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Mary Moffat

by John Telford

Mary MoffatWhatever tribute we may pay to the missionaries who have gone forth to labour among the heathen must be shared by the noble band of women who have stood at their side, sharers of their peril and success. Many a precious life would have been sacrificed had there not been the loving care of home for those who were daily exposed to privation and disease, whilst cannibals and savages would have missed the most alluring illustrations of the new religion in the homes of its teachers and witnesses.

The first place on the roll of these elect women belongs to Mary Moffat. She has a double claim to honour as the wife of Robert Moffat and the mother of Mrs. Livingstone. Her father, James Smith, was a native of Perthshire, who had crossed the Border and married Mary Gray, of York, in 1792. He was a Nonconformist; his wife belonged to the Church of England. Both were earnest Christians. Mary Smith, their only daughter, was born in 1795 at New Windsor, which now forms part of Salford. A few months later the Scotchman whose name and work she was afterwards to share was born at Ormiston, in East Lothian. She was sent to the Moravian School at Fairfield, where the girl's strong sense of devotion to Christ was fostered by precept and example.

The future missionary's wife owed not a little to the sacred influences which surrounded her as a school-girl. We catch a glimpse of her from the "Records of Albion Independent Chapel, Ashton-under-Lyne.'' Her father was one of fourteen seceders from Providence Chapel, and when interim services were held in a carpenter's shed in Cricket's Lane, "she was there, ever active and attentive to all. She often arranged the benches and other furniture of the place in order to reduce the discomfort to a minimum; found the hymns for strangers, and invited people to attend."

Life moved peacefully on in her home at Dukinfield Nursery till Robert Moffat appeared on the scene. An old poster at Warrington had caught the eye of the young gardener, whose heart was set on the mission-field, and had led him to visit Mr. Roby in Manchester. The good minister saw that there was true metal in the Scotchman, and tried to find him some place near at hand where he might have further opportunity of testing him. Every effort to find a suitable situation failed. At last Mr. Roby said: "I have still one friend who employs many men to whom I can apply, provided you have no objection to go into a nursery garden." Moffat was ready to go anywhere. Mr. Roby therefore started off again to see Mr. Smith, of Dukinfield Nursery. They found him at his shop in Deansgate. The matter was soon settled. Moffat was to work five days a week for twelve or thirteen shillings. The visitors had scarcely left the shop before Mr. Smith remembered that his only daughter had a great love for missions. He set out to catch Mr. Roby and his companion, but they had vanished round some corner. Mr. Smith therefore turned back and allowed things to take their course. The father's fears were only too well founded. The young people soon became warmly attached to each other, and Mary Smith promised to share her lover's labours among the heathen. No one rejoiced more at such an issue than Mr. Roby. He wrote: "Poor Moffat's amiable disposition and eminent devotedness have attracted the affectionate regard of his master's daughter, a young lady of high piety, of polished manners, and the expectant of a considerable fortune. She possesses as truly a missionary spirit as he, and is eager to accompany him; but her parents forbid it, and both she and he therefore determine to sacrifice their ardent wishes."

When she found herself unable to accompany him, Miss Smith urged Moffat to marry some one else, but he told her that "he could not reconcile his mind to taking another." He sailed alone for Africa on October 18, 1816. During his twelve trying months in Namaqualand he sorely felt the need of a companion. He tells his father and mother: "I have many difficulties to encounter being alone. No one can do anything for me in my household affairs. I must attend to everything, which often confuses me, and, indeed, hinders me in my work, for I could wish to have almost nothing to do but to instruct the heathen, both spiritually and temporally." He saw no prospect of happier times, for the last two letters from Dukinfield had effectually blasted his hopes. Miss Smith had most reluctantly renounced the idea of ever getting abroad, as her father stoutly refused his consent. The young missionary was greatly cast down, but learned to lean on God's promises in his loneliness.

