Stories Worth Rereading: David Livingstone

On March 19, 1813, a hero was born in Blantyre, central Scotland. It was an age of great missionary activity, and the literal fulfilment of the spirit of the great commission had led Carey, Judson, Moffat, and scores of others to give their lives to the promulgation of the gospel of the kingdom of God in heathen lands. A dozen missionary societies were then in their youth. Interest in travel and exploration was at its height, and the attention of adventurers centered in the Dark Continent, the last of the great unknown regions of the world to be explored. Into the kingdom for such a time, and to do a divinely appointed work, came David Livingstone.

His home was a humble cottage. A rugged constitution came to him as a birthright, for his parents were of sturdy peasant stock. They served God devoutly, and though poor in this world’s goods, were honest and industrious, being able to teach their children lessons in economy and thrift which proved of lifelong help to them.

David was a merry, brown-eyed lad, and a general favorite. Perseverance seemed bred in his very bone. When only nine years old, he received from his Sunday-school teacher a copy of the New Testament as a reward for repeating the one hundred nineteenth psalm on two successive evenings with only five errors. The following year, at the age of ten, he went to work in the cotton factory near his home, as a “piecer.” Out of his first week’s wages he saved enough to purchase a Latin grammar, and set himself resolutely to the task of thoroughly mastering its contents, studying for the most part alone after leaving his work at eight o’clock in the evening. His biographer tells us that he often continued his studies until after midnight, returning to work in the factory at six in the morning. Livingstone was not brighter than other boys, nor precocious in anything save determination. He was very fond of reading, and devised the plan of fastening a book on his spinning-jenny in the factory so that he could catch a sentence now and then while tending the machines. In this way he familiarized himself with many of the classics.

His aptitude for scientific pursuits early revealed itself, and he had a perfect passion for exploration. When only a boy, he usually chose to spend his holidays scouring the country for botanical, geological, and zoological specimens.

In his twentieth year the embryo missionary and explorer was led to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour. Out of the fulness of peace, joy, and satisfaction which filled his heart, he wrote, “It is my desire to show my attachment to the cause of him who died for me by devoting my life to his service.” The reading of an appeal by Mr. Gutzlaff to the churches of Britain and America in behalf of China brought to the young student’s attention the need of qualified missionaries, and led him to dedicate his own life as well as all that he possessed to foreign service.

As a surgeon carefully selects the instruments with which he works, so it is ever with the divine Physician; and though Livingstone was anxious to enter his chosen field, providence led him to tarry for a little while in preparation. During this time of waiting he put into practise the motto which in later life he gave to the pupils in a Sunday-school, “Trust God and work hard.” Having set his face toward China, he had no notion of turning back in the face of difficulties, and finally, after four years of untiring effort, he earned in 1840 a medical diploma, thus equipping himself with a training indispensable for one whose life was to be hidden for years in the fever jungles of Africa. He wrote, “With unfeigned delight I became a member of a profession which with unwearied energy pursues from age to age its endeavors to lessen human woe.”

Livingstone also secured the necessary theological training, and was duly accepted by the London Missionary Society as a candidate for China. But the breaking out of the Opium war effectually closed the doors of that field. Just at this time came his providential acquaintance with Robert Moffat. The missionary was home on a furlough, and at a meeting which the young physician attended, stated that sometimes he had seen in the morning sunlight the smoke of a thousand villages in the Dark Continent where no missionary had ever been to tell the sweet old story of redeeming love. This message came to Livingstone as a Macedonian cry, and he willingly answered, “Here am I; send me.” The purpose once formed, he never swerved from it.

The change of fields caused some alteration in his plans, and he remained for a time in England, further preparing for his mission with scrupulous care. On Nov. 17, 1840, Dr. Livingstone spent the last evening with his loved ones in the humble Blantyre home, going at once to London, where he was ordained as a missionary. He sailed for the Cape of Good Hope on the eighth of December.

Arrived in Africa, the new recruit immediately turned his steps toward the interior, where there were real things to do. After a brief stop at Kuruman, the home of the Moffats, he spent six months alone among the Bakwains, acquainting himself with their language, laws, and customs. In that time he gained not only these points, but the good will and affection of the natives as well. His door of opportunity had opened, and from the Bakwains he pressed farther north, until, within the first three years of his service in the Dark Continent, he was giving the gospel to heathen far beyond any point before visited by white men.

Both Livingstone and his wife learned early the secret of power that comes from living with the heathen, rather than merely living among them. He possessed a certain indefinable power of discipline over the native mind, which made for orderly, thorough, and effective service. The natives knew him for their friend as well as their teacher. Under his loving care, heathen chiefs became Christian leaders of their own people; Christian customs replaced heathen practises; and peace settled down where trouble had been rife.

