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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Robert Laws

Looking Back

Friday September 11 2020

Looking Back: Dr Robert Laws

A tribute to the Scottish missionary Dr Robert Laws, written by W P Livingstone and published in September 1934.

ON the afternoon of the first Sunday of August Scotland listened on the wireless to the proceedings at the unveiling of the statue to Dr. David Livingstone at the Victoria Falls.

At the same moment Dr. Robert Laws, who followed Dr. Livingstone into Central Africa and made the explorer’s dreams for the land come true, lay dying in a London nursing home. He was in his eighty-fourth year.


Dr. Laws was a massive personality. In appearance he was stalwart, erect, with rugged features and an expression habitually grave – in the years of his retirement it softened into one of gentle benignity. A very silent man, he had no small talk, even at table. But he gave one the impression of possessing great reserves of inner strength.

These characteristics were the outcome of his early experiences: first in the hard struggle for education; then in the fight with disease and sin in Glasgow; and then in the sterner, more sombre school of Africa which tests and trains every atom of a man’s character.

So much of his life was concealed from the public eye that few realised how kind and generous he was. He was a most loving and thoughtful son: he gave lavishly to the Mission; he contributed in secret to many good causes: no one who asked his help was ever refused assistance. He and Mrs. Laws – who was of a like mind and was his inspiration, encourager, and comrade – spent very little on themselves and thought most of the Master’s needs.


He had a far-seeing mind and a passion for thoroughness. His primary object was the presentation of the Gospel to suit the circumstances of the Africans. To use his own phrase he wanted to “saturate” their minds – “especially the children” – with a knowledge of the Bible. After that to teach them the arts and crafts of civilisation. It was a complete training and one that led them into the humblest as well as the highest duties of the Christian life.

To see that life centred in a strong, progressive African Church was his ardent ambition. Viewing that vast population, the multitude of tribes, languages, and dialects, he realised that only native Christians could do the work of evangelisation. But he was cautious and would not hurry the process: it was unfair to make a native pastor deal with problems of ethics and morals more difficult than those which ministers at home had to handle, yet he also recognised the danger of hindering the work of the Holy Spirit in a man.


He never became an “attractive” preacher or lecturer, because he thoroughly disliked all conscious art, all straining after effect, all attempts at fine phrases. It must be the plain, simple truth without embellishment or imaginative touches, or anything that would direct attention to the speaker instead of to the Master.

The same sober quality characterised all his literary work; and, it must be said, influenced the outward form of his building schemes. The writer could not bring himself to agree with him about his utilitarian Scottish buildings. He thought it a pity that they were so grim, and not more in harmony with the African character and environment. Yet that he had a streak of poetic fancy in his nature is indicated by his beautiful conception of a church, of Livingstonia grey stone, on a commanding site, with tower, and a light that would be seen shining like a star by voyagers on Lake Nyasa three thousand feet below.


It is the bare truth to say that he was unique among missionary pioneers, administrators, and statesmen. In variety of attainments, in capacity for all forms of work, in indomitable faith and patience, and in magnificent practical achievement no-one has surpassed him.

There was no more touching sight in Africa than the old white-headed Doctor issuing from the manse before six o’clock in the morning and disappearing into the mist which still shrouded the mountain; toiling at all sorts of professional and manual work throughout the heat of the day, and coming back tired in the twilight – and so unconscious of the heroism of it. He lamented his shortcomings and failures, and lost opportunites. What had been accomplished he would take no credit for. All was due to a Higher Power.

Towards the end he said that the chief lesson he had learnt from life was that God guides and helps and sustains His servants and never forsakes them, and that in moments of trial and crisis He gives them a sense of His presence and blessing.

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