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Robert Moffat

by H. K. W. Kumm
1795 Born at Ormiston, Scotland. (December 21st)
1812 Gardener at Donibristle.
1813 At High Leigh.
1816 Sailed for South Africa. (October)
1817 Reached Cape Town. (January)
1819 Married Miss Smith.
1838 New Testament translated into Bechuana language.
1839 Returned to England on furlough.
1840 David Livingstone was called by Moffat.
1843 Moffat was back in South Africa.
1859 Moffat opened a new station in Inyati.
1870 Returned to England.
1883 He died and was buried in Norwood Cemetery. (August 10th)

Robert MoffatMoshete of the Bechuanas, known among his home people as Robert Moffat, was the pathfinder for the missionaries of South Central Africa, the friend of the great king Mosilikatse of the Matabeles, and of Cetewayo of the Zulus, the father-in-law of David Livingstone, and the venerable spiritual father of many.

Moffat was born in 1795 at Ormiston, East Lothian, Scotland. Like many another great man he ran away to sea, desirous all too early to find his own sphere in life. It is only degenerates who depend on their parents after they are full-grown, and it is a healthy sign when the young want to fly out of the nest before their time. There is danger in this, but it indicates health and independence,—two important factors in human life. Robert Moffat had a hard time of it as a sailor boy, and, disgusted with it, returned home, to the great joy of his parents. Like other Scotch youths, he was brought up on porridge and proverbs, good for brawn and brain. The "Shorter Catechism" was his first book, the title-page of which contained the A, B, C, and from it he learned to read. At the age of eleven he was sent with his brother Alexander to Mr. Paton's school in Falkirk, but only stayed six months. He had tried sailoring and that did not suit him; now he tried horticulture. He had to rise at 4 o'clock even in the depth of winter, and was fed on hard work and little else. He learnt that life was more than a Highland Fling. After his apprenticeship was ended he secured a situation with the Earl of Moray at Donibristle.

"Say, you boys, stop rocking that boat, or we'll be in the water!" But the boys did not stop, and suddenly the gunwale on one side went under, over went the boat, and Robert found himself in the water—unable to swim. He was almost drowned, but at last managed to get ashore, and the other boys thought it a huge joke. Robert set his teeth and determined to learn to swim. Before working hours he got up morning after morning and with no one near taught himself breast strokes, and side strokes, how to tread water, and how to float. When he was almost drowned none of the other boys had tried to save him: he bided his time, hoping for an opportunity to pay back one of his friends in a different coin.

"Stop rocking that boat!" The boys did not know that Robert had learnt to swim and they wanted to frighten him. "Didn't I tell you last time that you would upset the crazy craft, and here you are at it again!" His chums only laughed and rocked the harder, until over went the boat. With screams of delight all leapt into the water, including Robert. But—as the boat turned turtle one of the sides going down hit one of the boys on the head and stunned him. The others saw it as they were making for the shore. The boy who was struck would have been drowned, one of his hands came to the surface and opened and closed convulsively, when Moffat laid hold of it, threw the boy on his back and, swimming, lugged him to the land. The boy was gasping, but evidently not much the worse for his experience, when Moffat turned to the others, and in his wrath said, "You pack of bullies and cowards! You are no good, and I will have nothing more to do with you. You almost drowned me last time, and you would have let Charlie drown!" and helping Charlie to his feet he marched off with him in high dudgeon.

Work in Scotland in those days was ill-paid, and after a year at Donibristle, Moffat secured a better position with a Mr. Leigh in Cheshire (England). He promised his mother before he left that he would read a chapter of the Bible every morning, and he fulfilled his promise.

Among his acquaintances at High Leigh were some Methodists, and after the manner of the Methodists, they tried to win Robert Moffat to their view of thinking. In this they partly succeeded, at least to the extent that Robert Moffat resolved to serve the Lord Christ, and, after a missionary meeting in Manchester which he attended, he offered himself to the London Missionary Society for foreign service. His education was not of the best, though he had succeeded, in the little while he was at school, in assimilating a good deal of knowledge. Now he spent some time in study, at the suggestion of the Committee of the London Missionary Society, and was ordained on the 30th of September, 1816, at the age of twenty-one, in Surrey Chapel.

In those days missionaries did not go out for terms of two years; Moffat's first period of work in Africa was twenty-three years. A Miss Smith to whom he had been engaged to be married wanted to accompany him to the field, but her parents would not permit this. She followed him three years later, and they were married in South Africa on the 27th of December, 1819.

Many difficulties awaited the determined young missionary in his new sphere of work among the Bechuanas. Before studying the language of the natives he had to learn Dutch, which was understood by some of the people.

The witch doctor of the tribe was his sworn enemy. In days of drought the missionary was a convenient scape-goat for the witch doctor. First it was the salt in the white man's wagon, and then the chapel bell, that bewitched the weather. At last the trouble came to a head. The chief, followed by a number of fully armed men, came to the mission station and told Moffat, who was busy mending a wagon, that it was time to inspan his oxen and get out of the country. They had had enough of him. They were quite prepared to resort to violent means. Everything was at stake. The moment had come when the missionary had to throw his life into the balance. In the hand of the chief quivered the spear. Moffat faced him; with his left hand he opened his waistcoat, while his wife, with a baby in her arms, was watching the crisis from the door of their cottage.

