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Did Livingstone presume too much?

Steve Tomkins

On the 200th anniversary of our most famous missionary, Stephen Tomkins wonders if overseas evangelism still has a place in the 21st century. Or
should modern mission stop meddling in cultures we don't understand?


I don't wish to be alarmist, but the Muslims are coming. The 2011 census reveals that their numbers in Britain increased in  ten years by 75 per cent. Part of the growth comes through economic migration, and part, whether by conversion or missionary immigration, through a desire to win individual souls, and society as a whole, for Islam. Like Christianity, it is a proselytising religion and has a divine (and humanitarian) mandate to convert.

I was raised with missionary stories. Peter and Paul in pagan Rome, Livingstone in southern Africa, Aylward and Pullinger in China, Carey and my own grandparents in India. Augustine in darkest England would doubtless have been on the curriculum if he hadn't been sent by the Pope. These men and women were heroes, pure and simple, venturing into dangerous darkness for Jesus and facing fierce opposition from indigenous populations attached by habit to their futile and deceptive superstitions.

But now, finding ourselves the indigenous population for the first time in more than a millennium turns a rather different light onto those stories. The idea of our post-Christian society eventually becoming Islamic makes me sad - and I don't think that you need to be Islamophobic or nationalistic to share that feeling. Neither do you need to envisage it as anything more than one possible distant future. The mere possibility of the society I know and love being transformed, its traditions uprooted, its values overwritten, its stories taped over, its rites replaced, is an unhappy one.


And I suddenly see those old missionary stories from the other side, and find myself feeling a lot more sympathy. Sympathy for the Romans who were not keen on peasants from the fringes of the empire trying to overturn their society, undermining family values and trying to persuade the impressionable classes to abandon the gods and pray to an executed criminal nobody from nowhere. Sympathy for the Chinese and Indians who did not like visitors saying that their ancient sophisticated culture was wicked and wrong. Sympathy for the Africans who were not convinced that bringing guns and medicine gave Europeans the right to reorganise their whole civilization, from marriage to rainmaking.

Is overseas mission an unjustifiable intervention in things we don't understand? Or is such squeamishness about religious persuasion simply secularist relativism talking - the assumption that all religions are equally 'valid' in the sense they are equally wrong? Is overseas evangelism simply imperialism by other means? Or the time-wasting antics of fundamentalists who believe their horrible God will damn people for being unreached? Or does mission embody the coming of the Kingdom of God?


David Livingstone was born 200 years ago this March. Being the most celebrated missionary in British history and having tremendous influence, however unsought, over the development of British imperialism in Africa, he offers a useful test case.

Livingstone came from a family of Scottish millworkers, taught himself Latin, worked his way through university and went to South Africa as one of the London Missionary Society's second generation of missionaries there. He was supposed to learn the ropes, then establish a new mission settlement with a tribe a little further north.

But he was fundamentally too restless for that. He gave up on his first mission station with the Bakgatla tribe after falling out with a fellow missionary. He also gave up on the second, with the Bakwena, after only managing to convert one person, Chief Sechele - the sole convert of his career, whom he soon wrote off as a backslider. Crossing the Kalahari Desert, he sent his wife and children to Britain, where none of them had ever lived, so he could settle in the malarial swamps of the Zambezi river, with the great Makololo tribe.

Then it occurred to him he could be more useful to Christian mission finding a navigable path along the Zambezi to the west coast, opening the interior to missionaries and traders, so he walked 1400 miles through forest, swamp and grassland, skirting death numerous times from disease, hostile locals and other dangers. It was an extraordinary feat - which is precisely what made it a failure: it was such an ordeal that no other missionary could be expected to follow Livingstone's path, so he turned round and walked 2000 miles to the east coast, the Zambezi delta, to try the other side.


This time he thought he had discovered a waterway for the British and went home the greatest national hero of the age. He returned with a government sponsored expedition to set up a trade route on the Zambezi - only for the great explorer to find he had overlooked the existence of the 600-foot-high Kebrabassa rapids, which made the river impassable. When the missionaries came he took them towards Lake Nyassa (now Lake Malawi) instead, and there they found terrible slave raiding battles being fought by local tribes to feed the Portuguese demand. Livingstone and the missionaries intervened with guns to protect local people, but the missionaries ended up retreating.

Livingstone spent his later years going round south central Africa with a few African assistants, trying to find the source of the Nile, and sending reports on the slave trade to the British government. By time of his death, the three great concerns of his life were in ruins: none of his missionaries remained in mainland Africa; his exploration had failed to find the source of the Nile (because it wasn't there); and the slave trade had multiplied. And yet within years his work had led to a tidal wave of evangelistic mission and the end of the African slave trade.

