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The Life of Social Service
as Exemplified in David Livingstone

March 7, 1913 — Centenary of the birth of David Livingstone, Lincoln University, Lincoln University PA


Hamilton Wright Mabie says that the question for each man to settle is not what he would do if he had means, time, influence, and educational advantages, but what he will do with the things he has. In all history there are few men who have answered this question. Among them none have answered it more effectively than he whom we have gathered to honor to-night — David Livingstone.

The term “social service,” which is on every one’s lips now, was as yet uncoined when David Livingstone was born. But it was none the less true, that without overmuch prating of the ideal which is held up to the man of to-day as the only one worth striving for, the sturdy pioneers of Livingstone’s day and ilk realized to the highest the ideal of man’s duty to his fellow-man.

The life of David Livingstone is familiar to all of you. From your childhood you have known the brief data of his days. He was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, March 19, 1813. He began working in a cotton-factory at the age of ten, and for ten years thence, educated himself, reading Latin, Greek, and finally pursuing a course of medicine and theology in which he graduated. In 1840, firmly believing in his call, he offered his services to the London Missionary Society, by whom he was ordained, and sent as a medical missionary to South Africa, where he commenced his labors. In 1849, he discovered Lake Ngami; in 1852, he explored the Zambesi River. In 1856, he discovered the wonderful Victoria Falls, and then returned to England, where he was overwhelmed with honors. In 1857, he published his first book, hardly realizing that it was an epoch-making volume, and that he had made an unprecedented contribution alike to literature, science, and religion. In the same year, he severed his connection with the Missionary society, believing that he could best work unhampered by its restrictions. He was appointed British Consul for the East Coast of Africa, and commander of an expedition to explore Eastern and Central Africa. He discovered the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa in 1859; published his second book during a visit to England, 1864-65. He returned to Africa, started to explore the interior, and was lost to the world for two years. He re-appeared in 1867, having solved the problem of the sources of the Nile. From then until 1871, when he was found by Stanley, suffering the most pitiful privations, his was a record of important discoveries and explorations. After parting with Stanley in 1872, he continued his explorations, and died in 1873. His body was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1874.

This is a meagre account of the life of David Livingstone. The romance and wonder of it do not appear on  the surface; the splendor of the heroic soul is lost in the dry chronology of dates; the marvelous achievement of self-sacrifice is not visible. Yet the wildest fantasies of medieval troubadours pale into insignificance when placed side by side with the life-story of David Livingstone.

What has this modern romance in it for the man of to-day? An infinity of example, of hope, of the gleam to follow. The most salient thing about Livingstone’s early life is the toil and the privation which he endured gladly, in order to accomplish that which he had set himself to do. Listen to his own words in describing the long hours spent in the cotton-mill. Here he kept up his studies by placing his book on the top of the machine, so that he could catch sentence after sentence as he passed his work, learning how completely to abstract his mind from the noises about him. “Looking back now on that life of toil, I cannot but feel thankful that it formed such a material part of my early education, and were it possible, I would like to begin life over again in the same lowly style, and to pass through the same hardy training.”

I wonder how many of the modern men, whose privations in early life in no wise approached those of our hero look back with gratitude upon their early days? Are we not prone to excuse and condone our shortcomings, either of character or of achievement, by murmuring at the hard fate which deprived us of those advantages which more fortunate brothers and sisters enjoyed in infancy and youth? Do we not to-day swing too far in the direction of sickly sentimentality and incline to wrap our- selves, and those about us, in the deadening cotton-wool of too much care? Were it not better if a bit more of the leaven of sturdy struggle were introduced into the life of the present-day youth? Strength of character and strength of soul will rise to their own, no matter what the struggles be to force them upward.

