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Robert Moffat

by Charles C. Creegan and Josephine A. B. Goodnow

Robert MoffatLooking backward, Robert Moffat could clearly trace the trend of his life's purposes to the gentle but unconscious influence of his mother, who, in the little cottage home at Carronshore, Scotland, gathered her lads around the fireside on winter nights, while she read aloud accounts of missionary labors in heathen lands.

Born Dec. 21, 1795, Robert had few educational advantages; and, living in the midst of shipping, he early turned from "Wully Mitchell's" teaching of the "Shorter Catechism," and "went to sea." In the peril of wind and waves many dangers were mentioned by him, and hair-breadth escapes chronicled; but to his parents' joy he gave up nautical pursuits, and entered school at Falkirk.

When but fourteen years old he was apprenticed to a gardener. His work was laborious, and his comforts scanty; yet withal he attended an evening school, and learned something of Latin and mensuration. Two years later he was employed as under gardener by Mr. Leigh, of High Leigh, Cheshire; and there, at the meetings of the Wesleyan Methodists, Robert became converted. Soon after his conversion some duty took him to Warrington, six miles distant; and as he crossed the bridge to the town, he saw a placard announcing a missionary meeting, to be held under the direction of the Rev. Wm. Roby of Manchester. Thoughts of his mother's reading, in the long ago, flooded his memory; and the determination to devote his life to missionary work was instantly formed.

Later, an interview with Mr. Roby resulted in Moffat accepting a position in Mr. Smith's nursery garden, at Durkinfield, near Manchester; and then he began to prepare himself for the mission field under the care of Mr. Roby. While thus at work, Robert became engaged to his employer's daughter, Mary Smith.

A year later Robert Moffat went to Manchester for a few months of college training, and then accepted a position under the London Missionary Society, and with four co-laborers sailed for South Africa, Oct. 18, 1816. Cape Town was reached Jan. 13, 1817; and while waiting for a passport from the government to go into the interior, Moffat boarded in a farmer's family at Stellenbosch, and passed his time in acquiring the Dutch language, which enabled him to preach to the Boers.

In September, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Kichingman, Moffat, in charge of a long trail of wagons drawn by oxen, started for the Namaqualand Mission. The natives at this station were ruled by Africaner, an outlaw, and a terror to the farmers of the colony, but friendly to the English.

After a dreary march, during which many of the oxen became prey to the hyenas, the band of missionaries reached Bysondermeid. Here Robert Moffat remained with the Kichingmans for a month, and then, aided by a guide, proceeded to the interior. The way inland lay through a trackless desert. Here the oxen became so exhausted, a halt was called before water could be reached, and Moffat was obliged to send to Mr. Bartlett at Pella for oxen accustomed to travel in deep sand. "Three days," says Robert Moffat, "I remained with my wagon-driver on this burning plain, with scarcely a breath of wind, and what there was felt as if coming from the mouth of an oven."

Jan. 26, 1818, the train reached Africaner's kraal, and received a warm welcome from Mr. Ebner, who, a few days after, was obliged to depart, leaving Robert Moffat, a stranger in the midst of a strange people; but the heart of the young missionary was soon cheered by the regular attendance of Africaner at the religious services, and his conversion was followed by two of his brothers, who became such efficient assistants in the school and mission services that Moffat was soon able to undertake itinerating visits. These journeys were frequently attended by dangers and privations, and an indomitable will alone sustained life.

Two trips, to find a more healthful location for the mission, were unsuccessfully made; and for twelve months Moffat lived and labored at Namaqualand as missionary, as carpenter, smith, cooper, shoemaker, miller, baker, and housekeeper.

In 1819 Moffat decided to visit Cape Town for supplies, and to introduce Africaner to the notice of the Colonial Government. To get the outlaw through the territories of the Dutch farmers, where his former atrocities were not forgotten, required nerveful tact, but was successfully done, and Africaner was cordially welcomed by the governor at Cape Town. Moffat had intended to return to Namaqualand, but yielded to the wish of the London Missionary Society deputation then at Cape Town, to accompany them in their visits to missionary stations, and later to accept a mission at the Bechwana station.

Africaner, hoping to move his tribe to Moffat's new station, journeyed home alone, conveying in his wagon, presented by the governor, many of the effects destined for the future field. The deputation, after visiting stations in the eastern part of the colony and at Kafirland, were barred from further progress by war, and returned to Cape Town. Here, on the 27th of December, 1819, Robert Moffat received his affianced wife, and soon after her arrival they were married.

At the beginning of the year 1820 the Moffats, with the Rev. John Campbell, started for the Bechwana station at Lattakoo, but were detained at Griqua Town for several months; and here was born their daughter Mary, afterwards the wife of Dr. Livingstone.