Meanwhile events were bringing about the consummation he so greatly desired. On the very day after his own letter was written, Mary Smith wrote to tell Mr. and Mrs. Moffat in Scotland that the desire of her heart had been granted. " After two years and a half of the most painful anxiety, I have, through the tender mercy of God, obtained permission of my dear parents to proceed some time next spring to join your dear son in his arduous work. This is what I by no means expected a week ago, but God's thoughts are not as our thoughts. When He arises every mountain flows down at His presence. He has the hearts of all men in His hands, and can turn them as the rivers of water. So He has done with regard to my dear parents. Previous to the arrival of these last letters, my father had persisted in saying that I should never have his consent; my dear mother has uniformly asserted that it would break her heart (as I have no sister, and she is far advanced in life). Notwithstanding all this, they both yesterday calmly resigned me into the hands of the Lord, declaring they durst no longer withhold me."

Now that her way was open, the young lady began to understand what it meant to leave all for Christ. The thought of parting with her kindred seemed almost too much to bear. "Sometimes I think I shall never get launched on the ocean before grief weighs me down; but such are my convictions of duty that I believe, were I to remain here another year, it would then be out of my power to go, for I must sink under the weight of an accusing conscience, when I consider Robert's peculiarly trying situation and the strong affection which he seems to bear me. When he last wrote he was exceedingly well, very happy in his work, but quite alone, seldom sees a white face."

Another letter to her parents breathes the same spirit. She was staying in Manchester at the time, and wondered whether her father and mother still felt as though they could resign her to Christ and the heathen. She had often feared that they would only give her up under compulsion, but when she saw them calmly declare that they felt it would be wrong to withhold consent any longer, she rejoiced in the evident hand of God, and assured them that they would not be losers by this sacrifice.

Miss Smith sailed for Cape Town in September, 1819. It was a trying voyage. Often during the night, when the angry billows thundered against her cabin, her thoughts turned to home and friends. Her heart sickened, and floods of tears drenched her face. She had her recompense at last when she met Robert Moffat once more. "I have found him," she wrote home, "all that my heart could desire; except his being almost worn out with anxiety, and his very look makes my heart ache." They were married in St. George's Church, Cape Town, on December 27, 1819. Early next year they set out for Kuruman, then called Lattakoo, their future station. The young wife sent home an encouraging account of their experiences. Her health was extraordinary, she liked waggon life better than she expected, she found that their table was generally well spread. Her husband, himself inured to hardships, was surprised at his wife's quiet heroism. She took everything as she found it, and encountered with ease what English people would call difficulties. Her happy spirit helped her to smile at many a trouble. Six years before, when Mr. Campbell, now one of their colleagues, had been in Manchester, Mary Moffat felt that she would like to live and labour here. With tears in her eyes and an overflowing heart she ventured to pray, "Oh that I might spend my days at Lattakoo." God had now brought her to the very place. Living in a single vestry with mud walls and floor she felt singularly happy, as though honour had been conferred on her which the proudest king could not bestow.

Towards the end of 1820 Mrs. Moffat was prostrated by severe illness. It scarcely seemed as though she could recover. The following spring Moffat was able to send good news. "She who a few months ago stood on the brink of eternity, expecting hourly to quit the tottering fabric, delivering with sinking voice her last message, is at this moment sitting in perfect health, with a lovely, healthy daughter on her knee. Surely this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes." The little girl, called Mary, was in due time to become the wife of David Livingstone.

The Moffats had been working for some months at Griqua Town, but in May, 1821, they returned to Kuruman. The Bechwanas had hitherto turned a deaf ear to the gospel. The ground given to the missionaries and irrigated after much toil was encroached on by the women, foremost among whom was the chief's wife. Large part of their corn was seized, their sheep were stolen, their food, tools, and household utensils were shamelessly carried off whenever there was opportunity. The people were unwilling to hear the missionary: if a boy or girl came to be taught they were soon laughed out of it. In August, 1822, Mrs. Moffat writes: "We have no prosperity in the work, not the least sign of good being done. The Bootsuanas seem more careless than ever, and seldom enter the church. Their indifference seems to increase, and instead of rejoicing, we have continually to mourn over them." Five years had passed since the first missionaries came, yet there was no sign of blessing. They laboured on patiently. As long as domestic affairs would allow Mrs. Moffat made it a rule to go with her husband when he had to be away more than a couple of days. If he went alone he took no care of himself, and his wife felt that he had known sufficient hardship in Namaqualand for a lifetime.