In keeping with this studious concentration which is shown in his work in the cotton-mill, was Livingstone’s ideal of thorough preparation for his work. On his first missionary journey, before penetrating into the interior, he stopped at a little station, Lepelole, and there for six months cut himself off from all European society in order to gain an insight into the habits, ways of thinking, laws, and language of the natives. To this he ascribed most of his success as a missionary and explorer, for Livingstone’s way was ever the gentle method of those who comprehend — not the harsh cruelty of those who feel superior to the ones among whom they work. In a day whose superficiality is only equalled by the ease with which we gloze over the faults of the unprepared, this bit of information of Livingstone’s preparation comes like a refreshing reminder that true worth is always worth while.

When Livingstone gave up his purely missionary labors and turned his life channel into the stream of scientific investigation, the same thoroughness of preparation is shown. He did not work for immediate results, attained by shallow touching of the surface, or for hasty conclusions. His was the close observation and careful and accurate deductions of the mind trained by science to be patient and await results. Rather than be inaccurate, he would wait until he knew he was correct. A quarter of a century after Livingstone died a compatriot of his, Robert Louis Stevenson, said that among the hardest tasks that life sets for a man is “to await occasions, and hurry never.” Livingstone learned this thoroughly.

In keeping with the quietness, simplicity, and thoroughness of this truly great man was the meeting between him and Stanley when that redoubtable youth found him in the heart of the Dark Continent. Life is essentially a dramatic thing, for as Carlyle says, “Is not every deathbed the fifth act of a tragedy?” But I sometimes think that we miss the drama and poetry of every-day life because it seems so commonplace. We look abroad and afar for great moments, and great moments pass unheeded each hour. So to those two — the toil-worn and weary explorer and the youthful Stanley, full of enthusiasm, albeit dimmed by the hardships and disappointments of his long search, that moment of first meeting must have seemed essentially commonplace. There was a wonder in the encounter, but like all great emotions and great occasions there was a simplicity, so that the greetings were as commonplace as if occurring in a crowded street. Thirty years had passed since the explorer had dedicated himself to the task of making the world know Africa, and he was an old man, worn-out, bent, frail, and sorrow-stricken. But courage was unfaltering, faith undimmed, power unabated. Had Stanley been a few months later, much of his work would have been lost, and his death even more pitiful than it was — yet he could smile and be patient and unhurried.

As Stanley phrases it, “Suppose Livingstone, following the custom of other travellers, had hurried to the coast, after he had discovered Lake Bangweolo, to tell the news to the geographical world; then had returned to discover Moero, and run away again, then come back once more to discover Kamolondo, and to race back again. But no, he not only discovers the Chambezi, Lake Bangweolo, Luapula River, Lake Moero, Lualaba River, and Lake Kamolondo, but he still tirelessly urges his steps forward to put the final completion to the map of the grand lacustrine river system. Had he followed the example of ordinary explorers, he would have been running backwards and forwards to tell the news, instead of exploring, and he might have been able to write a volume upon the discovery of each lake and earn much money thereby.”

This was no negative exploration. It was the hard, earnest labor of years, self-abnegation, enduring patience, and exalted fortitude, such as ordinary men fail to exhibit. And he had achieved a wonderful deed. The finding of the poles, north and south, is no greater feat than his. For, after all, what is it to humanity that the magnetic pole, north or south, is a few degrees east or west of a certain point in the frozen seas and barren ice mountains? What can humanity offer as a reward to those whose bodies lie under cairns of ice save a barren recognition of their heroism? What have their lives served, beyond that of examples of heroism and determination? Bronze tablets will record their deeds, but no races will arise in future years to call them blessed. Cold marble will enshrine their memory; but there will be no fair commerce, nor civilization, nor the thankful prayers of those who have been led to know God.

In his earlier years of exploration, Livingstone became convinced that the success of the white missionary in a field like Africa is not to be reckoned by the tale of doubtful conversions he can send home each year, that the proper work of such men was that of pioneering, opening up, starting new ground, leaving native agents to work it out in detail. The whole of his subsequent career was a carrying out of this idea. It was the idea of commerce, bringing the virgin country within the reach of the world, putting the natives in that relation to the rest of humanity which would most nearly make for their efficiency, if not in their own generation, at least in the next. Shall we not say that this is the truest ideal of social service — to plan, not for the present, but for the future; to be content, not with the barren achievement of exploration, the satisfaction that comes with the saying, “I am the first who has trod this soil!” but to be able to say, “Through me, generations may be helped?”

