TURES COLUMN: A great Christian missionary who converted only one

Published 5:55 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2023

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As we approach the Christmas Season, we may think about the greatest Christian missionaries, and rate them based upon how many converts each one made. Perhaps true believers may be discouraged, thinking how few people outside of their family they may have helped get baptized. Yet I have a story about one of the greatest evangelists in history. And he only converted one person in his life, showing that sometimes missionary work is more than a numbers game.

Dr. Livingstone was born to a Scottish family that was poor, but proud. “It is not to make money that I believe a Christian should live,” he said. “The noblest thing a man can do is, just humbly to receive, and then go amongst others and give.”

He embraced education, studying Greek theology and medicine while working in the mills. Originally hoping to preach and heal in China, he was convinced by Robert Moffat to come to Africa in the 1800s. Rather than be a complete product of his time, he got to embrace the African people, and hate slavery and slaves’ mistreatment, leading him to clash with Boers, Portuguese and their allies (the former burned his home and drove his new friends away).

Dr. Livingstone discovered all kinds of amazing natural wonders, and won prizes for his achievements. He wrote about his experiences, leading many to think of him as an explorer. They forget his missionary zeal, hoping to spread Christianity but also commerce, so Africans would be more likely to be regarded as great trading partners, and not little more than being treated like animals, in slavery. His son died in a Southern prison camp during the Civil War.

The famed journalist, explorer and adventurer Henry Stanley organized an American expedition to find the famed missionary doctor, confirming that the rumors were wrong, and the beloved man was still alive. Their encounter, memorialized by the line “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” is the subject of books and even several films, such as “Stanley and Livingstone,” recommended to me by my United Methodist Church class after hearing my lesson on the subject.

Despite all of his efforts, Dr. Livingstone managed only one convert: Sechele, a Kwena tribal leader from modern-day Botswana. The brilliant African learned the Bible, and translated it into a dialect, a practice perhaps copied by so many. Sechele and Livingstone did have a disagreement, as the former preferred to maintain multiple wives and rainmaking traditions. But though Livingstone lost him as a friend, his convert not only kept the faith, but spread it. When Moffat moved north from South Africa, he found that Sechele had already converted the region.

Dr. Livingstone died of an illness, kneeling in prayer by his bed. But his spirit lives on. His warm embrace of the African people, and treating them as equals, but with kindness, may have mattered even more than formal acts of conversion. Upon his death, his African friends buried his heart beneath a sacred tree, and then trekked hundreds of miles with the embalmed body to the coast, so his body could be returned to England, for burial in Westminster Abbey. They did it for a man who hiked hundreds of miles with his guides, and then saw each of them safely to their homes first, often far away, to fulfill a promise. “I’d rather be in the heart of Africa in the will of God, than on the throne of England, out of the will of God,” Livingstone once said.

Now there are 658 million Christians in Africa, with more of that religion than that on any continent, with an expected one billion by 2050. I saw evidence of these in churches in Tanzania. Without this African growth, Christianity would be in decline worldwide. Now that’s the mark of a great missionary, even if pure statistics suggest otherwise.