Monday, May 01, 2017

May Day Is Worth Remembering David Livingstone

David Livingstone Praying, May 1, 1873
Today is May Day.

May Day is a traditional holiday throughout the northern hemisphere of the world, celebrating the dawn of spring.

May Fetes, May Poles, May Queens, are all part of May Day celebrations in various countries. It's a time for celebrating.

But I know May Day (May 1) as a day for remembering. It's the day missionary David Livingstone died.

It's worth remembering how he died.

David Livingstone died while praying on his knees beside his bed in the interior of Africa.

Born in Blantyre, Scotland in 1813, Livingstone’s father read missionary stories to him while he sat on his father's knees. Livingstone came to faith in Christ as a child and committed his life to medical missionary service at the age of 21. When asked why he felt compelled to be a missionary, Livingstone responded:
“The love of Christ compels me.”
At his commissioning service, Livingstone knelt down and prayed: 
Send me anywhere, only go with me.
Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.
Sever any ties but the ties that bind me
To Your service and to Your heart.
He would later say,
“The words of God came to me during my prayer, ‘Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.’”
Livingstone went for medical training in Glasgow in the mid-1830’s. A growing desire for Africa began to “burn” in his heart. Some Europeans already lived on the coast of Africa during that time, including a Scottish congregational minister named Robert Moffatt who was one of the first evangelical missionaries to Africa. Scottish newspapers published some of Moffat's letters where he described the interior of the Dark Continent with these words... 
"...the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary has been seen.” 
This phrase captivated the heart of Livingstone.

The London Missionary Society eventually sponsored Livingstone as one of their missionaries, and they sent him to South Africa as both a doctor and ordained minister in November 1840. Livingstone went with the intention and backing of the LMS to take the gospel to the interior of the Dark Continent (called "Dark" because people in Europe knew very little about it). 

Livingstone was 27 years old.

As Livingstone caught his first glimpse of Africa from the deck of the ship which transported him, smoke could be seen rising from interior African villages. Livingstone wrote in his journal: 
“The haunting specter of the smoke of a thousand villages in the morning sun has burned within my heart.” 
As Livingstone began his work as an African missionary, his spirit is encapsulated in my favorite Livingstone quote, the motto for my own life - “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward." From South Africa, Livingstone indeed moved forward into the interior of the Dark Continent. Thus began a life of walking Africa that would take him more than 29,000 miles back and forth across the continent's vast interior.

As Livingstone moved from place to place, his goal was Jesus in the hearts of the Africans, and knowledge of the land. Five years after arriving in Africa, Livingstone went back to the coastline and married Mary Moffett, the daughter of the missionary Robert Moffett. Their first two children were born during the couple's two-year exploration of the Kalahari Desert.

David sent his wife and children back to England shortly after the birth of their second child because Africa was "too dangerous for small children." In addition, Dr. Livingstone wanted his children to receive a proper education.  

“Mary, why don’t you take them home to England? I’ll come as soon as I can.” Mary left Africa in 1851.

It would be five years before Livingstone could make it to London. 

When Mary laid eyes on David in 1856 at the London port, she did not recognize her husband. During one of his missionary explorations, the branch of a tree blinded his eye and scarred the other. In addition to his mutilated face, Livingstone’s skin had been poached and weathered by the sun and elements. His Scottish skin pigment unsuited for the equatorial sun, Livingstone had been roasted. A lion also had mauled him in the bush, nearly tearing off his arm, giving Livingstone a massive scar on his shoulder.

David walked with a limp and had seemingly aged decades in just five years.

Just hours before his arrival in London, the family had buried Livingstone’s father. David wept on his wife's shoulder at the news, for he had longed to stories firsthand of missionary adventures his father had only told him second-hand when he was a child.

For two years (1856-1858), David Livingstone toured Great Britain, lecturing Englishmen on his discoveries and the advancement of the gospel in Africa. It is said that he never walked into a lecture hall without receiving a standing ovation.

In 1858 he told Mary, “The smoke of a thousand villages still burns in my heart.” Livingstone returned to Africa later that year, sponsored by the pre-eminent scientific society of the day, the Royal Society. Livingstone went to Africa this time with more equipment and even a greater desire to end African slave trade. It was less than three years before the United States of America’s great Civil War would break out over the issue of slavery.

After their children were grown, Mary Livingston rejoined her husband in Africa, only to die of malaria in what we now know as Mozambique on April 27, 1862.

As David Livingstone knelt on his knees beside the grave of his wife, his porters heard him pray:
“My Jesus. My King. My Life. My All. I again consecrate my life to thee. I shall place no value in anything I possess or anything I may do except in relation to thy Kingdom and to thy service.”
In his journal that night Livingstone wrote, "Today the words of God came to my heart again… 'Lo I am with you always with you, even unto the end of the age.'"

