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Robert Moffat, the Scotchman Who Went to the Hottentots

by Thomas John Bach

Robert MoffatPolitical circumstances and economic conditions have often aroused people's interest in other countries. Whenever there has also been within the Christian Church a spiritual revival, with an awakened sense of responsibility for the unsaved, emigration and missionary activities have begun.

When Robert Moffat was born in East Lothia, Scotland, on December 21, 1795, there was world-wide interest in the territories and resources of Africa; but there was also the great impact of the Wesleyan revival, which called forth a great number of missionary pioneers and other Christian leaders.

Robert's parents possessed limited material resources and were little known outside their own family. There were six children besides Robert in the Moffat home. They had few educational opportunities. As a boy, Robert wanted to be a sailor but, after a few voyages in a trading vessel along the dangerous coast, he returned home with a different ambition as to his future career. At the age of fourteen he decided to become a gardener, and, as he awakened to the need of more education, registered as a student in an evening school.

Robert's mother was a devoted Christian with a deep interest in missions among the heathen in foreign lands. From her lips, he often heard stories about the Moravian missionaries and about the need for the gospel among those walking in spiritual darkness. God heard the prayers of the mother that some of her children might become missionaries. The Rev. William Roby also took a deep interest in Robert and gave him much spiritual help and instruction for future missionary work. Robert studied for a brief period at the college in Manchester.

When Robert Moffat applied to the London Missionary Society, his application was accepted for service in Africa. Together with four fellow missionaries he sailed for Cape Town, South Africa, October 18, 1816. Upon his arrival there in January, 1817, he began to study Dutch, which was then the official language of South Africa. A few months later, Moffat left for the field where he was to begin his missionary labors, about three hundred miles north of Cape Town.

To the Hottentots

The people among whom he settled were known as Hottentots and were ruled over by Jager Afrikaner, a fierce chief; but when Afrikaner met the messenger and the power of the gospel, he came to know himself as the chief of sinners and Christ as his Saviour. Afrikaner became one of Moffat's most zealous witnesses for Christ.

In the year 1819, Miss Mary Smith, Moffat's fiancee, arrived in Africa. After their marriage in Capetown, they settled at Kuruman, where they learned the Bechuana language. Their pioneer missionary work was unusually trying. Nine years passed without any visible results, but they did not give up the united missionary efforts to which they had so wholeheartedly consecrated themselves. Their field was eventually visited by a revival and a large church was built.

Mr. Moffat wrote a speller which was printed in England. He later prepared a catechism and a hymnbook and translated the entire Bible into the language of the Bechuana people among whom he worked.

When Robert Moffat and his wife, after more than fifty years in Africa, returned to England, they left behind them a well-established Christian Church. Five of their children had entered into Christian work. Their eldest daughter, Mary, became the wife of David Livingstone.

Robert Moffat died on the tenth of August, 1883, at the age of eighty-eight years. The Lord takes home his servants, but others with God-touched hearts step in and His work continues until the glorious day of His return.

Writing to his parents from London shortly before sailing for Africa, and after visiting the London Museum where he saw idols that were worshiped in heathen lands, Moffat said: "Oh, that I had a thousand lives and a thousand bodies! All of them should be devoted to no other employment but to preach Christ to those degraded, despised, yet beloved mortals. I have not repented in becoming a missionary, and, should I die in the march and never enter the field of battle, all would be well."

When an African chief threatened the use of violence if the missionaries did not leave his village at once, Moffat, drawing himself to his full height, answered: "If you are resolved to rid yourselves of us, you must resort to stronger measures, for our hearts are with you. You may shed blood or burn us out. We know you will not touch our wives and children. Then shall they who sent us know, and God, who now sees and hears what we do, shall know that we have been persecuted indeed."

Looking around at his companions, the chief shook his head and said: "These men must have ten lives, since they are so fearless of death; there must be something in immortality." With those words, the angry crowd dispersed, leaving the Moffats to continue their ministry of love.

Faced with the discouragement of long labor among the Batlaping people of Bechuanaland without any visible results, Mary Moffat said: "I may not live to see it, but the awakening will come as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow."

As a practical expression of that faith, she wrote to a friend in England who had offered to send her some gift of her choice: "Send us a communion service, we shall want it some day." Although there was not one convert when the request was made, two years later (and two days after the communion set arrived) a group of Africans sat down with the Moffats in the first observance of the Lord's Supper in the Kuruman church which the converts themselves had built.

Concerning that day, Moffat wrote, "We were as those that dreamed. The hour had arrived on which the whole energies of our souls had been fixed, when we should see a church, however small, gathered from among a people who had so long boasted that neither Jesus nor we, His servants, should ever see Bechuanas worship and confess Him as their King."

While the Moffats were on their first furlough in England, David Livingstone asked Mr. Moffat whether he thought that he, perhaps, might also be useful in the missionary work in Africa. Mr. Moffat replied, "Yes, particularly if you will not go to an old station but will push on into unoccupied fields." And then he added, "In the north I have seen in the morning sun the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been!"


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Pioneer Missionaries for Christ and His Church by Thomas John Bach. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, ©1955.

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