On 19 March 1813 David Livingstone, the best friend Africa ever had, was born in the industrial town of Blantyre, 8 miles from Glasgow, in Scotland.
The Fighting Missionary
The hero of the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, described Dr. David Livingstone as “The fighting parson.”
The Friend of Africa
Jacob Wainwright, who had been rescued from slavery by Dr. Livingstone, described him as: “The friend of the African.”
American journalist and explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, described Dr. Livingstone as: “A truly pious man, a man deeply imbued with real religious instincts. His religion… is of the true, practical kind, never losing a chance to manifest itself in a quiet, practical way, never demonstrative or loud. It is always at work, if not in deed, by shining example.”
An Example of Excellence
Stanley described his attitude when he first arrived in Africa: “as prejudiced against religion as the worst infidel…” However, the example of David Livingstone, who had truly left all to follow Christ, converted Stanley. It is not so much what you say, but what you do that counts. Action is eloquence. David Livingstone said what he meant. He meant what he said and he did all he promised. He was true to his word.
David Livingstone was hailed in his lifetime as the greatest missionary explorer of all time. As one contemporary journalist described it: “the Christian’s Faith in God is strengthened by the author’s very survival of every imaginable danger. The abolitionist is inspired by the prospect of stopping the slave trade. Medical men are intrigued by Livingstones approach to disease and the value of his treatment for fever…” The incredible courage and sacrifices of David Livingstone inspired multiplied hundreds of men and women to dedicate their lives to Missions in Africa. What can we learn about the family and upbringing of David Livingstone, to understand his Faith, courage and vision?
Born in Blantyre
David Livingstone was born on 19 March 1813, in the industrial town of Blantyre, 8 miles from Glasgow. Today the largest city in Malawi is called Blantyre, in honour of the birthplace of David Livingstone.
His Father, Neil Livingstone, was a dedicated Christian who had met his future wife, Agnes, when he was apprenticed to a local tailor. He won the hand of the tailor’s daughter and became a tea salesman so that he could travel and preach the Gospel, distributing Evangelistic tracts to his customers door-to-door. Neil also taught at Sunday school and was a zealous member of a local Missionary Society, persistently promoting prayer meetings and Missionary causes. David Livingstone later wrote concerning his Father: “He deserved my lasting gratitude and homage for presenting me from infancy with a continuously consistent pious example.”
Neil Livingstone was also a strict disciplinarian who sought to bring up David in the fear of the Lord. At age 9, David was challenged to learn the longest chapter in the Bible: Psalm 119 (all 176 verses) off by heart in order to receive a copy of the New Testament. Because Neil had seen the ravaging effects of alcoholism, he was a teetotaller and persuaded his son to follow his example in abstaining from alcohol, for life.
David’s mother, Agnes, was a gentle, small and delicate woman whose compassionate kindness and loving nature served as a counter-balance to her husband’s strict and austere rule. It was said that her son, David, inherited her remarkably bright eyes. Agnes instilled in her family, a scrupulous concern for cleanliness and immaculate appearance. Later, Henry Morton Stanley commented on the immaculate standards of David Livingstone to his men as they began their epic 999-day expedition across the Congo: “Dr. Livingstone shaved every day of the 4 months, I was with him in the field and you will shave every day!”
The Napoleonic Wars
David was born during the last years of the ruinous Napoleonic wars which devastated Europe. The economic impact of the 25 years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had left many unemployed in Britain and an economically depressed environment.
The Livingstones lived a very frugal lifestyle on a minuscule budget. The Livingstone family lived in a single room, ten feet by fourteen feet. Two baby boys had died in their infancy, David had one older surviving brother, John. Another brother, Charles and two sisters, Janet and Agnes were born after David.
There was neither hot nor cold running water in the tenement building and David had to walk many times a day down the tightly curved, brick staircase to fetch water from the pump in the yard and heave it back up the stairs and along the corridor of the 3rd floor to their room. The Livingstones shared their tenement with 24 other families. At night mattresses were pulled out from under the parents’ bed which was set into a recess in the wall. Privacy was non-existent and the family cooked, ate, sewed, studied and slept in that single room.
