David Livingstone’s Vision Revisited

Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation in the 21st Century

–        Dr Sas Conradie

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David Livingstone has been both missionary icon and missionary villain. For many he was the epitome of mission pioneering and for others an imperialistic missionary paternalist with few if any fruit. It is from this controversial figure we in the 21st Century can learn when we discuss socio-economic and spiritual transformation in communities.

David Livingstone’s Vision

David Livingstone had a compassion and commitment to end the slave trade through Christianising and ‘civilising’ Africa while facilitating economic ‘take-off’ that would have provided the needed economic incentives to stop the trade. His wanted to open Africa to Christianity and commerce as a way to combat the social ills of the continent. Livingstone realised:

1)     People had to be set free from sins and practices (such as superstition) that prevented them from living lives that honour God. The spread of the Good News of spiritual freedom in Christ, or Christianity, was therefore of utmost importance to Livingstone[i]. The Holy Spirit empowers people to live holy lives and move away from sin. That would enable social change when more and more people follow that example.

2)     People had to be set free from cultural practices that prevent social and intellectual development, including slavery. Therefore there is a need to encourage a cultural value system that will facilitate education, health and law and order. The chiefs abused their powers to enslave their own people. To end the slave trade a change in culture was needed from within Africa.

3)     People had to be set free from poverty that encourages people to sell others into slavery. Economic development in Africa had to be facilitated through commercial activities. Commerce became a key building block of transforming communities so that slavery could stop.

Livingstone’s belief in Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce as a way to end slavery and encourage social transformation had much deeper roots than his own passion. It goes back to William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement which significantly coincided with the start of the British missionary movement. Legitimate commerce, coupled with the gospel, would cut off the slave trade at its source in Africa. Wilberforce’s own vision for a better world “lay in the transformative potential of faith and business. … It was in pursuit of this vision that he initiated radical social transformation on a global scale”[ii]. Because Christianity and legitimate commerce both had human liberty at their core, they were needed for social reform.

Rob Mackenzie emphasises the importance of the abolitionist movement’s thinking on Livingstone when he attended a meeting in Exeter Hall in the Strand by the Society for the Extinction of the Slave-Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa[iii]. “There it was proposed that Africans would only be saved from the slave-trade if they were woken up to the possibilities of selling their own produce; otherwise chiefs would continue to barbarically sell their own kind to pay for the beads, cloth, guns and trinkets they coveted. Commerce and Christianity could achieve this miracle, not Christianity alone’.

The discussion of the relationship of Christianity and civilization was therefore not a new idea. It had already been hotly debated in missionary circles in the 1790s and it can be argued it was the response to the social and economic transformation the UK experienced during the revival movements that swept the UK in the second half of the 18th Century. The abolitionist ideals of social transformation through commerce and Christianity became so inspirational that Henry Venn (Church Missionary Society General Secretary from 1841-1873) made abolitionism through commercial enterprise a central aspect of his mission strategy. Cultivating contacts with industry, Venn enlisted the support of a Christian manufacturer who agreed to import cotton at the minimum profit margin. This enabled Venn to set up the Nigerian cotton industry to provide African chiefs with a viable economic alternative to the slave trade[iv].

Livingstone believed that the arrival of honest traders and missionaries would provide the opportunity to exchange the natural resources of Africa for European trade goods. This would undercut and end the slave trade, leaving the possibility of the growth of Christianity and the development of a more prosperous African society. Livingstone tried to find suitable bases “from which Christianity, civilization and commerce could play their role in transforming Africa without the violence, injustice and slavery which he believed had characterized the meeting of European and African heretofore”[v]. During his visits to the UK Livingstone discussed the potential for trade and investment in Africa with business leaders.

David Livingstone’s vision distorted through imperial and commercial self-interest

Perhaps this passion to get the British nation more involved in spreading Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation in Africa and the fusion of the three legs of the development of Africa, opened the door for some as a pretext for imperial exploitation[vi]. Livingstone became the patron saint of liberal imperialism, paternalist and colonialist. The three Cs that Livingstone was so passionate about became distorted:

Christianity had been used by imperial powers to open areas for expansion and to pacify communities. Christianity became ‘the religion of the white-man’ and of the oppressor.

Civilisation had been used to impose the will of imperial powers and to conform communities to the example of “Civilised Europe” in order to produce goods for the “Mother country”. Civilisation became synonymous with colonialism and oppression.