Many dangers threatened them during these early years. The savage tyrant Chaka, with the dreaded Matabeles and Mantatees, ravaged the land.   The missionaries were twice compelled to seek refuge at Griqua Town. Mrs. Moffat was sometimes left alone at the station trembling both for her husband's safety and her own. She tells him in one letter that "it requires the exercise of some fortitude to be calm and serene under such a separation, in such circumstances and at such a time, in a land of barbarians." Her heart often fluttered when a strange face appeared, and she hoped to have some letter from her absent husband. It was no small relief when he was safely home again.

Moffat sometimes had to make long journeys alone into the interior, but though his wife felt her loneliness greatly, she was able to say, "I feel a satisfaction in sacrificing my dear husband's company when I reflect that it is for the cause of Christ, and I feel persuaded that these journeys into the interior are of enormous importance to the kingdom of our Lord, as they prepare the way for the spread of the gospel." The extreme selfishness, filthiness, obstinate stupidity, and want of sensibility in the natives often made an English lady shrink from the thought of spending her life among them, but the memory of Christ's sacrifice nerved her to bear her own cross. She once asked a woman to move out of her kitchen that she might close it before going to some service. The woman seized a piece of wood to hurl at her head, so that she was thankful to escape with her babe to the chapel leaving this creature in possession.

Early in 1825 the Moffats were able to return to Kuruman. The population was much reduced, but the people had learnt that the missionaries were friends born for adversity.

Mrs. Moffat's mother died in October, rejoicing that her daughter was in the mission field, and that her son had become pastor of a church at Hulme. In 1827 a substantial stone dwelling-house took the place of the wooden structure covered with mud. Moffat was now able to devote more time to the language. One day, when talking with his wife about the discouragements of the work, she reminded him that the people had not heard the gospel in their own tongue wherein they were born. The language had not yet been reduced to a written form, and there were so many people who spoke Dutch that the necessity for mastering Sechwana was not so very urgent. But the time had now come for a final effort. Moffat went north, and buried himself for two months in a place where no other language was spoken. There he lived amid filth and lewd conversation and discomfort of every sort. But he gained his end. When he got back to Kuruman he was able to dispense with an interpreter. The natives could find no fault with his Sechwana, save that it smacked too much of the Serolone dialect.

He had now secured a supply of books and began a native school. Four Bechwanas could soon read the gospel in their own tongue; six or eight more were making rapid progress. Fifty attended day school; forty came in the evenings. The Sechwana hymns were greatly enjoyed. Mrs. Moffat had never lost heart. "We may not live to see it," she used to say, "but the awakening will come as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow." A friend in Sheffield asked whether she could send anything that would help the mission. "Send us a communion service," was the reply; "we shall want it some day." Her faith was signally honoured. In 1829 the great awakening came. The meeting house was crowded before time for service. Heathen songs and dancing ceased; a social and moral transformation began. Sometimes the sobs and cries of the people made it impossible for the speaker to be heard. Mrs. Moffat now had happy tidings for her friends at home. She often wished they could be witnesses of the outpouring of God's Spirit on the once hardened Bechwanas.

In June, 1830, the Moffats visited the Cape to leave their two elder children at Salem, the Wesleyan school near Grahamstown, and get parts of the New Testament printed. Moffat received some useful lessons in printing, and secured a press of his own for Kuruman. It was a formidable task to carry it up the country and set it in working order, but when it began to turn out lessons for the school, the toil was well repaid. In 1833 Mrs. Moffat paid a visit to her children at the Cape. She was absent five months. It was not pleasant to take such a journey without her husband, but he could not be spared from the mission. Mrs. Moffat felt that when she had no earthly protector near it was blessed to rest entirely on God. In 1835 she had a serious illness, which made it necessary to go for a change to the Cape. Weak though she was, she went alone, rather than take her husband away from his post. She returned safely to Kuruman the following June, but her health was declining, and at the end of 1838 it again became necessary to visit the Colony.

On reaching Cape Town Mr. Moffat found that the printing of his translation of the New Testament was too heavy a task for the printers. They were thus compelled to come to England. Their children and native attendants had suffered from a severe epidemic of measles raging at the Cape, but friends helped them, and they were soon on board a passing vessel. Before they left Table Bay another daughter was born. Three days later their boy Jamie died at the age of six. All around were suffering with sea-sickness. The little fellow lay beside his mother, who was too weak to rise, and fell asleep in Jesus with the words, "Oh, that will be joyful, when we meet to part no more,'' on his lips. It seemed as though another boy would die, but his life was mercifully spared.

