Wholesome Words Home
Worldwide Missions
missionary biographies

Robert Moffat, 1795-1883

by J. Theodore Mueller

Went to Africa in 1816

Robert Moffat"Moshete of the Bechuanas" he was called in South Central Africa, where he did most of his blessed work. And a wonderful man he was! When he died in 1883, he was venerated as the spiritual father of many won by him for Christ, not only among the Bechuanas, but also among the Zulus, the Hottentots, and the Matabele. "Moshete of the Bechuanas," or as he is known among Europeans and Americans, Robert Moffat, was the pathfinder for the missionaries in South Africa, and he was the man who called David Livingstone to this benighted land. Afterwards this great missionary and explorer became Moffat's son-in-law. But as Livingstone venerated the beautiful old patriarch, so Mosilikatse of the Matabele and Cetewayo of the Zulus adored him. Let us note well the story of Robert Moffat, or "Moshete of the Bechuanas," for it is a story of faith and consecration to Christ.

When little Robert Moffat was born, December 21, 1795 at Ormiston, in East Lothian, Scotland, no one could have predicted that this poor man's son, who seemed to have no chance in life at all, would one day be reverenced by the kings of Africa and the Parliament of Great Britain, or that his name would be rendered immortal in the history of foreign missions. He had pious parents who taught him to pray and to read his Bible, together with the "Shorter Catechism." When he had reached the age of eleven years, he was sent to school, where he stayed but six months. The atmosphere of the place did not suit him so he ran away from it and from home to become a sailor. From the sea he returned home a more sober and wiser lad, to the great joy of his parents. He was now fourteen years old, and his father apprenticed him with a gardener. He had to rise at four o'clock in the morning, even in winter, and subsisted on hard work and little else. Nevertheless, the hard service did him all sorts of good and he grew up a tall, strong boy, with dark, piercing eyes and a physique capable of great endurance.

Since work in Scotland was both scarce and ill-paid, Robert went to England, where he was more profitably employed in Cheshire by a Mr. Leigh. Before he left Scotland, he promised his mother that he would read his Bible every day and he faithfully kept his word. In England Moffat became acquainted with the Methodists, and by them was induced to offer himself as missionary to some foreign field. He was accepted by the London Missionary Society, and so diligently did he devote himself to the study of theology and other useful branches of knowledge, that, together with eight others, on September 30, 1816, he could be ordained to the Christian ministry, in Surrey Chapel, Blackfriars Road, London. Four of the young missionaries were allocated to the South Seas, and five to Africa. Among those ordained with Moffat was John Williams, the "Apostle of Polynesia" (who later suffered martyrdom on Erromanga, one of the islands forming the New Hebrides). At first, it was suggested that Robert Moffat should go with John Williams to the South Seas, but an old Scotch minister interfered and said: "Thae twa lads are ower young to gang thegither." God had marked him for other fields where great success was to be his in the name of the Master he served.

In October, 1816, Robert Moffat, with his five companions, sailed for Cape Town, South Africa, which was reached in January, 1817. Before leaving for Africa he had become engaged to Miss Mary Smith, who wished to accompany him on the perilous journey; but her parents objected to the marriage and Mary Smith did not join the great missionary until three years later. Then on December 27, 1819, the young couple were quietly married in South Africa, and Mary Moffat, though delicate in health and never quite strong, proved herself an able and devoted wife, who shared with her husband the toils and joys of his long missionary career. When his work in Africa was completed, she returned with him to England, where she was lovingly cared for by her daughter Helen, whom she had not seen for twenty-seven years. She always felt more or less a stranger in England and constantly longed for her beloved child-people to whom she had been a real mother and friend during the long years of her sojourn in Africa. She died soon after her return to the homeland, almost three years before her husband was called to his reward. The story of her faithful and devoted life is found in the excellent biography, The Lives of Robert and Mary Moffat, written by her son. Their daughter Mary became the wife of David Livingstone.

But let us return to our story. Today it is customary for missionaries to go to foreign countries for a definite term of years. Sometimes they return home after two years; other mission societies grant their missionaries furloughs after four or six years; but Robert Moffat went to Africa to work there as long as God would permit him. Without complaint he remained in South Africa for twenty-three years, before he returned to Britain on his first furlough. Certainly, in Africa he found enough to do. Cape Colony was then in its infancy, the British having taken it over but three years before Moffat's arrival in Cape Town. Prior to that time, it had belonged to the French, who had taken it from the Dutch. With the passing of Napoleon it became British. The Colony extended to the Orange River, beyond which the Dutch and Boers (South African farmers of Dutch descent) established new colonies in order to evade the rule of Great Britain. In general, the Dutch were hostile to missionary work among the natives, especially when this work was conducted under British auspices. But under the protection of the Union Jack, Robert Moffat trekked across this entire territory, until he arrived at Namaqualand, where the London Missionary Society had been at work before Moffat's arrival in South Africa. The whole country was full of pagan tribes among whom missionary work could be started. In the east and center were the Bantus, toward the west the Hottentots and Bushmen, while the wild and warloving Zulus, under the leadership of their famous chief Chaka, carried on incessant warfare with whatever tribe they happened to be at cross purposes. Moffat soon found it impossible to evangelize the Bushmen since this, the most primitive of all tribes, led a nomadic life, despising both permanent homes and settlements. But he was more successful in his work among the Hottentots. Their chief was called Africaner, and he was the terror of the whole border-country.