Says a biographer of Dr. Livingstone, “His work in exploration is marked by rare precision and by a breadth of observation which will make it forever a monument to the name of one of the most intrepid travellers of the nineteenth century. His activity embraced the field of the geographer, naturalist, benefactor of mankind, and  it can justly be said that his labors were the first to lift the veil from the ‘Dark Continent.’”

During the thirty years of his work he explored alone over one-third of the vast continent; a feat which no single explorer has ever equalled. But it must be remembered that even though he had severed his connection with the missionary society that he regarded himself to the last as a “Pioneer Missionary.”

One of the most fascinating subjects of controversy since the time of Herodotus was the problem of the source of the Nile. Poetry, from the description of the Garden of Eden and the writings of Ptolemy to the Kubla Kahn of Coleridge, ran rife over the four fountains out of which flowed the wonderful river. To Livingstone was reserved the supreme honor of settling for all time the secret of this most poetic river of mystery. Long ere this he had been honored with a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society. How futile must the bit of metal have seemed to this dark, silent man, whose mind had grown away from bauble and tinsel, and who had learned in the silences the real value of the trinkets of the world.

When he had discovered the Victoria Falls, he had completed in two years and a half the most remarkable and most fruitful journey on record, reconstructed the map of Africa, and given the world some of the most valuable land it ever could possess. The vast commercial fields of ivory were opened up to trade; the magnificent power of the Victoria Falls laid bare to the sight of civilized man. We can imagine him standing on the brink of the thunderous cataract of the Victoria gazing at its waters as they dashed and roared over the brink of the precipice,

“ — Like stout Cortez — when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

To this man, who had opened up a continent; who had penetrated not only into the heart of the forest, but had made himself one with the savages who were its denizens; who knew and understood them as human beings, and not as beasts, the slavery trade was, as he expressed it, “the open sore of Africa.” Over and again he voiced his belief that the Negro freeman was a hundred time more valuable than the slave. He repeatedly enjoined those who had the fitting out of his expeditions not to send him slaves to accompany him on his journeys, but freemen, as they were more trustworthy. He voiced the fundamental truth that he who is his own master is he who obeys and believes in his master.

The slave trade in Africa was dealt its death-blow by Dr. Livingstone. Portugal had foisted the shame of centuries upon the Dark Continent, and openly defied decency and honor. Livingstone’s example and his death acted like an inspiration, filling Africa with an army of explorers and missionaries, and raising in Europe so powerful a feeling against the slave trade that it may be considered as having received its death-blow. Dear to his heart was Lincoln, the Emancipator, an ideal hero whom he consistently revered. Away to the southwest from Kamolondo is a large lake which discharges its waters by the important river, Lomami, into the great Lualaba. To this lake, known as the Chobungo by the natives, Dr. Livingstone gave the name of Lincoln, in memory of him for whom your noble institution was named. This was done because of a vivid impression produced on his mind by hearing a portion of Lincoln’s inauguration speech from an English pulpit, which related to the causes that induced him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. To the memory of the man whom Livingstone revered he has contributed a monument more durable than brass or stone.

This strange, seemingly almost ascetic man sets before us of to-day an almost impossible standard of living. One idea mastered him — to give Africa to the world. His life was a success, as all lives must be which have a single aim. Life was clear, elemental almost to him, and to the man whose ambition is a unit; who sees but one goal, shining clearly ahead, success is inevitable, though it may be masked under the guise of poverty and hardship. Livingstone had a higher and nobler ambition than the mere pecuniary sum he might receive, or the plaudits of the unthinking multitude; he followed the dictates of duty. Never was such a willing slave to that abstract virtue. His inclination impelled him home, the fascinations of which it required the sternest resolves to resist. With every foot of new ground he travelled over, he forged a chain of sympathy which should hereafter bind all other nations to Africa. If he were able to complete this chain, a chain of love, by actual discovery and description of the people and nations that still lived in darkness, so as to attract the good and charitable of his own land to bestir themselves for their redemption and salvation-this, Livingstone would consider an ample reward. “A delirious and fatuous enterprise, a Quixotic scheme!” some will say. Not so; he builded better than even he knew or dared hope, and posterity will reap the reward.

