Livingstone, I Presume?



Africa during the 19th century has often been referred to as ‘The missionary’s graveyard’. Cartoons, TV adverts or comedy sketches featuring missionaries in couldrons accepting their fate with good humour abound. Resistance to colonial invaders and their strange religious co-conspirators is understandable. Yet there is little doubt that Africa, notwithstanding huge difficulties, has embraced the Christian faith eagerly.

But it wasn’t always so…

‘A costly undertaking’

In 1983 historian Ruth Tucker wrote:

‘[Africa] has claimed the lives of more Protestant missionaries than any other area of the world.  Evangelism has been a costly undertaking, but the investment has paid rich dividends…it has been one of the most fruitful ‘mission fields’ in the world.

‘It is estimated that by the end of the 20th century fifty percent of the population (Africa south of the Sahara) will be professing Christian.  Most of this growth has come in the twentieth century.  Church growth in the 19th century was often painfully slow, but it was the nineteenth-century missionary pioneers who risked all to open the way for Christianity in Africa.’[i]

Tucker also points out that Protestant missions to Africa began in the Cape Colony by the Moravians in the 18th century.  Hosts of missionaries followed including the great Scottish missionary/explorer David Livingstone who evangelised as he went about his travels in Southern Africa (up as far as Angola on the west coast and Malawi on the east).

‘Livingstone, I presume?’

Well, he is a slightly odd one! Tim Jeal in his biography from the 1970’s put down on paper what many have pondered. Are we right to presume that the Livingstone, sometimes lauded as the greatest missionary ever, was, in fact, even a good one?

Writing of his own contribution to biographical research about Livingstone, Jeal asserts: ‘the picture I presented of the great explorer’s character and life’s work differed significantly from depictions of him in all previous biographies…The picture of Livingstone presented in biographies published after mine has in all factual essentials resembled my own.

‘My contention that Livingstone failed in conventional missionary terms, making but a single convert, a chief, who subsequently lapsed, has never been challenged.’[ii]

‘Yet,’ continues Jeal, ‘despite his character defects and his failures, Livingstone remained a very great man whose overall achievement was unique – not simply because he was the first European to have made an authenticated crossing of the continent from coast to coast; not even for the many geographical discoveries he made during thousands of miles of tramping with inadequate supplies and assistance.

‘For in addition, his contributions to ethnology, natural history, tropical medicine and linguistics were hugely influential, as were his roles as a crusader against the slave trade…’[iii]

Jeal has hit on a key Livingstone dilemma. Here we have an essentially non-evangelistic missionary who fell in love with Africa and Africans and who became essentially an explorer, impatient with Europeans, yet who would ‘open up the way’ for colonialists seeking to exploit the land and its people. Hardly a clear-cut Christian mission.

For the next post on Livinsgtone’s adventures and how he was attacked by a lion click here

© 2011 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides

[i] Ruth Tucker , From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Zondervan, p.139

[ii] Tim Jeal, Livingstone, Yale University Press, 1985, p.xiiv

[iii] ibid, p.xiiv


2 thoughts on “Livingstone, I Presume?

  1. Dr. James Willingham January 29, 2011 / 6:52 pm

    One convert who lapsed? And yet Livingstone made a profound impact on missions. He inspired multitudes , and those who labored after him reaped the results. The whole affair is one of mystery, one involving the Sovereignty of God in Grace. We need a sense of awe, of wonder, at the choice decisions of God. The God in Christ whom we worship demands our all and nothing less. Livingstone is an example of one who caught a glimpse of that wonder with life changing commitments. We, too, need such experience of the awesome nature of God that we will serve out of that sense of wonder, gladly, willingly, enduringly.

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