David and Mary Livingstone with their young children
David and Mary Livingstone with their young children

Many men who have great accomplishments in life are able to do so in part due to the strong support of their wives. Often such support involves wives making marked personal sacrifices in order for their husbands to achieve what they do.

Mary Livingstone (wife of the renowned missionary doctor, explorer and slavery abolitionist in Africa, David Livingstone) is an outstanding example of such unflinching support and sacrifice in behalf of her husband. As such she is worthy of high praise and not a small degree of compassionate empathy.

To follow is the first of two articles I intend to write to highlight the vital role that Mary played in Livingstone’s outstanding accomplishments and successes. Taking the time to ponder what it would have been like for Mary to give this deep level of support and sacrifice certainly increases our admiration and appreciation for her.

Mary was born on April 12, 1821, while her parents Robert and Mary Moffat, missionaries serving with the London Missionary Society (LMS), were temporarily stationed in Griqua Town, north of the Cape Colony border in southern Africa. When Mary was three years old her parents established the LMS’s northernmost mission station at Kuruman, 120 miles north of Griqua Town and 500 miles north of Africa’s southern coast.

Kuruman Mission Station
Kuruman Mission Station

Mary was the responsible firstborn of the ten children eventually born to her parents. Mary and her sister Ann, at the ages of nine and seven, were placed in a Wesleyan boarding school in Grahamstown, eastern Cape Colony. The sisters were there for five years, receiving a traditional education. Early in 1836 they were sent to Cape Town for further education. Mary received informal teacher training in hopes that she would eventually become an infant (early elementary) school teacher in Kuruman.

She accompanied her parents and siblings when the Moffat family returned to England in 1839. There Robert saw his Sechuana translation of the New Testament and Psalms through the press and was the featured speaker at numerous missionary meetings throughout Britain.

When the Moffats, including Mary (then age twenty-two), were returning to Kuruman late in 1843, David Livingstone traveled more than 150 miles on horseback to meet along the way, and to offer them whatever assistance he could in completing their journey. (Kuruman had been Livingstone’s home base throughout his first two years of missionary service and journeys in Africa.) During the remainder of the trip back to Kuruman, David and Mary would have had the opportunity to observe and interact with each other.

Early the following year Livingstone settled at Mabotsa, 220 miles north of Kuruman, to establish a new mission station there. On February 7 he was attacked and seriously injured by a lion, the bite of which splintered his left humerus just below the shoulder socket. That July Livingstone visited Kuruman for three weeks. During the course of the visit, as he himself put it, he screwed up his courage and proposed marriage to Mary under one of the Kuruman almond trees. She promptly accepted his proposal.

Mary possessed many positive characteristics that had attracted Livingstone and led him to conclude she would be an excellent partner with whom to share life and ministry. She had become the teacher of Kuruman’s elementary school. She spoke the Sechuana language “like a native,” and the African children were fond of her. She was familiar with and willing to bear the demands and sacrifices of missionary life. As a competent, conscientious homemaker, she cooked, cleaned, sewed clothes, and made soap and candles.

Mary was characterized by solid common sense and was a practical, matter-of-fact individual rather than a romantic. She was good-tempered and amiable. Her appearance and dress were neat and well-kept though not striking or ornate. Though not generally considered a beauty by others, Mary’s welcoming smile and warm disposition were always very pleasant and appealing to Livingstone.

Livingstone returned to Mabotsa to continue establishing the new mission work there. He also built what was considered a sizable house to which to bring his bride after their marriage. Of that dwelling he wrote Mary in charming fashion: “If you wonder why I have built such a large house for only two people, you must be content with the explanation that it is necessary on account of greater heat [than at Kuruman]. And that we have nothing to put into it is no matter, for I shall think it furnished when you are here.”

David and Mary were wed in the church at Kuruman on January 2, 1845. He was thirty-one years old and she was twenty-three. As a wedding gift Mary presented him with a polyglot Bible containing the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. She inscribed the gift, “To David Livingstone from his affectionate Mary.”

The newlywed couple returned to Mabotsa that March, and Mary started teaching the elementary school there. Unfortunately, they were immediately blindsided by a completely-unforeseen conflict that Livingstone found himself embroiled in, involving an older missionary colleague who envied and resented Livingstone and who wished to superintend the Mabotsa mission station on his own. As a result, the Livingstones soon decided to start a new mission work among a different tribe, the Bakwains, at Chonuane, forty miles north of Mabotsa.

While Livingstone built a home and started a school at Chonuane, Mary continued to reside and teach the children’s school at Mabotsa. Livingstone returned intermittently to minister in Mabotsa as well. Despite the unanticipated upheaval the newlyweds were experiencing in their lives, Livingstone revealed of their interpersonal relationship, “We are happy and contented in each other.”

Mary gave birth to their first child, a son whom they named Robert, in January of the following year, 1846. Two months later the young missionary family moved together to Chonuane.

Fifteen months after that (June 1847) Mary bore their first daughter, named Agnes. The following month the Livingstones and the Bakwains to whom they had been ministering at Chonuane were forced to begin relocating again, due to prolonged drought and the town’s water supply drying up. The tribe and their faithful missionaries established a new settlement forty miles further north at Kolobeng.