A Passion for Reading
David Livingstone borrowed extensively from the local library, particularly books on travel and science. William Wilberforce’s Practical Christianity had a major impact on his life and clearly influenced his life-long crusade against the slave trade. Sitting by the banks of the River Clyde, engrossed in a book, young David was startled to hear the desperate cries of a young girl and her baby brother drifting in a boat towards the weir of the old Mill. David immediately plunged into the icy waters and rescued them from disaster.
The Cotton Mill
At age 10, David began his full-time employment, 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, for the next 10 years at the Monteith and Company Cotton Spinning Factory. He was to be a piecer, to repair broken threads in spinning frames. David’s day began at 5:30 am every morning as the bell was rung. Work would begin at 6am and continue until 8pm. The workers in the cotton mill had to work in tremendous heat and humidity. Steamed temperatures of 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit were considered ideal for the production of thread.
Every day, David would have to walk an average of 34 km, much of this in crawling, or stooping position, amongst and under the machinery, or balancing over it. One can imagine what tremendous physical training this was for his later transcontinental expeditions throughout Africa. Piecers received constant beatings from their supervisors to keep them moving through such long shifts, despite fatigue and exhaustion.
Hunger for Knowledge
Yet, David used his first week’s wages to purchase Ruddiman’s Rudiments of Latin. David managed to read in the factory by balancing his book on a portion of the spinning jenny so that he could catch sentence after sentence as he rushed by at his work. In this way, he maintained fairly constant study undisturbed by the roar of the machinery. Less than 10% of the children who worked in the Cotton Mills ever learned to read or write. David not only learned to read and write, he taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew. After work, he would attend a night school, 8 pm to 10 pm. Then he returned home to study, often until midnight. His mother frequently had to take his books away before he would go to sleep.
At age 12, David Livingstone came under intense conviction of sin and experienced a radical conversion to Christ. He wrote: “In the glow of love that Christianity inspired, I resolved to devote my life to the alleviation of human misery.” He wrote: “That the Salvation of men ought to be the chief desire and aim of every Christian.” He made a resolution that he would give to the cause of Missions all that he might earn beyond what was required for his subsistence.
At age 13, he attended an extra Latin class. When all the other students gave up, he alone remained in the class and the school teacher cancelled the lessons, not seeing the overzealous son of a tea merchant as worthy of his attention. David continued to learn Latin on his own.
David’s grandfather, Neil Livingstone Senior, also had an impact on the upbringing of David. He had been a tenant farmer on the island of Ulva, off the West coast of Scotland. He was evicted by the English to open up the area for a vast sheep farm. He passed on what he had heard from his grandfather: “I have searched most carefully through all the traditions of our family and I never could discover that there was a dishonest man among your forefathers. If therefore any of you, or any of your children, should take to dishonest ways, it will not be because it runs in our blood… I leave this precept with you; be honest!“
Another man who influenced David Livingstone was Thomas Burke, an old soldier who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars who would ring his bell to shatter the peace and quiet of Blantyre every Sunday morning to rouse the people to attend his early morning Prayer meeting. Burke was abrupt, direct and challenging. The Livingstone family faithfully supported him.
Another man who impressed David Livingstone was David Hogg, who from his deathbed challenged the young boy: “Now lad! Make religion the everyday business of your life and not a thing of fits and starts; for if you do not, temptation and other things will get the better of you!”
The Free Church
1832 was a special watershed year for the Livingstone family. Neil Livingstone, dissatisfied with the spiritual life of the Church of Scotland, changed his church membership to the Free Church. This required the Livingstones to walk to Hamilton, a nearby village for their Sunday worship services. Although they received many invitations to dine with families of the congregation, they chose to carry their own food and not impose upon the limited resources of the other families of the congregation, which they knew were also struggling financially. After Sunday lunch, the Livingstone family were treated to their one luxury, a barley sweet each. The Livingstones never accepted any hand-outs. They worked for everything they had.
