The most celebrated missionary of the nineteenth century—perhaps of all times—was David Livingstone (1813 - 1873), who was barely a missionary at all. He was the great explorer to Africa who became the darling of Victorian England when he returned from his excursions and filled lecture halls with his gripping tales of adventure. He had dreamed of being a missionary when he was a youth working fourteen-hour days in the textile mills of Blantyre, Scotland. Having heard reports of Karl F. A. Gutzlaff smuggling gospel tracts and scripture portions into port cities of China, he vowed to carry on with the work. However, the outbreak of the Opium War frustrated his plans.
Enter Robert Moffat. A great missionary patriarch from Kuruman in Southern Africa, Moffat is the featured speaker at an evening church service. His appeal is gripping: "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." Within months Livingstone is on his way to Africa, only to discover Moffat's vast exaggerations. The region is sparsely populated, prompting Livingstone to begin a series of exploratory expeditions looking for natives and new terrain, though always returning to the Moffat mission compound at Kuruman for rest and recovery, once after being mauled nearly to death by a lion. During one of his visits he courts Mary Moffat, daughter of Robert and Mary. Referring to this occasion, he later recalls that he had "screwed up" enough "courage to put the question beneath one of the fruit trees," proposing marriage to this "sturdy" and "matter-of-fact lady."
The bride quickly learns that this marriage doesn't mean stable mission work like that of her parents. Livingstone is a traveling man, an explorer who cannot settle down in one place. In the following years, she is often left alone to care for their little ones. He bemoans her frequent pregnancies as comparable to the output of an "Irish manufactory," obviously ignoring his own culpability. After seven years of frequent separations and difficult living conditions, he accompanies Mary and the children to the coast and ships them back to England. In the months and years that follow, she is described as friendless, homeless, penniless, and drowning her sorrows in alcohol.
Meanwhile, Livingstone pushes deeper into the interior, seeking a trade route along the Zambezi River. He dreams of transforming southern Africa, guided by his mission philosophy, "Commerce and Christianity." He is incensed by Portuguese and Arab traffic in human cargo and is convinced that his efforts will counteract such degradation. In the end, however, his exploration and mapmaking only serve to aid the slave trade. Nevertheless, when he returns to England in 1856, he is greeted by cheering crowds. His heroic tales of trekking the wilds of dark Africa capture the collective imagination of his countrymen.
With the publication of his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, he establishes his reputation as a heroic explorer—a reputation that lasts more than a century. But his return to Africa in 1858, now commissioned by the government (having resigned from the London Missionary Society), does not lead to a glorious finale. His health and personal relationships and grand strategies are strained to the breaking point. During his final fifteen years, he returns to England only once. Africa is now his home, and his closest companions are Africans who accept the cranky, toothless, bearded old man for who he is. His dream of finding the source of the Nile remains unfulfilled. He dies kneeling in prayer—a fitting ending for this legendary man. His closest African companions, Susi and Chuma, bury his heart in Africa and deliver his sun-dried, mummified body to the coast, where it is transported to England.
Dignitaries come in droves to pay their respects at the state funeral at Westminster Abbey. So also do his family, including children who hardly know him. For the seventy-eight-year-old Robert Moffat, it is a somber event. He walks slowly in front of the cortege bearing the casket of the man who decades earlier caught the vision of "a thousand villages, where no missionary had ever been."
Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.