David Livingstone. Hero or failure?
Britain’s most famous missionary is 200 this month. Stephen Tomkins explores a newly-discovered story
It’s a baptismal service, and all around people are in tears – not from joy or because they are spiritually moved, but from anger and fear.
Their king, Sechele, is being baptised, by a missionary, into a religion they do not like or understand. They’ve heard that Christianity involves drinking human brains. Certainly it seems to involve an inordinate amount of boring speechifying. It also involves reading a book, which is much more popular, for those who have time to learn to read.
But no one does have time, because they are living through the worst and longest drought ever known, and every spare moment is spent foraging for food. And what has caused the drought? Well, the missionary convinced King Sechele that casting spells to make rain is wicked, so Sechele stopped, and so did the rain. Coincidence? Unlikely.
Worst of all, the missionary has the insane idea that a man must only have one wife, even if he’s king. So Sechele has divorced four of his five wives, wrecking his family and the carefully balanced political structure of the Bakwena tribe, and humiliating his people.
The king and one remaining queen mark his baptism by sitting on the first chairs the town has ever seen, which causes some excitement, but it’s hardly enough to make up for the rest of it.
The missionary, as you will have figured out, is David Livingstone; the year is 1848, and the place is Kolobeng, in what is today Botswana. Livingstone was a Congregationalist missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS), probably the most celebrated missionary in British history, and in his day the greatest celebrity in the English-speaking world.
He was not born great, and did not have greatness thrust upon him. He grew up in a mill-working family, taught himself Latin, and worked his way through university at the spinning jenny in order to train as a doctor and a minister.
When Livingstone went to South Africa with the LMS, the plan was for him to stay with the great Scottish missionary Robert Moffat and learn the ropes, then start a new mission station nearby with the lay missionary Rogers Edwards. Unfortunately, Livingstone proved rather unsuitable for the job given him.
Restless, independent and quarrelsome, he couldn’t wait for Moffat to return from furlough, so immediately went off prospecting for a new site. He and Edwards established the new station, but even before the building was finished, they violently fell out; so in 1845 Livingstone left with his bride, Mary, to start another new mission station with Sechele and the Bakwena, going deeper into southern Africa than any missionary had yet been.
Sechele was a very clever man who quickly learned to read and fell in love with the Bible. There were huge obstacles in the way of his accepting Christianity, but he was keen, and after three years of preaching, he sent away what Livingstone called “his superfluous wives”, and became a Christian.
This was the first conversion of Livingstone’s missionary career. It was also the last. And, according to Livingstone himself, it lasted mere months. You have to wonder how a man gets to be the most celebrated missionary in British history with a CV like that.
What went wrong – at least on the surface – is that six months after the baptism, Livingstone discovered one of Sechele’s ex-wives was pregnant. He had fallen. Livingstone suspended Sechele from communion, and, believing his faith and their friendship were broken beyond repair, he made plans to move on to new pastures.
The only problem with these plans was that Sechele accepted his discipline, repented his sin and protested his undying love for Livingstone and for Jesus. If Livingstone had any missionary calling, it was to stay with Sechele and nurture his fragile-looking new faith, and help him spread it among his people.
But he didn’t. Declaring Sechele apostate, Livingstone went north across the Kalahari Dessert, to make contact with a larger tribe, to “discover” Lake Ngami (by being the first European to see it), and to open a highway into Africa for later missionaries along the Zambezi River.
The rest of his life was full of extraordinary adventures and breathtaking heroism, including a 2,000-mile coast-to-coast walk across Africa facing endless extremes of danger, disease and discomfort. He fought the slave trade, to the point of tackling armed traders and freeing their captives. The list of his discoveries as an explorer is very impressive. But as for the task which Livingstone went to Africa for – evangelism – by the time he left Kolobeng, that was pretty much all over. It had barely begun.
I think it’s safe to say David Livingstone was not a great missionary. He wasn’t even a good one. The characteristic that made him a great explorer is exactly what spoiled him for mission work: he was incapable of staying still.
So why remember his mission now, on his bicentennial? The answer of at least one major biography is that we shouldn’t: he achieved nothing and his fame rests on nothing more than fantastic PR.
I think there are two better answers than that. One is that Livingstone succeeded in opening a way into Africa for other missionaries to follow. He devoted years and years to the attempt and died thinking he had failed. And yet in 1875, two years after his death, on his inspiration and following his path, the Livingstonia Mission entered Africa. By 1900, it had five churches with 1,576 members, a third of whom were preachers. Yes, Livingstone turned out to be a lousy missionary himself, but he found a different way to contribute to mission.
The second answer is that Sechele, largely unnoticed by Livingstone’s biographers, went on after Livingstone left him to become a Christian missionary. He evangelised other southern African tribes, preached to his own people – who grew a hundredfold throughout his career – and became a brilliant theologian, reinterpreting the Bible in a way that connected with southern African life (and infuriated British missionaries). He was probably the most successful missionary in 19th Century Africa. That Sechele should be all but forgotten while Livingstone was all but canonised is depressingly predictable.
I hope that in Livingstone’s bicentennial year Sechele finally gets some of the recognition he deserves. And I hope that Livingstone is remembered too, because his life vividly illustrates the truth that he believed with all his heart: that we are not called to succeed, only to play our part. Livingstone never saw success for his mission, but died believing that it was in God’s hands, and that that was the best place for it. It looks as if he may have been right.
Stephen Tomkins is the editor of Reform, and author of David Livingstone: The Unexplored Story
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Reform.