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Robert and Mary Moffat: Missionaries to South Africa

Robert MoffatScotland has given to the Church of Christ many heroic leaders and devoted pioneers: and among the foremost of them is Robert Moffat. He was born at Ormiston, Haddingtonshire, away in the Highlands, on December 21, 1795. Though of humble origin, he had the great advantage of pious parents, who trained him in the fear of God.

At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a gardener; and little did he imagine how useful the knowledge he was then acquiring would be to him in his laborious life on the "dark Continent." Before leaving home, his godly mother, with tears rolling down her cheeks, besought him to promise that he would read his Bible daily. He made the promise, and kept it with sacred honour.

One summer evening, as he was walking into the town of Warrington, Robert Moffat saw an announcement of a missionary meeting to be conducted by Rev. W. Roby. He attended the gathering, and was so seized by the missionary spirit, that he sought an interview with Mr. Roby, and, through him, offered his services to the London Missionary Society, for work abroad.

In the good providence of God, Robert took a situation for some months in the nursery grounds of Mr. Smith, of Dukinfield, Cheshire; during which time he had the advantage of Mr. Roby's godly counsel and assistance. The circumstance of his employment at Dukinfield proved an important factor in his subsequent life-history: but to this we shall revert further on.

After having, in the first instance, declined, the Directors of the London Missionary Society subsequently re-considered Moffat's application; and they then wrote as follows:—

We have thought of your proposal to become a missionary; we have prayed over it; and we cannot withhold you from so good a work.

No time was lost, and on September 30, 1816, Robert Moffat, with eight other young men, was set apart for missionary work at a special meeting in the far-famed Surrey Chapel, London. Another remarkable man in this group was John Williams, known as the "Martyr of Erromanga."

Moffat embarked at Gravesend on October 18, and set foot on the southern point of the far-off land of his hopes and desires on January 13, 1817, after a voyage of eighty-six days. On arriving at Cape Town he found a difficulty in obtaining the Governor's permission to go beyond the borders of the Colony; so that his intention of proceeding immediately to Namaqualand could not at the time be carried out. Whilst waiting for this permission he lodged with a pious Dutch farmer, and took advantage of this opportunity to learn the Dutch language.

At length Moffat started on his way up the country towards the kraal of the warlike and dreaded chief Africaner, who had struck terror into all. This chief had acquired such an evil reputation that the Cape Government had considered it their duty to offer a considerable sum of money for his capture. Though news had reached the Cape that he was an altered character, the people were slow to believe it, and predicted that in going to his country Moffat would simply be "walking into the lion's mouth." Nothing daunted, the courageous missionary proceeded on his way; and, on arriving at the kraal, after a long and wearisome journey, subject to all kinds of difficulties and dangers, he met with a reception very much more cordial than he had ventured to expect; for as soon as Africaner understood who the white visitor was, and what was his business, the chief had a house (such as it was) built for Moffat, and became one of the missionary's most attentive hearers and devoted followers. The lion had indeed become a lamb, under the influence of earlier missionaries, Christian Albrecht, and others.

A very strong personal friendship sprang up between Moffat and Africaner; and they enjoyed much fellowship together. But for nearly a year Moffat did not see the face of a fellow-countryman, nor hear his mother tongue. Shut off from civilization; crawling in and out of his "house" (which, by the way, was nothing more than a moveable tent made of long sticks, covered with rush-mats, the only entrance also answering for window, chimney, and ventilation); living on milk and dried meat, until by his own cultivation he was able to add vegetables to his bill of fare—Moffat still plodded on with a hopeful heart, trusting that the light of the Gospel would penetrate and banish the darkness of those who all around him were "sitting in the shadow of death."

In a letter to his parents, dated December 15, 1818, he informed them of his intention to visit the Cape, adding that Africaner had promised to accompany him. Moffat looked forward to this journey with great expectation; for the Governor had often requested a visit from the chief, so that peace might be established between them: and as often—and for many reasons—the invitation had been refused. But such was the chief's confidence in the missionary that he readily consented to accompany Moffat. This visit was beneficial in many ways: amongst others, it created a favourable impression on the minds of the Government officials, as to the political—as well as the social and religious—advantages arising from the work of the missionaries. Indeed, so far was the Governor interested in the chief himself that the amount of the reward formerly offered for his capture was now expended in tokens of goodwill bestowed upon him.

Our friend, Mr. Moffat, utilized this visit to the Cape for another important object. When working in his last situation (at the Dukinfield nursery) he had been attracted towards the only daughter of his employer: he found that she too had felt drawn to a missionary life; and before he left England she had given some sort of promise that she would sooner or later become his true yokefellow in the work. And now after the lapse of three years he was anticipating her arrival at Cape Colony in fulfilment of this engagement. Mary Smith—for that was her name; one shortly to be exchanged for that of Mary Moffat—had experienced great difficulty in getting her kind and devoted parents to sanction her leaving them in search of another home in so distant a land. She felt confident that it was God's will she should go, and made it a matter of earnest and constant prayer that her parents might be made willing to give her up. At length all difficulties were removed.

The following interesting extract is from the records of the Albion Independent Chapel, Ashton-under-Lyne:—

The Church had not been long formed when one of its members went out to live and labour among the heathen in South Africa. Mary Smith, of the Dukinfield Nursery, departed for Kuruman, where she safely arrived, and was married to the Rev. Robert Moffat. The missionary spirit which was in her has rendered her—through a long, laborious, and honourable life—the worthy helpmeet of her husband, the well-known apostle of the Bechuanas.

