Missionaries and their Valorized Lives – David Livingston (3)

As I have said before and this bears repeating –> “I hate to criticize ppl, but somethings just need to be pointed out. All too often when we come across stories of missionaries, what we get are some ballooned up romantic accounts of their heroic adventures. The reality can be quite different however. Now this is not to say that there is not kernel of truth to these accounts. Indeed there is… much more than a kernel. However what is often left out are some more icky stuff.” One last thing – do not get the wrong impression that all missionaries were bad – many were good. It is just that there are aspects to the lives of some of these folks that are not told enough and they need to be, so that others do not make the same mistakes.

That said again, I want to take a look at David Livingstone in this post. Livingstone IMO was more an explorer than a missionary. You will see why. And yes indeed there is much to commend about that man, for example his promotion of indigenous leadership, his fight against slave trade and his explorations and discoveries of certain areas in Africa – again the motives of which were in part, a destruction of slave trade. Yet still, much of what he did, he did at the expense of his family. His family really suffered on account of his adventures. Lets begin …

Livingstone was born in Africa, Scotland in 1813. At the age of 10 he began working in a cotton mill, working 14 hrs/day. In addition, he would take 2 hours worth of classes. As a child he read many travel books and also accepted salvation from Jesus Christ (i.e. he came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was God and that He died for the sins of all, and offered forgiveness for sins upon repentance). In spite of having zero formal education, he went to medical school, wanting to become a medical missionary. He eventually made his way to South Africa, where he went to Kuruman to work under the missionary Robert Moffat. It was here also that he met and married Moffat’s daughter, Mary Moffat. This seems to have been a marriage of convenience for Livingstone – it seems to me that he was simply thinking from a pragmatic point of view that marriage would help his missionary work.

Working as a conventional missionary did not last long for Livingstone. He was a temperamental character, getting into fights with fellow missionaries, explorers and the like. (In fairness to him, it seems that his fights were sometimes justified, as in when he opposed racism or the “colonial mentality” of white people.) In addition, (IMO) his itch to scratch was really more that of exploring the continent than doing serious missionary work and so he scratched that itch by undertaking very many dangerous explorations. While these explorations earned him many honors and medals, there was a price to be paid. These explorations were very strenuous and they proved to be a bit much for his wife and children. His first baby died while they wandered around the Kalahari desert on a limited supply of water. His fourth baby died after pregnant Mary give birth during an exploratory trip. She subsequently suffered from a temporary paralysis. This family trips would continue. In 1851, he took the family on another exploratory trip, with his wife being pregnant again. One would think that perhaps he needed to stay put for a season, especially since his wife was pregnant and his previous child died – but no – they continued. In his journals he instead complained about his wife’s frequent pregnancies!

Finally, a year later in 1852, light bulb went off and Livingstone came to the realization that this was a bit too much for the wife and kids and that this trekking lifestyle simply could not continue as it was. So what did he do? Did he bring an end to the exploratory work ? Did he settle down? Did he go back to England? No. He took his wife and 5 kids to Capetown, and shipped them off to Britain. He would not see them again for another four years.

His words were “Nothing but a strong conviction that the step will tend to the Glory of Christ would make me orphanize my children.” It was all, after all for Christ’s sake. {Hmmm… Have we heard these sorts of thing before?} Anyway – now Livingstone was free to do the “Lord’s work” in Africa without “burdening” his family. Now he could really go all out with his explorations. And he did make good on his freedom. He made some exciting expeditions that were quite historic.


And as for Mary, how did she fare back home in Britain? Apparently, the next 5 years of her life were among the most depressing in her life. She and the kids were “homeless and friendless”. They often lived on the edge of poverty in cheap dwellings. It was even rumored that she had taken to drinking to drown her sorrows. She must have been one lonely person.

In 1856, Livingstone finally made it back to England to report on his experiences in Africa. After spending a whole 3 days with his family, he took off on a one year speaking tour of England. He had become quite the celebrity and was hailed as a national hero. He also received many prestigious national awards and even wrote a book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Many missionary organizations also sprung up as a result of the high publicity that he received. I imagine that many Christians took inspiration from him and dreamed about becoming missionaries themselves.

For the next several years Livingstone went back and forth from England to Africa on expeditions. In 1861, his wife died. These expeditions were not quite the successes that he had hoped. Nevertheless he still made many important discoveries. In 1865, he went to Africa for one last time. This was on an expedition to discover the source of the Nile. He never came back to England again. In fact people lost track of what became of him. The New York Herald editor sent a reporter, Henry Stanley to find out what became of him. In 1871, Stanley found the grey haired, toothless, haggard old man out near Lake Tanganyika. It was Livingstone. Stanley spent several months with him and they developed a close friendship. Out of this would come a book, How I Found Livingstone.

Stanley’s description of Livingstone at this point is quite interesting. Stanley describes Livingstone as a pious, gentle, earnest, zealous man who quietly minded his business. He was a man of whom Stanley said, “I never found a fault in him”. At this stage in life, Livingstone was no longer the argumentative, aggressive and difficult personality that he was known to be. He was instead a person that modeled Christ. Stanley who described himself as “prejudiced against religion and the worst infidel in London” became a convert to Christian. It seems that Livingstone changed a lot towards the latter years of his life. I am sure that he had a good many regrets, for example, never having known his children.

Livingstone died in 1873. He was found at his bed by an African servant of his. His body was motionless and in the posture of prayer.

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