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ss nucleus - autumn 2006,  David Livingstone

David Livingstone

Sarah Teague examines a man of courage, determination and faith

Most people have heard of Dr David Livingstone; his expeditions into the unmapped interior of Africa are legendary. Yet what is often forgotten is that his motivation was not personal recognition and success but a deep, heartfelt desire to serve God and bring him glory.

Livingstone had a love of the African people and a longing for all to hear the gospel and turn to Jesus. He was also disgusted by the slave trade and worked for its cessation. He endured harsh conditions that would have destroyed a weaker man, was alternately feted and rejected by his peers and did not live to see the full results of his hard labour. However through success and disappointment alike he trusted God implicitly and was willing to give himself as a living sacrifice to his Lord and Saviour.

Childhood and training

David Livingstone was born in 1813 to a poor Scottish family. From the age of ten he would work all day at a factory before going to school in the evenings. He would often study till midnight though he started work at six in the morning.

David's family were Christians so he knew and understood the gospel from a young age; however it was not until the age of twelve that he made a personal application of this truth. His reaction to understanding that his sins were forgiven would become an undertone of the rest of his life:

In the glow of love that Christianity inspired I resolved to devote my life to the alleviation of human misery.[1]

As a result of this resolution David planned to become a medical missionary. He managed not only to save enough money to go to medical school but also to devote enough time to study whilst working at the mills. He trained in Glasgow from 1836-1838, then spent a year studying theology with the London Missionary Society before completing his medical training.

Livingstone had set his heart on going to Africa and was horrified by what he heard of the slave trade. He became convinced that both commerce and Christianity were needed to achieve the cessation of the slave trade - African chiefs needed to be able to sell produce rather than people.

Missionaries and mission stations

Livingstone arrived at the mission station in Kuruman in April 1841, in what is now South Africa. He was disappointed by the mission work there and felt too many missionaries were living in the comfortable south when there were many unreached villages in the north.

He cared for the sick in Kuruman while investigating the possibility of building further mission stations in the north. He and a fellow missionary, Rogers Edwards, completed three missionary journeys north to the tribes on the edge of the Kalahari desert before they were offered land on which to build a mission station. They travelled for hundreds of miles, much of which were covered on foot. On these trips Livingstone showed not only courage and determination but also trust in God. On the second journey he walked unarmed into the presence of a tribe who had mercilessly poisoned and strangled four white traders. Believing they needed to hear the gospel he walked into the village, and 'calmly squatted next to the terrified chief who only relaxed once Livingstone, showing trust, had eaten some food and lay down to sleep in front of him.'[2] Livingstone recalled that he had: 'more than ordinary pleasure in telling these murderers of the precious blood which cleanseth from all sin' and, 'I blessed God that He has conferred on one so worthless the distinguished privilege and honour of being the first messenger of mercy that ever trod these regions.'[3]

Returning to Kuruman, Livingstone busied himself with the establishment of the new mission station at Mabotsa. He grew close to Mary Moffatt, the daughter of a fellow missionary, and they were married in 1845. Moving to the new mission station they went vigorously to work. They suffered through both drought and famine and while some made public confessions of faith they soon slipped back into their old ways. Discouraged, Livingstone began to look northwards to where people had never heard the gospel. He decided to cross the Kalahari desert, which no white man had then crossed, in search of a new station. He and a party trekked to lake Ngami, a journey which took nearly two months. On the following expedition he took his wife and children. Conditions were harsh and the area was full of mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Livingstone wrote in a letter to his sister:

Fever may cut us all off. I feel much when I think of the children dying. But who will go if we don't? Not one. I would venture everything for Christ. Pity I have so little to give.[4]

Finding a site for a station proved to be a difficult task and in 1852 it was decided that Mary and their four children would return to Britain while David continued the search.

Opening the interior

Though he was weakened by malaria, Livingstone planned to attempt to find a path to Loanda on the west coast of Africa. This was in order to open up the interior to Christianity and commerce. They travelled first in dug-out canoes and later on foot. By the time they reached Loanda Livingstone was in a desperate state, suffering badly from malaria and chronic dysentery, and had to be carried the last few miles.

