The Smoke of a Thousand Villages
Believing it was God’s will for him to become a missionary, he attended lectures at Glasgow University where he studied medicine, and applied to the London Missionary Society. But when the young man had to preach a sermon to a congregation in the village of Stanford Rivers, he entered the pulpit and announced to the waiting people, “Friends, I have forgotten all I had to say” – and promptly left the pulpit! Indeed, all his life he found public speaking very difficult. “Moreover, criticism was made of his extreme slowness and hesitancy in prayer. Yet the man who was nearly rejected by the Society on this account, died on his knees in the heart of Africa while all the world was awed by the thought that David Livingstone passed away in the act of prayer.”
He was finally accepted as a missionary, and furthered his medical studies in London in preparation for mission work. In 1840 he qualified, and was also ordained.
In England he met the missionary Robert Moffat who was home on furlough, a fellow-Scot who had been labouring for many years in a place called Kuruman, a dry, hot desert portion of what would later be the country of South Africa, ministering to the Tswana people. Moffat spoke the words which David never forgot, and which spurred him on through all the trials and tribulations of his adventurous life. In Moffat’s own words: “By and by he [David] asked me whether I thought he would do for Africa. I said I believed he would, if he would not go to an old station, but would advance to unoccupied ground, specifying the vast plain to the north [of Kuruman], where I had sometimes seen in the morning sun the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary had ever been.”
These words sparked a continent-wide vision in David’s heart, the burning desire to preach in that unknown African interior where no missionary had ever gone before. He once wrote: “I hope to be permitted to work as long as I live beyond other men’s line of things and plant the seed of the Gospel where others have not planted.”
After a sad parting from his beloved parents, who stood fully behind him in his work, he sailed for Africa in 1840. He was 27 years old.
In Africa at Last
While on board ship on the voyage to Algoa Bay (present-day Port Elizabeth, South Africa), Livingstone asked the captain to teach him how to navigate. He knew that such knowledge could be very beneficial to him in his work.
The interior of Africa was at that time a vast, unknown, mysterious land, peopled in Europeans’ imaginations by strange animals and even stranger men. Thus far it had defied all attempts to open its secrets to the world. David Livingstone would change all that. He journeyed hundreds of miles to Moffat’s mission station at Kuruman by ox wagon. It took him ten weeks and he revelled in the life, camping under the stars, shooting for the pot. There were no roads, just the wild African bush all around him, filled with Africa’s great wildlife. Staying only a short while at Kuruman, he pushed further north, into the land of the Bakwena tribe. By living among them he learned their language and began preaching to them, and they came to respect him greatly. Once, travelling on the edge of the Kalahari desert, he overheard some of his Bakwena bearers discussing him. They said, “He is not strong, he is quite slim and only appears stout because he puts himself into those bags (trousers). He will soon crack up.” Livingstone was to report on this: “This caused my Highland blood to rise, and made me despise the fatigue of keeping them all at the top of their speed for days together, until I heard them expressing proper opinions of my pedestrian powers.”
He was a tough man in a wild and dangerous country – the ideal man for the task. He ate what there was at the time, even (like John the Baptist) locusts and wild honey. Once he wrote, “I have drunk water swarming with insects, thick with mud, putrid from rhinoceros’ urine and buffalo’s dung.”
At one point he wrote: “I shall try to hold myself in readiness to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”
Mauled by a Lion
In 1845, when he went to a place called Mabotsa to start a mission among the Bakhatla people, he was attacked by a lion. He was helping to hunt some lions that were troubling the village, and when he saw one he shot it; but while he was reloading the lion sprang on him, buried its teeth in his arm and (in his own words) “shook me as a terrier dog does a rat.” He was saved by two blacks, one of whom had himself been saved by Livingstone previously, who distracted the lion and were both bitten. Livingstone’s shots finally took effect and the lion dropped dead.
But his arm was shattered and would never work properly again. The crushed bone was sticking out the skin. And “for thirty years afterwards all his labors and adventures, entailing such exertion and fatigue, were undertaken with a limb so maimed that it was painful for him to raise a rifle, or, in fact, to place the left arm in any position above the level of the shoulder.” And yet even this, in God’s providence, was for an important purpose, as shall be seen.
When Robert Moffat returned from England he brought his daughter Mary with him. David and Mary fell in love, and the spot where he proposed to her under a tree is still to be seen in the grounds of the Moffat mission station in Kuruman. There they were married. Theirs was a happy and loving marriage, and Mary proved to be the ideal wife for such a man.
Mary Moffat Livingstone
Plunging into the Unknown
Livingstone still longed to explore further, and so it was that he took his wife and headed to Chonuane, where he was made welcome by the Bechuana chief, Sechele. And it was there that Mary gave birth to their first child, Robert. This earned her the name of “Ma Robert” among the natives, according to their custom.
Sechele listened to Livingstone’s preaching and it had a profound effect on him. He said to the missionary, “You startle me. These words make all my bones to shake. I have no more strength in me.” Sechele became a great reader of the Bible, loving especially the book of Isaiah. He said, “He was a fine man, that Isaiah; he knew how to speak.” In time to come, and with much caution, Livingstone felt that Sechele had been converted, and he baptized him.
Next, Livingstone journeyed still further north, crossing the great Kalahari desert and discovering Lake Ngami. Later he took Mary and his now three children there too. Returning to Kolobeng, where the tribe had moved, a fourth child was born, but died of fever.
Once, in a letter to his parents, Livingstone wrote: “I am a missionary, heart and soul. God had an only Son, and He was a missionary and physician. A poor, poor imitation of Him I am, or wish to be. In this service I hope to live, in it I wish to die.”
He pushed north again, eventually reaching the Makololo tribe under their chief, Sebituane. But on their way to this tribe (it was 1851) his family almost perished as they were crossing the desert. The Bushman guide was lost, and one of the servants had wasted their water. Livingstone’s agony was recorded in his journal: “The idea of their [his children’s] perishing before our eyes was terrible. It would almost have been a relief to me to have been reproached with being the entire cause of the catastrophe, but not one syllable of upbraiding was uttered by their mother, though the tearful eye told the agony within.” What a woman! Truly Mary was a wife of whom any husband could be proud, and a true example of the way in which a Christian wife should behave towards her husband.
On the fifth day, water was at last found, and they were saved from death by thirst.