The missionary starting out must resolve to bear poverty, suffering, hardship, and, if need be, to lose his life. The explorer must resolve to be impervious to exquisite little tortures, to forget comforts, and be a stranger to luxuries; to lose his life, even, in order that the world may add another line or dot to its maps. The explorer-missionary must do all these things, and add to them the zeal for others that shall illumine his labors, and make him at one with God. David Livingstone had all these qualities, coupled with the sublime indifference of the truly great to the mere side issues of life. You and I sit down to our comfortable meals, sleep in our well-appointed beds, read our Bibles with perfunctory boredom, and babble an occasional prayer for those who endure hardships — when we are reminded from the pulpit to do so. When we read of some awful calamity, such as has blazoned across the pages of history within the past few weeks, we shudder that men should lay down their lives in the barren wastes of ice. When we read of the thirty years of steady suffering which Livingstone endured in the forests of Africa, the littleness of our own lives comes home to us with awful realization. You who fear to walk the streets with a coat of last year’s cut, listen to his half whimsical account of how he “came to the Cape in 1852, with a black coat eleven years out of fashion, and Mrs. Livingstone and the children half naked.” You who shudder at the tale of a starving child in the papers, and lamely wonder why the law allows such things, read his recital of the sufferings of his wife and little ones during the days without water under a tropic sun, and of the splendid heroism of the mother who did not complain, and the father who did not dare meet her eye, for fear of the unspoken reproach therein.

He was never in sufficient funds, and what little means he could gather here and there were often stolen from him, or he found himself cheated out of what few supplies he could get together to carry on his travels. Months of delay occurred, and sometimes it seemed that all his labors and struggles would end in futility; that the world would be little better for his sufferings; yet that patient, Christian fortitude sustained him with unfaltering courage through the most distressing experiences. Disease, weakening, piteous, unromantic, unheroic, wasted his form; ulcers, sores, horrible and hideous, made his progress slow and his work sometimes a painful struggle over what many a man would have deemed impossible barriers. The loss of his wife came to him twelve years after she had elected to cast in her lot with his, but like Brutus of old, he could exclaim,

“With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.”

Stanley could but marvel at such patience. On that memorable day when they met, and the younger man gave the doctor his letters, he tells how “Livingstone kept the letter-bag on his knee, then, presently opened it, looked at the letters contained there, read one or two of his children’s letters, his face in the meanwhile lighting up. He asked me to tell him the news, “No, Doctor,” said I, “read your letters first, which I am sure you must be impatient to read.” “Ah,” said he, “I have waited years for letters, and I have been taught patience.”

To you, of the younger generation, what a marvel, what a world of meaning in those words — “I have been taught patience.” We, who fret and chafe because the whole world will not bend its will to our puny strivings, and turn its whole course that we might have our unripe desires fulfilled, should read and re-read of the man who could wait, because he knew that time and all eternity would be bent to meet his desires in time.