Setting the Captives Free
The Free Church in Hamilton were strong supporters of Missions. In 1833, William Wilberforce’s lifelong crusade against slavery was successful. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, by an act of Parliament. This inspired an ever greater vision for Missions. Those who had been freed from physical slavery, now needed to be freed from spiritual slavery. Missionaries were needed to go to the ends of the earth!
Books and tracts from the Revival movement sweeping America reached Scotland and created much excitement and deepening of spiritual life and vision. David Livingstone received a pamphlet written by Karl Gutzlaff, of the Netherlands Missionary Society. In it, Gutzlaff appealed for medical missionaries to go to China. David was inspired by how a medical missionary could be much more effective in converting the lost. He had learned enough Latin to be able to understand most medical terms. He was remarkably well-read and easily would pass the University entrance requirements. His chief obstacle would be a lack of finances.
Through great determination, he saved most of his money during the next 18 months to be able to put himself through Medical school and Theological College. At the age of 23, David set out on foot to begin his Theological and medical studies in Glasgow. From 1836 to 1838, he benefited from the best Theological and medical training available at that time. Each weekend he would walk back home to Blantyre. Although he was frequently offered lifts in a horse and cart, David would refuse, preferring the 4-hour long walk, often in the snow, in order to strengthen his muscles for his career in Missions.
London Missionary Society
In his second year at college, David applied to the London Missionary Society. David’s Father was concerned that his son’s application had omitted important facts. Therefore, without David’s knowledge, Neil Livingstone wrote to the LMS Board informing them of his son’s diligence in attending lectures, refusing offers of a lift to town, his refusals of secure teaching posts offered, of his early quest for Latin proficiency and of his hard work, sacrificial lifestyle and dedication to study.
In response to the question on whether he was married or engaged, David wrote: “unmarried; under no engagement relating to marriage, never made proposals of marriage, nor conducted myself so to any woman as to cause her to suspect that I intended anything related to marriage; and so far as my present wishes are concerned, I should prefer going out unmarried, that I might be without that care which the concerns of a family necessarily induce and give myself wholly to the work.”
Eight months after his application, David was finally invited to London, 30 August 1838, for an interview. After the second interview in September, the Directors accepted Livingstone on probation. He was placed under the mentorship of Rev. Richard Cecil who described David as having: “sense and quiet vigour; whose temper is good and his character substantial.”
Failure Does Not Need to be Final
However, at his first preaching opportunity, David froze in the pulpit and abruptly declared: “Friends, I have forgotten all I have to say!” and hurried out of the pulpit. The Directors of the London Missionary Society seriously considered rejecting his candidacy. However, a wise man pleaded hard that his probation should be extended. At future preaching engagements, he proved himself a capable and energetic communicator.
One lady in Ongar, wrote of David Livingstone: “I never knew anyone who gave me more the idea of power over other men, such power as our Saviour showed while on earth, the power of love and purity combined.”
During his studies, David wrote to his sisters, urging them: “to seek to be uncommon Christians, that is eminently holy and devoted servants of the most High… let us seek and with the conviction that we cannot do without it, that selfishness be extirpated, pride banished, unbelief driven from the mind, every idol dethroned and everything hostile to holiness and opposed to the Divine Will crucified; that Holiness to the Lord may be engraved on the heart and evermore characterise our whole conduct. This is what we ought to strive after; this is the way to be happy; this is what our Saviour loves, entire surrender of heart. May He enable us by His Spirit to persevere until we attain it!”
Focused on God’s Kingdom
It was noted that David earnestly sought first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. He steadfastly sought the Lord’s will for his life and he persevered through every problem. David Livingstone was described as an idealist, an eccentric bookworm loner. He took his task and calling most seriously. Whatever he did he performed thoroughly. His character was uncompromising. He was inflexible in his adherence to his word.
