A saint, I presume

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, but do you know the story behind it?  I knew nothing about Dr. David Livingstone until I learned that in 1855 he was the first European to document the existence ofVictoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.  I am inZimbabwe right now on a mission trip toAfricaUniversity, which was started in 1994 by TheUnited Methodist Church in order to offer a high quality, Christian-based education to students from all over the African continent.  I will write about ourAfricaUniversity experience next week.  Last week our group of 6 had the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls, which is on theZambeziRiver at the border betweenZimbabwe andZambia.

On this All Saints Day (November 1), I presume to sing a song of the saints of God, especially God’s saints inAfricaand most particularly, David Livingstone: doctor, missionary, explorer, and anti-slavery advocate.

I sing a song of the saints of God; patient and brave and true;

Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.

And one was a doctor and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green;

They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one too.

David Livingstone was born inScotlandin 1813 and was raised as a Scottish Congregationalist.  His father worked in a cotton mill, taught Sunday school, and handed out Christian tracts as he sold tea door to door.  David was urged by his father to read theology, but from an early age he had a keen interest in science and geology.  Livingstone became a physician and missionary and originally traveled toAfricato convert the natives to Christianity.  Eventually discerning that his real passion was exploration, Livingstone became one of the most popular adventurers and scientific investigators of the 19th century.

Livingstone’s greatest goals were to open up the Zambezi River as a Christian highway into the interior of Africa, examine the natural resources of southeastern Africa, and find the source of the NileRiver.  After seeing Victoria Falls for the first time, Livingstone commented, “The most wonderful area I had witnessed in Africa.  No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England.  It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

Although Livingstone was not a gifted evangelist and made few converts to Christianity, his faith informed his life and had a tremendous impact on the continent ofAfrica.

  • Livingstone became an advocate for changing the “divine right” ofBritainand other races to rule “lesser races” and believed that treating people ethically was a moral issue.
  • He emphasized understanding the local customs, practices, and beliefs of indigenous people, which was not the norm in the 19th century.
  • Africans who were educated in mission schools that were inspired by Livingstone were in the forefront of independence movements in central eastern and southernAfrica.

Perhaps most important, David Livingstone was an anti-slavery crusader.  In a letter to the editor of the New York Herald newspaper, he wrote, “And, if any disclosure regarding the terrible Ujijian slavery should lead to suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together.”

In the mid 1860’s Livingstone became ill and lost contact with the outside world, which was unusual for a man who regularly updated friends on his travels.  In 1869 the New York Herald offered unlimited resources to Henry Morton Stanley to find Livingstone.  After traveling first to Egypt, Crimea, Persia, and then India, Stanley finally headed to East Africa.  In 1871 he located Livingstone in Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and announced his arrival with the words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  Although Livingstone never confirmed Stanley’s words himself, Stanley reported Livingstone’s response, “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”  The explorer was pale, gaunt and had a gray beard and was evidently surprised that he was considered lost.  Click here to view an illustration and read a story of the encounter.

Stanleybrought much needed food, medicine and contact with the outside world and spent 5 months with Livingstone.  Livingstone refused to return to England, but it is thought that he probably sent a letter back with Stanleythat he had written in the Congo.  This letter, illegibly scribbled on torn pages from a book, was finally deciphered just a few months ago by British researchers with the assistance of spectral imaging.  Despite Livingstone’s poor health, his convictions had not waned, as he wrote, “If our statesmen stop the frightful waste of human life in this region and mitigate the vast amount of human woe that accompanies it, they will do good on the large scale and cause joy in heaven.”

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong;

And they followed the right for Jesus’ sake the whole of their good lives long.

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;

And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one, too.

David Livingstone never did find the source of the NileRiver.  Nevertheless, when he died in Zambiain 1873 because of malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery, there was joy in heaven.  It is said that Livingstone died while kneeling in prayer.  Naturally, Britain wanted Livingstone’s body to be sent back home, but the tribe of Chief Chitambo in the village of Ilala would not give it to them.  The tribesmen finally relented but first cut out Livingstone’s heart.  A note accompanied Livingstone’s body, “You can have his body, but his heart belongs in Africa.”  Livingstone’s funeral was held in Westminster Abby inLondon.

There is joy on earth on this All Saints Day as we celebrate our sainted loved ones who have gone before us.  We grieve their loss but experience joy because their legacy has forever changed us and our world.  There is also joy as we celebrate the saints who are still among us, and we presume to model our lives after their faith.

There is joy in heaven as well whenever God’s children faithfully complete their earthly life and join the saints above.  But there is equal joy in heaven as God’s angels and saints gaze upon lovely scenes of compassion, caring, and justice here on earth.  One of Dr. David Livingstone’s most famous quotes is, “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”  Every time human beings explore and open new possibilities of grace and hope in our world, there is joy.

When others look at us, will they say “Jenny, I presume?” or “Sam, I presume?” or “A saint, I presume?”  How will others know that we are saints, anyway?  I dare say it’s not because of our profession, our family, our income, our education, or because of anything we say or believe.  It’s because of our love.  It’s because our hearts belong to the people we serve.  We become saints when we model the love of Christ in such a way that our gifts are used to make a positive difference in the world.

They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still;

The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church by the sea, in the house next door;

They are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.

What might happen if we gave ourselves to God so completely that others will naturally say of each one of us, “A saint, I presume?”  I mean to be one, too.  How about you?

Blessings, Laurie


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.