There are some historical figures whose every sin seems to get overlooked and whose every virtue seems to get amplified. Conversely, there are other historical figures whose every virtue seems to get overlooked and whose every sin seems to get amplified. I would place the modern understanding of David Livingstone squarely in the latter category. Though he was most certainly a flawed individual, it seems that today he is known only for those flaws rather than for his many strengths. It’s for this reason that Vance Christie’s weighty new biography of Livingstone is so timely and so important.
David Livingstone was one of the towering figures of his age, and this despite living the great majority of his life far from the centers of power and despite never seeking nor even desiring the limelight. He dedicated most of his career to a particular form of mission work—the work of exploration. He did this not because of a sense of wanderlust or a desire to make a great name for himself, but out of a desire to bring an end to a terrible evil.
European powers had long been involved in the slave trade and had created outposts from one edge of the continent to the other. And while they were eager to receive slaves, they tended not to venture too far into the interior. By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Europeans knew a great deal about coastal Africa, but little of what lay beyond. Livingstone was convinced that to end the slave trade, someone would need to explore—to chart navigable rivers, discover resources, and build an economy that would create wealth greater than the slave trade could provide. Thus his drive to explore was motivated by a love for people and a desire to quench slavery.
Christie’s biography, which weighs in at nearly 800 pages, tells his life in great detail, relying foremost on primary sources such as Livingstone’s journals and correspondence. It tells of his childhood in Scotland and his coming to faith in Jesus Christ. It tells of his conviction that the Lord had called him to missions and of his preparation by training to be a medical doctor. It tells of his early years as a missionary in what is now known as South Africa and of his marriage to Mary Moffat, the daughter of one of the area’s pioneering missionaries.
The majority of the book tells of Livingstone’s travels and expeditions. These often lasted for several years—years in which his location and even knowledge of whether he was dead or alive would be almost entirely unknown. It was in these years that he would be separated from his wife and children and often from any other Europeans. But then he would eventually emerge, return to Europe, and write a book about his travels. He would emerge to a level of acclaim that he did not seek, but chose to use to further his cause. And then he would do it all over again.
There is a good deal that we can justly critique about Livingstone. He could be harsh in his interactions with people, especially through the written word. He was more independent than he ought to have been—independent even of the local church for most of his life. And then he was so driven by his missionary calling that he effectively abandoned his family calling as a husband and a father; his children were as unknown to him as he was to them and his wife deeply grieved his long absences.
There are other critiques that are not entirely fair. Some of these are related to him being a man of his time and in these ways it may not be just to judge him as if he lived in the twenty-first century as we do. What matters more is how he acted compared to other people in his own time, and here he often proved himself much superior—“the Doctor was far ahead of his times in terms of the dignity, respect, worth, trust, and affection” he afforded to Africans. And then “he endured all variety of hardships and made deep sacrifices in devoting his entire career to seeking to advance their temporal and eternal welfare.” If only each of us was as devoted to the good of others as was Livingstone.
David Livingstone will probably always be a polarizing figure, but I’m thankful that Christie has provided this thorough new work that seeks to describe him not as we’ve imagined him or want him to be, but as he actually was. It describes him as neither a hero nor a villain, but as a man who was both sinful and sanctified, both tragically flawed and full-out committed to the highest of all causes. It’s a valuable contribution to understanding the man, his accomplishments, and the time in which he lived.
I think it’s fitting to give the final word to Conrad Mbewe, a son of one of the countries Livingstone explored and a son of the land in which he died and was (partially) buried. In his endorsement he writes, “I thank God for this fresh biography of David Livingstone, the pioneering missionary explorer of central Africa. He died in 1873 and his heart was buried in Zambia. On the centenary of his death, Zambians held commemorative events in several stadia in honour of this man. Also, the only town in Zambia that remains with a foreign name after its political independence from Great Britain is Livingstone. If you want to understand why a people who were once steeped in spiritual darkness should honour a Christian missionary in this way, read this definitive biography!”