Dr. Risdon Bennet, of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, described David Livingstone as: “Pure and noble… simple, modest, unassuming and self-reliant…” Dr. Bennet wrote that he was “struck with the amount of knowledge that Livingstone had already acquired of those subjects which constituted the foundation of medical science…”
Redirected to Africa
David Livingstone’s plans to be a medical missionary to China was frustrated when the Opium War erupted. The LMS declared China closed. It was at that opportune time that LMS Missionary Robert Moffat conducted speaking engagements in London. He inspired David Livingstone as he spoke of: “The smoke of a thousand villages where no Missionary has ever been.” David switched his focus from Asia to Africa.
Crusade Against Slavery
While attending a meeting of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa, in Exeter Hall, on 1 June 1840, Livingstone heard Thomas Foxwell Buxton speak of the Importance of Commerce and Christianity to defeat the slave trade in Africa. Africans would only be saved from the slave trade when they had an alternative to selling their own people to pay for the beads, cloth, guns and trinkets that they coveted.
During his final medical exams, David Livingstone argued with the Board who were not convinced about the usefulness of the stethoscope. Despite Livingstone’s unorthodox views, he qualified with a Licentiate of the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, November 1840.
On a bleak November morning, 1840, in Blantyre, the Livingstone family rose at 5 am and the 27-year-old David read Psalm 121 to his family. He then read Psalm 135. The family bowed in prayer and then Neil walked his son to the Glasgow docks and saw his son embark on his great African adventure.
On 20 November 1840, David Livingstone was ordained as a Congregational Missionary in the Albion Street Chapel. On 8 December, he set sail in the George for Cape Town, South Africa.
Against All Odds
David had experienced little childhood or adolescence. In his upbringing, he had little, or no play, or recreation. Against all odds, he had already achieved far more than would have been thought humanly possible for someone born into such a poverty-stricken and disadvantaged background. To achieve what he had, Livingstone had had to be decisive, goal-orientated and inflexible. As time went on, he became less and less flexible and showed little or no patience for those with lower standards of devotion to Christ and His Great Commission.
Let the Earth Hear His Voice
To those who said that the work at home must be completed thoroughly before any Missions be engaged in abroad, Livingstone responded: “All men have the right to hear God’s Word. No nation ought to hoard the Gospel like a miser!”
Through Tempestuous Seas
Livingstone described his three months journey to Cape Town: “Our little vessel went reeling and staggering over the waves as if she had been drunk. Our trunks perpetually breaking from their lashings, were tossed from one side of the cabin to the other, …huddled together in glorious confusion… imagine if you can a ship in a fit of epilepsy.” David befriended Captain Donaldson and learned all that he could concerning the quadrant and the sextant, frequently staying up until past midnight to take lunar observations and work out directions using the stars. As the ship rocked and reeled over the perilous seas, Livingstone studied Theology. Finally, a raging storm split the foremast of the ship and they had to put into Rio de Janeiro to have it repaired. He also acquired quinine bushes from his hikes. This proved to be most fortuitous as he later developed his treatment for Malaria from it.
Ministry in Brazil
David described battling profusely to refuse bottles of liquor that were offered to him from all sides in Brazil. The Brazilians expressed shock that any Englishman should refuse alcohol, for many of his fellow countrymen and seamen had continually disgraced themselves in the streets of Rio by intoxication. David handed out Gospel tracts at the notorious Waterfront Bar and narrowly escaped with his life as 20 drunk, angry sailors assaulted him. He engaged in ministry at the local hospital and witnessed raging drunken delirium. He shared the Gospel with a dying French sailor and urged him to trust in Christ alone for eternal Salvation.
The Cape of Good Hope
On 17 March 1841, Livingstone sighted the majestic Table Mountain as the George edged into Table Bay. Thus, began one of the most incredible Missionary careers of the best friend Africa ever had.