In May, 1821, Mr. and Mrs. Moffat arrived at Lattakoo, and commenced their work among a people who were "thoroughly sensual, and who could rob, lie, and murder without any compunctions of conscience, as long as success attended their efforts."

In 1822 Moffat wrote: "They turn a deaf ear to the voice of love, and scorn the doctrines of salvation, but affairs in general assume a more hopeful aspect. They have in several instances relinquished the barbarous system of commandoes for stealing cattle. They have also dispensed with a rain-maker this season."

A little later in the same year, Robert Moffat said, ''Mary, this is hard work, and no fruit yet appears;" and his wife wisely answered, "The gospel has not yet been preached to them in their own tongue in which they were born." From that time Moffat devoted himself to the acquisition of the language, and for that purpose he often visited tribes remote from his station.

No words can tell of the labors of Robert and Mary Moffat in these early days. In addition to privations, discouragements, and loss of property, their lives were often in danger. Once, when no rain fell, these missionaries were accused of causing the drought, and at the point of the spear were told to leave the land. Throwing open his waistcoat, Robert Moffat said (fortified by the courage of his wife, who stood at the door of their cottage with her baby in her arms), "If you will, drive your spear to my heart. We know you will not touch our wives and children." The would-be murderers turned away, saying, "These men must have ten lives, when they are so fearless of death."

The good will of the tribe was at last gained by the able efforts of the missionaries in planning a defense against the Mantatees, who attacked the station with murderous intent. Deeply sensible of the kindness of the Moffats, who might at this time have retired to the colony, the Bechwanas gave their consent to moving the station to a place eight miles distant, at the source of the river Kuruman. In view of proper remuneration, the Bechwana chiefs arranged that two miles of the Kuruman Valley should henceforth be the property of the London Missionary Society, and that the new station, "Kuruman," should here be established.

Referring to this time, Robert Moffat afterwards said: "Our situation during the infancy of the new station, language cannot describe. We were compelled to work daily at every species of labor." Notwithstanding all difficulties, this earnest man made considerable progress towards establishing a literature in the Sechwana tongue. A spelling-book and catechism were prepared, and sent to England to be printed.

In 1826, having moved into his new dwelling, built of stone, and the country being comparatively free from danger, Moffat left his family, and went for a time to live among the Barolongs, that he might become proficient in the Sechwana language. While among these tribes, the missionary sought every opportunity to impart Christian instruction to the people.

Ten years the Moffats labored without seeing any results, when suddenly, without apparent cause, a great religious interest arose among the natives; the little chapel became too small to hold the numbers who came to receive the gospel. By voluntary aid, a new building, fifty-one feet by sixteen feet, with clay walls and thatched roof, was erected, and served as school-house and place of worship until the large stone church was completed.

A change of habits instantly followed this awakening. Mrs. Moffat was called upon to open a sewing-school, and motley were the groups gathered about her, all anxious to form garments to wear, although jackets, trousers, and gowns had never before adorned their forms.

When a friend at home wrote to Mary Moffat, asking, what could be sent her that would be of use, the answer was, "Send a Communion service; it will be wanted." At that time there were no converts and no "glimmer of day."

Three years later, a hundred and twenty were present at the table of the Lord, the first among the Bechwanas; and the day previous there arrived a box which contained the Communion vessels which the faith of Mrs. Moffat had led her to ask for before there was a single inquirer.

In the fall of 1829 two envoys came from Mosilikatse, King of the Matabele, to learn about the manners and teachings of the white men. Later, Mr. Moffat visited this tribe, was kindly received, and told to them the story of the Resurrection. In June, 1830, Moffat had finished the translation of St. Luke; and to get this printed, and to place their two eldest children at school, Mr. and Mrs. Moffat went to Cape Town. Here Robert Moffat acquired a fair knowledge of printing, and applied himself so assiduously to the work, that a severe illness followed. This and the birth of another daughter delayed the missionaries; but in June, 1831, they returned to Kuruman, and took with them an edition of St. Luke, and a hymn-book in Sechwana, printing-press, and liberal subscriptions for the erection of the mission-church.

The timber for this church was cut and collected under supervision of Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Edwards, two hundred and fifty miles from the Kuruman Station, and brought there in ox-teams. This church was opened November, 1838, and nine hundred people were in attendance at the first service; the following Sunday a hundred and fifty members celebrated the Lord's Supper.

In the spring of 1839 Robert Moffat completed the translation of the New Testament, and for purposes of printing went to England with his wife, after an absence of twenty-two years. During the voyage another daughter was born to them, and their son Jamie, six years old, died. The Moffats received a very warm welcome in England; and at this time "a wave of missionary enthusiasm" swept over the country, and great was the demand for Mr. Moffat to address public meetings.