The Moffats found many changes among their kinsfolk, but spent a happy time in England. The missionary's story everywhere awoke profound interest, and he was hurried from town to town to tell it. It won David Livingstone for Africa; William Ross also went there: so that, though his own return was delayed, Mr. Moffat felt that the work would not suffer. Mrs. Moffat was eager to be back at Kuruman. "I long to see the spot again where we have so long toiled and suffered, to see our beloved companions in the toil and suffering, and to behold our swarthy brethren and sisters again: and I long for my home, for although loaded with the kindness of friends and welcome everywhere, still home is homely!"

Moffat was able to send out five hundred Sechwana Testaments with the two young missionaries. A few months later he dispatched five times that number bound up with the Psalms. Other translations and the preparation of his "Labours and Scenes in South Africa," kept him fully employed in the intervals of deputation work. It was not till April, 1843, that the Moffats were back in Cape Town. When they drew near to Kuruman friends flocked out to welcome them home. During the following weeks visitors were continually coming to greet them. Bechwanaland already recognised Moffat and his wife as its apostles. Their daughter Mary now had charge of the infant school, but Livingstone soon won her heart and hand. In 1846 we find Mrs. Moffat and her three younger children on their way to visit the Livingstones, escorted by a native hunting party. Next year she had to take these children to the Cape. Her husband could not be spared, so she bravely went alone. Parting from her boys and girls was always one of the severest trials of her life. Forty years later the children remembered her pathetic tenderness in that journey, and her gentle counsels and warnings. She had an anxious time at the Cape, but got safely home at last to Kuruman.

Her father died in 1853 at the age of ninety. He had followed her course in Africa for thirty years with profound gratitude to God. David Livingstone had now begun those journeys into the dark continent which were to bear such fruit in its future evangelisation. In 1860 one of Mrs. Moffat's sons went as missionary to the Matabele. He had been a baby twenty-five years before, when Moffat paid his second visit to the terrible Mosilikatse; now he was to be the messenger of Christ to those warriors. Troubles came to Kuruman in the death of Mrs. Livingstone at the Zambesi. Her eldest brother Robert died four months later. The death of Jean Frédoux, of the Paris Evangelical Society's Mission at Motito, who had married their second daughter, was another great blow to the Moffats. Mrs. Moffat's sorrow over Mrs. Livingstone's death was joined to thanksgiving that she "had been permitted to meet her end in the front rank of those who had gone to strive for the welfare of the heathen children of Africa. There was much of this Spartan fortitude—or rather, perhaps, of the martyr spirit—in Mary Moffat which strove with her intense and womanly love for her own kindred."

On March 25, 1870, the venerable husband and wife set out for England. They had spent nearly half a century at Kuruman. The farewell scene was indescribable. "As the old missionary and his wife came out of their door and walked to their waggon, they were beset by the crowds, each longing for one more touch of the hand and one more word: and as the waggon drove away it was followed by all who could walk, and a long and painful wail rose, enough to melt the hardest heart." The demonstration of respect both at the Cape and in England greatly cheered the veterans from the field. Mrs. Moffat was only spared to enjoy six months' rest. She caught cold at Christmas, and passed peacefully away after a few days' illness, for more than sixty years she had enjoyed the full assurance of faith. No doubt or fear as to the future troubled her. Christian hope had borne her up in the midst of all trials and bereavements. She knew that her husband would never have been the missionary he was but for her loving care over him, which grew more tender and constant as years rolled by. The old man's first word on finding that her spirit had fled was: "For fifty-three years I have had her to pray for me." Her husband joined her on August 9, 1883.

Mary Moffat's name is written high up among the friends of Africa.   A nobler, truer helpmeet no missionary could have had. On their return to England they once sat talking about their missionary life at the London Mission House with Mr. Robinson, the Home Secretary. Mrs. Moffat, with a fond look at her husband, said, "Robert can never say that I hindered him in his work!'' "No indeed," said Moffat, "but I can tell you she has often sent me away from house and home for months together for evangelising purposes, and in my absence has managed the station as well or better than I could have done it myself.'' A grander tribute has never been paid to the wife of a missionary hero.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Women in the Mission Field... by John Telford. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1895.

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