David Livingstone is renowned as one of the greatest missionaries of all time. He was among the first to explore Africa, driven by a passionate desire to end the slave trade. Livingstone was convinced that by opening up the continent he could expose slavery for the evil it was. When he died he was beloved in both Africa and England. His heart was buried in Africa and his body returned to England, where he was given a hero’s funeral. The gravestone read “brought by faithful hand over land and sea, David Livingstone: missionary, traveller, philanthropist. For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelise the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets and abolish the slave trade.”
Yet it is easy to focus on Livingstone the “saint” without recognising that he was an ordinary human being facing normal human struggles. Before he found his life’s work Livingstone met with a lot of “dead ends”. He initially entered medical college in response to a call for medical missionaries to China, but by the time his training was complete the Opium Wars had begun and the door to China was closed. He then settled on South Africa, having met a missionary already at work there, Robert Moffat. Moffat had a mission station 600 miles north of Capetown, and had told Livingstone that it glowed in the morning sun with “the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary had been before.” Unfortunately, when Livingstone arrived he discovered Moffat had been exaggerating. Rather than the smoke of a thousand villages Moffat had less than 40 converts, of whom half had returned to their pre-Christian ways, and the surrounding countryside was destitute of people.
Disillusioned with Moffat’s mission station Livingstone then set out to establish his own missionary work. Over the course of ten years he established a strong of mission stations, but had only one convert, who eventually returned to paganism.
This caused Livingstone to rethink his vocation, and it was only after all these setbacks that he finally embarked on his great journeys of exploration.
Not only did Livingstone face many setbacks before finding his vocation, he also suffered many character defects. While he loved the native Africans and got along well with them, he found it almost impossible to get along with his fellow Europeans. He fought with fellow missionaries, fellow explorers, assistants, and even his brother Charles. He held grudges for years, could explode with rage and later in life had a serious falling out and parting of the ways with his original mission organisation, the London Missionary Society.
Application: Livingstone reminds us that God’s work is carried out by ordinary people, not “supersaints.”
Application: . Livingstone’s story reminds us that we move into the future one step at a time, that where we will end up is often unclear, that there may be many detours along the way, but that if we are faithful God will take us and use us.