In January, 1818, a year after his landing at the Cape, Moffat reached Africaner's kraal, where he was given a formal, but not unfriendly reception. He now settled down to a life of primitive simplicity. His salary amounted to the equivalent of one hundred and twenty-five dollars a year, but in Africaner's realm money was valueless, and the young missionary subsisted entirely on native food. At first, the Hottentots seemed to him to be hopelessly degraded. They had hardly any knowledge of God, and no idea whatever of right and wrong. The old people were left to perish, while undesired infants were cast away. Adultery, theft, and murder were perpetrated with impunity and apparently without any compunctions. To Moffat's teaching and work the people at first were apathetic, and his exhortations and sermons were received with scorn and derision. But he succeeded in winning Africaner, the chief, for Christ, and when after three years Moffat took him to Cape Town to prove to the deputies of the London Missionary Society that his work had not been altogether without success, both the British and the Boers regarded it as a miracle of grace that this notorious outlaw, for whose head a reward of five hundred dollars was offered by the Government, had become a humble worshiper of Jesus Christ.

One day when on his journey to the Cape, Moffat spent the night with a Dutch farmer and informed his host that notorious Africaner was now a Christian. "There are seven wonders in the world," the old Boer remarked. "The conversion of Africaner, were it to take place, would be the eighth." When Moffat told him that his servant—for in this guise this dangerous outlaw had to travel—was Africaner thus furnishing proof for his statement, the pious farmer exclaimed:

"O God, what a miracle of Thy power! What cannot Thy grace accomplish?"

At Cape Town, Moffat met his fiancée—Miss Mary Smith—and after their marriage the young pair returned to Great Namaqualand, where he left his convert and friend Africaner to proceed to Bechuanaland, a new mission field which the deputies of the London Missionary Society had assigned to him. Bechuanaland lies east of the great and terrible Kalahari Desert, a region of desolation. His destination was Kuruman, where Moffat was to do his great work. About a hundred miles south from Kuruman lies Griqualand, where, in Griqua Town, the London Missionary Society was doing successful missionary work among the Hottentots, Bushmen and other tribes. In this town Mary Moffat (afterwards the wife of Livingstone) was born. Finally, Moffat with his wife and child left Griqualand and after a long wearisome journey arrived at Kuruman.

At first, missionary work among the Bechuanas seemed like an impossible task. Moffat himself compared it to an attempt to transform the surface of a granite rock into arable land. Years afterwards the Bechuanas themselves said to the missionary: "You found us beasts, and made us men." The sworn enemy of the Christian missionary was the witch doctor of the tribe who blamed the "unfavorable weather" sometimes on the white man's salt, sometimes on the chapel bell, and at all times on the preaching of the missionary. Very often Moffat was in personal danger. At one time when he had again "bewitched the rain," a group of natives gathered around him and under threats of violence ordered him out of the country. Moffat opened his shirt and said: "If you will, drive your spears through my heart; then when you have slain me, my companions will know that the hour has come for them to depart." These bold words so awed the natives that they went away and left Moffat in possession of the mission buildings. But though the missionary worked as faithfully as he could, the heathenism of the people presented an unbroken front. In these hours of spiritual depression Robert Moffat found in his wife a staunch and ever hopeful helpmeet. "We may not live to see it," she said, "but the awakening will come as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow." In the hour of deepest gloom she sent a letter to England and ordered a "communion service," so sure was she of the final success of the work.

At last in 1829, ten years after Moffat had begun his work in Bechuanaland, when the work appeared so fruitless that the Missionary Society was considering the advisability of giving up the mission, the day broke, and, as Moffat wrote home, "the simple Gospel melted their flinty hearts." On one Sunday six converts could be baptized and together with the missionaries they partook of the Lord's Supper. Strange to say, the ordered communion service, whose sending had long been delayed, arrived on the Friday preceding that memorable Sunday. From this day forward missionary success was assured, and in the course of time the entire Bechuana tribe at Kuruman accepted the Christian religion.