While in England, it was thought best to add the Psalms to the Sechwana edition of the New Testament; and with characteristic energy, Moffat immediately began the work of translating, and sent to Ross and David Livingstone, then at Bechwana Mission, six thousand copies of the new work.

Moffat then wrote his well-known book, "Missionary Labors and Scenes in South Africa;" and it was not until January, 1843, that he and Mrs. Moffat sailed for Africa. The natives at Kuruman received them with unbounded joy.

Soon after their return their eldest daughter, Mary, was married to David Livingstone, and went with him to Chonwane.

Affairs at the Kuruman were now very prosperous. Moffat worked steadily at translation; Mrs. Moffat, his faithful helpmate, leaving him only to visit the Livingstones and to go to Cape Town with her youngest children, who were going to England to be educated.

In 1856 Moffat completed his translation of the entire Bible, a work of thirty years.

"I felt it to be an awful thing," he says, "to translate the Book of God. When I had finished the last verse, I could hardly believe that I was in the world, so difficult was it for me to realize that my work of so many years was completed. A feeling came over me as if I should die. ... My heart beat like the strokes of a hammer. ... My emotions found vent by my falling on my knees, and thanking God for his grace and goodness for giving me strength to accomplish my task."

At this time Livingstone was in England; and, as a result of his accounts, the directors wrote to Robert Moffat asking him to go for twelve months to Matabele. In spite of the fact that he had worked for the company forty-one years, and was then sixty-two years old, Robert Moffat left his home at Kuruman, and started for a long and toilsome journey through the African desert. He spent many months at "Inyati," the seat of the missions of the Matabele, and spared neither labor of body nor mind. In June, 1860, feeling the station was well established, he returned to Kuruman.

In 1862 Robert and Mary Moffat suffered severe bereavement in the death of their son Robert, and of their daughter Mary Livingstone. In 1868, having established his son, the Rev. John Moffat, at Kuruman, Robert Moffat determined, reluctantly, to accept the directors' invitation to return to England. On Sunday, March 20, 1870, he preached for the last time in the Kuruman church; and the following Friday "Ramary" and "Mamary," as the dearly beloved missionary and his wife were called, left the home in which they had so long and so faithfully labored, amid a pitiful wall from the natives, whose hearts were wrung with genuine sorrow.

July 24, 1870, Robert and Mary Moffat arrived in England, after an absence of over fifty years, during which time they had visited their native land but once. They were welcomed everywhere with marked cordiality, and on his birthday a thousand pounds was given Mr. Moffat. A few months after their return Mary Moffat died. Her last words were a prayer for her husband, that he might be given strength to bear her loss. Fifty-three years she had faithfully shared his labors.

In 1872 several thousand pounds were subscribed for a training-school for natives in Bechwana; and the directors honored their veteran missionary by calling it the "Moffat Institute." Later his friends gave to Robert Moffat five thousand pounds, a liberal competency for himself and his widowed daughter, Mrs. Frédoux.

In 1874 Mr. Moffat was called upon to identify the remains of his son-in-law, Dr. Livingstone, who had died in Central Africa. In 1876 Mr. Moffat was entertained by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and by the Rev. Newman Hall, where he met Mr. Gladstone. In 1877 he visited Paris, and addressed four thousand Sunday-school children.

The last four years of his life were spent at Park Cottage, Leigh, near Tunbridge.

On the 10th of August, 1883, in his eighty-eighth year, he passed peacefully to rest.

"His count of years was full;
His allotted task was wrought."

As a fitting close to this sketch I quote from the pen of the Rev. A. C. Thompson, D.D., of Boston, who was present at the World's Missionary Conference in London in 1878:—

" 'Nothing but a missionary!' But the man who gave that toss of the head and that half scornful look should cast an eye down the long center aisle of the hall at Mildmay Park. Whom do we see coming up the aisle — a son of Anak in stature, erect, his features strongly marked, his venerable locks and long white beard adding majesty to his appearance? On discovering him the whole great audience rise spontaneously to their feet. A Wesleyan brother with powerful voice is in the midst of an address; yet no one heeds him till the patriarch has taken a seat on the platform. Who is the old man? Is it the Earl of Beaconsfield? Is it Mr. Gladstone? There is but one other person in the realm, I take it, to whom, under the circumstances, such a united and enthusiastic tribute would be paid, and that because she is on the throne. This hoary-headed man is the veteran among South African missionaries. He went out to the Dark Continent more than sixty years before (1816). He is now eighty-three; his name Robert Moffat. ... With a voice still strong and musical he addresses the assembly for twenty or more minutes. The man who preaches to a larger congregation than any other in London once said that, when he saw the veteran Moffat, he felt inclined to sink into his shoes."


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Great Missionaries of the Church by Charles Creegan and Josephine Goodnow. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, ©1895.

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