Mary remained in Chonuane for a time while her husband built a temporary hut for them at Kolobeng. During their separation Livingstone reported in his understated fashion: “Mary feels her situation among the ruins [at Chonuane] a little dreary, and no wonder, for she writes me yesterday that the lions are resuming possession and walk round our house at night.”

Mary and the children joined Livingstone at Kolobeng the end of September. Two or three months later she started teaching both an elementary school and a sewing school. In July of the next year, 1848, the Livingstones were able to move into a larger permanent home which the Doctor had constructed for them.

Of their new home and old hut he stated: “What a mercy to be in one [a house] again. A year in a little hut through which the wind blew our candles into glorious icicles by night, and in which crowds of flies continually settled on the eyes of our poor little brats by day, makes us value our present castle.”

Livingstone and Mary’s third child, a son named Thomas, was born at Kolobeng in March of the following year, 1849. Just five or six weeks later Mary and the children set out by ox-drawn wagon for Kuruman, 300 miles to the south. The purpose of their visit was to rest and gain an improvement in their diet, as vegetables had become completely lacking at Kolobeng in the drought which had continued unabated throughout that region.

In addition, for several months some Boers (Dutch farmers who years earlier emigrated north of Cape Colony to get out from under British rule there) had become increasingly threatening toward Livingstone and the African tribes to which he was seeking to minister. The Boers desired to subjugate the tribes in that region and did not want missionaries spreading their influence there.

Livingstone was then making plans to visit tribes several hundred miles north of Kuruman—at Lake Ngami and beyond—so would be away from Kolobeng for a period of time. He thought it appropriate to send his wife and children to Kuruman so they would be out of harm’s way should a conflict with the Boers take place at Kolobeng during his absence. He accompanied his family toward Kuruman for four days before returning to Kolobeng. Mary and the children were escorted the remainder of the way by an African family from Kuruman.

After visiting at Kuruman that May through July, Mary and her children returned to Kolobeng to welcome Livingstone back home at the anticipated time of his arrival. But his 1,200-mile roundtrip to Lake Ngami took considerably longer than expected. As his return delayed, Mary and all the children fell ill. Word of this was sent to the Doctor who was then en route back home. By the time he hastened the remaining distance back to Kolobeng, arriving on October 10, he was relieved to find all his family members recovered from their sickness. His wife and children, after leaving Kuruman at the beginning of August, had been waiting nearly two months in Kolobeng by the time he was finally able to return.

In April of the following year, 1850, Livingstone again journeyed to Lake Ngami, this time taking his family with him. A few days before reaching Ngami, the Livingstones received news that a group of Englishmen who had come to the lake in search of ivory were all laid low by fever. Hurrying on to the lake, the Livingstones were grieved to learn as they neared their destination that an enterprising young artist had died of fever before their arrival. The Doctor afterward related concerning the results of his own and Mary’s ministries in this situation: “But by the aid of medicines and such comforts as could be made by the only English lady who ever visited the lake, the others happily recovered.”

David Livingstone with his family at Lake Ngami
David Livingstone with his family at Lake Ngami

When Livingstone took his family to see the broad south side of Lake Ngami, the children played gleefully in the water. The following day, however, their daughter Agnes, son Thomas and several of the Africans who were accompanying them on the journey came down with fever. Besides remittent fever, other symptoms produced in various individuals by the marsh fever included vomiting, diarrhea, headache, muscle pain and rapid decline of strength. “God was gracious to us and spared us all,” Livingstone afterward reported of his own party.

During the opening week of August, just seven days after the Livingstones arrived back at Kolobeng, Mary gave birth to their fourth child and second daughter, named Elizabeth. Two weeks after the delivery Mary developed a noticeable paralysis on the right side of her face. She could not wink her right eye or smile with that side of her lips. Though the paralysis eventually cleared up, it did so only gradually and with occasional relapses.

A deadly epidemic which caused inflammation of the lungs was then prevailing at Kolobeng. Sadly, one of the many to die from the sickness was the Livingstones’ infant daughter.

Livingstone described his and Mary’s thoughts in witnessing Baby Elizabeth’s death and burial: “Have just returned from burying our youngest child. Never conceived before how fast a little stranger can twine round the affections. She was just six weeks old when called away to the King in His beauty. She is home now, yet it was like tearing out one’s bowels to see her in the embrace of the King of Terrors. … Yesterday evening her beautifully formed countenance began to set in death. The pulse at the wrist vanished several times, then returned quite strong. Then at one o’clock she opened her beautiful eyes and screamed with a great effort to make her lungs work, and instantly expired. That scream went to our hearts, and will probably not be forgotten in Eternity. Wish we were all as safe as she is now.”

To be continued …

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A much-fuller record of Mary Livingstone’s steadfast service of Christ Jesus, her unfailing support of her husband’s remarkable ministries, and the significant sacrifices she made as a result is included in my comprehensive new biography David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist.

Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie

About Vance Christie

An avid fan of historic Christian biography throughout his ministry, Vance has published seven books.

One Thought on “Mary Livingstone, Praiseworthy Missionary Wife and Mother

  1. David Young on October 5, 2023 at 9:55 am said:

    Have just finished reading biography of David Livingstone. Found it to be outstanding! An incredible and brilliant work, skilfully written in a most readable style, detailed, beautifully balanced, enlightening, and spiritually uplifting and challenging. We are profoundly grateful to Vance Christie for a quite amazing work and of a magnitude that leaves us almost breathless! Thank you.

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