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Dr. Livingston - We Do Presume

Christians often choose their heroes in much the same way as the world does. They look for glamor and spectacle and not for true Christian character and service. A case in point is the great popularity in Christian circles of David Livingston (1813-1873). David Livingston was truly a great African explorer and was the first to discover much of the interior of that country. He may be best known today in reference to the purported line of reporter Henry Stanley upon finding Livingston in deepest Africa: "Dr. Livingston, I presume." However, he is also portrayed in many biographies and much Christian literature as a great missionary. In 1973, Geoffrey Moorhouse in ""The Missionaries" (p.111) stated that in the middle of the twentieth century, "historians would still acknowledge him as the greatest missionary of them all."

Yet, was David Livingston a missionary in the true sense at all? It is known that he had few if any converts in his decades of work in Africa. And, although he has a testimony as a Christian, his testimony as a missionary is most lacking. "Into Africa" by Martin Dugard gives several important insights into this 'missionary's heart'--insights backed up by letters and journal entries in Livingston's own writing. Livingston arrived in Africa as a teetotal virgin. However, he eventually "became fond of beer and champagne, and often traveled with a small bottle of brandy" (p.139).

But his drinking habits are not the worst. His journals have frequent entries declaring his admiration for the women he saw with intimate descriptions their physical features. In fact, his journals were almost rejected as spurious because it was not believed by many that such a great missionary could write such things. But he did more than look. In a 1866 letter to G. E. Seward, he bragged about his sexual adventures with the women of Africa: "I had, like Solomon, three hundred wives princesses (but don't tell Mrs. Seward)" (p.140). Also, it was documented after his death that he had fathered at least one African child (p.301-302). He was by no means a chaste man.

I am not simply trying to spread dirt about this respected man. I get no joy in that. I am only questioning his place in so many of our Christian and missionary biographies. I am also questioning using him as an example of a great missionary to children in the books and curriculums used in churches and Christian schooling. He may have been a great explorer, but a great missionary he was not. Perhaps it is time to rethink our heroes.