"Now then," said Moffat, "if you will, drive your spear to my heart; when you have slain me, my companions will know that the hour has come for them to depart." Here was aggressive non-resistance! What could the chief do? With a significant shake of the head he turned to his companions and remarked,

"These men must have ten lives when they are so fearless of death. There must be something in immortality."

How vividly all this reads in Moffat's own words, reproduced from the report he sent home to his Mission board at the time. He closes the incident by observing, "The meeting broke up and they left us, no doubt fully impressed with the idea that we were impracticable men."

Ten years went by without apparent result from his missionary efforts. He could speak freely now to the natives in their own language. They had learnt to trust their white friend who had left his far-off home to come to their country and teach them. They had begun to love him.

One Sunday Moffat's soul was burdened with the realization of the barrenness of his endeavors. He poured out his heart in prayer, and when the service began he rolled off the burden of his soul on to those of his hearers. The eyes of strong men opened wide, they filled with tears; they cried like children. The chapel became a place of weeping and some fell down in hysterics. A new, larger church, a temporary one, had to be built. People came to see the "new thing." In May, 1829, the new chapel was opened, and on the first Sunday in July of that year, six were baptised and twelve were at the Communion Service in the evening,—in the Church of the first-born at Kuruman.

In 1839 Moffat took his first furlough, and remained at home four years, telling of his work. He interested David Livingstone in Africa, and was back in Cape Town in April, 1843, after a sea voyage of three months. At Kuruman the Moffats were welcomed by Livingstone, who had preceded them to Africa. Shortly afterwards this young man asked them for the hand of their daughter Mary, gained their consent, married her, and then began his magnificent explorations in Central Africa.

For many years Robert Moffat worked at the translation of the Bible into the Sechuana language. He needed a rest, but instead of going to the Cape or home to England, he decided to look for his daughter and son-in-law from whom he had not heard for some time, so journeying northward through bush-land, and plains, and across rivers and rocky regions, he came to the land of the Matabele. Now the chief of the Matabele, Mosilikatse, with whom he had been friendly fifteen years before, gave him a royal welcome. But poor Mosilikatse was suffering from dropsy, and was unable to walk. Moffat in his treatment of the chief (for Moffat was not only a sailor, a gardener, a preacher, but also a doctor) was so successful that his friend, the king, was almost fully restored. The quest on which Moffat had gone, namely to get news of his children, was at first unsuccessful, so the chief suggested that they should both go on together and find Livingstone. A host of men went out with them, but when they got to the borders of Matabeleland it was found that provisions could not be secured for such an army. Moffat therefore arranged for some of the tribesmen to go on with supplies for his children until they should find them. They did find Livingstone far to the north, on the banks of the Zambezi River.

Moffat returned to his own station and finished the translation of the Old Testament, the New Testament having been completed before his furlough in 1839.

In 185S when Moffat was sixty years old, at a time in life when the work of most men is finished, this great white-bearded and white-haired man set out with three other missionaries to open a new station far inland, at Inyati. Journeying in those days was not as easy as it is to-day. Be it remembered that Moffat was some six hundred miles away from Cape Town, and the only means of transportation was by ox-wagon. One of Moffat's sons was in this pioneer party, and it was the privilege of the writer to know this son personally. (He was a member of the first South African Sudan Committee.) When the new station was established and in working order, Moffat said good-by. The last Service was crowded with warriors of the tribe who had come together to hear, for the last time, their Moshete speak of the great things of God.

He went back to Kuruman, his old station, where his wife was waiting for him, and there he worked on, old in years but young in spirit, until he attained his fiftieth year of missionary service.

The Directors of the London Missionary Society urged him to return to England, and as he was troubled a good deal by cough and sleeplessness, he at last agreed to do what the Missionary board desired, and returned to Europe. On Sunday, the 20th of March, 1870, Robert Moffat preached for the last time in the Kuruman church, and on the Friday following, he and his wife took their departure. Three months' journey across the Karoo and the South African veldt brought them to Cape Town, and six months later saw them in England. They were welcomed by their daughter Helen, whom they had not seen for twenty-seven years.

Mrs. Moffat felt a stranger in her home country. Her thoughts went wandering back to her real home, to her sunbathed stoop, so different from foggy English streets, to her child-people whom she knew and loved,—so much more loving and lovable than the white people. Out there she had been mother to them all; here she was a strange old woman! She could not bear it long, and within six months caught cold and, after a short illness, passed away. The poor old hero, Moffat, led a wandering life for two and a half years in Great Britain, speaking in many meetings, telling of his experiences, charming young and old with his magnificent powers of description.

During the last seven years of his life he lived in a little house in Brixton, one of the suburbs of London, and there he died on Thursday evening, the 9th of August, 1883.

The year before his death, Cetewayo, King of the Zulus, was in England, and Moffat (now eighty-seven years old) determined to go and see him. He could not speak Zulu, but among the followers of Cetewayo was a man who had been with the son of Mosilikatse during his exile in Zululand, and who spoke Sechuana. When Moffat, his great old rugged body bent, his white beard flowing to his waist, stepped into the circle of the black men, they rose from the ground where they had been sitting, they raised their right hands above their heads and shook them (the salutation of respect).

"Welcome, great father!" (so the interpreter translated) "Welcome among your children." Cetewayo himself stepped forward to greet Moffat and with shaking voice said, "I see this day what my eyes never expected to behold—Moshete."


Copied from African Missionary Heroes and Heroines by H.K.W. Kumm. New York: MacMillan Company, 1917.

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