Livingstone returned to London in November 1864 to publicly speaking out against slavery. He also published Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries and wrote about his use of quinine as a malaria remedy. In this book, Livingstone becomes the first person to recognize the connection between malaria and mosquitoes.

Livingstone returned to Africa in early 1866, landing in Zanzibar, on the central eastern coast of Africa (modern Tanzania). This trip would be Livingstone's last exploration of the continent and would become the occasion for the spreading of his worldwide fame. Europe lost touch with Livingstone in shortly after he arrived in 1866. No letters got through. Nobody knew where he was. For nearly six years Livingstone was lost on the Dark Continent.

The entire world's interest in the Scottish missionary grew as newspapers around the world recounted how the missionary scientist David Livingstone "had disappeared." The newspaper publisher of the New York Herald sent a reporter named Henry M. Stanley to Africa with the charge "Find Livingstone!" (which would, of course, sell newspapers). 

Of all the people affiliated with the state of  Oklahoma, Henry Stanley's story and his subsequent discovery of David Livingstone is my favorite.  

From March 21, 1871 to November 10, 1871, Henry Stanley explored the interior of Africa, looking for Livingstone. Stanley led his caravan of nearly 2,000 men into the interior of Africa from Zanzibar. During the eight-month search for Livingstone, Stanley contracted dysentery, cerebral malaria, and smallpox. 

Stanley didn't know that Livingstone had also been sick and poverty-stricken. Beginning in July 1871, Livingstone had stopped walking the interior and settled in the village of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika (western Tanzania). When Stanley’s caravan entered the village of Ujiji on November 10, 1871, flying the American flag, villagers crowded toward Stanley. Spotting a white man with a gray beard in the crowd, Stanley stepped toward him and stretched out his hand: 
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Earlier that day, before Stanley found Livingstone, someone had stolen Dr. Livingstone's medicine from his tent. The missionary knew he would die without it. He got down on his knees and prayed:
“God you promised to never leave me … I need that medication.”
The shouts of the villagers interrupted his prayer time. As Livingstone came out of his tent, he was astonished to see Stanley and moved toward him, only to hear him ask, “ Dr. Livingstone I presume?? Stanley continued to speak: 
"I am press reporter assigned to find you and do a story on your life. I am the biggest swaggering atheist on the face of the earth, please don’t try to convert me. Second, somebody has sent some medication for you.”
Four months later, after traveling with Livingstone through the interior of Africa, Henry Stanley knelt on his knees in the African soil and gave his life to Christ. He would later write of his conversion after spending 120 days with David Livingstone:
“The power of that Christ life was awesome, and I had to buckle in – I couldn’t hold out any longer.” 
Henry Stanley and David Livingstone became fast friends, but Stanley would eventually leave Livingstone in 1872 to finish writing his bestselling two-volume book How I Found Livingstone.  

Less than a year after Stanley returned to the States, Dr. David Livingstone died.

In the fall of 1872, just a few months before Livingstone's death on May 1, 1873, Livingstone's nearly sixty-year-old body began to shrivel with high temperature and pain. His porters carried him around Africa on a stretcher. During these painful weeks, Livingstone preached to the villagers while lying prone, propping himself up on an elbow.

After one such preaching engagement on May 1, 1873, Livingstone requested that his porters carry him back to his home village. They brought him into his hut and were going to roll him on his bed, but he said, “No, please help me to my knees.”

Livingstone buckled down on his knees by the side of his bed, clasped his hands and started to pray. His prayers were so profound, his sanctuary so unique, the Africans felt it would be blasphemy to stay in the room, so they stepped out. 

After a time someone came and asked to see Mr. Livingstone for a moment. “Shhh.. quiet please, he’s praying.” 5 minutes went by, he was still on his knees. Several minutes went by, the porters looked in. Livingstone was still on his knees. An extended period went by. They looked in again, and the missionary was still on his knees. Finally, one of the Africans felt Livingstone was too tired and had fallen asleep. He went in and shook him by the shoulder, and said, “Guana (white man), Guana…” As he shook his shoulder, Livingstone fell over.

The great missionary was dead.

Livingstone died exactly the way he had lived – in the presence of His Lord.

My Jesus. My King. My Life. My All. I again consecrate myself to Thee.

The porters took out Livingstone's heart and buried it at the base of an oak tree in his village. His two faithful Christian porters - whom Livingstone had won to Christ - embalmed his body and carried it 1,000 miles to the African coast to in order to ship the body back to England. Livingstone is buried in Westminster Abbey with this inscription.
Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone, missionary, traveler, philanthropist, born March 19, 1813, at Blantyre, Lanarkshire, died May 1, 1873, at Chitambo’s village, Ulala. Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring (John 10:16).
I remember May 1 as the day Livingstone died while in prayer. It's a day worth remembering Livingstone and reflecting on my own life.
I may fill pews and possess the praises of people, I may carefully carry out the clerical calling for a congregation, and I may be even deemed a citizen of stature within a city, but what I am on my knees in secret before Almighty God, that I am and no more.


