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Robert Moffat

“At the moment I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss, till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus Himself.”  John G. Paton

“And people who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives…and when the bubble burst they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.’"  Nate Saint (Martyred by the Waodani Indians in Ecuador)

“The command has been to “go,” but we have stayed- in body, gifts, prayer and influence…”  Robert Savage

While vast continents are shrouded in darkness…the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God has placed you were meant by God to keep you out of the foreign mission field.”  Ion Keith-Falconer

"When he landed in 1848 there were no Christians here; when he left in 1872 there were no heathen.”  said of John Geddie

“Here am I. Send me.”   Isaiah

It was 1799, a small church in southern Scotland was having a powerful revival service. The meeting pushed on into the night. As the crowd slowly filtered off to their homes a small group of godly men were standing around the front of the church when a small four year old boy walked up and knelt at the altar to pray. The boy seemed a little unkempt and was from a poor but God-fearing family. His decision to seek the Lord that night was considered by those men as one who was too young to understand. One unknown elder, whose name has been lost to history and God, felt differently and having compassion on the youth knelt down beside him, put his arm around the trembling lad and prayed. Because that unknown man bothered to kneel and pray and comfort that young boy it wasn’t long before strange sounding names began appearing in the “Lamb’s Book of Life.” Names like, Sekhomi, Sechele, Africaner, Macumba, Mosilikatse, and Makaba. This boy, affectionately called “Robbie” by those who knew him, was destined by God from the beginning of time to be the one to open the doors of evangelism to the uncharted and yet unexplored dark continent of Africa.

Seventy-nine years later the same scene seemed to be played out again. This time the four year old boy is now 83 and he is again walking down the aisle toward the altar. The Rev. A. C. Thompson, D. D.., of Boston was present at that World’s Mission Conference in London and he leaves us with an eye witness account of the power and anointing of God that flowed from that once “trembling boy”:

“A derogatory statement was once made, ‘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 coming down the aisle the whole great audience rose spontaneously to their feet. A Wesleyan brother with a powerful voice was in the midst of preaching to us; yet no one heeds him till the patriarch has taken a seat on the platform. Who is this old man? Is it the Earl of Beaconsfield? Is it Mr. Gladstone? There is but one other person in the realm (England), I take it, to whom, under the circumstances, such a united and enthusiastic tribute would be paid, and that is because she is the Queen. This white 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 is Robert Moffat… with a voice still strong and musical he addresses the assembly for twenty or more minutes. One man, who preaches to a larger congregation that any other in London…said that, when he saw the veteran Moffat, he felt inclined to sink into his shoes.”

Robert Moffatt was born in East Lothian, Scotland, in 1795. Throughout his life he would always remember his mother’s prayers and godly council. He most affectionately remembered how on cold winter nights she would gather her brood around the fireside and read aloud the accounts of the great works done by the Moravian missionaries and their labors in heathen lands.

Not having much education Robert took up learning the trade of gardening. By 1813 he was employed as a gardener by a Mr. Leigh of High Leigh, Cheshire. Robert, who had much religious training at home took up with a group of Wesleyan Methodists who were doing a good work in High Leigh. It was at those meetings that Robert understood a more intimate and purposeful life for Christ was available. This didn’t sit well with his employers, Mr. and Mrs. Leigh, who grieved that one whom they took so much interest should have become a Methodist.

While working at High Leigh Robert usually visited the town of Warrington about six miles down the road. This one day, as he was crossing the bridge to the town, he saw a placard. It contained an announcement of a missionary meeting over which the Rev. William Roby, of Manchester, was to preside. Robert was fascinated and read the placard over and over as he walked down the street. The stories told by his mother of the Moravian missions in Greenland and Labrador, which had been forgotten for years, now gushed back into his mind. From that moment on, all the goals of worldly things in his life vanished, his one thought was, “how do I become a missionary?”

On December 23, 1815, Robert left the employment of the Leigh’s for a gardening position with a pious non-conformist Scotsman by the name of James Smith. While working there he began to study for the ministry under Roby who connected Robert with the directors of the London Missionary Society. During his stay with Smith, Robert became engaged with his only daughter, Mary, who had been educated at the Moravian school at Fairfield, and had strong religious convictions, also leaning toward missions. Her parents, at this time objected to the match.

In 1816 Moffat and four co-laborers set sail for Africa arriving at Cape Town on January 13, 1817. Spending time with a farmer’s family at Stellenbosch, he prepared himself for the work that was waiting in the “interior” of the country. On September 22, permission was given to him to cross the frontier so, in leading a long train of wagons Robert was off to the mission at Namaqualand. The hardships and primitive conditions were extremely trying for someone from England but he pushed northward into the interior and was soon to come face to face with the most dangerous and brutal outlaw chief of the region and win him to Christ.