Livingstone’s is a character that we cannot help but venerate; that calls forth all one’s enthusiasm; that evokes nothing but sincerest admiration. He was sensitive, but so is any man of a high mind and generous nature; he was sensitive on the point of being doubted or criticised by the easy-chair geographers, lolling comfortably in their clubs and scanning through their monocles the maps which the hard working travellers had made. He was humble-souled, as are all the truly great. His gentleness never forsook him; his hopefulness never deserted him. No harassing anxiety, distraction of mind, long separation from home and kindred, could make him complain. He thought all would come out right at last, such faith had he in the goodness of Providence. The sport of adverse circumstances; the plaything of the miserable slaves, which were persistently sent him from Zanzibar, baffled and worried, even almost to the grave; yet he would not desert the charge imposed upon him. To the stern dictates of duty alone did he sacrifice his home and ease, the pleasures, refinements, and luxuries of civilized life. His was the Spartan heroism, the inflexibility of the Roman, the enduring heroism of the Englishman-never to relinquish his work, though his heart yearned for home; never to surrender his obligations, until he could write “Finis” to his work.

Yet who shall say that the years spent alone at the very heart of Nature had not made him the possessor of that “inward eye,” which, as Wordsworth says, “is the bliss of solitude.” For many years he lived in Africa deprived of books, and yet when Stanley found him, he learned to his surprise, that Livingstone could still recite whole poems from Byron, Burns, Tennyson, Longfellow, and other great poets. The reason is found in the fact that all his life he lived within himself. He lived in a world in which he revolved inwardly, out of which he awoke only to attend to his immediate practical necessities. It was a happy inner world, peopled with his own friends, acquaintances, relatives, readings, ideas, and associations. Blessed is the man who has found the inner life more real than the trivial outer one. To him mere external annoyances are but as the little insects, which he may brush away at will. No man can be truly great who has not built up for himself a subjective world into which he may retire at will. The little child absorbed in a mythical land peopled by fairies and Prince Charmings is nearest to possessing such an inner life; and we must become as little children. To some it is a God-given gift; others may acquire it, as Jack London tells us, by “going into the waste places, and there sitting down with our souls.” There comes then, the overwhelming realization of the charms and beauties of nature-man is a pygmy, an abstraction, an unreality. This had come to our hero. Added to the strength of his inner life Livingstone had the deep sympathy with Nature in all her moods. He became enthusiastic when he described the beauties of the Moero scenery. The splendid mountains, tropical vegetation, thundering cataracts, noble rivers, stirred his soul into poetic expression. His tired spirit expanded in the presence of the charms of nature. He could never pass through an African forest, with its solemn stillness and serenity, without wishing to be buried quietly under the dead leaves where he would be sure to rest undisturbed. In England, there was no elbow-room, the graves were often desecrated, and ever since he had buried his wife in the woods of Shupanga, he had sighed for just such a spot, where his weary bones would receive the eternal rest they coveted. But even this last wish was denied him, and the noisy honors and crowded crypt of Westminster Abbey claimed him, far away from the splendid solitude he craved. All Africa should have been his tomb. He should never have been forced to share with hundreds of others a meagre and scant resting-place. Yet there is food for rejoicing in the knowledge, that though his body was borne away, his heart was buried by his beloved natives in the forest.

The study of Dr. Livingstone would not be even superficially complete if we did not take the religious side of his character into consideration. By religion, we do not mean the faith he professed, the particular tenets he believed, the especial catechism he studied, or any hair-splitting doctrine he might have upheld, but that deeper ethical side of manhood, without which there can be no true manhood. Livingstone’s religion was not of the theoretical kind, but it was a constant, earnest, sincere practise. It was neither demonstrative nor loud, but manifested itself in a quiet, practical way, and was always at work. It was not aggressive, nor troublesome, nor impertinent. In him, religion exhibited its loveliest features; it governed his conduct not only towards his servants, but towards the natives, the bigoted Mohammedans, and all with whom he came in contact. Without it, Livingstone, with his ardent temperament, his enthusiasm, his high spirit and courage, must have become uncompanionable, and a hard master. Religion had tamed him, and made him a Christian gentleman; the crude and wilful were refined and subdued; religion had made him the most companionable of men and indulgent of masters-a man whose society was pleasurable to a high degree.

