Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

During David Livingstone's lifetime, the British Quarterly Review wrote "Dr. Livingstone has come to be regarded as one of the most remarkable travellers of his own or of any other age." How did his faith inform his great accomplishments?

Updated Sep 06, 2023
Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

For years, no one had heard from the Scottish missionary explorer, David Livingstone. In l866, he had disappeared into the East African interior, searching for the source of the River Nile. Livingstone's reports of his earlier explorations in Africa had fascinated multitudes of readers at home. Once asked why he decided to be a missionary, Livingstone replied: "I was compelled by the love of Christ."

His Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, published in 1857, told of treks totaling more than 20,000 miles back and forth across the African continent. His explorations provided valuable information about the people and geography of Africa's interior. However, when he didn't know, he guessed; and his dreams were often bigger than the facts; this cost a number of missionary their lives because they relied on his accounts. James Stewart (founder of Lovedale mission) was so disgusted with Livingstone's personal life and misinformation that he threw one of his books into an African river.

All the same, Livingstone awakened the world to the horror of the Arab slave trade, which he called a "monster of iniquity brooding over Africa." By publicizing the evil of slavery, Livingstone worked effectively to see it abolished. For every 20,000 slaves captured and exported, he estimated 100,000 Africans were killed, wounded, or died of disease on the slave trails. He wrote: "The many skeletons we have seen along the paths of the wilderness attest the awful sacrifice of human life that must be attributed to this trade in hell."

In 1871, concerned that for five years no one had heard from Livingstone and eager to obtain a "scoop," the New York Herald sent journalist Henry Stanley to find him. Landing in Zanzibar, Stanley traced Livingstone's steps into the interior. To do so, he had to find his way (sometimes fighting) through hostile territory and overcome attacks of malaria, the jaws of crocodiles, mutiny and desertion.

After months of misery, learning that Livingstone was close, Stanley and his porters donned their best clothes. At last, on this day, November 10, 1871, they saw an old white man by the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Knowing this could be only one person, Stanley greeted him with his now world-famous comment: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume."

The foods Henry brought with him saved Livingstone's life, for he was desperately ill and able to eat only African porridge. "You have brought me new life," said the missionary over and over. Unable to persuade Livingstone to leave Africa, Stanley joined him in exploring part of Lake Tanganyika and then returned to England. Unlike James Stewart, Stanley was impressed with Livingstone's Christianity, and wrote: "It is not of the theoretical kind, but it is a constant, earnest, sincere practice...and it is always at work."


1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.

2. Allen, John. One Hundred Great Lives. New York: Journal of Living, 1944.

3. Dugard, Martin. Into Africa; the epic adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.

4. Hall, Richard. Stanley; an adventurer explored. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

5. Kunitz, Stanley L. British authors of the nineteenth century. New York: H. W. Wilson company, 1936.

6. Mackenzie, Rob. David Livingstone: the truth behind the legend. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, 1993.

7. Teal, Jim. Livingstone. New York, Putnam, 1973.

8. Wintle, Justin. Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1800 - 1914. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Last updated July, 2007.

("Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?" published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

10 Inspiring Quotes by David Livingstone

1. "I place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the kingdom of God. If anything will advance the interests of the kingdom, it shall be given away or kept, only as by giving or keeping it I shall most promote the glory of Him to whom I owe all my hopes in time or eternity. . ." — The Personal Life of David Livingstone Chiefly from His Unpublished Journals and Correspondence in the Possession of His Family by William Garden Blaikie

2. "In beginning to speak on religious subjects with those who have never heard of Christianity, the great fact of the Son of God having come down from heaven to die for us is the prominent theme. No fact more striking can be mentioned. "He actually came to men. He himself told us about his Father, and the dwelling-place whither he has gone. We have his words in this book, and he really endured punishment in our stead from pure love," etc. If this fails to interest them, nothing else will succeed." — Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa by David Livingstone

3. "Oh! When shall the time come in which every man that feels the heat of the sun shall be freed from all other fetters but bonds of love to our Saviour!" — March 10, 1841 letter, recorded in David Livingstone by C. Silvester Horne

4. "People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice” – December 4, 1857 lecture at University of Cambridge. Quoted in The Lives and Travels of Livingstone and Stanley: Covering Their Entire Career in Southern and Central Africa By J. E. Chambliss

5. "31st December, 1866. We now end 1866. It has not been so fruitful or useful as I intended. Will try to do better in 1867, and be better—more gentle and loving; and may the Almighty, to whom I commit my way, bring my desires to pass, and prosper me! Let all the sins of '66 be blotted out for Jesus' sake." —  The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Volume 1

6. "19th March, 1868. — (Grant, Lord, grace to love Thee more and serve Thee better.)" — The Last Journals Vol. 1

7. "19th March, 1872.—Birthday. My Jesus, my king, my life, my all; I again dedicate my whole self to Thee. Accept me, and grant, Gracious Father, that ere this year is gone I may finish my task. In Jesus' name I ask it. Amen, so let it be." — The Last Journals Vol. 2

8. "5th August, 1872 . . . What is the atonement of Christ? It is Himself: it is the inherent and everlasting mercy of God made apparent to human eyes and ears. The everlasting love was disclosed by our Lord's life and death. It showed that God forgives, because He loves to forgive. He works by smiles if possible, if not by frowns; pain is only a means of enforcing love."  — The Last Journals Vol. 2

9. "All the great among men have been remarkable at once for the grasp and minuteness of their knowledge. Great astronomers seem to know every iota of the Knowable. The Great Duke, when at the head of armies, could give all the particulars to be observed in a cavalry charge, and took care to have food ready for all his troops. Men think that greatness consists in lofty indifference to all trivial things. The Grand Llama, sitting in immovable contemplation of nothing, is a good example of what a human mind would regard as majesty; but the Gospels reveal Jesus, the manifestation of the blessed God over all as minute in His care of all. He exercises a vigilance more constant, complete, and comprehensive, every hour and every minute, over each of His people than their utmost selflove could ever attain. His tender love is more exquisite than a mother's heart can feel." — August 5, 1872 entry continued, The Last Journals Vol. 2

10. "25th March, 1873 . . . Nothing earthly will make me give up my work in despair. I encourage myself in the Lord my God, and go forward.”  — The Last Journals Vol. 2

("10 Inspiring David Livingstone Quotes" compiled by G. Connor Salter, published on Christianity.com on September 6, 2023)

Further Reading: 

David Livingstone: Explorer, Missionary and Abolitionist

David Livingstone

9 Missionaries All Christians Should Know


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