Leaving his well-established work among the Namangwato, the Bakaa, the Makalaka, and the Bechuana tribes to be carried on by trained native helpers, this fearless man pressed on—always toward the dark interior. When his course was criticized, he wrote, “I will go anywhere, provided it be forward,” and “forward” he went.

Livingstone’s mind was one of that broad character which at the outset grasps the whole of a problem, and to those who have followed his later course it is clear why he saw no duty in settling down on one fixed spot to teach and preach in a slavery-harrowed land. He knew that, first, there must be a mighty clearing out of this evil. As for his own intent, he said, “Cannot the love of Christ carry the missionary where the slave-trade carries the trader?” And so, right through to the west coast he marched, carrying and diffusing everywhere a knowledge of the redeeming Christ, and illustrating by his own kindly life and words and deeds the loving mercies of the Lord.

The physician and the scientist, the minister and the reformer, were all combined in this one purposeful man. The people believed him to be a wizard, and even credited him with power to raise the dead. Heathen, sick and curious, crowded about his wagon, but not an article was stolen. One day the chief of a savage tribe said: “I wish you would change my heart. Give me medicine to change it; for it is proud, proud and angry, angry always.”

Livingstone left on record in his journals invaluable data of rivers, lakes, and streams, treacherous bogs, and boiling fountains, plants, animals, seasons, products, and tribes, together with the most accurate maps.

Near the mighty but then unknown Zambesi, Livingstone found the Makololo people, a tribe from which came his most devoted native helpers. When he left them to journey toward the west coast, as many men as he needed willingly agreed to accompany him. After a terrible journey of seven months, involving imminent starvation and endless exposure, the party at last reached their destination, St. Paul de Loanda, a Portuguese settlement.

Full as this journey was of incident, one of the most impressive things about it all was the horrors of the slave-trade, which came home to the missionary with heart-rending directness. “Every day he saw families torn asunder, dead bodies along the way, gangs chained and yoked, skeletons grinning against the trees by the roadside. As he rowed along on the beautiful river Shire, the paddles of his boat were clogged in the morning with the bodies of women and children who had died during the night, and were thus disposed of by their masters.” And when he was sure that the wretched system was entrenched from the center of the continent to the coast, is it any wonder that he determined to make the exposure of this gigantic iniquity his principal work until “the open sore of the world” should be healed?

The slave-raiders were Livingstone’s bitter enemies, and did everything possible to hinder his work. Just a story:—

Into a quiet little village on the shores of Lake Nyassa came some strangers one beautiful afternoon. The king sent to inquire as to their business. “We are Livingstone’s children,” they said. “Our master has found a road to the coast, and sent us back for his supplies. The day is late; we wish to spend the night in your village.” “The white master is our friend,” said the king, and he commanded his men to prepare the best huts for Livingstone’s children. Some of the servants left at once to carry out the king’s command, and soon the visitors were comfortably settled. The people flocked to their huts, bringing many gifts, and lingered about until the day was ended.

Late that night, when all the village was asleep, suddenly there was a piercing scream, then another, and another. The people rushed from their huts; for many of their homes were on fire. The white men, who called themselves Livingstone’s children, were seizing women and children, and binding them with strong cords of leather. Around the necks of the men they fastened great Y-shaped sticks, riveting the forked ends together with iron. “We have been deceived,” cried the natives. “The visitors were not Livingstone’s children. They were slave-raiders. O! why did we ever trust them? If the white master were here, he would save us. He never takes slaves.”

In the gray light of the morning, leaving their village a heap of smoldering ruins, the sad procession was marched off, heavily guarded. For two days their merciless captors drove them under the hot tropical sun without food or water. Late the second afternoon, they suddenly came upon a camp, at a sharp bend of the road, and there, in plain view, stood Dr. Livingstone. Every slave-driver took to his heels and disappeared in the thickets. They had all respect for that one white man. They knew he was in Africa to stop the slave-trade. The whole procession of slaves fell on their knees in thanksgiving, rejoicing in this unexpected deliverance, and were soon returning to their own country.

