One article describes Dr. David Livingstone as “Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one”. I gawked, thinking this had to be a far fetch. But after studying the life of David Livingstone, I am less skeptical of this great claim. He is one of the most famous men of his time; a missionary who was dedicated to the heart of Africa and unceasing for Christ without hesitation.
Who is David Livingstone? David Livingstone was a Scottish explorer, abolitionist, and Christian missionary. He played the largest role in the discovery and mapping of the unknown continent of Africa at his time. David Livingstone is remembered today for reaching the unreached people groups of Africa, and for starting the “Scramble for Africa” which led to the British Imperialism of African nations during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Livingstone received international honors, high accreditation, and prestige for his missions work in the Western world and for his work amongst the African continent. Even with his world-renowned fame, Livingstone’s primary goal was still to bring others to Christ.
Livingstone changed history forever when he chose the “Dark Continent”, Africa, as his mission field. Before Dr. David Livingstone, there was not even a notion of what Africa contained.
His findings were world-changing. Not only did he bring the Gospel to the lost, but he revealed the continent of Africa to the whole world. Livingstone explored and mapped out the uncharted continent. He also exposed the horrific, treacherous slave trade happening in Africa. These findings had never been known by the Western world prior to Livingstone. He is considered the greatest abolitionist for Africa’s former slave trade.
We will learn in this post why David Livingstone lived to such high claims, and why he is arguably one of the most impactful missionaries to ever live.
David Livingstone is the fourth missionary in our 10 Christian Missionaries Every Christian Should Know series.
Table of Contents
- The Early Years of Livingstone’s Life
- Missionary and Beyond
- A Returning National Hero
- The Quest for All of Africa
- The Mission Continued in England
- The Last Great Journey
- The End of Livingstone’s Life
- The Legacy for Africa, The Legacy for the World
The Timeline of Livingstone’s Life
Year – Event:
1813 – Livingstone was born to religious parents in Scottland.
1836 – Livingstone started his study in medicine.
1838 – Livingstone is accepted by the London Missionary Society (LMS) for work in China.
1840 – Dr. Livingstone sailed nearly 2,000 miles to pursue missions work in Africa. He had become a doctor and an ordained minister before leaving England.
1841 – Livingstone first stepped foot on African soil was in Cape Town.
1846 – Livingstone married Mary Moffat, missionary Robert Moffat’s daughter.
1852 – A life-threatening illness struck the Livingstone family, forcing his wife and children to go to Britan for medical attention.
1853 – Livingstone set out to travel the entire width of Africa. Livingstone saw his first African convert.
1856 – Livingstone returns to England and receives a hero’s welcome with the gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society.
1857 – Livingstone publishes Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.
1858 – Livingstone leaves the London Missionary Society. Mr. and Mrs. Livingstone and their youngest son sail for Cape Town.
1862 – Mrs. Livingstone passed away from malaria on April 27th.
1864 – Livingstone returned to England to further his missionary career.
1866 – Livingstone returned to the famous continent, Africa.
1871 – David Livingstone disappeared. Henry Morton Stanley set out to find the missing great explorer.
1873 – The great missionary, David Livingstone passed away in the village of Chitambo, in Ilala, Africa.
1874 – In London, on April 18, the remains of Dr. David Livingstone were laid in peace, with the greatest of honors.
The Early Years of Livingstone’s Life
The young Livingstone was born to religious parents in Scottland during the year of 1813.
At the beginning of his life, Livingstone was far more ambitious than most, even at the young age of 10 years old. During this year of his life, Livingstone started working on a cotton mill in town while teaching himself every evening . He was a self-taught, determined youth. Which eventually led David to study medicine in 1836.
During his childhood, David disliked Scripture and “religion”. But during his twentieth year, Livingstone wrote this regarding his personal conversion to Christ:
“I saw the duty and inestimable privilege to accept salvation by Christ. Humbly believing that through sovereign mercy and grace I have been enabled so to do, and having felt in some measure its effects on my still depraved and deceitful heart, it is my desire to show my attachment to the cause of Him who died for me by henceforth devoting my life to His service.”