A number of points about the rights and wrongs of mission arise from looking at Livingstone's life. The first I offer more as an introductory thought than anything else, and that is the personal cost of his mission. His wife Mary died on the Zambezi expedition; they'd had to spend almost half their twenty-year marriage apart. Their daughter Elizabeth died of pleurisy, and their first two children nearly died of thirst and again of malaria. David only avoided greater losses by sending them all, including Mary, back to Britain.


He himself suffered countless attacks of malaria, including 27 bouts on one two-year trek. He was mauled by a lion. He slept on waterlogged plains where his only bed was a mound of mud he raised up out of the water. His possessions, including vital medicines, food and clothes, were stolen. His life was threatened repeatedly. He suffered chronic dysentery and cholera. He scaled cliffs almost too hot for handholds. His clothes and shoes rotted away. He went without food for dangerously long stretches. His feet ulcerated, and he picked maggots out of his arms and legs.

Of course no amount of hardship makes evangelistic mission a good thing. Taking up your cross does not guarantee that you're going in the right direction. However, the price that Livingstone paid to fulfil his mission should, I think, make us wary of leaping too quickly and easily to censure what he did and how he did it. We might have no end of differences with Livingstone and his colleagues, but it's hard to claim the moral high ground over someone who gave so much more of himself for what he believed than we can easily imagine, let alone compete with. The results of his mission may have been mixed, his motives may have been mixed too, but is modern liberal non-intervention the pure wisdom of greater experience, or partly motivated by the fact that it makes life so much easier?


More substantially, Livingstone's career demonstrates that when we talk about evangelism and religious conversion in themselves, and when we talk about their social and political results, we are talking about two very different things, but ones which are exceedingly difficult to disentangle.

Critics of evangelistic mission generally focus on the secular results rather than the purely religious. Of course the latter is what it's all about for those engaged in it, or the main point at least - though Livingstone complicates the issue by not actually achieving much in the way of religious conversion, despite being the most celebrated missionary in British history, and by diverting most of his energies into exploration and abolition. But the basic issue is the same. All mission has implications beyond the spiritual realm.

I don't think there is a great deal that can be said against the changing of people's beliefs and rituals in itself. It is part of the free exchange of ideas, an exercise in healthy debate and free speech. Yes, some faiths are better than others, some conversions are from better to worse, and it is sad to see one's own traditions in decline. But, equally, some conversions are from worse to better and we are happy to see traditions that we approve of thriving. Perhaps liberal non-interventionists would argue that, as a rule, the preservation of human ancestral traditions is a good thing, but today African and European Christians look back with profound gratitude to those missionaries who convinced their ancestors to accept the Christian gospel - and so for that matter do liberal humanists look back on secular preachers like Paine and Voltaire who converted people to their way of thinking.



So the heart of the question is in the social and political dimensions of mission, which range from outcomes of world importance to countless small-scale issues.

Let's look at both great and small, starting with the former. On the grand scale, Livingstone had three main goals all connected to evangelism, and to each other: the commercial development of Africa, the cessation of the international slave trade, and geographical exploration. Were these great schemes of Livingstone's imperialistic, detrimental interference in Africa?

In the case of the first, the pairing of 'commerce and Christianity' as the recipe for helping Africa was not original to Livingstone by any means, but he promoted it so compellingly it became inextricably associated with him. He did so both in order to create a transport system for missionaries and because he believed trade would directly benefit African people and give them an alternative to the slave trade. Commercial development is another thing that did not come to fruition within his lifetime, but almost immediately after.

Though 'commerce and Christianity' may sound like a dubious catchphrase, it's hard to criticise Livingstone's combining of the two things when today on every side people agree that one of the best things that developed countries can offer African countries is improved trade and commerce. It was a disinterested policy as far as Livingstone was concerned as he never had any intention of trading himself, he just thought it would be helpful. Admittedly, as it happened in the 1870s onwards, developing trade led to imperialism, taking it far beyond what Livingstone envisaged and making it a mixed blessing, but this does not mean that either trade or mission necessarily open doors for imperialism.


As for combating the slave trade, this was also part of Livingstone's evangelistic mission, not least because it kept the audience from being deported. Slave raiding and Christianity being violently at odds by this time, he believed that abolition and evangelism would promote each other - and he was right. His actual motivation for fighting the trade was humanitarian rather than tactical, but it was being there as a missionary and travelling around the war zones that gave him a unique intelligence about the workings of the slave trade, which he was able to pass on to the British government.

He reported that the evil was greater than ever realised, raiders killing whole villages to take a handful of slaves; that the French and Portuguese were reneging on international anti-slavery agreements; and, most importantly, that all east African slave trading went through Zanzibar, allowing the British to stop it completely by shutting down the Zanzibar slave market. The abolition of the African slave trade was one of the most unambiguously good campaigns of Christian history, begun by Quakers, led by Anglican evangelicals and concluded by a missionary.