After a long weary march, during which many of the oxen became prey to the hyenas and other predators, they came upon an endless desert. Charles C. Creegan elaborates on what the group was facing:

“The way inland lay through a trackless desert. Here the oxen became exhausted, a halt was called before water could be reached, and Moffat was obliged to send to a Mr. Bartlett at Pella for oxen accustomed to travel in deep sand.”

Moffat writes:

“Three days 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.”

On January 26, 1818, the train reached the village of the War chief and outlaw, Africaner. Moffat was a stranger in the midst of a strange people. Immediately he began sharing the gospel with the heathen chief and through the humbleness and gentleness of the missionary the trust of the African war-lord was soon won. Africaner and his people soon began to come regularly to the religious services, and soon he was converted along with his two brothers, who became assistants in all the school and religious services. It wasn’t long after before Moffat accompanied with Africaner ventured further into the interior of the jungle. These journeys were often full of dangers and privations. But nothing deterred Moffat from sharing the gospel. For the next twelve months he preached to the various native tribes, often enemies to one another, about the good news of Jesus Christ. In that environment he had to be a man who wore many hats including, missionary, carpenter, blacksmith, coopersmith, shoemaker, miller, baker, and housekeeper. For a time, he was the only European north of the Orange River.

Returning to Cape Town in 1819, for supplies, he waited for the arrival of his fiancée from England. Her parents now agreeing to the union, they were married. Together, they spent the next 51 years working side by side on the mission field. They experienced many hardships and sorrows in the primitive country where they choose to labor. Three of their children died in infancy and youth. However, five of the remaining ones remained in Africa as missionaries. It was in Cape Town that Moffat received orders to become superintendent of a new work at the Lattakoo station in Bechwana.

By May of 1821, Mr. and Mrs. Moffat were finding no fruit after a year of labor among the people who were:

“thoroughly sensual, who would rob, lie, and murder without any compunctions of conscience, as long as success attended their efforts.”

Their lives were often in danger. Once when the area was in the midst of a drought, the missionaries were accused of causing it. One day Robert stepped out of his dwelling to the point of a spear held to his chest. The leaders of the tribe then told him to leave the land. Throwing open his waistcoat, Moffat said, “If you will, drive your spear to my heart. I know you will not touch my wife and children.” The tribesmen put down their spears and turned away, saying, “These men must have ten lives, when they are so fearless of death.”

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 night time raids and murders and stealing cattle. They have also dispensed with a rain-maker this season.”

The following discussion between Robert and his wife Mary brought to my mind the quote of William Cameron Townsend:

“The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It needs no furlough and is never considered a foreigner.”

The exchange between Moffat and his wife went like this:

Mary, this is hard work, and no fruit yet appears;” and his wife answers, “The gospel has not yet been preached to them in their own tongue in which they were born.”

From that time on, Moffat devoted himself to translating the Bible and other tracts into their language. The translation of the Bible took an enormous amount of his time. But in the meantime he translated a spelling book and catechism in the Sechwana language and sent it off to England to be printed.

An interesting situation arose that showed the steadfast trust and faith the missionaries had in the Lord. A friend in England wrote to Mary, asking, what could be sent her that would be of use. The answer was not clothes, food, medical supplies, or daily toiletries but Mary wrote back, “Send us a Communion service; it is in dear need and much wanted.” At that time there were no converts and no “glimmer of day.”

At about this time a tribe called the Mantatees attacked the station and village with murderous intent. It was the able efforts of the missionaries in planning the defense of the people that saved the day. About five hundred Mantatees were killed and a thousand put to flight. The mission was saved, the invaders retiring never to return. Moffat had distinguished himself by his care for the wounded and the women and children. The tribesmen seeing the kindness and bravery of the Moffats, who could have easily retired to the safety of the colony, now accepted them with all the closeness of true friends. In a token of thanks the Bechwana chiefs took the Moffats eight miles further into the jungle to the source of the river Kuruman. The chiefs then arranged that two miles of the Kuruman Valley would now be the property of the London Missionary Society and that the now famous mission station “Kuruman” should there be established.

After months of clearing the land and erecting the buildings and church the mission station of Kuruman was soon finished.

“Our situation during the infancy of the new station, language cannot describe. We were compelled to work daily at every species of labor.”

The area they were now located was inhabited by small tribes of Griquas, Koranns, Hottentots, Bakwanas, and Bushmen. Once Mrs. Moffat and the children were established in the new station Moffat was off into the jungle looking for every opportunity to impart the gospel to the heathen peoples.

