David Livingstone | A Philosophy Of Missions
Deliberate Missionary & Incidental Explorer
“For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
The secular world liberally reports its perspective of David Livingstone. As a result, word associations commonly connect his name with exploration. I intend to demonstrate that he was foremost an ambassador for Christ; his accolades as an explorer were incidental to his philosophy of missions.
David Livingstone’s philosophical approach to missions was conducive to exploration. However, exploration was not his vocation or desire. His letters inform us that his primary objective was to preach Christ where his name had not been proclaimed. These same letters also help explain what appears to be an undercurrent of ministerial impatience. His short bursts of time in different locations and the exploratory features of his life work are adequately understood through the lens of a duteous itinerant missionary.
Livingstone was known for his three missionary journeys, each taking him further into the interior of Africa. The latter journeys are most notable and provide valuable information of a geographical and cultural sort. But, we will use his move from Bechuanaland to Lake Ngami as an example. He was criticized for this; it appeared to many in his day and subsequent observers as hasty. It was undoubtedly contrary to the missiological norms of that day, but as we will demonstrate, it was coherent with David Livingstone’s difference of administration.
In November 1852, Livingstone wrote a letter to Dr. A. Tidman, the Foreign Secretary to the London Missionary Society. In this letter, Livingstone describes the work in Bechuanaland as a failure due to results that did not meet his expectations. In Livingstone’s mind, the missionary should arrive at a locale with people who have never heard the preaching of the cross and quickly learn to communicate the gospel to them. The souls saved would be organized into a self-sustaining church, and the missionary would move on to the next group of unbelievers.
His time in Bechuanaland produced one known convert, Sechele, chief of the BaKwena. But, within six months, Sachele had gone the way of Demas. By April 1851, David Livingstone’s mind was set; he was leaving Bechuanaland for Lake Ngami. His understanding was that the BeKwains had “willfully rejected the gospel.”
Livingstone said the source of their unbelief was being “pinched by hunger and badgered by the Boers.” These difficulties were no different than those his father-in-law Robert Moffat faced. Moffat took them head-on and was reasonably successful. The difference was Livingstone labored under a disparate set of self-imposed expectations. When not met, his solution was to move on. For Livingstone, the number of people who had never heard outweighed the need to focus on groups who appeared slow to believe.
A complexity of needs regarding various competing personalities exists in ministry settings. Some lost souls require more time, patience, and teaching before submitting to the knowledge of God. Others come to the Lord more readily and join the brethren with great zeal. Souls of the former sort, which are the majority, will require a missionary who is of a long-term mindset. Of course, placing the proper missionary amongst ideal personalities is a level of curation that is not available to us.
Impatience may be a reasonable charge for Livingstone, but it was consistent with both his character and philosophy of missions. His letters reveal a man who did not necessarily expect rapid conversions, but he certainly preferred them. Furthermore, he was unwilling to stay in one place, working with one people, for extended periods when others had not heard the first time. Of course, “an extended period” is a subjective determination based on the needs of a particular group. Livingstone worked with the BaKwena for nearly six years but was often on the move.
David Livingstone’s name is also linked to the idea of Missions Stations. Livingstonia is one of the more notable of them. But, Livingstone was opposed to long-term mission stations. He believed their proper use was of a temporary nature to facilitate the organization of a local church. Once the church was established, and on its own, he believed the mission station should move on to other lost souls. I have not found evidence in his writings defining his idea of a suitable “length of time.” His letters show his desire to be on the move, only staying long enough to learn the language and culture (which he often accomplished rapidly) and determine if the people would receive the gospel. He also reveals that he hoped a missionary would follow him with slightly more long-term ambitions, though he did not believe their presence should be indefinite.
In a letter to the London Missionary Society dated January 1850, he wrote: “It would perhaps conduce to the efficiency of missions, if it were known that except in special instances a tribe would not be favoured with a European missionary beyond a certain number of years.” In his mind, “favour with a European missionary” was directly related to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not some sense of European superiority. In September 1851, he wrote: “We ought to give all if possible a chance, and not spend an age on one tribe or people.” In numerous letters, he reveals his intent to preach the gospel to every creature in Africa at least once. For him, preaching the gospel to those who had not heard took precedence over settling down with one particular group of people.