Commerce had been used to advance the economic interest and self-enrichment of imperial powers, large companies and individuals such as Cecil John Rhodes while using the natural resources and cheap labour of local communities. Commerce became synonymous with multi-national capitalism that enriches a few and impoverishes the masses.

Livingstone’s dream of Christianity and commerce, combining to produce developmental ‘take-off’ in Africa’s development did not materialise the way he envisaged. The demand of industrialised countries for ivory, combined with the East African slave trade, was a barrier enough even before the powerful worldwide imperialist expansion finally killed it. Other factors discouraged investment such as Africa’s geography and health conditions that makes transportation and trade difficult.

David Livingstone’s vision redeemed

The mistakes of the past are generally acknowledged today. People became uneasy about the link between Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce. I would argue that the link between empire, mission and commercial exploitation was forced upon by imperial and commercial motivation and instigation. I propose that by dealing with the negative image related to the 3 themes, we can redeem what David Livingstone and other mission leaders in the 19th Century were so passionate about:

People still have spiritual needs, but with the problems related to the term Christianity, it might be needed to return to the roots of Christianity, the Bible, and start talking about Biblical Faith instead of Christianity. Ron Sider[vii] argues that certain religious worldviews tend to create a fatalistic attitude towards poverty. A South African bishop once said that people in the rural areas in South Africa are so fearful of evil spirits that they do not take initiative to improve their lives. People can be set free from the fear of evil spirits and experience total renewal through the life-giving ministry of Jesus Christ.

People need to be set free from values and cultural practices that prevent social-economic and emotional well-being. Society needs to be transformed according to Biblical principles from within the community. It is therefore better to talk about Social Transformation instead of Civilisation. Social problems are also the church’s problems and the church must deal with them. The church must direct itself towards transforming society and not to try to escape from it.

People still have physical needs and need employment to provide in these needs. Enterprise Development that benefit a whole community is needed and not just Commerce that can give the impression of enriching just a few. It is therefore better to talk about Enterprise Development than of Commerce in order to indicate this qualitative difference in business activities.

David Livingstone’s Redeemed Vision – the Kingdom Model

A Kingdom Model can explain the relationship between Biblical Faith, Social Transformation and Enterprise Development:

sas dia 1

Biblical Faith: Bible becomes the norm for life and conduct and not perceived Western traditions. This brings people into a personal relationship with God to experience spiritual freedom, transformation and changing behavior and culture. Christians get the courage to start businesses through which they can earn a living for themselves and their families and through that glorify God. These believers then transform the community around them through encouraging a life-style based on the Biblical message that results in improved community care.

Social Transformation: The Biblical principles are lived out. Communities are helped to develop a value system that facilitate trust and responsibility; increase productivity; and enable communities in caring for one another. Communities and individuals experience emotional and social freedom. Greater involvement from Christians in community structures facilitate improved social care and the eradication of negative values in the community. They can start social enterprises such as trading networks, low cost housing, services for the poor in the community and environmental initiatives as business initiatives to generate income for the community[viii]. This involvement is a witness and opportunity to spread Biblical Faith.

Enterprise Development: local communities take control of their own economic development.  Local job creation and sustainable wealth creation is encouraged. Companies and individuals from outside are encouraged to invest in sustainable commercial activities. Education provides the basis for enterprise development. Economic and physical freedom is experienced and economic transformation is facilitated. Enterprise Development includes the provision of capital for the poor to earn their own way through for example micro-loan programmes[ix]. Also increased trading opportunities for local business people, access to markets, and the development of fair trade initiatives. Enterprise development then becomes a means of church planting, social service and transformation, community building and grappling with unjust practices.

The relationship between Biblical Faith, Social Transformation and Enterprise Development: The best way to understand the relationship is three overlapping circles that facilitate developing self-sustainable communities of Christians that transform their society through adhering to God-given principles. With Christ at the centre, these communities of believers expand the overlapping area so that Christ will become increasingly the centre of the life of their societies.

At the heart of this understanding of the relationship between Biblical Faith, Social Transformation and Enterprise Development is that the Kingdom of God needs to become a reality in a society or community. The already and not yet character of God’s Kingdom means that the Church and its mission constitute an interim sign. The Church points humanity backward to its origins in God’s creation and forward to the present and coming Kingdom in Jesus Christ.

Livingstone’s vision implemented

Livingstone’s vision to develop Africa spiritually, economically and socially had a profound impact on the global mission movement. For example David Scott developed the Blantyre Mission in present day Malawi as a small missionary community intended to act with the cooperation of the African Lakes Company as a cultural and economic as well as religious catalyst within African society[x]. This vision also finds its expression in the concept of holistic mission where the gospel not only transforms individuals but has ‘transforming consequences for societies, for trade and economics, for law, and for human rights” [xi].