– David Livingstone, 1833
Missionary and Beyond
From the beginning of his walk with Christ, Dr. David Livingstone was compelled to missions.
While studying for his medical degree, the student was influenced by a missionary in China, Dr. Charles Gutslaff. This missionary also happened to be a doctor. Intrigued, Livingstone fixed his gaze to the nation of China for medical missions work with Dr. Charles Gutslaff, but the opportunity died during the Opium War.
What happened next opened the door to the grand adventure of Livingstone’s life. He met pioneer African missionary, Robert Moffat, who would lead Livingstone to Africa.
In 1840, Dr. David Livingstone sailed nearly 2,000 miles to pursue missions work for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first time Livingstone stepped foot on African soil was in Cape Town during 1841. He journeyed inland, to start a 10-year chapter of his life in missions with his colleague, Robert Moffat.
During this time, Dr. David Livingstone fell in love with Robert Moffat’s daughter, Mary Moffat. The two missionaries were united in marriage during 1845. Their first child, Robert, was born a year later in January 1846 .
Inland on the Horizon
Livingstone and his family were seven years into ministry when they started moving further inland. Then, the dedicated missionary saw his first convert. The man’s name was Sechele, the chief of a tribe Livingstone had reached out to. This was a giant victory for Livingstone. It was also a key to furthering Livingstone’s ministry, as his relationships with tribal groups would prove to be crucial for his explorations later on.
Tragically, a life-threatening illness struck the Livingstone family in 1852, forcing Livingstone to send his wife and children to Britan for medical attention. This was disheartening for the Livingstone parents and their four children, however, David Livingstone meant to carry on through Africa.
Livingstone became more and more adventurous. He no longer wanted to wait at his station for African people to come; he wanted to go. This was the beginning of his journies all across Africa, which eventually would lead Livingstone to pioneer “God’s Highway” into the very heart of the continent. He would write about his burning heart for the nation, earnestly questioning the people of Europe:
“Who will penetrate the heart of Africa?”
– David Livingstone, 1845
The desire to end slavery was a massive passion for David Livingstone, however, to end slavery seemed hopeless because the continent was largely unexplored. There was no way to get to those in need. How could aid reach the enslaved without a map? The missionary believed the way to abolish slavery was to explore the continent and expose the evil to the rest of the world.
This is what spurred his passion to explore the entire continent of Africa. When questioned about the subject, Livingstone always said;
“The end of exploration is the beginning of enterprise.”
– David Livingstone
Once the continent was open to the entire world, then new commerce could come in and out of Africa; selling all of their goods and resources, rather than their people. Livingstone believed that when Africa entered into the world’s economy, the evil slave trade would have to stop. This was the enterprise of Africa that David Livingstone was fighting for.
From East to West
In 1853, Livingstone set out to travel the entire width of Africa. With only a small group of African men who volunteered to join him.
From coast to coast, Livingstone and his men faced trials. The missionary experienced severe illnesses of many kinds such as malaria and terrible fevers. He often starved and had very little clean water. There were hostile tribal groups along his path, in which only the Lord could save him. Livingstone and his party were even attacked by the Dutch. These men wanted the slave trade to grow and hated what Livingstone was doing. Even though he was facing persecution and threats to his life, Livingstone was never willing to give up.
Though, to David Livingstone, the worst of his experience through his first exploration was not the near-death hardships in which he personally faced. The worst of it all was the horrendous treachery he witnessed committed against humans, the slave trade in Africa. He was up close and personal with the devasting lives that the slaves endured. The death and despair that Livingstone witnessed were enough to push him forward.
He pressed on. The missionary evangelized, taught, and preached to the people whom he encountered. He even kept a medicine chest with him at all times. This way, he could help heal diseases of the African slaves that he met.
Along with his missionary focus, Livingstone was determined to open up Africa with maps and records. Following the Zambezi River, the explorer discovered the Victoria Falls, which he named after his queen. This was one of the most remarkable of his many discoveries.
Traveling over 2,000 miles on foot, Livingstone went from the west coast of Luanda and all way around to the east coast Mozambique in the span of three years.