This was his primary motivation for moving from Bechuanaland to Lake Ngami. Livingstone saw in Lake Ngami a large population of lost souls who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. He compared that to a nearly six-year-long venture with the BeKwains, whom he characterized as “slow of heart to believe.” As far as he was concerned, the BeKwains had rejected the gospel, and too many still needed to hear. He was eager to sow the seed on fresh soil, though he did not know what type it would prove to be. In his mind, he was leaving the BeKwains to their chosen condemnation.
Livingstone addressed these ideas in a letter dated May 1849, stating his reasoning for leaving the BeKwains and taking up ministry at Lake Ngami. He was admonished to stay until they all were converted. His initial reply was: “I hope other missionaries will be induced to pity the condition of these perishing thousands, and if not of our Society of some other.” Livingstone would not build upon the foundation of other men, but he did not mind others building upon his. He had plowed, broken up fallow ground, sown the seed, and watered, but with little to no acceptable increase. However, he hoped other missionaries would follow and continue to labor in his stead.
In the same letter, it followed: “There are no elements in the Bechuana character calculated to encourage the belief that conversions will occur precipitously. They are truly slow of heart to believe.” Knowing this did not inspire Livingstone to a long-term ministry but reinforced his desire to go on to other needy people. “It is therefore imperatively necessary to endeavour to extend the gospel to all the surrounding tribes. This although it involves a great many weary journeys is the only way which permits the rational hope that when the people do turn to the Lord it will be by groups.” David Livingstone sought a great awakening by mass-sowing the gospel to as many unbelievers as possible.
As for the modern insinuation that Livingstone was an explorer who dabbled in missions, the words of David Livingstone challenge that idea. He frequently names the gospel as his principal motivation; everything else is a means to that end. His letters reveal a philosophy of missions that drove him further into the interior. His desperate desire to continually preach to people who had never heard produced objectively useful exploratory journals. He was encouraged by the Royal Geographical Society to make goodly notes regarding his journeys and contacts along the way. These notes proved to be outstanding.
A letter addressed to Livingstone dated April 1852 demonstrates the admonition he received. Without such admonishments, it is unlikely that Livingstone would have taken care to document his findings. “We have sent extracts from your correspondence to the Geographical Society, and shall be happy to furnish that society with such information as it comes to hand; but in order to give additional attraction to your reports, we should suggest that you keep a regular journal recording any remarkable events, notices of the manners and customs of the different tribes, the natural history of the country, and other topics which as the result of observation at the time are more likely to prove of permanent interest and value than the more vague impressions conveyed in a hastily written letter.” Starting in the latter part of 1852, Livingstone’s journals and letters gained clarity and detail regarding his discoveries.
Livingstone was not in Africa to receive the honor often lauded by explorers. In 1849, as he prepared to leave for Lake Ngami, he wrote a letter to his brother Charles. In this letter, Livingstone characterizes the ideas I have attempted to demonstrate: “The honour of discovery will probably be given to him (Oswell), but I shall have the privilege of first preaching Jesus and the resurrection on its shores.” These words indicate the exploratory features of his vocation were more of a formality or even a nuisance. Preaching Jesus was foremost and enjoyable. Another letter in 1850 addressed to Moffat states that Livingstone had no regard for the fame that came from discovery. He sought to go where no European had before, not for findings unseen but for people unsaved.
After traveling to Lake Ngami for the first time, he wrote: “I cannot help earnestly coveting the privilege of introducing the gospel into a new land and people. When I heard the new language and saw a few portions of the people, I felt that if I could be permitted to reduce their language to writing and perhaps translate the Scriptures into it, I might be able to say that I had not lived in vain. I have had a strong desire ever since to be the first in the great undertaking. Perhaps it arises from ambition, but it is not of an ignoble sort.” This passage states the case, demonstrating his philosophy of missions incidentally produced his work as an explorer. The two are intimately linked, but the focus was preaching the gospel.
Therefore I conclude that Livingstone’s motives were to seek out people who had not heard and to be the first to reach them. This naturally led him to lands and peoples not previously known. He was a driven man whose philosophy of missions was born out of his deeply rooted character. An attack by a lion was not reason enough for him to quit or change his philosophical approach. He continued pressing into the interior, preaching the name of Jesus. “I would never build on another man’s foundation. I shall preach the gospel beyond every other man’s line of things.”
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