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Who was David Livingstone?

David Livingstone

David Livingstone (1813—1873) was a Scottish medical missionary to Africa, a passionate explorer, and a philanthropist who worked to expose the horrors of the slave trade and halt it at the source. Despite his prickly disposition, Livingstone became a national British hero in his lifetime and remains one still today. For three decades, he evangelized native African peoples, traveled into undiscovered territories, and labored to end the slave trade. Much of his fame is grounded on a fusion of truth and fiction, but the reality of David Livingstone’s life is no less remarkable.

Livingstone was born in the Lanarkshire village of Blantyre, Scotland. His family descended from the clans-people of the Scottish Highlands. His parents, Neil and Agnes Livingstone, raised their large family in a one-room tenement house. David was the second of seven siblings. From age ten, he worked fourteen-hour days in the local cotton mill. Mostly self-educated through voracious reading, Livingstone also attended night school as he continued working alongside his brother in the cotton factory.

David became a Christian around age twelve through the writings of Thomas Dick, an eccentric Scottish theologian who believed God’s nature is discernable through science and religion. By the time he turned twenty, Livingstone was inspired to dedicate his life to medical missionary work. To this end, he studied Greek, theology, and medicine at Anderson’s College in Glasgow. Although raised in the Presbyterian church, Livingstone later aligned with the Congregational church and was accepted for missionary service by the London Missionary Society (LMS).

Initially setting his sights on China, Livingstone was redirected to Africa when China’s border closed at the outset of the Opium War. A chance meeting with Robert Moffat, a long-time missionary to southern Africa, also inspired him. Moffat roused Livingstone’s spirit of adventure with enchanting stories of his isolated mission station.

In 1840, the newly certified doctor and ordained minister set sail for Cape Town, South Africa, arriving in early 1841. David Livingstone began his work in Kuruman with Robert Moffat. As the young missionary became enamored with Africa and its people, he also fell in love with Moffat’s daughter, Mary. They were married in 1845. In less than two years, Livingstone began pushing northward to open a string of mission stations.

His expeditionary heart was awakened, leading Livingstone and his young family on some of the nineteenth century’s most dangerous and extraordinary explorations. In 1852, Livingstone sent his wife and children back to Scotland while he pressed on into uncharted lands. He was the first European to see Victoria Falls and completed the first-ever coast-to-coast crossing of southern Africa.

When David Livingstone returned to England in 1856, he was welcomed as a hero. It was during this time that he parted ways with LMS. To say he stepped outside the conventional missionary box is an understatement. Livingstone preached openly against white exploitation of blacks, criticized Western missionary strategies, argued with co-workers, and preferred to use native Africans in his exploratory missions. He was impatient and irritable, often blasting people in anger. Yet, he won the natives’ confidence by respecting their culture and language. Some historians believe it was Livingstone’s heritage that helped him empathize with and win the hearts of the tribal peoples. He spoke to them as equals—like a Scottish laird to an African chief.

Livingstone returned to Africa in 1858, backed by the Universities Mission to Central Africa. He also headed a government-sponsored expedition to explore the Zambezi River. Livingstone, a self-proclaimed “missionary-explorer,” was convinced that his strategy to evangelize Africa had the most potential for success. As a countermeasure to slave traffic, he desired to create a “Missionary Road,” or “God’s Highway,” as he called it, deep into the interior of the African continent, allowing “Christianity and civilization” to reach the unreached. He believed legitimate commerce (buying and selling of goods instead of people) could replace the illegitimate slave economy.

David and Mary had six children: Robert (who died at age 19 fighting for the Union Army in the American Civil War), Agnes, Thomas, Elizabeth (who died in infancy), William Oswell, and Anna Mary. In 1861, Mary traveled back to Africa to rejoin her husband. But within a few months of her arrival, in 1862, she died of fever. Although devastated by the loss, Livingstone threw himself even more into his missionary expeditions into central Africa.

After a short furlough in England, Livingstone returned to Africa in 1866. With the support of wealthy friends and the Royal Geographical Society, he set out to discover the source of the Nile. Livingstone traveled extensively, eventually vanishing from the radar for two years, further sparking people’s fascination in England and America. In 1871, when Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American journalist of the New York Herald, found Livingstone, he uttered his famous greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” The news of finding Livingstone shot across the Western world. Stanley remained with Livingstone for about five months, and the two forged a brief but genuine friendship. When he returned to England, Stanley wrote his bestselling account, How I Found Livingstone (1871).

In 1872, exhausted and ill, David Livingstone set out on his final expedition. He died in 1873 at age 60 in the village of Ilala (now in Zambia). As a testament to their great respect for Livingstone, his African friends and followers embalmed him according to their custom before carrying his body more than a thousand miles (over eleven months) to the coast to be shipped back to England. The embalming process required his internal organs to be buried in a tin box. As legend tells, Livingstone’s heart was buried in Africa, but his body was buried at Westminster Abbey.

David Livingstone’s two main published works are Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) and Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries (1865). The following words on Livingstone’s gravestone immortalize him and his achievements: “For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, to abolish the desolating slave trade of Central Africa” (Douglas, J. D., “Livingstone, David,” in Who’s Who in Christian History, Tyndale House, 1992, p. 427).

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This page last updated: November 22, 2023