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Lessons from the Life of David Livingstone

by Josh Stilwell | Published October 11, 2020

David Livingstone was a missionary, explorer, and scientist. He was a missionary to Africa. He went to a lot of places that no European had ever been to before. He was one of the most famous missionaries ever.

But he didn’t start out like that. He was born in a little town in Scotland. J. Oswald Sanders said this about him: “David Livingstone, at age ten, worked in a cotton mill in Dumbarton fourteen hours a day, surely he had excuses for not studying, for not redeeming the little leisure left to him. But he learned Latin and could read Horace and Virgil at age sixteen. At age twenty-seven, he had finished a program in both medicine and theology.” Working in the cotton mill taught David patience, perseverance, and to care for people who had to work hard.

Even though it doesn’t always seem very important, working hard when you’re a boy helps prepare to serve God later in life. David worked really hard when he was a boy and it helped prepare him to serve God in Africa.
As he got older, David decided that he wanted to be a missionary. So he studied the Bible and also became a doctor.

At first he wanted to go to China, but there was a war in China and they weren’t allowing British people to enter that country. But then he met another missionary who had just come back from Africa. He told David that he could see smoke from a thousand African villages but that there wasn’t even one missionary to tell them about Jesus. So David decided to be that one missionary who would go to Africa and tell people about Jesus.

David visited an area where there were many lions terrorizing the villagers. They stated, “The lion, the lord of the night, kills our cattle and sheep even in the daytime”. Livingstone felt that if he could kill just one lion, the others would take it as a warning and leave the villages and their livestock alone. Therefore, he led the villagers on a lion hunt. Seeing a large lion, he fired his gun, but the animal was not sufficiently injured to prevent it from attacking him while reloading, seriously wounding his left arm. The broken bone, even though inexpertly set by himself and a missionary’s daughter, bonded strongly, enabling him to shoot and lift heavy weights, though it remained a source of much suffering for the rest of his life, and he was not able to lift the arm higher than his shoulder.

David stayed in that village for a while. But he really wanted to take the Gospel to other places that no one else had been to. So, he ventured deep into Africa, where very few Europeans had ever been before.

During his journey, David got very sick and he almost died. But while he was travelling, he discovered a giant waterfall that the Africans called Mosi-o-Tunya. It is the largest waterfall in the entire world. He named them Victoria Falls, after the Queen of England.

While in Africa, David became aware of the slave trade. African tribes were always warring against each other. And they would take prisoners they would sell them to other tribes or to Europeans who transport them all over the world as slaves. David thought that this was a very bad thing. He wanted to do something about it. He believed that he could do two things to help end slavery in Africa: Open up trade between Africa and Europe so that the tribes could sell other things to Europe instead of people and preach the gospel and teach people from the Bible.

With the help of the British government, David set out to explore Africa. But it turned out to be a lot harder than he thought. He tried to go by river but the rapids were too fierce for his boats.

The first two expeditions ended in failure. Sometimes, when things don’t go like we want them to, it’s easy to give up. But David was determined to keep trying. He said, “I’m prepared to go anywhere, provided that it is forward.”

He decided to try to find the source of the Nile River. But on the way, many of his assistants deserted him and he got his supplies stolen. He became really sick. But some Arabs found him and nursed him back to health.
During his travels, he lost almost all contact with the outside world. He sent over 44 letters to people in Europe but only one of those letters made it through. A newspaper in New York City sent a man named Henry Morton Stanley to find him. It took a long time, but he finally found him.

How many people do you think got saved when David was in Africa? Just one! It was a chief named Sechele. But Sechele did a lot to spread Christianity amongst his own people. He was a good student and David was able to teach him the English alphabet in just two days. Sechele translated the Bible into his own language. He began with his own people, teaching them to read and introducing them to the Bible. He also travelled many hundreds of miles to evangelise other African peoples. Someone said that Sechele “did more to propagate Christianity in nineteenth-century southern Africa than virtually any single European missionary”.

When he got saved, there was a civil war in Sechele’s tribe between him and his uncle, who both claimed to be the rightful chief. David taught Sechele to love his enemies and to try to make peace. So Sechele sent his uncle a gift. Do you know what that gift was? It was something new that Sechele had bought from Europeans. It was called gunpowder. His uncle was suspicious of the gift and set it on fire. The gunpowder exploded and killed his uncle and that allowed Sechele to make peace with the rest of the tribe.

David stayed in Africa until he was 60 years old. He was staying with an African chief when he became very sick again. This time he became so sick that he died. Because he loved Africa so much, they buried his heart under a tree in Africa. The rest of his body was sent back to English and buried in Westminster Abbey, which is where they bury important people in Great Britain.

One more thing that we should say about David Livingstone. We’re all sinners and even very godly men make mistakes and do wrong things. David had a great impact on missions, on Africa, and the British Empire. But do you know what he said his greatest regret in life was? That he didn’t spend more time with his family. Because he was in Africa so much, he didn’t really raise his kids or take care of his wife. And that was really hard on his family.

At our recent Father-Son Campout, I asked the boys, “Aren’t you glad you’re dad is here with you today instead of in Africa?” I then challenged the dads: We can accomplish a lot of things with our lives, but the souls of our children have to be a priority. And sadly, Livingstone realized that too late.

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