He had seen few conversions and the slave trade was still rife; however, Livingstone continued to trust God's promises, writing:

Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God's promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see.[5]

Following his convalescence Livingstone took the men who had travelled with him back home and then sought to establish a route from coast to coast. Following the Zambesi towards the east coast, Livingstone was to see for the first time the falls of Mosioatunya, which he later named the Victoria Falls. He wrote that, 'scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight'.[6] They pressed on, arriving at Quilimane on the east coast in May 1856, by which time Livingstone was suffering from repeated attacks of malaria.

He returned to Britain a famous man, was appointed as British Consul for the east coast of Africa, and returned to Africa with assistants and a more generous budget. He took Mary with him, leaving their children with their grandmother.

Tough times on the Zambesi

The expedition explored the Zambesi in an eighty foot paddle steamer and was beset with difficulties. The boat was not the best for the task, there were disputes amongst the men and they were affected by illness. The most devastating loss for Livingstone was that of Mary who became ill and died in April 1862. Furthermore, in speaking out against slavery he angered the Portuguese. The expedition ran over time and had high expenses so was recalled by the British government. Livingstone's future in Africa looked uncertain.

In the face of disappointment and failure it would have been understandable for him to question God and his plan. However, he wrote:

I don't know whether I am to go on the shelf or not. If I do, I make Africa the shelf… There is a Ruler above and His providence guides all things. He is our Friend, and had plenty of work for all His people to do…I always think it was such a blessing to be led into His work instead of into the service of the hard taskmasters – the Devil and sin.[7]

The source of the Nile and the end of the slave trade

Livingstone returned to England to see friends and family in 1864. He also raised funds to finance an expedition to search for the source of the Nile. He returned to Zanzibar in 1866. At the age of 53 he returned to trekking through disease ridden areas. Even with his health failing, and his access to stores and supplies tenuous, he trekked on.

At Nyangwe he witnessed the start of the massacre of 27 villages by the Arabs involved in the slave trade. Though he was never to know it, the report he issued to the British government detailing the massacre enraged the British people and it was one of the main things that led to the end of the slave trade.

Livingstone the doctor

Though practising medicine was not his primary goal, Livingstone never wasted his medical training. It taught him the importance of objective judgment, which was to prove invaluable in his interactions with the African people. While in Kuruman Livingstone had patients who had 'walked 130 miles for my advice'.[8] His use of quinine and other medications to treat malaria and were lifesaving for other missionaries and their families. His medical knowledge and skills continued to be useful throughout his life and reflected his commitment to alleviate human suffering and care for the whole person, not merely their soul.

Sowing in tears

Livingstone fell ill and died on 1 May 1873 attended by his faithful servants. He was 60 years old. As testament to their love for him, his servants (at tremendous risk to themselves), carried his body back to the coast. From there it was taken back to Britain where he was buried in Westminster Abbey with full state honours.

Livingstone suffered for the gospel physically and mentally, his greatest desire being to serve the Lord who had saved him. He used his whole life to do so, yet never saw the fruits of his labour. Even so, his trust in God was to the last unshakeable, and God certainly honoured that. Livingstone inspired many other missionaries to follow him, some of whom saw much greater results, but had him to thank for the foundation he laid in faith.

Further reading

Mackenzie R. David Livingstone: the truth behind the legend. Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000. Most of the information for this biography was taken from this book, which I highly recommend.

  1. Livingstone D, Murray J. Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. London, 1857, 1873:4
  2. Mackenzie R. David Livingstone: the truth behind the legend. Fearn: Christian Focus 2000:72
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Personal Life of David Livingstone. London, 1880, 1910:125
  5. I Schapera (ed). Livingstone's African Journal 1853-1856, Vol 1. London: Chatto & Windus, 1963
  6. Livingstone D, Murray J. Op Cit:519
  7. Ibid:313,314
  8. Letter, Sir J Ridson Bennet, 18 December 1841
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