Livingstone's other great concern was geographical exploration. He talked about this in terms of its advantage to the spreading of the gospel, but it's safe to say this was little more than an excuse for indulging his passion for pure discovery. Still, he was responsible for expanding human knowledge of the planet, and it was being there as a missionary that gave him the opportunity.

The ultimate outcome of these great campaigns of Livingstone's is impossible to judge, not least because we've only seen 200 years of it so far. Livingstone was no imperialist, publicly supporting the Xhosa in their war against the British, for example, and so he would have been depressed to see how smoothly the stopping of the slave trade segued into imperial domination. But equally, Europe's relationship with Africa was always going to develop over the following fifty years, and it's hard to say that it would have gone better if it had not been missionaries who did the groundwork. It's also hard to name more benign programmes they could have added to their evangelistic goals than commercial development, abolition and exploration.

This leaves the smaller ways in which the presence of a missionary like Livingstone changed life in a local tribe, and the ways in which he wanted to change their lives - issues that were of more pressing concern to those people than such grand schemes.


Probably the greatest priority for Livingstone in dealing with his hosts - other than salvation itself - was to encourage greater respect for human life. He restrained chiefs from inter-tribal wars, intervened against executions for trivial offences, and protested against casual murder. No doubt he did not always understand the complexities of the issues, but if so surely erred on the right side.

The issue that caused most disturbance was monogamy. It was non-negotiable for Livingstone as a part of Christianity, so anyone who converted with more than one wife had to divorce the 'superfluous' ones. Early on he considered dropping the demand for biblical reasons, but changed his mind to present a united Christian front.

But polygamy was also an integral part of life in southern Africa. For Livingstone's one convert, Chief Sechele, it was the greatest struggle and longest-lasting obstacle to his conversion. For his four ex-wives and their families it was devastating. For the rest of his people it was an outrage which wrecked the delicate political balance of the tribe. Even if we consider monogamy to be a better way of doing things than polygamy, the results of Sechele's compulsory divorces were pretty miserable.


Livingstone also fought very hard against his hosts' use of magic to make rain. It was an unlucky battleground to choose as he stayed with Sechele's tribe through a four-year drought unlike anything they had ever known. His objection was both rationalistic - that rainmaking was unscientific mumbo jumbo that didn't work - and theological - that they should join him in praying to God for rain, though he was unable to demonstrate that this was not equally useless mumbo jumbo.

When Sechele gave up rainmaking it seriously upset his people. It's worth noting though that after Livingstone left, claiming that Sechele had quit his faith, the Chief remained a Christian, became a preacher, theologian and infinitely better missionary than Livingstone, and reintroduced both rainmaking and polygamy. He worked out a genuinely African Christianity, making sense of the Bible in his own context. This means that he is a much more important figure than he has ever been given credit for being, and, more to the point, that Livingstone's demands did not as it happens cause as much turmoil as they might have done in the long run.

Livingstone challenged what he saw an unenlightened attitudes to women, without having any great impact beyond saving individuals from capture or death. He tried to promote a scientific worldview, through lectures, with no success at all.


Much more successful was his promotion of literacy, not so much for its own ends as for Bible reading. Sechele became an avid reader, as did some of his wives, and some high-up men, though most were held back by having to spend their time foraging because of the drought. Literacy was successful because Livingstone had something of real value to offer. The Bible was a huge hit, even among people who found Livingstone's preaching unspeakably boring, which was almost everyone. 19th-century missionaries and 21st-century liberals can, I think, agree that literacy is a pretty unambiguous benefit.

Other things that missionaries like Livingstone brought were even more popular. Medicine and new healthcare techniques are an obvious benefit, and again not terribly controversial today. More surprising perhaps is that he, like other missionaries of his time, provided the very popular service of mending guns and sometimes even gave guns to people. While this might seem rather reckless, they were used for hunting much more than they were for warfare, especially since the missionaries generally dissuaded people from fighting. After Livingstone left, his guns allowed Sechele to drive off an unprovoked attack from Boers wanting to take their land and enslave them, once again making it hard to rue Livingstone's interference in the tribe.

Finally, Livingstone and his supporters supplied Sechele and others with no end of British paraphernalia, including clothes, furniture, crockery and cutlery. This probably qualifies as the pointless Europeanization of African people, though Livingstone considered it thoroughly desirable. On the other hand, it was a long way down his list of priorities, and again was meeting a real and strong desire of people who wanted all the European produce he could provide.

It all, I think, adds up to a pretty creditable balance. If, like Livingstone, you believe in eternal damnation, questions about paternalistic attitudes and social disruption may wilt into insignificance beside the saving of a human soul. But it turns out you don't have to think like that to justify the preaching of the gospel to a sceptical world.

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