Book Review: David Livingstone

As I make my way through the biographies of famous Christians of days past, I came across David Livingstone. Interestingly, Livingstone is a man best known not for something he said but for something that was said to him. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” spoken to him by Henry Morton Stanley, is a phrase that has gone down in history. But for this phrase I suspect few people would remember Livingstone’s name.

Born in Scotland in 1813, Livingstone was converted to Christianity as a young man and, after studying theology and medicine, joined the London Missionary Society, becoming a minister. Though he desired to become a missionary to China, wars prevented him from travelling to that nation and instead he travelled to Africa and ministered to unreached tribes on that continent. This labor, a labor of love, consumed his life. He crossed the continent time and again, seeking to share the gospel, to map the continent, and to stop the slave trade. He sought to plant mission stations and to create opportunities for commerce that would provide industry in Africa that would prove more valuable than slaves. He was among the first Westerners to cross the African continent. He traveled until he was sixty years old when he finally fell ill and died in the wilderness. He received the great honor of being laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

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Livingstone was, in many ways, a flawed and tragic character. His ministry seemed to bear little fruit while he was alive. Though he was highly regarded as a man who loved the natives and sought to protect them from the slave trade, he witnessed few conversions and felt the weight of this apparent lack of success. While young he desired to be married so he could have a wife to share in his labors, and yet when he did marry, he left his family for extended periods of time, lasting even up to four years. And while he was blessed with several children, he barely knew them as his work so often kept him away. Eventually, when his wife was able to travel with him, she succumbed to a disease and died far from civilization. One has to wonder, legitimately I think, whether he ought to have married in the first place. It is painful to read about these extended separations.

Though flawed, Livingstone is an important character, perhaps more so than most people credit him for. He played a crucial role in the final abolition of the African slave trade and in the decision of the British to protect the natives. While this did not happen until after his death, it was a great triumph. David Livingstone: The Truth Behind the Legend by Rob Mackenzie tells Livingstone’s story and tells it well. It is easy to read and yet is deep and absorbing. Really my only complaint is that the book describes an area of the world with which I have no familiarity, and while there are several maps included in the book, I still found it very difficult to determine where Livingstone was and on what part of the continent he labored. A little more attention to geography would have been most helpful. Despite this, I enjoyed the book a great deal and found it made a good introduction to this legendary figure. I recommend it.