If his life held for us no other message than this, it would hold enough. Unfortunately the youth of to-day  is apt to chafe when the ideal of Christianity and manly religion is held up to him. He thinks of the religious man as a milksop, a mollycoddle. He cannot associate him in his mind with the doing of great deeds, the thinking of great thoughts. His ideal of manhood is the ruthless Man on Horseback, with too often a disregard of the sacred things of life. Sometimes, if the youth of to-day thinks at all, he runs riot into ethics, forgetting that, after all, there could be no ethics without a firm base of religion. And so he wastes many precious years before he learns that all the greatest men whom the world has known drew their strength and power from the unseen and the spiritual.

We have noticed that Livingstone’s religion was not aggressive nor impertinent. Early in his career as a missionary, he recognized the truth that if he were to exercise any influence on the native Africans, it would not be by bringing to them an abstraction in place of their own savage ideals. His influence depended entirely upon persuasion, and by awakening within their minds the sense of right and wrong. “We never wished them to do right,” he says, “because it would be pleasing to us, nor think themselves to blame when they did wrong.” Worldly affairs, and temporal benefits with the natives were paramount, so he did not force abstractions upon them but, with a keen insight into human nature, as well as into savage human nature, he reached their higher selves through the more worldly.

His was a pure and tender-hearted nature, full of humanity and sympathy, modest as a maiden, unconscious of his own greatness, with the simplicity we have noted before, the simplicity of the truly great. His soul could be touched to its depths by the atrocities of the Arab slave-traders, yet he forgot his own sufferings in the desire to make others immune from suffering. He had but one rule of life, that which he gave to the Scotch school children, whom he once addressed:

“Fear God and work hard!”

* * * * *

It is one hundred years since this quiet, high-souled man was given the world, in the little Scotch village, and yet another hundred may pass away and still his life will be as a clarion call to the youth of the world to emulate his manhood. For the world needs men now, as it never needed them before,

“Men, high-minded men,
With powers as far above dull brutes endued
In forest brake or den, as beasts excel cold rocks and rambles rude.”

Such a man was Livingstone, not afraid to be meek in order to be great; not afraid to “fear God and work bard;” not ashamed to stoop in order that he might raise others to his high estate. He gave the world a continent and a conscience; with the lavishness almost of Nature herself he bestowed cataracts and rivers, lakes and mountains, forests and valleys, upon his native land. He stirred the soul of the civilized world to the atrocities of the slave trade, and he made it realize that humanity may be found even in the breast of a savage. When he laid down his life in the forest he loved, he laid upon the altar of humanity and science the costliest and sweetest sacrifice that it had known for many a weary age.

What message has this life for us to-day, we the commonplace, the mediocre, the unknown to fame and fortune? Shall we fold our hands when we read of such heroes and say, “Ah, yes, he could be great, but I? I am weak and humble, I have not the opportunity?” Who was more humble than the poor boy spinning in the cotton-mill; who was less constrained by Fortune’s frowns than the humble missionary? His life brings to us the message of doing well with that little we have.

We cannot all be with Peary at the North Pole, nor die the death of the hero, Scott, on the frozen Antarctic continent. It is not given to us to be explorers; it is not given us to be pioneers; we may not discover vast continents, name great lakes, nor gaze with wonder-stricken eyes upon the rolling of a mighty unknown river. But to each and all of us comes the divine opportunity to carve for himself a niche, be it ever so tiny, in the memories of men. We can heed the admonition of Carlyle, “Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even a Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s  name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee, out with it then!”

The life of service; the life of unselfish giving — this must Livingstone’s life mean to us. Unselfish, ungrudging lavishing of life and soul, even to the last drop of heart’s blood. Service that does not hesitate because the task seems small, or the waiting weary; service that does not fear to be of no account in the eyes of the world. Truly, indeed, might Wordsworth’s apostrophe to Milton be ascribed to him:

“Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way

In cheerful godliness, and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.”



Source: Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence; The Best Speeches Delivered by the Negro From the Days of Slavery to the Present Time, ed. Alice Moore Dunbar, (New York: The Bookery Publishing Company) 1914, pp. 425-444.