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Dr. Robert Moffat

by Jabez Marrat

Robert MoffatMr. Robert Moffat, the veteran missionary, the South African traveller, the father-in-law of David Livingstone, passed away from our midst on the evening of August 9th last [1883], being then nearly eighty-eight years of age. At that advanced age we could not have hoped to retain him long in our midst, but his presence was a link with the past as well as an ornament to the present, that we very regretfully part with. His name has long been a household word throughout the land; indeed, in every country of the world it has been known and honoured as that of a truly great and heroic man. His dauntless spirit, unaffected piety, and untiring efforts for the welfare of mankind have for many years marked him out as foremost among the servants of our Lord to whom the honour of evangelising a dark world has been assigned. Long as the age lasts will the honoured name of Moffat, associated with that of Livingstone, be held in highest repute; by the exemplary saintliness and devotion of his life many will continually be animated to consecration and fervour in the Master's cause.

Born at Ormiston, East Lothian, five years before the close of the eighteenth century, he spent his early boyhood in the neighbourhood of the Carron Ironworks, where his father held a Custom House appointment. When only twelve years of age he was allowed to follow his inclination and go to sea, but one voyage was enough to disenchant him, and he was soon glad to return to school, where he began to study gardening and botany. After this the boy was apprenticed to a gardener and when his father removed to Inverkeithing, in Fifeshire, he obtained employment in the gardens of the Earl of Moray, in the same county. Subsequently he accepted a situation in Cheshire, where he remained two or three years working hard at his botanical and horticultural studies.

Attending a missionary meeting at Warrington, in 1815, his attention was directed to missionary enterprise, and he began to desire to carry to the heathen the glad tidings of salvation through Christ. He at once took steps to receive the necessary training at Manchester, and, having been accepted as a missionary by the London Missionary Society, was publicly recognised on October 13th, 1816, in Surrey Chapel, London, together with eight others, one of whom was John Williams, the South Sea missionary.

On the 31st of October in the same year, being then not twenty-one years of age, he set sail for Cape Town, having been selected for service in South Africa. It is impossible to speak at any length of Dr. Moffat's early missionary labours, of the influence he acquired over the outlawed chief Africaner and his savage band of followers, of his work among the Bechuanas and Kurumans, and of his travels into the interior of the Dark Continent." But mention must be made of the fact that five years' labour among the Bechuanas seemed to produce no fruit until, at the suggestion of his wife—to whom he was married in 1819, she having come out to him from England—he determined to acquire their tongue, and speak to them without an interpreter; and then, when he had mastered the dialects of the people around him, he had a full and sufficient reward. But, having acquired the Sechuana language (the vernacular of the Bechuana tribes), the missionary was not satisfied until he had translated the greater part of the Scriptures for the use of the natives.

When the manuscript of the first three Gospels was ready he journeyed to Capetown, and, as printers were scarce, he himself set up the type at the Government printing office, the plant having been placed at his disposal by the Governor of the Colony. A little later, a plentiful supply of type, paper, etc., was forwarded to him from England, and with these he returned to his missionary station, and completed his work.

It was not till more than fifty years' labour in South Africa that Dr. Moffat returned to the old country, and even then he did not rest; for until the very last he was engaged in translating books for mission work.

Over fifty years he laboured in South Africa, only returning to England when compelled by failing health to leave Kuruman. Frequently has he spoken touching words of intense longing for his "own land and people," as he called South Africa. Over and over again has he told us his heart was there, wherever his body might lie.

How devotedly he was beloved by the natives is evidenced from the following extract descriptive of his reception in 1843 at Kuruman, on his return from a visit to England:—

"Next morning there was a shaking of hands with a witness, and a flow of feeling which was quite overcoming. Some seemed ecstatic, and leaped for joy. Others gave their hands with an upward look of heartfelt gratitude to God. In some a silent flood of tears testified the emotions of a thankful soul. Every infant must have a shake of our hands. Grandmothers, blind with age, came, led by the hand of a child, to hear our well-known voices, and though unable to gaze on our faces, as formerly, hearing, and feeling with a trembling grasp, excited in their bosoms aspirations of praise to the God of all our mercies."

Never has he risen to such heights of pathetic eloquence as when describing his agonising experiences of the slave trade and the native wars. "These," he would exclaim, "have passed away; the light of the Gospel has streamed into the abodes of horrid cruelty; the men whose delight it was to destroy, murder, and ravage, are now humble, devout, consistent followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, and seeking the welfare of their fellows."

Since his retirement from missionary work in Bechuanaland he has lived in this country, and for the last four years in a pretty country residence on the estate of Mr. Samuel Morley, M.P., at Leigh, near Tunbridge. Here he busied himself in various ways, occasionally preaching in the chapel in the village, built by Mr. Morley, and in which he was frequently found among the worshippers. It was here we had the pleasure of our first introduction to this venerable missionary. The people loved him for the gentleness of his spirit and the entire absence of sectarianism. A banquet was given by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House, in token of the high esteem in which his life work was held by Christian men of all denominations in the metropolis.

