Livingstone's Failure and Christ's Success

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Evangelism is hard work requiring lots of patience. Churches and mission boards are often too impatient and want to see numerical growth explode overnight.

Christians live with a series of paradoxes, such as losing our lives to save them (Matt 10:39). The cross itself becomes a byword for paradox because there, in his defeat, Christ gained victory. Sometimes this paradox plays out in our lives, and our failures become great successes. So the paradoxical word of the cross is God’s power at work through us. He uses the foolish to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). This was also true for Dr. David Livingstone, who died while exploring Africa on May 1, 1873. By his death, he had long since left mission work to others, thinking himself a failure

Dr. Livingstone’s fame as a missionary did not come from massive conversions. Today’s number-driven mission boards would write him off as a complete failure. Livingstone spent three years as a missionary but gave up preaching when he thought that Chief Sechele, his only convert, had become a backslider.

Livingstone found a willing and devoted disciple in Chief or “Kgosi” Sechele, who ruled over half of a tribe of Tswana, shortly after he arrived on the mission field in what is today known as Botswana. Livingstone’s journals show that Sechele was very concerned about his soul and for his people, who remained skeptical of the Christian religion despite their chief’s devotion. Sechele even complained to Livingstone that in the past, the tribe would take up any interest the Kgosi had, but “I love the word of God and not one of my brethren will join me” (The Complete Works of David Livingstone, Kindle, 6633).

Victorian missionaries faced plenty of problems when it came to trying to convert people. Livingstone’s experience of only one conversion was common among missionaries at that time. They had to learn completely unfamiliar languages with no resources amid disease, drought, envy, and suspicion. Oftentimes, poor theology led to an insistence on the imposition of Victorian values before baptism which only exasperated problems.

Sechele wanted to be baptized much earlier, however, Sechele had five wives when he first met Dr. Livingstone. Sechele gave up superstitions like rainmaking for as long as Livingstone was with him but did not know how to give up his wives without shaming their families and unraveling the social fabric of the whole tribe. Still, Sechele learned to read the Scriptures and write. He also taught his wives. They all became Livingstone’s most devoted students.

Livingstone finally baptized the chief in 1848 after Sechele divorced four of his wives. But Sechele’s baptism only irritated many of his subjects who blamed Sechele’s baptism for the continued lack of rainfall. A year later, one of the wives Sechele had divorced became pregnant with his child. This disappointment ultimately caused Livingstone to take leave of his missionary efforts, despite Sechele’s protests. “Do not give up on me because of this, I shall never give up Jesus. You and I will stand before him together” (“The African chief converted to Christianity by Dr Livingstone”).

Livingstone did not completely give up on missionary work but began a very different approach. Neither did he entirely break off his relationship with Sechele. They reunited a few years later in one of Livingstone’s most famous exploits. Due to continued drought, Sechele had moved to a new village where there was a cave named Lepelole. Lepelole supposedly housed a deity that killed anyone who visited it. So Livingstone and Sechele camped there overnight. The event proved to be a “St. Boniface and Thor’s Oak” moment for the tribe when the two friends emerged the next day.

Livingstone would go on to become a great explorer. His fame exploded when he was rescued from near death by the American explorer Henry Morton Stanley. By this time, Livingstone’s focus had shifted to stamping out the African slave trade by opening Africa with his three Cs: commerce, Christianity, and civilization. He told Stanley his task was “not so much to preach the gospel to Africa. What would one or two men do in that respect? The first step was to preach to Europe what they must do about the horrors of the slave trade, to stop it once and for all. Later the regular missionaries would come, systematically organized, teaching the gospel tribe by tribe, district by district” (Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 26).

Today Livingstone’s legacy is a mixed bag. Remembered for his work against the slave trade, some also deride him as one of the many Europeans who helped introduce colonialism to Africa. Yet, his early failure at mission work helped save Botswana many of the troubles accompanying the dissolution of colonialism in the wake of World War II. Sechele taught his people the value of an education; they managed to avoid becoming a full-blown colony and were named a protectorate instead. Sechele also became a missionary and converted his tribe and many others in the ensuing years. While the teaching and practices of Sechele’s “Africanized” Christianity troubled many missionaries, Christianity would not enjoy its success in Africa today if it had not been for his work.

Evangelism is hard work requiring lots of patience. Churches and mission boards are often too impatient and want to see numerical growth explode overnight. They believe pastors just need to do x and are tempted to pressure pastors to produce quick or quit. Pastors and laypeople feel like failures when they cannot seem to get others interested in the gospel. We can remember that for all his fame, Livingstone felt a failure, and yet his great failure became Christ’s success.