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Model missionary

David Livingstone showed what real compassion to Africa looks like

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

LIVINGSTONE, ZAMBIA-"Fear God and work hard." That was the motto of David Livingstone, son of a poor Scottish millworker, who worked so hard that he overcame the class-stratified odds and became a medical doctor. Joining the London Missionary Society, he arrived in southern Africa in 1841 and regularly showed the courage that faith in Christ gave him.

For 16 years he had many adventures. A lion mauled him in 1844. Malarial fevers beset him regularly. Angry chiefs shot poisoned arrows at him. A hippo knocked him out of his canoe and he swam to shore before crocodiles could get him. He did what people said was impossible, traversing the Kalahari Desert and making it to the Zambezi River deep into Africa, where he wrote in his journal, "How glorious! How magnificent! How beautiful!" A Britain grown tame heard of his adventures and sat up in wonder.

Throughout, he maintained a Christian witness. Once, he walked hundreds of miles to visit the Baka tribe, whose leaders had recently poisoned and strangled four white traders. They were stunned when he strode into their camp alone, spoke to them in their own language that he had diligently learned, and, as he wrote, "had more than ordinary pleasure in telling these murderers of the precious 'blood which cleanest from all sin.'"

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Livingstone kept up the tradition of William Wilberforce by attacking the evil of Portuguese and Arab slave trading in central Africa. Rob Mackenzie, in his book David Livingstone, quotes the missionary's theological examination of both slave-traders and slaves: "It is only by the goodness of God in appointing our lot in different circumstances that we are not similarly degraded, for we have the same evil nature." Africans commented on his lack of racism: One native described him as "a white man who treated blacks as brothers . . . a short man with a bushy mustache and a keen, piercing eye."

He traveled light and tried to avoid giving the impression that Europeans were rich: "I have always found that the art of successful travel consists in taking as few impedimenta as possible, since much luggage excited the cupidity of the tribes." He studied African cultures and saw the degraded remnants of an initial belief in a high God that had turned into "superstitions-the mere wreck of a primitive faith floating down the stream of time."

After 16 years in Africa, he returned to England in 1856 a national hero and told British leaders "to direct your attention to Africa . . . which is now open. Do not let it be shut again! I go back to Africa to try to make a path for commerce and Christianity. Do carry on the work which I have begun." Commerce and Christianity seemed an unlikely pairing to some, but Livingstone had what today would be called a holistic ministry: saving souls but also caring about bodies. He wrote that it would promote God's "glory if Africa is made a land producing the articles now raised only or chiefly by slave labor."

His Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa (1857) became a bestseller, perhaps because readers liked his understated prose: "To be aroused in the dark by five feet of cold green snake gliding over one's face is unpleasant." He could have rested on his royalties but he plunged back into the African interior, suffering from chronic diarrhea and frequently bleeding hemorrhoids but maintaining an iron will. People said he sacrificed, but he replied, "Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?"

And what of today? Early this month there was much talk of helping Africa by sending dollars (or not collecting the dollars dictators owed) but not much about true compassion: The word literally means suffering with those in need. Livingstone called for paying a small part of that great debt, and he wrote that if his countrymen came with an attitude of giving rather than taking, "the Englishman would be an unmixed advantage to everyone below and around him."

Does the same hold true for Americans today? See "The other venue" and read subsequent issues as well to see what small groups of American pioneers are doing in Africa now.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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