Christie has provided this thorough new work that seeks to describe Livingstone not as we’ve imagined him or want him to be, but as he actually was. It describes him as neither a hero nor a villain, but as a man who was both sinful and sanctified, both tragically flawed and full-out committed to the highest of all causes. It’s a valuable contribution to understanding the man, his accomplishments, and the time in which he lived.
There are some historical figures whose every sin seems to get overlooked and whose every virtue seems to get amplified. Conversely, there are other historical figures whose every virtue seems to get overlooked and whose every sin seems to get amplified. I would place the modern understanding of David Livingstone squarely in the latter category. Though he was most certainly a flawed individual, it seems that today he is known only for those flaws rather than for his many strengths. It’s for this reason that Vance Christie’s weighty new biography of Livingstone is so timely and so important.
David Livingstone was one of the towering figures of his age, and this despite living the great majority of his life far from the centers of power and despite never seeking nor even desiring the limelight. He dedicated most of his career to a particular form of mission work—the work of exploration. He did this not because of a sense of wanderlust or a desire to make a great name for himself, but out of a desire to bring an end to a terrible evil.
European powers had long been involved in the slave trade and had created outposts from one edge of the continent to the other. And while they were eager to receive slaves, they tended not to venture too far into the interior. By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Europeans knew a great deal about coastal Africa, but little of what lay beyond. Livingstone was convinced that to end the slave trade, someone would need to explore—to chart navigable rivers, discover resources, and build an economy that would create wealth greater than the slave trade could provide. Thus his drive to explore was motivated by a love for people and a desire to quench slavery.
Christie’s biography, which weighs in at nearly 800 pages, tells his life in great detail, relying foremost on primary sources such as Livingstone’s journals and correspondence. It tells of his childhood in Scotland and his coming to faith in Jesus Christ. It tells of his conviction that the Lord had called him to missions and of his preparation by training to be a medical doctor. It tells of his early years as a missionary in what is now known as South Africa and of his marriage to Mary Moffat, the daughter of one of the area’s pioneering missionaries.