A Returning National Hero
Once on the coast, Livingstone was able to sail home. He was finally reunited with his countrymen and family in 1856. The dedicated explorer had not seen his homeland in over 16 years.
Upon arrival, it dawned on David Livingstone of his fame. The man had stirred the hearts and spirits of many with his adventures and passion for Africa. The descriptive letters of the tribes he had written home to, were captivating and magical to the people. Livingstone was living in an exotic paradise, it seemed. But his courage was arguably most captivating. Being attacked by a lion, Livingstone had scars all over his body. He was now known by the whole Western world, and they were dying with curiosity over his endeavors.
Even more, Livingstone was granted the highest honor, a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.
International societies and colleges all showered him with achievements and prizes. This only added to Livingstone’s fame. The top universities recruited Livingstone to speak at their schools, and journalists hounded him for stories. The demand for a retelling of Livingstone’s explorations and missionary endeavor prompted him to write his book, “Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa” (1857). It sold famously, breaking publishing history of the time, with more than 70,000 copies sold.
Livingstone said the absence from his home was never a sacrifice. He explained to a classroom full of Cambridge University students;
“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa… Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in… the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice”.
– David Livingstone, 1858
He had done what no man had done before. Africa was no longer an unachievable land in the distance, it was now just on the horizon.
The Quest for All of Africa
The London Missionary Society believed that his explorations were a distraction. This was a false assumption on their part because, as we can see from Livingstone’s life, he shared Jesus with all of the African people’s he happened upon. But in 1858, Livingstone surrendered his belonging to the London Missionary Society, so that he could advance his discoveries even further.
This led the missionary to join the Royal Geographical Society, setting out to discover land for his country. This helped Livingstone’s mission further advance with greater resources and more men. Livingstone was preparing to go back to Africa.
Another Voyage to Africa
On March 10th, 1858, Mr. and Mrs. Livingstone, and their youngest son sailed for Cape Town.
Sadly, Mrs. Livingstone had become so ill, that by the time they arrived, she could go no further than the missionary base.
Leaving his wife in Cape Town, Livingstone discovered even more new territories and landmarks. This can be attributed to his funding by the Royal Geographical Society. The expedition was fully equipped with supplies and men from Europe. The fearless leader, Livingstone, took the entourage all the way to the Shire River, then to the mouth of the Zambesi, and they even made the discovery of Lake Nyassa. These were all foundational to proving the success of their mission.
During this time, Livingstone established new missionary bases and preached the Gospel to the locals. He also wrote letters back to the English concerning the slave trade, which greatly disturbed Western governments and citizens.
Although Livingstone was living in triumph, the greatest devastation of his life was soon to ensue.
After being reunited with his wife in Mozambique, the couple decided to sail on the Zambesi River. After catching malaria, Mrs. Livingstone passed away three months later, on April 27, 1862. Livingstone had a strong spirit, but at the notion of his wife’s death, the widower writes, “For the first time in my life I want to die”.
As Livingstone’s heart took a tragic blow, so did his mission and expeditions. The man was so disheartened by the tragedy that his ambition suffered greatly. The Royal Geographical Society called him home due to the lack of progress.
The Mission Continued in England
Upon arrival to England in 1864, Livingstone delved into the pursuit of his mission even further. He did not view his return to England as a retraction, but rather an opportunity.
Here, he had access to the entire world. Which is exactly what was needed to end the slave trade in Africa. It was true, that people all around the world were horrified by the stories Livingstone published regarding the slave trade, but this was not enough. He was strategic in his plan. He wanted colonies, economies, and merchant trade to rise up in Africa from the Western world. A quote from Livingstone shows his heart regarding the Westerner view;
“Sympathy is no substitution for action”
– David Livingstone
They did not need to feel sorry for the African people, they had to do something. The action of the Western world could not have been accomplished without Livingstone’s geographical findings, however. He published yet another book. Not only was it informative geographically, but it also revealed the darkness of the Portuguese and how they were treating the African slaves. How they had monopolized the people and were using humans for their disposal and gain. It caused outrage; titled, “The Zambesi and Its Tributaries“, 4,800 copies were sold the first evening it was on the market.