Do you wonder that the poor heathen loved the missionary? He never once betrayed their confidence. Almost immediately after reaching the Portuguese settlement on the coast, he was prostrated with a very severe illness. An English ship in the harbor was about to sail. In his great weakness, Livingstone longed for the bracing air of the Scottish highlands, and a sight of his beloved wife and children in the home land. But he prepared his reports, charts, and observations, put them aboard the ship, and, after watching it set sail, made ready to march back into the interior. Why did he not go home?—There was just one reason. He had promised his native helpers that if they would journey with him to the coast, he would see them back safely to their homes, and “his word to the black men of Africa was just as sacred as it would have been if pledged to the queen. He kept it as faithfully as an oath made to Almighty God. It involved a journey of nearly two years in length, a line of march two thousand miles long, through jungles, swamps, and desert, through scenes of surpassing beauty.” But the result was worth the cost; for two years later, when he came out on the east coast at Quilimane, “he was the best known, best loved, and most perfectly trusted man in Africa.”

Many times through all these wanderings he was in danger. Once, during his early explorations, he had an adventure with a lion, which nearly cost his life. He says of it in a letter: “The beast rushed from the bushes and bit me on the arm, breaking the bone. I hope I shall never forget God’s mercy. It will be well before this reaches you. Do not mention it to any one. I do not like to be talked about.” He never voluntarily referred to it; but “for thirty years thereafter, all adventures and exposures and hardships were undertaken with an arm so maimed that it was painful to raise a fowling-piece to his shoulder.” After his death, the body was identified by that scar and the compound fracture made by the lion’s teeth.

Livingstone’s visits to the home land were brief, and each day was filled to the brim with interviews, lectures, and literary work. He returned to Africa for the third and last time in 1866, ascended the Rovuma, and for three years was lost to the outside world. During this time he visited lakes Meroe and Tanganyika, preaching the gospel to thousands and tens of thousands waiting in heathen darkness.

In 1871 his strength utterly gave way, and on October 23, reduced to a living skeleton, he reached Ujiji, after a perilous journey of six hundred miles taken expressly to secure supplies. He was bitterly disappointed to find that the rascal to whom the delivery of the goods had been charged had disposed of the whole lot. For eighty days he was obliged to keep his bed, and during this time he read his Bible through four times. On the fly-leaf he wrote: “No letters for three years. I have a sore longing to finish and go home, if God wills.” Relief, letters, and supplies had all been sent him, but he never received them. Many of the letters which he wrote never even reached the coast, as the Portuguese destroyed them whenever possible.

During all this time England—and, in fact, the world—waited with intense anxiety for news of the hero. A report came that he was dead. Then a relief expedition brought back the word that Livingstone was alive, and in Africa, but that they had not been able to find him.

Just at this crucial moment Henry M. Stanley was sent out by James Gordon Bennett, of the New York Herald, with the order: “Take what money you want, but find Livingstone. You can act according to your own plans in your search, but whatever you do, find Livingstone—dead or alive.” Stanley went. For eleven months he endured incredible hardships, but his expedition pressed forward into the interior. One day a caravan passed and reported that a white man had just reached Ujiji. “Was he young or old?” questioned Stanley anxiously. “He is old; he has white hair on his face; he is sick,” replied the natives. As the searching party neared the village, flags were unfurled, and a salute fired from the guns. They were answered by shouts from hundreds of Africans. Stanley was greeted by Susi, Livingstone’s servant, and soon stood face to face with the great missionary-explorer. He had found Livingstone.

The brief visit which they enjoyed meant much to both men. In vain did Stanley plead with the doctor to go home with him. The old explorer’s heart was resolute, and he set his face as a flint. He did not feel that his work was done. At length the newspaper man and his company started eastward. Livingstone went some distance with them, and then, a broken old man, “clad in faded gray clothes,” with bowed head and slow step, returned to his chosen solitude. Five months later the relief party reached Zanzibar, and news of Livingstone’s safety and whereabouts was flashed to all parts of the world.

As the explorer again took up his weary way, physically weak and in constant pain, the buoyant spirit rose above hardship, and Scotch pluck smiled at impossibilities. He wrote in his diary: “Nothing earthly will make me give up my work in despair. I encourage myself in the Lord my God, and go forward.” Weary months followed, filled with travel, toil, and physical suffering. The last of April, 1873, a year after Stanley left him, he reached the village of Ilala, at the southern end of Lake Bangweolo. He was so ill that his attendants were obliged to carry him as they journeyed, but the heroic spirit was still struggling to finish a work which would make possible the evangelization of the Dark Continent.

While the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak indeed, and on the morning of the first of May, his faithful servants found him kneeling at the bedside, with his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. “He had passed away without a single attendant, on the farthest of all his journeys. But he had died in the act of prayer—prayer offered in that reverential attitude about which he was always so particular; commending his own spirit, with all his dear ones, as was his wont, into the hands of his Saviour; 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.”