David Livingstone portrait by Frederick Havill
David Livingstone portrait by Frederick Havill

If a non-Christian who was somewhat skeptical toward Christians and Christianity were to have a close-up view of us going through months of adversity, what would he or she then have to say about our Christian beliefs, behavior and character?

That’s precisely what we see in Henry Stanley’s extremely positive pen portrait of David Livingstone after the two men spent four challenging months together in inner Africa. For those of us who are Christians, there is a lot for us to consider and relate to our own Christian life and witness as we contemplate Stanley’s favorable portrayal of Livingstone.

Henry Morton Stanley
Henry Morton Stanley

Stanley was the American newspaper journalist who delivered Livingstone from destitution and provided him with hope-reviving support near the end of the renowned missionary-explorer’s career of service in Africa. For a period of four months Stanley was Livingstone’s daily companion, living in close quarters with him, often under trying circumstances. Those difficulties included threatening encounters with suspicious tribesmen, spells of severe illness, a grueling overland journey on foot during the rainy season, and being attacked by a swarm of wild bees.

Following their time together, Stanley recorded a number of observations about Livingstone’s character, temperament and conduct. What makes the newspaperman’s testimony of Livingstone even more compelling is that Stanley himself was probably not a born-again believer at the time. By Stanley’s own admission, he had a fiery temper and was easily offended. He had an obvious wariness toward any type of Christian legalism or hypocrisy. All these factors inclined him to be reserved toward rather than receptive of a missionary doctor and his Christianity. Yet the consistency, genuineness and winsomeness of Livingstone’s Christian lifestyle could not be denied and made a strong positive impression on Stanley.

Meeting of Livingstone and Stanley
Meeting of Livingstone and Stanley

Stanley summarized his high estimation of the Doctor by stating in his book How I Found Livingstone: “My friendly reader, … God grant that if ever you take to traveling in Africa, you will get as noble and true a man for your companion as David Livingstone! For four months and four days I lived with him, in the same house, or in the same boat, or in the same tent, and I never found a fault in him. I am a man of quick temper, and often without sufficient cause, I dare say, have broken ties of friendship. But with Livingstone I never had cause for resentment, but each day’s life with him added to my admiration for him.”

Of Livingstone’s commendable characteristics, even in the face of marked adversity and sacrifice, Stanley revealed: “In Livingstone I have seen many amiable traits. His gentleness never forsakes him. His hopefulness never deserts him. No harassing anxieties, distraction of mind, long separation from home and kindred, can make him complain. He thinks ‘all will come out right at last’; he has such faith in the goodness of Providence. To the stern dictates of duty, alone, has he sacrificed his home and ease, the pleasures, refinements and luxuries of civilized life.”

Stanley also appreciated Livingstone’s considerable sense of humor, which consistently shone through, despite the hardships they experienced: “There is a good-natured abandon about Livingstone which was not lost on me. Whenever he began to laugh, there was a contagion about it that compelled me to imitate him. It was a laugh of the whole man from head to heel. If he told a story, he related it in such a way as to convince one of its truthfulness. His face was so lit up by the sly fun it contained, that I was sure the story was worth relating and worth listening to. Underneath his well-worn exterior lay an endless fund of high spirits and inexhaustible humor; that rugged frame of his enclosed a young and most exuberant soul. Every day I heard innumerable jokes and pleasant anecdotes.”

Livingstone and Stanley exploring upper Lake Tanganyika
Livingstone and Stanley exploring upper Lake Tanganyika

Stanley bore testimony of the nature of Livingstone’s Christianity and the positive impact it had on his character and interpersonal relationships: “His religion is not of the theoretical kind, but it is a constant, earnest, sincere practice. It is neither demonstrative nor loud, but manifests itself in a quiet, practical way, and is always at work. It is not aggressive, which sometimes is troublesome, if not impertinent. In him, religion exhibits its loveliest features. It governs his conduct not only towards his servants, but towards the natives, the bigoted Mohammedans and all who come in contact with him.”

“Without it, Livingstone, with his ardent temperament, his enthusiasm, his high spirit and courage, must have become uncompanionable, and a hard master. Religion has tamed him and made him a Christian gentleman; the crude and willful have been refined and subdued. Religion has made him the most companionable of men and indulgent of masters—a man whose society is pleasurable to a considerable extent.”

In a memorial statement that Stanley composed following Livingstone’s death, he further testified about him: “He preached no sermon by word of mouth while I was in company with him, but each day of my companionship with him witnessed a sermon acted. The Divine instructions given of old on the Sacred Mount [in Matthew 5-7] were closely followed day by day, whether he rested in the jungle camp or bided in the traders’ town or savage hamlet. Lowly of spirit, meek in speech, merciful of heart, pure in mind and peaceful in act; suspected by the Arabs to be an informer, and therefore calumniated [slandered] by his own servants, but ever forgiving; often robbed and thwarted yet bearing no ill will; cursed by the marauders yet physicking their infirmities; most despitefully used yet praying daily for all manner and condition of men!”

“Had my soul been of brass and my heart of spelter, the powers of my head had surely compelled me to recognize, with due honor, the Spirit of Goodness which manifested itself in him. Had there been anything of the Pharisee or the hypocrite in him, or had I but traced a grain of meanness or guile in him, I had surely turned away a sceptic. But my everyday study of him, during health or sickness, deepened my reverence and increased my esteem. He was, in short, consistently noble, upright, pious and manly all the days of my companionship with him.”

“His conversation was serious, his demeanor grave and earnest. Morn and eve he worshiped, and at the end of every march he thanked the Lord for His watchful providence. On Sundays he conducted Divine Service and praised the glory of the Creator, the True God, to his dark followers. His hand was clear of the stain of bloodguiltiness. Profanity was an abomination to him. He was not indolent either in his Master’s service or in the cause to which he was sacrificing himself. His life was an evidence that he served God with all his heart.”

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My February 23, 2024, Perspective on “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?” provides a summary account of Stanley’s rescuing of Livingstone. A complete record of Stanley’s time with and perspectives on Livingstone are recorded in my recently published biography David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist (Christian Focus, 2023).

Copyright 2024 by Vance E. Christie

About Vance Christie

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

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