Columnists > Voices

Livingstone's prayer

Will affluent America fulfill the great missionary's vision?

Issue: "Superheroes strike again," Aug. 6, 2005

Three weeks ago I reported on the career of missionary David Livingstone through 1857, when he received massive acclaim as a hero. His next 16 years were more up and down. His constant attacks on the slave trade, and the failure of an expedition he led, gave an opening to critics who said he rushed ahead instead of following regulations-and Livingstone talked back, knocking "the so-called Missionaries to the heathen, who never march into heathen territory."

Livingstone also had to contend with pacifists who did not like his occasional brandishing of a weapon: "I can never cease wondering why the friends who sincerely believe in the power of peace principles don't test them by going forth to the heathen as missionaries of the cross." Some said he should only preach the gospel, instead of developing a holistic ministry; he responded by writing that a missionary should not be "a dumpy sort of man with a Bible under his arm. I have labored in bricks and mortar, at the forge and carpenter's bench, as well as in preaching and medical practice. . . . I am serving Christ when shooting a buffalo for my men, or taking an astronomical observation."

Livingstone also suffered personally: He was often apart from his wife until they could stand the separation no more, at which point she came inland with him and soon died of malaria. He mourned her deeply but wrote, "There is a Ruler above, and His Providence guides all things. He is our Friend, and has plenty of work for all His people to do . . . such a blessing and a privilege to be led into His work instead of into the service of the hard taskmasters-the Devil and sin."

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He wrote of his theology in 1866, describing good works as not personally salvific but useful: "Though there is antipathy in the human heart to the gospel of Christ, yet when Christians make their good work shine all admire them. It is when great disparity exists between profession and practice that we secure the scorn of mankind." He recognized that scorn might arise, anyway, since the cross is a stumbling block-but at many times his analysis is accurate.

He always saw himself as a pilgrim-he translated The Pilgrim's Progress into the language of one of the tribes, Sechuna-and after 1866 plunged so deep into Africa, dodging giant spiders and charging rhinos, that for five years no one in Europe or America knew whether he was alive or dead. Speculation grew until James Gordon Bennett, editor of The New York Herald, dispatched his star reporter, Henry Morton Stanley, to find out. On Oct. 23, 1871, Livingstone in east Africa watched a huge native stride up carrying the Stars and Stripes. Behind the flag stood a stranger in a freshly pressed flannel suit, with boots glistening and helmet a dazzling white. Stanley raised his helmet and said the words that became famous: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Livingstone and Stanley became friends and traveled together for five months, but Livingstone then set off on his own again to find the source of the Nile River and to document more the evils of the Arab trade in African slaves. Weakened by dysentery, malarial fevers, and hemorrhoids, he died on May 1, 1873, at age 60. His African companions Susi and Chuma buried his heart under a tree and hauled the rest of his body a thousand miles to the coast. A ship transported the body to London, where on April 18, 1874, he was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Livingstone became the most famous missionary of the past two centuries-and soon after his death the British government reached a treaty with the Sultan of Zanzibar that essentially ended the slave trade. Other adventurous and holistic missionaries followed in his footsteps, and one result is the warmth toward the gospel that many in Zambia and other African countries display.

Livingstone once prayed that "the time would come when rich men and great men would think it an honor to support whole stations of missionaries [in Africa], instead of spending their money on hounds and horses." Has that time come for affluent America? Will churches spend money wisely and compassionately? And will more pioneers head toward this new frontier?

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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