In the same years, in which the Bechuanas listened to the Gospel, Moffat undertook a journey to another tribe, called the Matabele. These people were settled far to the east of Kuruman, where they had come from Zululand, overrunning the whole country until they were checked by British arms. Moffat's journey was made upon invitation from the chief of the Matabele, the impetuous but loyal king Mosilikatse, who had sent two of his headmen to Kuruman to "learn of the white man and his ways." When Moffat visited him, the King said: "You have made my heart as white as milk. I cannot cease to wonder at the love of a stranger." For a time Moffat now preached to the Matabele of Christ, but he had to return to Kuruman, where his presence was in constant demand, not only because the Bechuanas were now thoroughly willing to accept Christianity, but also because he had to supervise his translation of the Bible into the language of the country.

In 1835, Moffat once more visited the Matabele in order that he might put the mission work on a firmer and more substantial basis. With Mosilikatse he traveled through the whole country, preaching and instructing the people, but shortly afterwards the Matabele were attacked by the Zulus and driven to the north where Moffat lost sight of them for a period of twenty years.

In 1839, Moffat and his wife returned to England on the former's first furlough. He soon found himself overwhelmed with engagements so that he stayed in England for four years, lecturing continually and seeing his beloved Bible, translated into the language of the South African natives, through the press. On this furlough he won for Africa the services of David Livingstone, who left England, in 1840, with five hundred copies of Moffat's New Testament. In 1842, the Moffats followed, and now they remained in Africa until Moffat's retirement—a period of twenty-seven years.

At Kuruman, in 1844 [1845], Livingstone married Mary Moffat and then journeyed two hundred and fifty miles north to establish a new mission station in a country which, so far, had not been reached by Christian missionaries...

The work at Kuruman occupied Moffat's whole time, for the Bechuana Christians required constant instruction and indoctrination. In all things that he did Moffat was thoroughgoing, for he was convinced that the Bechuanas would remain loyal only if they were rooted in the knowledge of Christ. So to his beloved station he devoted his undivided attention. However, in 1853, he found time to pay a third visit to the Matabele, who having escaped the Zulus had settled near the Zambezi River. Mosilikatse was now an aged cripple, but his friendship for the missionary was truer than before, and he eagerly begged Moffat to preach the Gospel to his people. At present this could not be done since Moffat had lost sight of Livingstone. After a long and weary search the tireless missionary, who was now a man of sixty years, found his children far to the north on the banks of the Zambezi River. He stayed with them for some time and then returned to Kuruman where he continued his work of teaching, translating, and printing.

In the meanwhile, Livingstone went to England and reported on his marvelous explorations. The result was that the London Missionary Society decided to send out two missionary expeditions, one to the Matabele and another to the Makololo, on the north side of the Zambezi. In 1857, Moffat, though he was then sixty-two years of age and had forty-one years of service behind him, was asked to prepare the missionary expedition to the Matabele. This meant a journey of seven hundred miles to the northeast through a parched and difficult country, but Moffat never shirked any duty. He visited the Matabele, encouraged them to receive the new missionaries, among whom was his own son John, and rejoiced when they at last yielded. The missionary expedition to the Makololo, however, was a disastrous failure.

To the end of his service in Africa, Moffat now devoted his attention to his mission station in Kuruman. He was universally esteemed, so that deceitful traders often abused his reputation and appeared as his representatives. Personally he suffered the common tribulations which come to God's children in this world. In the year 1862 his oldest son Robert died when only a few hours distant from Kuruman. About the same time his daughter Mary, the faithful wife of Livingstone, passed away on the Zambezi and was buried in that lonely country. In 1865, Moffat was himself personally attacked by a native and received blows that endangered his life. In the year following, his son-in-law, a French missionary who had married his daughter Ann, died under tragic circumstances. Hence, when in 1868 his son John joined him in his work at Kuruman, he was willing to retire from his beloved work. For some time he continued to preach and teach at the station, but, in 1870, his failing health compelled him to bid farewell to the work in South Africa, to which he had devoted more than fifty years of his life. Of the final farewell his son writes: "As the wagon drove away, it was followed by all who could walk, and a long and pitiful wail arose, enough to melt the hardest heart."

Back at home, Moffat devoted his time to the service of his beloved South African missions. He spoke ceaselessly before large gatherings, and the contributions toward the missions were heavy and continuous. Many honors were conferred on him, and Queen Victoria received him most graciously in special audience. In 1862, Mary Moffat died, and in 1874 the body of Livingstone was brought to England and buried in Westminster Abbey. Moffat escorted the remains to London and was present at the funeral service.

At last, wearied by this earthly pilgrimage, the great missionary died, August 3, 1883, at the age of eighty-eight years. Of him The London Times wrote: "Moffat's name will be remembered as long as the South African Church endures, and his example will remain with us as a stimulus to others, and as an abiding proof of what a Christian missionary can be and can do." This judgment has been sustained by the events that followed his death, and, today, Moshete of the Bechuanas lives in the hearts of thousands of Christians, never to die or be forgotten.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Great Missionaries to Africa by J. Theodore Mueller. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, ©1941.

More Information on Robert Moffat


Missionary Biographies Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.