He declined offers from the government, who were urging Livingstone to return to Africa. The whole world was waiting for Livingstone to find the very source of the Nile, which would be key to understanding Africa. Where did the largest, most mysterious river in all the world originate? However, Livingstone was not out for fame, and he declined all offers from the government proposals.
A Plan of His Own
Livingstone had a plan of his own, but it did not involve the government’s control. Livingstone was planning on going solo back to Africa, without any societies involved this time around. He planned on going back to Africa without any European men to follow him, and no European equipment. Only a few private funders would be supporting this expedition. He wanted to only work with the African people.
It was 1866 when Livingstone returned to the famous continent.
The Last Great Journey
Livingstone set himself up with a team to go deep into the heart of Africa.
However, he was not well prepared. His men were not loyal, and his equipment, brought from Bombay, was in poor condition.
Outrages broke out amongst the group, causing disunity and distrust. Livingstone’s treasured medical chest was stolen, and he became very ill. All of this, along with encounters of Portuguese territory, horrified Livingstone. Not only were the Portuguese out for his life, but the slave trade was especially horrendous in these areas. Then there were the Ngoni raids against Livingstone and his men, which proved to be very violent.
The hardships were definite hindrances for Livingstone to spread the Gospel, but he would never stop. To spread the Gospel and the abolishment of the slave trade were still the primary goals of his expedition.
The Disappearance of Livingstone
As the years went by, Livingstone contacted England less and less. There came a time when there was no word from Livingstone for a very long while. To make things worse, one of his followers returned to his village and deceptively reported Livingstone dead. It was 1871 when the world was left wondering, “where is the body of Dr. David Livingstone?”.
Livingstone by now was one of the biggest mysteries in the Western world. No longer were they searching for the source of the Nile, they were searching for Livingstone.
Stanley’s Quest for Livingstone
Meanwhile, Livingstone was going about his expedition. Finding new massive lake bodies, following the Congo River, and eventually going further west than any European had ever gone. He was breaking history, while the world mourned and wondered.
British expeditions were sent out looking for their beloved explorer, but everyone came back empty-handed.
During this time, a publisher at the New York Herald decided to monopolize on the dramatic opportunity. The New York Herald hired a very adventurous, young, and ambitious journalist, by the pen name Henry Morton Stanely.
Stanley wrote, concerning the case,
“No living man shall stop me. Only death can prevent me; but death, — not even this. I shall not die; I will not die; I cannot die. Something tells me that I shall find him. And I write it larger, find him, FIND HIM.”
– Henry Morton Stanley, 1871
At the beginning of 1871, Henry Morton Stanley set out to find the missing great explorer, Dr. David Livingstone. He started where Livingstone was last seen, years ago. For those with little persistence, it would have been a lost cause. But Stanley was determined.
Stanley journeyed inland with nearly 2,000 men to accompany him. Dozens of the men passed away from countless diseases, while Stanley himself contracted smallpox, malaria, and dysentery, all the while traveling 700 miles on foot.
Further north, Livingstone had fallen captive to Arab traders, living at their mercy for his life. He eventually escaped, severely ill, and settled in Ujiji for rest and recuperation.
Stanley caught a fresh new insight for his case once Livingstone appeared in Ujiji. Rotating rumors in his region, spoke of a European man north of him. Using none other than Livingstone’s very own map, Stanley embarked further inland.
Bringing a few men with him and carrying the American flag, Stanley arrived at Ujiji in November of 1871. The moment Stanley longed for was right in front of him. He confidently marched to the rather unclean, white-bearded, European man, and said the most famous question of his time,
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
– Henrey Morton Stanley, 1871
“I thank my God I am permitted to see you,” said Stanley; and to this came the reply, “I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”
Stanley was more than ecstatic to discover the greatest discoverer of all time.
The End of Livingstone’s Life
Livingstone had a lot to be thankful for. Stanely brought the medical attention Livingstone needed for his health. He was also gifted with letters from home, food, and supplies. This gave him enough hope and courage to keep carrying on. Although Livingstone was aged and sickly, he was determined to carry on until the Lord would take him.
