David Livingstone (1813–73) is known as a missionary, explorer, and abolitionist. He was the first missionary to bring the gospel to my beloved country, Malawi, in 1859. He also explored routes that would open Africa for trade with the rest of the world. Inspired by a British member of Parliament, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, Livingstone was committed to abolishing the Arab and Swahili slave trade and bringing “three Cs” to Africa: Christianity, commerce, and civilization.
A lot could be said about the man, but on this day—the 150th anniversary of his death—I want to reflect on his work as a missionary.
Livingstone was born on March 19, 1813, in Blantyre, Scotland. He grew up Presbyterian in the Church of Scotland until he became a Congregationalist at age 15. Coming from a poor background, he worked hard in a cotton factory to save money for medical school. After completing his medical studies at Anderson’s University in Glasgow, he joined the London Missionary Society with the intention of going to China as a medical missionary. But the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and a persuasive interaction with another renowned British missionary, Robert Moffat, changed Livingstone’s plans and sent him to Africa instead.
Into Parts Unknown with the Gospel
On March 14, 1841, Livingstone arrived in Cape Town, South Africa. Not long after, he was mauled by a lion, injuring his left arm. Although the arm healed, it troubled him for the rest of his life.
As he received treatment for his arm, he met his wife, Mary, daughter of Robert Moffat. They married in 1845. In 1852, Livingstone sent his family to London as he continued preaching, establishing mission stations, and exploring southern Africa, only briefly returning to Britain in 1856. This is a dark stain in Livingstone’s story: sadly, his great missionary labors were at the expense of his family.
On September 17, 1859, he arrived in Malawi. And he brought the gospel with him.
In 1858, he returned to Africa with the focus of exploring routes on the Zambezi River to enhance trade between Britain and Africa. The challenge of navigating the river, however, turned Livingstone’s interests to the Shire River and Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) instead. On September 17, 1859, he arrived in Malawi. And he brought the gospel with him. I’ve visited a tree in Cape Maclear under which he used to sit and study Scripture in preparation for his evangelism efforts among the Yao people of Malawi.
Home Is Where the Heart Is (Literally)
In 1861, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa—an Anglican mission agency—sent a team of missionaries to Malawi to establish the first mission station in Magomero, Chiradzulu. Livingstone’s wife, Mary, returned in 1862 to join him but died shortly thereafter in Shupanga, Mozambique. He returned to Britain for the second time in 1864.
In 1865, Livingstone came back to Africa for the last time. By April 1873 he was increasingly ill with malaria and other infections. On May 1, 1873—150 years ago today—Livingstone entered the glory of his Master. He died at Chitambo village in Zambia. Oral tradition says he was found in a kneeling position by his bed, as if in prayer. The tradition also says the British asked for his remains to be expatriated to England, but the Africans insisted he was to be buried in Africa—where his heart was. After going back and forth, the groups compromised: the Africans buried his heart in Chitambo and the British buried his body in Westminster Abbey.
Livingstone remains a favorite of many in southern Africa, particularly in Malawi. The commercial capital, Blantyre, is named after his birthplace. I’m delighted and humbled to labor as a pastor in this city. The history of the church in Malawi cannot be written without mentioning Livingstone. The British government ended the Arab slave trade because of his efforts. He championed the dignity of Africans because they’re created in God’s image just like every human being.
The history of the church in Malawi cannot be written without mentioning Livingstone.
Above all, Livingstone’s life is a great demonstration of Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4:30–32. Surely he didn’t know how much the seed sown in southern and central Africa would grow. I doubt he ever envisioned his labors would influence the entire nation of Malawi. In one journal entry, Livingstone wrote, “I will place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of Christ.”
By God’s grace, the kingdom is no longer a tiny mustard seed in Africa. It has grown and put out large branches all across the continent. Praise God for his faithful servant.