It was in September, 1819, that Mary Smith left the shores of her native land, safely reaching Cape Town in December, where Moffat was eagerly waiting her arrival. They were married a very short time afterwards, the ceremony taking place in St. George's Church on the 27th day of the month of her arrival. Early in 1820 they started for their long journey to Lattakoo (afterwards known as Kuruman). After seven weeks' weary travelling by ox waggons, they reached the Orange River, about 600 miles from Cape Town: a journey which can now be performed by railway in two days. After some delay they proceeded 100 miles further, and eventually arrived at Kuruman. During this stay at the Cape, Moffat had received his appointment to the Bechuana Mission, which had been carried on for some few years by two missionaries, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Read. Having reached the principal scene of their future labours, Mrs. Moffat, in a letter to her parents, says:—

In looking back on the day on which I left my father's house, in full confidence that my heavenly Father would be with me, I am astonished. I was only seven months in travelling from Dukinfield to Kuruman, and never met with one disaster. And, in addition to all other favours, God has brought me to that place which, of all others in the world, was first fixed upon my heart as a place and a people' amongst whom I should love to dwell.

For more than fifty years Mary Moffat shared with her husband the perils, hardships, successes, and joys of missionary life in South Africa.

The self-denying labours of the former missionaries here had not produced much visible fruit. Still they had persevered in the full hope that the good seed would germinate. As yet, however, it seemed to have fallen on barren ground: the people had not learned to respect the property of others, excepting to make it their own; nothing was safe from their thieving habits; and they still despised all instruction. Thus it continued for some time after the Moffats had arrived. In writing to his brother in 1822, Mr. Moffat expressed himself as deeply disappointed at the condition of things.

The missionaries' peaceful employment was interrupted by the cruelties of a fierce war. The neighbouring tribes swarmed down upon the people Moffat was seeking to befriend, and for a time seemed likely to carry all before them. Fortunately they were driven back; and thus the Mission was saved. So serious was the outlook that Mr. Moffat found it advisable to take his wife and two children (the elder of whom afterwards became the wife of David Livingstone) to a place of safety, miles away. Having done so, he returned to the scene of bitter strife, to endeavour by his influence to prevent—or at least to minimize—the horrible cruelties that were then practiced.

His life was often in jeopardy; but was mercifully preserved. His cool courage and daring—combined with his tenderness in looking after the wounded, and preventing the enemy from killing many as they lay helpless—endeared him more than ever to the Kurumans, who found that in the missionary they had a true and courageous friend. Though they still showed a lack of interest in the Gospel message, the messenger himself had gained a personal ascendancy which was never lost.

Mr. Moffat embraced the first favourable opportunity of visiting the Barolong tribe, and found them in a miserable condition in every way—very dirty in their habits; which was partly to be accounted for by the scarcity of water. In many cases they had to travel several miles in order to procure sufficient of this priceless boon for drinking purposes alone. The distressing lack of water; the constant blinding clouds of dust everywhere; the torturing swarms of flies; and the absence of shelter from the burning rays above—all combined to make this visit anything but a pleasant one. And yet Moffat considered himself well repaid; for the visit furnished him with opportunities of adding so considerably to his knowledge of the language as to enable him to speak to the people in "their own tongue the wonderful works of God."

But his great life-work lay yet in the future. He was not satisfied that the people should only hear the Gospel; but was determined, by God's help, that they should become the possessors of the Scriptures in their own tongue. To the task of translation he for some years devoted every moment he could spare from his preaching; teaching; farming; and many other multifarious labours. His first translations were the "Assembly's Catechism" and "Hymns for Public Worship." In 1830 he had completed the New Testament; and he made a journey to the Cape in order to have copies printed: 400 miles of the distance was travelled on horseback. On arriving at his destination he found no small difficulty in getting his manuscripts into type: no printer would undertake the work. In the end, the Government lent him plant and material; and he himself, with such assistance as he could obtain, laboured in the production of the book. Twenty-seven years later, in 1857, the Old Testament was finished: and the whole Bible was thus in the hands of the Bechuanas.

Mr. Moffat thus describes his emotions on the accomplishment of his undertaking:—

I could hardly believe I was in the world: so difficult was it for me to realize the fact that my work of so many years was completed. Whether from weakness or overstrained mental exertion l cannot tell—but I felt I should die; and was perfectly resigned. I fell upon my knees, and thanked God that He had given me strength and grace to accomplish my task.

With his own hands Moffat assisted in building the Church and Mission premises in Kuruman: and for forty years lived there among the people, over whom he wielded almost absolute authority. The affectionate regard in which he and his wife were held was truly remarkable; and it was no easy task for them to leave what had become a home to them by many endearing ties. But the exposures, prodigious labours, and journeyings, for more than fifty years, together with many family troubles and bereavements, had told on the iron frame of the veteran missionary; and it was evident that it could not continue much longer to bear the strain. Moffat's final Service in the Church at Kuruman, and the farewell that followed, constituted such a scene as is seldom witnessed. He and his wife made their last voyage to England in July, 1870; and early in the following year Mrs. Moffat was called to her rest. For several subsequent years Mr. Moffat continued to attend meetings in all parts of Great Britain. He was ever ready to speak, as far as his declining strength would allow, on behalf of Mission work in Africa: and few who had the privilege of seeing and hearing him during those later years will forget the glowing earnestness of the venerable man as he pleaded for the cause to which he had devoted his life.

Like "a shock of corn fully ripe," he was called to his eternal home on August 9, 1883,at the age of eighty-eight years. His remains were interred in Norwood Cemetery.

From The Christian Portrait Gallery containing over one hundred life-like illustrations with biographic sketches. London: Morgan and Scott, [1900?].

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