As most of us will know, Livingstone was born into a poor family in Blantyre, into a situation that was little better than slavery. Along with everyone else in his social class, he had to endure from a young age appalling working conditions for a very meagre salary (from the age of ten, he worked in a cotton mill from 6am to 8pm six days a week – he then went to school for two hours every day, after which he continued to educate himself until midnight). He lived with his parents and six siblings in one room. It is not surprising that such areas became hotbeds for socialism, and Livingstone could easily have gone down such a road in order to improve society. Instead he chose to work for social progress through the gospel and to do so in the continent of Africa where even worse forms of slavery existed. Livingstone’s commitment to the gospel did not blind him to the physical needs of his fellowmen and he was prepared to do something about it.
Converted about the age of twenty, Livingstone sensed a call to missionary work abroad and initially thought that God was calling him to China. Despite the difficulties of his education and long hours of work he managed to train as a doctor in order to serve in the Far East as a medical missionary (he also did theological studies). So he applied for service in China, but discovered the doors were closed due to the Opium Wars (another disgraceful episode in British history when we fought with China in order to retain the opium trade). He could have assumed that God wanted him to stay at home, which would have been a mistake, and we can imagine what would not have happened through him in Africa had he returned to Scotland. Instead he accepted the fact that the Lord who had closed one door would soon open another one. The doors that God closes in our lives may not seem as big as going to China, but Livingstone reminds us that a closed door does not usually mean that God will not use us. The closed door is only a test to see if we will look for the open door and get involved in his service.
His decision to go to Africa was guided by a comment he heard from Robert Moffat, a serving missionary in Africa and Livingstone’s future father-in-law. Moffat said to an audience in England, ‘There is a vast plain to the north where I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been.’ His words – ‘the smoke of a thousand villages’ – spoke very powerfully to Livingstone, and so he went to Africa. Each day, I see the lights of a thousand houses where Christ is not known, and so do all of us.
Apparently Livingstone was only aware of a small number of converts through his missionary work. But his work as an explorer opened up large areas of the continent for large numbers of missionaries to follow the paths he trailblazed (in Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire, and who can count the number of Christians there today, with some of the strongest churches in the world?). What made him persist, although so little initial fruit? Perhaps these words, written in 1852, tell us why: ‘O Jesus, fill me with thy love now, and I beseech thee, accept me, and use me a little for thy glory. I have done nothing for thee yet, and I would like to do something.’ Or perhaps these words, also from 1852, tell us why: ‘I will place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of Christ. If anything will advance the interests of that kingdom, it shall be given away or kept only as by giving or keeping of it I shall most promote the glory of him to whom I owe all my hopes in time and eternity.’ Twenty years later, in 1872, he wrote in his diary, ‘My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All; again I dedicate my whole self to thee.’ The value of persistence for Jesus is never to be measured merely in terms of visible success.
It is ironic that Livingstone has been and is analysed negatively by many academics, most of whom spend their lives in comfortable situations and earning high salaries, writing articles and books that shortly will be consigned to the dustbin of history, and whose mission in life is not to promote the Christian faith. I have heard Christians repeat some of these negativisms as if they were all one can say about Livingstone. Of course, no one is perfect and Livingstone had his flaws. But I wonder what Jesus said to him when he arrived in heaven. I suspect it was, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ With that commendation, what does it matter now to Livingstone in heaven that people on earth misrepresent him? And that is the commendation we should be looking for as well.
Livingstone died kneeling in prayer beside his bed. As one biographer put it, Livingstone ‘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.’ I suspect his prayers are still being answered.
Perhaps it is best to let an African have the last word. A missionary once met an old African man who as a child had seen Livingstone. She asked the old man what he recalled about Livingstone. He replied: ‘He laughed, there was love in his eyes, he was not fierce.’ Then he added, ‘He made a path through our land, and you his followers have come, God’s Light-bringers, and more come today.’