Anonymous said...

By far the best post EVER!

Rex Ray said...


“I remember May 1 as the die Livingstone died…”

It’s a wonder I saw this typo with my eyes full of tears.

Rex Ray said...


It’s a little strange that Judy is reading the book “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel Brown. She had just read page 42 which said:

“Pocock’s maternal grandfather also worked in the boatbuilding trade. He constructed a wide variety of small craft, among them the “Lady Alice”, the custom-built boat that Sir Henry Stanley used to search for Dr. David Livingstone in Central Africa.”

RB Kuter said...

Had the honor of visiting the burial site of Livingstone's heart while visiting our Baptist missionaries in Serenje, Zambia, where we had a Baptist agricultural ministry nearby the burial site. At the time when we were serving in Zambia, the small monument was neglected and finding it was not easy. Perhaps today, some 30 years later, it is better developed.

Wade Burleson said...

Thanks, Rex! I corrected the typo - and what a great story about the boat builder!

Wade Burleson said...


Wow! That trip is on my bucket list!

Christiane said...

a beautiful post about a beloved Christian saint .... thanks Wade

RB Kuter said...

As I recall, the Moffatt family (You mention one of the girls marrying Livingstone) donated the land we Baptists used for the large farm-Agricultural Training Ministry in Serenje, Zambia. The Moffatt Education College founded by the family continues to operate.

We who served in that region of Africa, had the blessing of standing on the shoulders of those early African missionaries and were fortunate in entering an environment where the hard spiritual soil had already been tilled and made fertile with the work, and lives, of people like Livingstone. Even when we would travel to the most remote villages, which seemed to be cut off from the "outside" world, we found the villagers already had some understanding and familiarity with Biblical terminology and teachings about "God the Creator", "Satan", "sin", and "Jesus Christ". On initial encounter, they could at least understand the question, "Have you decided to follow Jesus Christ?" No matter where we went we had the opportunity to begin conversations at a higher level of understanding than when we later served in Thailand. The Zambian people were extremely responsive and we witnessed hundreds coming to The Lord while we served there.

We also stood on the shoulders of the earlier missionaries in Thailand who served a generation prior to our entering that country upon our transfer from Zambia. When arriving in Thailand, two decades ago, we found that Buddhism was very deeply implanted throughout the land. The people had no understanding of the most elementary concepts of a "One Creator God" nor knowledge of the Name, "Jesus Christ". It was very much a "pioneer" environment. The soil was hard, hard. "The Jesus Film" was hugely effective in Zambia but of no use in Thailand. People were totally confused when viewing the film as to "Why are they being so cruel to that man?". I believe the hardness was due to the concept of "God", "Jesus", and His reason for dying on a cross, being totally foreign to them, together with the strong, institutionalization of Buddhism. We would go months without seeing a soul saved. Perhaps it was just not the "right season" in God's plan for that people.

Still, there had been earlier missionaries in Thailand who came and found no believers at all. They worked hard and won a few (less than 1%) to Christ. They diligently discipled the new believers who eventually became national church leaders prior to our entry. We sought out these faithful few Thai believers to serve alongside. Today, those same Thai Baptist leaders, won by the missionaries 50 years ago, are the church elders and they are leading a robust, national movement of the church. When we left there 3 years ago, the response of people had changed drastically to the point where we anticipated seeing souls saved every week! The "Gospel" has finally put on a "Thai" face and God is moving in Thailand!

Most of those earlier missionaries in Thailand have joined Livingstone in heaven. What a legacy they all have left! We reap the fruit of their hard labor! Praise God for the obedience and perseverance of "Livingstones"!
(Sorry to use so much space, but felt inclined to celebrate.)

Rex Ray said...


Your writing: “…but what I am on my knees in secret before Almighty God, that I am and no more” reminds me when my father was on the front lines being chewed on by a Cornel. The Cornel said a soldier was at his best when he was killing the enemy, (My father had written in Chapel Chimes a solder was at his best when he was on his knees.)

Rex Ray said...


The book that Judy read said:

“Pocock’s maternal grandfather also worked in the boatbuilding trade. He constructed a wide variety of SMALL CRAFT, among them the “Lady Alice”, the custom-built boat that Sir Henry Stanley used to search for Dr. David Livingstone in Central Africa.”

I wondered how a small craft could transport an army of 2,000 that belonged to Stanley.

My brother-in-law had a simple explanation that he probably hired local men in Africa.

Ken Colson said...

Wade, David Livingstone has been a hero of mine since childhood. Seeing his grave in Westminster Abby was a thrill during studies abroad in college. Thanks for sharing this story.
Ken Colson

Anonymous said...

Best thing I have read in a month!

Thank you.