Livingstone’s dream of Christianity and commerce, combining to produce developmental ‘take-off’ in Africa’s development is becoming a reality across Africa. The church in Africa grows rapidly. Many churches and ministries are taking steps towards a more Kingdom-orientated Model of understanding the relationship between Biblical Faith, Social Transformation and Enterprise Development. CMS Africa for example is involved in exciting Business as Mission initiatives (www.bamafrica.org) while the Samaritan Strategy (www.samaritan-strategy-africa.org) encourages social transformation and enterprise development out of a better understanding of the Biblical message[xii]. Christian micro-finance initiatives such as Opportunity International and Five Talents provide capital for enterprise development while changing the values in the communities where they work. The growing integration between Biblical Faith, Enterprise Development and Social Transformation has the potential to decrease dependency on so-called Western resources. Africa is now seen as a continent of hope despite remaining challenges such as corruption.

Sharing wealth in a globalised world

The 21st Century is a totally different world than that in which David Livingstone lived. Technological advances in travel and communication made the world a global village. This is part of God’s design for the world since He made humanity an inter-connected and inter-dependent community with different resources in different places. Within this inter-connected globalised community it is important for wealth to be shared and generated to the benefit of all. This wealth or capital includes knowledge, spiritual, social and monetary wealth. The Kingdom Model must become a reality through “Kingdom communities” that facilitate wealth interchange:

sas dia 2

The environmental context – towards the Quadruple Bottom Line Model

Biblical Faith, Enterprise Development and Social Transformation take place in an environmental context. Christians have a Biblical mandate to care for the environment while unrestrained commercial development will result in increased environmental destruction and economic collapse. Environmental destruction will increase social problems as communities and individuals fight with one another to obtain scarce resources such as water. The quadruple bottom line concept has been developed to describe the environmental responsibility, social transformation, economic development and the spiritual growth in communities[xiii]. Within the framework of the Kingdom Model as described previously, the quadruple bottom line model might be illustrated as follows:

 sas dia 3


Born within the Abolitionist Movement, David Livingstone’s vision of Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce had a profound impact on the mission movement in the 19th Century. Unfortunately this vision had been distorted by colonialism and imperialism. Many Christians and mission initiatives became reluctant to implement this vision and shied away of commerce and social involvement. Fortunately there are a growing number of Christian initiatives today that take the vision seriously. The challenge for these initiatives is to develop a Kingdom Model of ministry that integrates the different aspects of Livingstone’s vision. In a globalised world this Model is more than ever needed either it be in well-reached communities in Africa or unreached areas of Asia and the Middle East. In a fragile ecological environment we have to go beyond the Kingdom Model and put it within the framework of environmental care as described in the Quadruple Bottom Line Model of mission. Hopefully there will be many Christian leaders who will venture into what could become very excited possibilities.

Dr. Sas Conradie is the coordinator of the WEA/Lausanne Movement Global Generosity Network and involved in the Stewardship in Mission Taskforce of World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission. His e-mail address is ggncoord@gmail.com

[i] Ross, Andrew C (2002), David Livingstone: Mission and Empire. Hambledon and London, London, p.17

[ii] Heslam, Peter (2007), “William Wilberforce: how transforming business can turn the tide of history”, Faith in Business 10:4, April 2007 p.3-4

[iii] Mackenzie, Rob (1993), David Livingstone: The Truth behind the Legend. Fig Tree Publications, Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, p.47.

[iv] Waters, John (1996), David Livingstone – Trail Blazer. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, UK, p.228

[v] Ross, (2002), p.77

[vi] Ross, (2002), p.241.

[vii] Sider, Ronald (1997), Rich Christians in an age of Hunger. Hodder and Stoughton, London

[viii] Sider (1997), p.236.

[ix] Sider, (1997), p.236.

[x] Ross, (2002), p.243.

[xi] Sogaard, Viggo (2004) Evangelizing our World: Insights from Global Inquiry, 2004 Forum for World Evangelization, Thailand, September 2004, p.59.

[xii] See Miller, Darrow L and Allen, Scott (2005) Against All Hope: Hope for Africa.

[xiii] See Inayatullah, Sohail: “Spirituality as the Fourth Bottom Line” at www.metafuture.org/Articles/spirituality_bottom_line.htm for a non-Christian perspective on the Quadruple Bottom Line.

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