His last moments were bright. He was out in his garden, trimming shrubs, twenty-four hours before he died. The immediate cause of death is supposed to have been the breaking of a blood-vessel.

Nine hours before his departure he sent for his friend, Mr. Maxted, and at once began repeating favourite hymns and texts of Scripture. He asked for texts to show that Christians would know each other in heaven. He remembered his beloved departed wife, and spoke of her last happy moments with tears of joy. She had lived with him for fifty years, and, as many of our readers know, was a most devoted helper with him in the Lord's service. Her prayerfulness and great wisdom and ability to counsel him were conspicuous traits in her character. Since her death, his daughter, Miss Moffat, has been constantly at his side, and has nobly and lovingly watched over him.

The mortal remains of this veteran soldier of the Cross were laid in their last resting-place in Norwood Cemetery, August 16th, 1883. A large concourse of friends and mourners assembled to show their respect for the deceased, the leading missionary societies, as well as various religious bodies in this country, being well represented.

"In the service at Tulse Hill Baptist Chapel, Rev. J. C. Harrison delivered an address, in which he took a comprehensive survey of the life, character, and labours of Dr. Moffat. After speaking of 'entireness of consecration' as one great feature that marked his missionary career and made him 'a king amongst men,' and also of the 'personal fascination' which produced such wonderful effects upon the heathen, he dwelt upon Dr. Moffat's 'perfect disinterestedness,' illustrated by the fact that so long as he had just enough to sustain him he seemed never to covet anything more; his wonderful catholicity, which made him love all good men, and rejoice in every good and great work, there being no littleness or bitterness seen in him, though he had indomitable firmness when the Gospel was in question; his guileless simplicity, combined with abundant shrewdness and a great deal of mother wit; and his astonishing faith in the power of the Gospel—a faith which gave wonderful beauty and consistency to his whole character. Mr. Harrison read a letter written by the Doctor only fourteen days before his death, which he characterised as 'breathing the old loyalty to the London Missionary Society;' the speaker expressed an earnest hope that some of the young men who were present would endeavour to imitate his Christian heroism, and be inspired by his earnest missionary spirit.

"At the grave, Rev. J. G. Rogers delivered an address, in which he pronounced an eulogium on the deceased similar to that of Mr. Harrison."

From a long leader in the "Times" we extract the following testimony:—
"It is the fashion in some quarters to scoff at missionaries, to receive their reports with incredulity, to look at them at best as no more than harmless enthusiasts, proper subjects for pity, if not for ridicule. The records of missionary work in South Africa must be a blank page to those by whom such ideas are entertained. We owe it to our missionaries that the whole region has been opened up. Apart from their special service as preachers, they have done important work as pioneers of civilisation, as geographers, as contributors to philological research. It would seem, indeed, that it is only by the agency of such men as Moffat and his like that the contact of the white and black races can be anything but a curse to the blacks. Even the arts of civilisation are of little avail by themselves. In some parts of the world their chief result has been to furnish the blacks with means of enjoyment which have proved fatal to him. In others, the black man has been looked upon as fair prey. He has been forced into contact with the white race, not that he may learn from them, but that he may serve them; not that he may be raised up, but that he may be brought down. It is the missionary alone who seeks nothing for himself. He has chosen an unselfish life..."

In summing up the character of Moffat, it has been well said that to him the work was greater than the worker, and the Master for whose glory both work and worker existed greater than either. Hence the grand unselfishness of his character, the fervid zeal which inspired his ministry, and gave it a beautiful unity of purpose; his abundance in labours, his fearlessness of perils, and last, but not least, the large-hearted catholicity by which he was distinguished.

The love of South Africa, a ruling passion in his heart, was inspired by his devotion to Christ. The souls of those savages were precious to him, because they were precious in the sight of his Lord; and he was thus possessed by a desire for their salvation which imparted to him the nobility of an Apostle or Reformer.

He was the Apostle of South Africa, and as such will be known in centuries to come. A nobler, simpler, and more heroic spirit the century has not seen. He laboured not for earthly reputation, not even for a philosophic idea, but for Christ and missions only; and the quickening influence which he has exerted will survive, and be for many a day to come an incentive to missionary effort.

We trust that the life story of the departed may indeed prove to many young and ardent Christians at once an inspiration and an example.

Those who have not read any biography of Dr. Moffat [are encouraged to do so].


Copied and edited for WholesomeWords.org from Footsteps of Truth edited by C. Russell Hurditch. Vol. II (May 1884). London: J. F. Shaw & Co, ©1884.

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