Stanley stayed with Livingstone for a whole four months. He highly admired Livingstone, and he was very sad to say goodbye. The journalist pleaded with Livingstone to leave with him, but Livingstone passionately declined. Upon his departure, Stanley asked Livingstone what he planned to do next. Livingstone’s response is such a strikingly perfect representation of his character and determination for the Lord. Livingstone declared,
“Anywhere, providing it is forward.”
– David Livngstone, 1872
His open hand and willingness to go for the Gospel is what brought Livingstone further than any man had been, up to his time.
Pursuit to the End
At age 59, Livingstone still could not forget his desire to find the source of the Nile. He also could never forget his passion to end the slave trade. He marched on, but his feet were covered in sores, and he was still overcome with dysentery. In April 1873, Livingstone would take his last steps in the march for discovery and abolition. He decided to regain his health in the village of Chitambo, in Ilala.
As he was trying to recover, he continued to make maps, update his journals and gave orders for his men to scout the land. He was diligent unto death. Livingstone never did recover. He was found in his tent, peacefully kneeling at his bedside; Livingstone passed away while in prayer. This was written by a close companion of Livingstone concerning the nature of his death:
“By the candle still burning they saw him… kneeling at the bedside, with his head buried in his hands upon the pillow… he had passed away on the furthest of all his journeys, and without a single attendant. But he had died in the act of prayer, — prayer offered in that reverent attitude about which he was always so particular; commending his own spirit… into the hands of his Savior; and commending Africa, his own dear Africa, with all her woes and sins and wrongs, to the Avenger of the oppressed and the Redeemer of the lost.”
May 1st, 1873
Livingstone was now with the Lord. The men took his heart from his body and buried it in the land next to his tent. Livingstone’s heart will forever be in Africa.
The Hero’s Body Returned to England
The Body of Livingstone was preserved. He was then carried by his fellow men, on foot for 9-months to reach the coast. Once at the coast, Livingstone’s body was sailed to England.
In Westminster Abbey, London, on April 18, 1874, the remains of Dr. David Livingstone were laid in peace, with the greatest of honors. The four Livingstone children, representatives of learned society men, and the entire public all showed for his death. Even the queen, Queen Victoria, sent honors. Thus laid the most inspiring missionary, explorer, and abolitionist to ever live.
His life was one of sacrifice, exploration, love, and discovery.
The tombstone of Dr. David Livingstone reads:
MISSIONARY, TRAVELLER, PHILANTHROPIST… 30 YEARS HIS LIFE WAS SPENT IN AN UNWEARIED EFFORT TO EVANGELIZE THE NATIVE RACES, TO EXPLORE THE UNDISCOVERED SECRETS, TO ABOLISH THE DESOLATING SLAVE TRADE.
The Legacy for Africa, The Legacy for the World
A true “rags to riches” story, Livingstone started with the most humble of beginnings and left behind a legacy that continues on today. His success was profound, but the success was not for himself. Livingstone is considered one of the greatest humanitarians to ever live, according to historians.
He even spurred on the “Universities Mission to Central Africa”, by his own personal request. This organization made a great impact for the Gospel throughout African nations.
Livingstone was obviously an inspiration to Henry Morton Stanley, who took it upon himself to pick up the explorations where his hero had left off. Livingstone was also a hero to fellow missionaries. He inspired the next generation to initiate healthcare practices and an education system for people living in central Africa. Not only did he inspire them, but he made the map for them to get there.
One of the greatest legacies that he left behind was the stirring for the abolition of slavery. Livingstone’s work changed the British view of using “lesser races” for material gain. The nation was no longer supporting colonies that enslaved the African tribes, they actually developed colonies to coexist with the African people. This stimulated the economy, saving many African people from slavery.
Most of all, David Livingstone lived a life sacrificed to Christ. A life of gain for the Kingdom. A life laid down for those in need.
“I place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of Christ. If anything will advance the interests of the kingdom, it shall be given away or kept, only as by giving or keeping it I shall promote the glory of Him to whom I owe all my hopes in time and eternity.”
– David Livingstone