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Pioneer Missionaries: Robert and Mary Moffat

by Jessie Brown Pounds

Robert and Mary MoffatA missionary must be more than a teacher of the gospel. A man who goes to an untaught people must be able to till the soil and show them how to use the simpler implements of labor. A woman missionary must teach the native women how to care for their homes and their children. It is not enough that these people learn how to become Christians — they must have the training that will keep them from falling back into heathenism. They must learn how to live like Christians, how to be decent and industrious, and to respect the property and the rights of others.

Robert and Mary Moffat were among the first to recognize this. In the largest sense they gave their lives to Africa, willingly spending their lives in the humblest kinds of service that they might permanently uplift the people.

Robert Moffat was a Scotch lad, the son of poor parents. His mother, was a devoted Christian woman, who taught her son to love the Bible and to read it daily.

Robert learned gardening — a business which was afterward most useful to him in his missionary work. But his mind early turned to the mission field. It is said that when his old pastor was about, on account of the infirmities of age, to give up the work of the parish, he paced back and forth in the churchyard wondering if any soul had been won to Christ through his efforts. He heard a sob behind some shrubbery, and pausing in his walk he found the boy, Robert Moffat, who was in tears over the prospect of losing his beloved pastor. In his grief he opened his heart and told of his desire to go to far lands with the gospel of Christ. The heart of the good man was gladdened, and no wonder; but suppose he had seen in vision the life-work of Moffat in Africa! Perhaps he was allowed to see it from the window of Heaven.

In 1816, when he was twenty-one years of age, Moffat went out to Africa. Almost immediately he developed rare tact and judgment in dealing with the natives. The powerful chief, Africaner, who had been the terror of the whole region, was converted, and became a humble Christian.

It is said that a wise marriage more than doubles a man's power. Certainly Moffat's marriage was a wise one. Mary Smith was a young English girl. She was naturally religious, and had received careful training in a Moravian school, where missionary enthusiasm ran high. Her devotion to her life work was complete, her wit and good sense unfailing. There is scarcely a more charming character in all missionary history.

She and Moffat were married in Capetown in 1819. After some prospecting for a location, they settled in Kuruman, which was the center of their work for fifty years.

The earlier years were full of discouragements. The people among whom they found themselves were unspeakably degraded. They would steal everything they could carry away with them. The Moffat's carried their cooking utensils to church, lest they be stolen from the hut in their absence. The garden which Moffat had struggled to produce, the
sheep of which he felt so proud, seemed only to invite thieving. It seemed impossible to secure decency and honest dealing among the people. The nurse whom Mrs. Moffat obtained for the baby insisted upon clothing herself with a coat of grease. When Mrs. Moffat objected she threw the baby at her head and ran away.

But this brave couple never faltered. Their salary was only one hundred and twenty dollars a year, and their comforts of necessity few, but they made a real home out of the rude materials at their command, and trusted in God for their own future and for the redemption of Africa.

On coming to Africa, Moffat had found no one who could teach him the language. He went among the natives, hunted with them, slept in their huts, and so mastered their rude speech that he was able to translate the entire Bible into the language.

At times he faced the hatred of savage chiefs, but his faith in God and his tact in dealing with men always carried him through. Once when he was ordered to leave the country he bared his breast and told his enemies that they might have his blood if they would, but that he was determined not to leave his post. He was allowed to go unharmed.

By degrees, better conditions came. Once Mary Moffat wrote to friends at home for a communion service, because, as she said, she believed that native Christians would yet sit together at the Lord's table in that land. That time came, and she wrote: "You can hardly conceive how I feel when I sit in the house of God surrounded with the natives. Though my situation may be despicable and mean in the eyes of the world, I feel that an honor has been conferred upon me which the kings of the earth could never have done for me. I am happy, remarkably happy, though my present habitation is a single room with a mud floor and a mud wall."

Not only did a native Christian community grow up about them in Kuruman, but through the influence of the native Christians here and the teaching of Moffat on his missionary tours, groups of native Christians may now be found through all that region.

The eldest daughter of the Moffat's, Mary, married David Livingstone, the great missionary explorer, and the friendship of his father-in-law was one of the great determining influences in Livingstone's life.

The Moffat's grew old in Africa, the land in which so many missionaries have died in youth. In 1879, continued ill health made it necessary for Moffat to return to England. His work was well known there, and he was crowned with honors. At the advanced age of eighty-eight he passed away, and the world mourned for one who was not only a hero of missions, but also a pioneer of civilization.

From Pioneer Missionaries: Short Sketches of the Lives of the Pioneers in Missionary Work in Many Lands by Jessie Brown Pounds. Indianapolis, Ind.: The Young People's Department of the Christian Woman's Board of Missions, 1907.

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