The Portadown-born diplomat Sir Robert Hart was famous for transforming China’s beleaguered economy when he was Inspector General of the vast country’s Imperial Customs.

He was a key figure in China’s 19th Century history and is regarded as the most influential Westerner in the Qing Dynasty.

Dr David Livingstone was a Scottish Christian missionary and one of Africa’s greatest ever explorers.

In 1855 Livingstone discovered and named the Victoria Falls and reached the mouth of the Zambezi in 1856, becoming the first European to cross the mostly unmapped continent.

Both Livingstone and Hart would probably have stayed at home, unrecounted by history, if their lives hadn’t been profoundly changed by meeting missionaries on furlough, a scheme that’s become well-known in the battle against Covid-19.

But furloughs have been around for a long time indeed!

Since at least the early 1800s missionaries took 12 or 15 months off every four of five years to come home from foreign lands on a ‘working holiday’ called a furlough.

When he was studying in Queen's College (University) Belfast in 1854 young Robert Hart attended a lecture about China given by a missionary on furlough, Dr Urwick, in Donegall Street Primitive chapel in Belfast.

He was thus enthused to go to China!

When the furlough scheme was first announced during the Covid-19 pandemic, few folk here were familiar with the word, but it has been a significant part of missionary life for over two centuries.

Without it, the famous journalist and explorer Henry Stanley wouldn’t have uttered his historic words in Africa in 1871 - ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was the Welsh newspaper reporter hired by the New York Herald to find Livingstone, who’d been completely lost from civilisation for many months.

It was only known that he was somewhere in Africa!

It’s an epic story that’s often been told and depicted in a multitude of films, paintings, books, television programmes and even in a song by the pop group ABBA - What About Livingstone!

And just like Robert Hart hearing Dr Urwick speaking about China, young David Livingstone attended a meeting where a Scottish Congregationalist missionary called Robert Moffat was speaking about his missionary work in Africa in 1839.

At the time Moffat was home on furlough from Africa.

“I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun,” said Moffat “the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary has ever been.”

His rousing words inspired Livingstone to go to Africa and also to marry Robert Moffat’s daughter Mary!

Stanley found the long-disappeared missionary doctor near Lake Tanganyika in October 1871 and made his famous greeting ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’

Then and now, any missionary’s training focussed on furloughing.

An old Presbyterian Furlough Manual dated 1921

stated - “the importance of the furlough in relation to missionary efficiency cannot be overstated.”

The manual was published by the cumbersomely-named Board of Missionary Preparation of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America to offer “adequate preparation for foreign missionary service in all fields.”

It was one of dozens of booklets and pamphlets issued to would-be missionaries about “the various phases of missionary preparation” such as the “presentation of Christianity to people of other religions” including Hindus,

Moslems, Buddhists and ‘Primitive Peoples and Roman


There were manuals on the spiritual, physical, intellectual and social life of missionaries, and even one entitled ‘The Missionary in his Public Relations.’

But the series of publications also offered “helpful guidance to the young missionary on the field during the first term of service and in anticipation of the first furlough.”

All sorts of intriguingly-titled furlough issues were covered, such as “physical reinvigoration, mental upbuilding, contact with the homeland, the maintenance of a perspective, the cultivation of the home church and the magnifying of the cause of missions.”

The manual stated that the principal objective of furloughing was traditionally “the maintenance of the health of the missionary, his possible contribution to the education of the (home) churches and the raising of his missionary budget.”

It’s pertinent that an important objective was ‘Mental Upbuilding’, defined as ‘fresh mental stimulus.’

The Manual stressed that “every missionary on furlough needs to meet a new group of minds and to be confronted with problems other than his own!”

But the word furlough has had multiple other contexts and connotations down the years.

In the 1880s military home-leave was called furlough.

The scheme was also applied to prisons, to parole, probation, conjugal visits and work-release and a 2018 American comedy-drama film called Furlough featuring Whoopi Goldberg is about a rowdy prison inmate who gets a weekend’s furlough to visit her ailing mother.

The film got a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes - something of a thumbs down!