreading the spiritual light of God’s Word throughout that desperately benighted region of the world. During his lifetime he heartily supported the initial attempts that were made by others along that line in the inland areas where he served.
With the bright eye of strong, unwavering faith Livingstone clearly foresaw and foretold the much fuller Christian endeavors and harvest that would take place in the years after his death. His writings are replete with statements that, though he might not live to see it, “the good time is coming” when God’s spiritual kingdom would be established and triumph throughout Africa and the world. His positive predictions were fulfilled (1) with the introduction of Christianity throughout the regions where he had served in the decades immediately following his death and (2) in the continued phenomenal growth of Christianity throughout all southern Africa to this day.
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Here’s a link to the information the publisher has posted online about the Livingstone biography: https://www.christianfocus.com/products/3110/david-livingstone
Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie