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Robert Moffat

by Jabez Marrat

Robert MoffatRobert Moffat, "the Patriarch of Kuruman," was born at [Ormiston, Scotland], near Haddington, in 1795, but spent the greater part of his boyhood at Carron Shore, where his father had an appointment in the Customs. When about twelve years old, he was ambitious to be a sailor, and tried a voyage in a coasting vessel. Not finding much that was pleasant in sea-faring life, he returned to school, and began to study botany and horticulture, in order to qualify himself for the position of a skilled gardener.

His father removing to Inverkeithing, in Fifeshire, he obtained employment near that town, in the gardens of the Earl of Moray. While nailing the twigs of the apricot to the wall, or planting the ferns on the rockery, he had no thought of Africa as the scene of various and incessant labours to be perpetuated through many years. But God had a glorious work for him to do on that continent, and by His providence drew him along the path to the kraal of Africaner and the fountain of Kuruman.

Scotch gardeners then, as now, had a good repute in England, and he was offered a situation in Cheshire. On leaving home his mother wished him to promise that he would read his Bible every day, both morning and evening. He tried to evade her request, but as she was about to bid him farewell, she took his hand and, looking into his face with tearful eyes, said, "Robert, you will promise me to read the Bible, more particularly the New Testament, and most especially the Gospels—these are the words of Christ Himself; and there you cannot possibly go astray." He could not resist such an appeal, and replied, "Yes, Mother, I make you the promise." Having made it, he kept it, and always thought himself happy in having done so.

He was converted in England, and occasionally went to a Methodist service at a farm-house in the Warrington Circuit when the Rev. J. Beaumont was one of its ministers. A slight circumstance directed his attention to the Mission field. Being in Warrington one summer's evening, he caught site of a placard, two lines of which arrested his attention—"The London Missionary Society" and "The Rev. W. Roby, of Manchester." The meeting announced on the placard had been held, but he resolved on seeing Mr. Roby and offering himself for Mission work. Mr. Roby received him with great kindness, told him to be of good courage, and promised to use what influence he had with the directors of the Society on his behalf.

He was accepted by the Society, and ordained with some other young men as a minister of the Gospel to the heathen in Surrey Chapel. One of the young men who knelt by his side to receive the imposition of hands was John Williams, who, though slain by the savages of Erromanga, has a name in the annals of Missionary toil and heroism bright as the stars which pour their lustre on the palms of the Polynesian archipelagoes.

Mr. Moffat sailed for the Cape of Good Hope in October, 1816. He was only about twenty-one years old, but had sufficient Scotch prudence and determination to avoid blunders and to front difficulties in a manful spirit. When he reached the Cape he had to solicit the permission of the British Governor to visit the heathen beyond the boundaries of the colony. This was refused for some time; but the young Missionary while waiting was not idle. Lodging with a godly Hollander, he acquired the Dutch language, so as to be able to preach to the Dutch Boers and their native servants.

Repeated applications to the Governor were at length successful, and in going up the country he asked one of the Boers to allow him to spend the night at his house. The Boer blustered as much as if the traveller had petitioned him for the gift of a hundred oxen, and Mr. Moffat thought to himself, "I'll e'en try the guid wife." She not only provided food for him, but also asked him to preach. The service was held in a long barn, and though the Boer had a hundred Hottentots in his service, not one of them was present. "May none of your servants come in?" asked the Missionary. "Hottentots!" shouted the Boer, in reply; "are you come to preach to Hottentots? Go to the mountains and preach to the baboons; or if you like, I'll fetch my dogs, and you may preach to them." Those contemptuous words were followed by the appropriate text, "Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table." The truth smote the heart of the Boer, and he cried out, "No more of that; I'll bring you all the Hottentots in the place." He at once summoned them to the barn, and at the close of the service said to Mr. Moffat, "I'll never object to the preaching of the Gospel to Hottentots again."

Mr. Moffat was on his way to Namaqua Land, beyond the Orange River, where he was to do Mission work among the people of the terrible Africaner. The conversion of this fiery chieftain to the meekness of Christian discipleship is justly regarded as a signal proof of the power of the Gospel. His father, being enfeebled by age, resigned to him the government of a tribe of Hottentots, whose lands at one time reached within a hundred miles of Cape Town, and whose kraals and pastures and hunting-grounds were scenes of rude abundance and barbaric freedom. But the Dutch settlers gradually encroached on their possessions, and Africaner, deprived of the old inheritance of his family, was induced to accept service as shepherd to a Dutch farmer. Generous treatment would have tended to reconcile him to the unfortunate change in his position, but his master aggravated his sense of humiliation by an overbearing, insolent manner, and even ordered him to take up arms against his own people. The order was not obeyed, and Africaner, with his brother Titus and some others, was summoned to the farm-house to be reprimanded, if not punished, for disobedience. Africaner went up the steps to the door for the purpose of remonstrating with the farmer, who, instead of listening to him, gave him a sudden blow, which hurled him to the bottom of the steps. This was too much for the patience of Titus, who, having a gun, fired at and killed the farmer. To escape the vengeance of the Dutch for that deed of blood the party hastened to the north of the Orange River, and settled in Great Namaqua Land.

Many and fierce attempts were made by the colonial authorities to destroy Africaner, but they only excited him to deadly reprisals, and he became the terror of all the farmsteads in the border country. It was to the kraal of this dreaded outlaw that Mr. Moffat was travelling. The farmers at whose houses he was entertained assured him that Africaner would think no more of taking his life than he would of taking the life of a zebra or an antelope. One told him that the chief would strip off his skin and make a drum of it; another that he would strike his head from his body, and use his skull for a drinking cup; and a motherly old lady, wiping the tears from her eyes, said to him, "Had you been an old man it would have been nothing, for you would soon have died, whether or no; but you are young, and going to be eaten up by that monster!"

Africaner was not so bad as he had been pictured by the fears of the planters. Missionaries had given him instruction in the doctrines of Christianity, and he had been baptized, though it can scarcely be said that his heart had been affected by Divine grace. Mr. Moffat was in no danger of being martyred by him; but found little that was encouraging in his position when, having crossed the Orange River, he entered the scene of his labours in Namaqua Land. He was in a rocky, arid country, presenting a sad contrast to the bright gardens at Inverkeithing and the embowered lanes and grassy slopes of Cheshire.

Africaner was slow in giving him a welcome; but at length came to him, and seemed pleased when he ascertained that the London Missionary Society had sent him to the station. He directed a number of women to make a house for him, which they did by bending long rods into a hemispheric form, and covering them with mats. It was as uncomfortable as it was frail, for the rain streamed through it, the sun heated it to an almost unbearable degree, and when the wind blew it was filled with suffocating dust. Vagrant dogs crept into it for a night's shelter, and frequently ran off with the food the Missionary had prepared for the following day; serpents coiled themselves behind his boxes; and at times he had to start up from sleep to drive away contending bulls, lest in their struggles they should crash himself and his dwelling. Through the day he was fully employed in teaching school and holding services, and in the evening he wandered to a pile of rocks in the neighbourhood, where he poured out his soul in alternate strains of joy and sorrow; and occasionally reclining on one of the slabs of granite, would break the stillness with the notes of his violin, and sing his mother's favourite hymn, beginning

"Awake my soul, in joyful lays,
To sing the great Redeemer's praise."

He was soon cheered by a pleasing change in Africaner. No one at the kraal was more regular in attending the public services: the truth accompanied by the Holy Spirit was apprehended by him as a transforming energy, and the fierceness of the bandit was melted into the gentleness of the Christian. The weapons by which he had become so formidable were laid aside, and the Bible was almost always in his hands. "Often have I seen him," says the Missionary, "under the shadow of a great rock, nearly the livelong day, eagerly perusing the pages of Divine inspiration; or in his hut he would sit, unconscious of the affairs of a family around, or the entrance of a stranger, with his eye gazing on the blessed Book, and his mind wrapped up in things divine. Many were the nights he sat with me on a great stone at the door of my habitation, conversing with me till the dawn of another day, on creation, providence, redemption, and the glories of the heavenly world."

Africaner's visit to Cape Town with Mr. Moffat, excited great interest in that part of Africa. When the visit was first proposed to him, he said to the Missionary, "I had thought you loved me, and do you advise me to go to the government to be hung up as a spectacle of public justice?" then laying his hand on his head he asked, "Do you not know that I am an outlaw, and that one thousand rix-dollars have been offered for this poor head?" Mr. Moffat having assured him that he would be well received in Cape Town, and that in all respects the journey would be satisfactory, he agreed to go.

On their way they came near a farm-house in which Mr. Moffat had received kind entertainment when travelling towards Namaqua Land. Mr. Moffat left the waggon and went alone to meet the farmer. The latter seemed startled by his appearance, and asked in rather a wild manner who he was. When the name was given the farmer exclaimed, "Moffat! it is your ghost!" and it was with difficulty he was persuaded that it was the living Missionary; for the general report was that he had been murdered by Africaner, and one man declared that he had seen his bones. Walking towards the waggon, they were speaking of Africaner, and Mr. Moffat said, "He is now a truly good man." To this the farmer replied, "I can believe almost anything you say, but that I cannot credit. There are seven wonders in the world; that would be the eighth." The Missionary appealed to numerous triumphs of divine grace in the conversion of great sinners, in proof that it was not impossible for the Hottentot chieftain to have been converted; but the farmer was still doubtful, for he looked on Africaner as one of the accursed sons of Ham to whom it was in vain to preach the Gospel, and ended the conversation by saying, "Well, if what you assert be true respecting that man, I have only one wish, and that is to see him before I die; and when you return, as sure as the sun is over our heads, I will go with you to see him, though he killed my uncle." They were then near the chief, and Mr. Moffat confiding in the goodness and prudence of the farmer said, "This, then, is Africaner." A few questions having been satisfactorily answered by Africaner, the farmer raised his eyes to heaven and exclaimed, "O God, what a miracle of Thy power! What cannot Thy grace accomplish!"

Africaner was kindly and affably received in Cape Town by the Governor of the Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, and many in the town, who had heard of his terrible exploits years before, were filled with astonishment as they witnessed his meek deportment, and discovered his thorough acquaintance with, and delight in the Word of God. He was faithful to the close of life, and the following description of his death was given by a Wesleyan Missionary: "When he found his end approaching, he called all the people together after the example of Joshua, and gave them directions as to their future conduct. 'We are not,' he said, 'what we were, savages, but men professing to be taught according to the Gospel. Let us then do accordingly. Live peaceably with all men, if possible; and if impossible, consult those who are placed over you, before you engage in anything. Remain together as you have done since I knew you. Then, when the Directors think fit to send you a Missionary, you may be ready to receive him. Behave to any teacher you may have sent, as one sent of God, as I have great hope that God will bless you in this respect when I am gone to heaven. I feel that I love God and that He has done much for me, of which I am totally unworthy. My former life is stained with blood; but Jesus Christ has pardoned me, and I am going to heaven. Oh! beware of falling into the same evils in which I have led you frequently; but seek God, and He will be found of you to direct you.'" So died the man whose black hands had often been red with the blood of Dutch Boers, and whose black face lifted in savage triumph had often been brightened in the glare of blazing farmsteads. The great Missionary who guided him to the cross of Christ will have a crown jewelled with many resplendent memorials of noble and heroic service done in the cause of the Divine Master, but none will shine more conspicuously than that on which the name of Africaner will be graven.

While in Cape Town, Mr. Moffat was married to Miss Smith, who had gone out to him from England. She cheered the loneliness of an African mission station by her bright and genial presence, and encouraged her husband in his work by a hopefulness that rarely failed, even in the darkest days of trial and disappointment. Though strongly attached to Africaner and his people, Mr. Moffat did not go back to Namaqua Land, for a deputation from the London Missionary Society being at the Cape at the time of his marriage wished him to prosecute a Mission among the Bechuanas.

After a short stay at Griqua Town, he and Mrs. Moffat went to the Kuruman where Mr. Hamilton had formed a station. Their patience was severely tested by the selfishness and perversity of the natives. The Missionaries dug a ditch some miles in length, in order to obtain a supply of water from the Kuruman for their gardens, which were on a light sandy soil, and would grow little without irrigation. The women of the village seeing the fertilizing effect of the water on the mission gardens, wished to have the same advantage for their own, and so opened the ditch as to have a flood on their grounds, while the Missionaries had not a drop of water for domestic purposes, and had the mortification of seeing their vegetables wither and die away for want of moisture. When they remonstrated, the women, forgetful of their own interest, but ready to do anything to annoy their white benefactors, broke down the dam by which the water had been diverted from the river to the ditch.

Thefts from the mission premises were frequent. Tools were taken away, and after being completely spoiled, were impudently brought back and offered in barter for valuable articles. Cattle were let out of the fold, and driven into bogs where only hyenas or natives could get at them, and if the Missionaries bought a small flock of sheep they were thankful if they secured half of them for their own use.

Men and women crowded into Mr. Moffat's house, poisoning the atmosphere with the stench of their bodies, not leaving room for Mrs. Moffat to attend to her household duties, and defiling everything they touched with their greasy attire. At the public services there would often be an indecorum that was painful to witness. Some of the people would be snoring, others laughing, others disgustingly busy with their fingers, and sadly endangering the comfort and cleanliness of the Missionary's wife, when sitting close beside her. The trials of the little band of Christian pioneers were increased by a long drought, for which they were blamed and cursed. It was said that their chapel-bell frightened away the clouds; and even Mr. Moffat's black beard and a bag of salt he had brought in his waggon from Griqua Town, were imagined to have something to do with the unkindliness of the heavens.

The feeling became so strong against the Missionaries that they were informed they would be driven out of the country, if they did not speedily take themselves away. A formidable deputation gathered in the shadow of a large tree near Mr. Moffat's house; and while Mrs. Moffat stood at the door with a babe in her arms watching the crisis, a chief, quivering a spear in his right hand in an imposing manner, delivered the decision which had been arrived at in a secret council. Mr. Moffat boldly replied: "We have indeed felt most reluctant to leave, and are now more than ever resolved to abide by our post. We pity, you, for you know not what you do: we have suffered it is true, and He Whose servants we are has directed us in His Word, 'When they persecute you in one city, flee ye to another;' but although we have suffered, we do not consider all that has been done to us by the people amounts to persecution; we are prepared to expect it from such as know no better. 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." Even Bechuana savages were touched by the brave spirit of the Missionary, and they said: "These men must have ten lives, when they are so fearless of death; there must be something in immortality."

No further attempt was made to molest the Missionaries, and Mr. Moffat had soon an opportunity of rendering services to the tribe by which he gained their confidence and esteem. For more than a year there had been a strange talk in the settlement about a woman named Mantatee, who was said to be advancing with a mighty army from the interior, conquering all before her, and leaving desolation in her footsteps. Mr. Moffat did not give much credit to the rumour, but being up the country on a mission to a powerful chief who lived about two hundred miles from the Kuruman, was convinced that there was truth in the story of the Mantatee army, and saw that unless vigorous measures were adopted it would not be long before his own station would be overrun by the mysterious and insatiable warriors. He hastened home, and communicated the alarming tidings to the people, who were in such consternation that some of them proposed immediate flight to the Kalahari Desert. But Mr. Moffat knew that though the Mantatees would not follow them to those arid regions, they would perish from hunger and thirst, and suggested as a wiser plan, a request to the Griquas for help. The suggestion was agreed to, and Mr. Moffat went in his waggon to Griqua Town, where he succeeded in his purpose with the chief Waterboer.

Repeated attempts were made to parley with the Mantatees, but they only became fiercer in their warlike demonstrations, and the Griquas having united with the Bechuanas so completely routed them that they fled from the country. There were occasional tidings of their re-appearance which caused great excitement at the mission station, but whatever lands they ravaged they did not again march towards the Kuruman. After the deliverance of the Bechuanas from the dreaded invaders, they manifested a kindlier spirit to the Missionaries, and consented to their removal to a site nearer the source of the river, where they had a much better supply of water.

Before the new station was completed, Mr. Moffat went on a visit to Makaba, king of the Bauangketsi. The king great in war and conquest was delighted to see him, and honoured him highly in his own rude way. Sitting by his side one day when he was surrounded by his nobles and counsellors, Mr. Moffat began to speak of the Saviour's mission to the world. Makaba was at first indifferent, but when he heard of the resurrection of the dead was startled. He asked if his own father would rise, if the dead slain in battle would rise, and if those who had been killed by lions, tigers, hyenas, and crocodiles would rise. On being assured that they would, he turned to his people and asked in a stentorian voice, "Hark, ye wise men, whoever is among you, the wisest of past generations, did ever your ears hear such strange and unheard-of news?" Then, addressing the Missionary, he said: "Father, I love you much. Your visit and your presence have made my heart white as milk. The words of your mouth are sweet as honey, but the words of a resurrection are too great to be heard. I do not wish to hear again about the dead rising! The dead cannot arise! The dead must not arise!" "Why," rejoined Mr. Moffat, "can so great a man refuse knowledge, and turn away from wisdom? Tell me, my friend, why I may not speak of a resurrection?" The king, raising and uncovering his arm, and shaking his hand as if quivering a spear, said, "I have slain my thousands, and shall they arise?" His conscience had not been troubled by the slaughter of those he had overcome in battle, but he was appalled as he thought of them starting up from their sleep on the rocks and under the long grass, and confronting him with vengeful eyes and upbraiding lips.

While Mr. Moffat was away from home, his wife was alarmed by tidings that he had fallen into the hands of the Mantatees, and that portions of his clothes had been seen stained with blood. He was in danger; but the Providence of God was over him, and he had the pleasure of uniting with his family in expressions of thankfulness for the guidance and defense of the Divine hand.

The Missionaries worked hard at the new station; but it was not until the year 1828 that they were able to rejoice in extensive success. Then a new life seemed to permeate the people, and Mr. Moffat wrote: "Sable cheeks bedewed with tears attracted our observation. To see females weep was nothing extraordinary; it was, according to Bechuana notions, their province and theirs alone. Men would not weep. After having, by the rite of circumcision, become men, they scorned to shed a tear. In family or national afflictions it was the woman's work to weep and wail; the man's to sit in sullen silence, often brooding deeds of revenge and death. The simple Gospel now melted their flinty hearts; and eyes now wept which never before shed the tear of hallowed sorrow. Notwithstanding our earnest desires and fervent prayers, we were taken by surprise. We had so long been accustomed to indifference that we felt unprepared to look on a scene which perfectly overwhelmed our minds. Our temporary little chapel became a Bochim—a place of weeping, and the sympathy of feeling spread from heart to heart, so that even infants wept." The people were so anxious to obtain mercy that numbers of them held meetings in their own huts, and singing and praying was heard from one end of the village to the other. Native assistance was volunteered in the erection of a school-house, which was to serve as a chapel until a more suitable one could be provided. When it was opened for worship it was crowded, and the day was made memorable by the baptism of several inquirers, and by gracious tokens of the presence of God. Conversion was followed by social improvement. Disgusting habits induced by heathenism were abandoned; the men became more industrious, the women learned to sew, and instead of wearing greasy skins, clothed themselves in clean and decent garments; and huts, in which previously there had not been a sign of domestic comfort, were furnished with chairs and tables. As the Missionaries saw the change which had been effected, they could not but feel that they had before them an additional proof of the truth of the words, "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."

The foundations of a chapel were laid in 1830, but partly owing to the difficulty in procuring timber the building was not completed until 1839. At that date Kuruman was like an Eden in the wilderness. Lofty trees of the willow species bordered the watercourses by which the gardens were kept in freshness and luxuriance. Beyond the gardens, and in a line with them, were the chapel, the school-houses, and the homes of the Missionaries, pleasant to look upon with their walls of dove-coloured limestone and roofs thatched with reeds and straw. The native huts, very different to what they were before the people yielded to the influences of religion, were scattered over the landscape, which has for background a range of hills, broken at one point into a sharp and elevated peak.

Happily the station still flourishes, and attests by all its features of beauty the faith and perseverance of those who in days of sorrow and darkness sketched its first lines, and threw upon it the transfiguring light of the Gospel. Mr. Moffat felt that a native literature was needed, and prepared and printed catechisms, spelling-books, and hymn-books in Sechuana, the language of the Bechuanas. He also translated the New Testament into the same language, and brought it to England to have it printed under the auspices of the British and Foreign Bible Society. While in England he published his graphic work, "Missionary Labours and Scenes in South Africa," in which there is the glow of poetic description in combination with narratives of strange adventure, terrible trials, and triumphs in which even angels have rejoiced.

Dr. Moffat resumed his labours at Kuruman, and, urged by Livingstone and others, began the translation of the Old Testament. The task, which was made to fit in with the usual toils of Missionary life, was a gigantic one, and extended over several years. "I could hardly believe," says Dr. Moffat, in speaking of his feelings when the last sheet had been written, "that I was in the world, so difficult was it for me to realize the fact that the work of so many years was completed. Whether it was from weakness or overstrained mental exertion I cannot tell, but a feeling came over me as if I should die, and I felt perfectly resigned. To overcome this I went back again to my manuscript still to be printed, read it over and re-examined it, till at length I got back again to my right mind. This was the most remarkable time of my life, a period that I shall never forget. My feelings found vent by my falling upon my knees and thanking God for His grace and goodness in giving me strength to accomplish my task."

In 1870 the veteran Missionary and his wife were compelled by failing health to bid farewell to their beloved Kuruman, and return to England, where they were welcomed with the enthusiasm due to their long and faithful services. Dr. Moffat had spent more than fifty years in Africa, and had been in perils from savage men and savage beasts; he had known weary wanderings in the desert, when his tongue was so parched with thirst as to be almost deprived of the power of speech; he had visited and conciliated barbaric kings, whose halls were hung with the trophies of cruel and exterminating war; he had confronted and overcome difficulties in the spirit of a chivalric heroism loftier than that which animated his ancestors on the field of Bannockburn; and he had witnessed transformations of character and social life more wonderful than poetry has ever imagined.

Looking back from the height of his numerous years on the scenes of protracted toil and sublime achievement, still glowing with the Missionary ardour which in the beginning of his course impelled him to dangers and hardships amid the sterilities of Namaqua Land; and having before his eyes visions of Africaner and a crowd of glorified converts from Kuruman, beckoning him to eternal beatitude, he is worthy of the golden phrase which, in happy parody of Milton, the Rev. W. Arthur applied to him on a great public occasion, "That old Man Magnificent."

From Northern Lights: Pen and Pencil Sketches of Modern Scottish Worthies by Jabez Marrat. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1877.

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