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David Livingstone: Explorer, Missionary and Abolitionist

 Hiding in the bush, not ten feet from me, a four hundred pound, ferocious lion crouched, roaring angrily. 

Updated Sep 06, 2023
David Livingstone: Explorer, Missionary and Abolitionist

For the first time in my life, I was afraid of one of God's creatures. Hiding in the bush, not ten feet from me, a four hundred pound, ferocious lion crouched, roaring angrily. I slowly reached for my rifle. Within seconds I pulled the trigger, firing a powerful blast at the lion's neck. The shot should have killed the animal instantly but only made it angrier. I tried to run, but the lion lunged at me, swatting me with its paws and digging its teeth into my left arm, breaking it as if it were a twig. It then raised me into the air and shook me like a rag doll. My life would have been over if my trusty African helper Melbawe had not fired another shot at the lion as it tossed me about. After releasing me, the lion turned on poor Melbawe. Would nothing kill this vicious beast? Only the spears of the stunned warriors standing by finally brought the powerful animal to its death.

Looking back at my life, I never would have guessed that God would call a poor Scottish factory worker like me to be a missionary explorer in Africa.

Growing Up in Scotland

At 12 years of age, I loved reading books about science and nature more than anything else. My father taught me how to read when I was only six years old, but there was little time for reading now. Like most other children my age, I worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, in a cotton mill. Most of the money my siblings and I made helped pay the rent on my family's one-room apartment. We were so happy when a new law was passed requiring the factory to set up a school for us. Unfortunately, the law didn't say what time school had to be held. The factory owners scheduled class from eight o'clock until ten o'clock at night--after we had worked all day. By that time of the night, most of the children were too tired and didn't go. But I was so determined to learn that I made myself stay awake, not only for class but also late into the night as I studied, even though I was exhausted.

God or Science

Sunday afternoon was my favorite time. I would lie in the meadow and read or study nature. I always felt guilty studying nature because my father thought Christians could not study science and love God. My love of science was so great that for many years I could not decide between serving God and becoming a scientist--I thought it was impossible to do both. But when I was 19 years old, my pastor read a letter from a missionary that changed my life. The letter described the great need for missionary doctors in China. After hearing the missionary's letter, my father allowed me to study science. I immediately decided that I would become a missionary doctor to China and combine my love of science with my love of God!

I worked hard and saved my extra money for college. But just as I graduated medical school and completed missionary training, a war broke out between England and China. The London Missionary Board decided that it was too dangerous to travel to China. Since it could take years for the war to end, I knew I needed a new plan to share the gospel with people who had never heard it.

Missionary to Africa

One day I heard the missionary Robert Moffat speak about his life in South Africa. I was spellbound as he spoke about the thousands of Africans who had never heard the gospel. In his 20 years as a missionary to Africa, only 40 Africans had become Christians. To me, that was unbelievable! How could I let Africans die without ever hearing about Jesus? I could not wait to take the gospel to the many tribes of Africa.

White Man's Graveyard

A few days after arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, I was ready to travel into what most missionaries considered dangerous territoryï¬? deep into the heart of Africa. It didnâˆ/t scare me one bit that the interior of Africa was called "the white man's graveyard." After purchasing a wagon, oxen, and supplies, I headed north with my African helpers. The African wildlife and the oddly shaped trees and grasses were remarkable! Having loved nature since I was a boy, I wanted to see every inch of God's glorious creation. I knew I was exactly where I belonged and wanted to travel to every village and tell the people about Jesus. I traveled farther and farther inland, following the plan God had placed in my heart. I made friends with many village chiefs and used my medical knowledge to heal the sick. Learning the African languages and adopting their customs was my way of showing them the deepest respect.

The Slave Trade

Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that I was not the only white man who had found his way into the interior of Africa. The Boers (Dutch farmers) had come to Africa thinking all the Africans lived on the coast. They attacked the inland villages, and since the Africans' spears were no match for the Boers' guns, they killed many Africans and made others their slaves. I hated the slave trade and the Boers hated me because I told the rest of the world what they were doing. If they could have, they would have killed me.


David Livingstone traveled thousands of miles by boat and by oxen, exploring Africa and telling the Africans about Jesus. His most famous discovery was what the Africans called 'Mosi-oa-tunya' ("the smoke that thunders") or Victoria Falls. Livingstone received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society of London for being the first person to cross the entire African Continent from west to east.

Livingstone died thirty-three years after first setting foot in Africa. His African helpers found him several hours after he died, still kneeling by his bed in a praying position. They returned his body to England, where he was buried with great honor in Westminster Abbey, a famous church in London.

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder. 

1. During his time, David Livingstone was a real hero. His name was as well-known as modern day sports heroes or rock stars. What qualities did David Livingstone have that made him a worthy hero?

2. Do you know any modern day heroes whose values and faith could be compared to David Livingstone's?

3. How did David Livingstone's love and study of science prepare him to serve God in a unique way? What subjects do you enjoy studying and how could that help you to serve God?

Suggested reading:

David Livingstone, Africa's Trailblazer by Janet & Geoff Benge (Christian Heroes Then and Now series, YWAM Pub.)

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Ten Boys Who Changed the World by Irene Howat (Christian Focus Publications)

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("David Livingstone: Explorer, Missionary and Abolitionist" published on July 16, 2010)

Further Reading:

9 Missionaries All Christians Should Know

David Livingstone

What Is a Christian Missionary?

How Can Christians Justify Mission Work and Colonialism?

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/


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