For years Moffat encountered much indifference to the gospel. Even at one point it was easy to question the will of God for this work. Prayer for guidance was his daily labor and the hope and cheerful temper of Mary kept the missionary work on track. The natives were fallow ground that had to be plowed. Seed had to be planted in their spirit and a daily watering of the Word was essential for a harvest. Moffat seeded and watered and finally he completed translating the New Testament into the native language. Procuring a press from Cape Town he began printing the text so the people could learn God’s Word and live God’s way. It wasn’t until 1856 before Moffat translated the entire Bible, in all a work of thirty years.

Ten more years the Moffat’s labored through prayer and preaching without results, when suddenly, without apparent cause, the Holy Spirit fell among the natives and a great hunger for the message of the Lord overpowered them:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple…”(Malachi 3:1).

The heathen songs, dances, and chants were no longer sung in the village. Prayers of praise and hymns were on the lips of the Bechuanas. They began to give up their devilish habits and many converts were recorded and baptized. The little church built at Kuruman soon became too small to hold the growing numbers who, now, were coming from around the countryside. The natives even built a new building for worship that was fifty-one feet by sixteen feet, with clay walls and a thatched roof. This building served also as a school-house for learning the Word until a large stone church was completed. All this at no cost to the Moffats. Other tribes from miles away, hearing the news, sent representatives to learn of this teaching. One day a group of tribal spearman came into the clearing, dressed in jungle attire with head bonnets and necklaces of animal bones and pronounced that they:

“Were sent by Mosilikatse, the great King of the Matabele, to learn more about this, “Jesus God.”

Moffat would return with these envoys to their tribe and the revival message was spread. On arriving at the village he was the honored guest of King Mosilikatse and told them the story of the Resurrection of the Son of God. Wonderment and tears filled the assembly and for the first time, since creation, the name of Jesus was being declared and exalted among a people who were once lost with “no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12 ). Hallelujah. Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).

A day was set for the very first communion service ever held for the Bechwanas. For weeks there was an anticipation and when the day came for the service there were hundreds standing around the chapel to see and watch those who were brave enough to go before the White man’s great God. When the time came there were one hundred and twenty present at the table of the Lord. The day previous, according to the timing of the Lord, 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 native converted.

Fred Barlow in “Robert Moffat: Missionary” gives a synopsis of those years in Africa:

“He had opened jungle villages to the Gospel, he had braved the dangers and deadliness of the African jungles, he withstood medicine men like Elijah had withstood the prophets of Baal at Carmel. He had preached, he had translated, he had instructed Africans to read, write, sing and farm. He had exalted Christ and magnified the ministry of a missionary.”

The demand for the translated New Testament was growing beyond the capacity to produce it so the Moffats returned to England in 1839 for the purpose of setting up a mass printing system. The Moffats received a very warm welcome in England. The country at this time was being swept by a “wave of missionary enthusiasm” and Moffat was in great demand to speak daily at numerous public gatherings. It was at a London Missionary Society meeting that he first came into contact with a young man fervent for the mission field. The man was David Livingstone. This was the same missionary that was made a household name because of the famous greeting of Henry Stanley,” Dr. Livingstone, I presume!” Livingstone had his heart set on China but as Moffat expounded with such passion on the heart of God for Africa he was swayed to go. Moffat with tears of desperation in his eyes would tell Livingstone:

“I have seen, at different times, the smoke of a thousand villages—villages whose people are without Christ and without God…Oh, that I had a thousand lives, and a thousand bodies! All of them should be devoted to no other employment but to preach Christ to these degraded, despised, yet beloved mortals.”

Livingstone left for the Bechwana mission to continue the work whose foundation was already prepared by Moffat. Livingstone would later marry the Moffat’s oldest daughter Mary.

While in England Moffat decided to add the psalms to the Sechwana edition of the New Testament and immediately began work on the translation. When it was complete he sent six thousand copies to Livingstone in Africa. Moffat also wrote his well-known book “Missionary Labors and Scenes in South Africa” with proceeds going to the missions. In January 1843, he and Mrs. Moffat were once again sailing for Africa.

Upon arriving on the continent Moffat wasted no time in traveling to the outermost works he established on his last stay. Livingstone by this time had traveled deep into the interior where no white man had gone before. His need was supplies so Moffat began the journey of a lifetime. After visiting with the Bechwana tribes, Moffat crossed the edge of the Kalahari desert, found Chief Sechele and his people among the mountains of Lethubaruba, then traveling over 120 miles of desert to the village of Shoshong, which was the residence of King Sekhomi, chief of the Bamangwato tribe, then they went over the unknown and uninhabited country in the northeasterly direction for eighteen days guided only by a compass, until he reached his good friend King Mosilikatse and the Matabele. Moffat could travel no farther and had to content himself with the promise from the King that Livingstone would get the supplies. The return journey was seven hundred miles back to the Kuruman mission. The next time Moffat would see his dear son-in-law and fellow missionary would be in 1874 when he would be called to identify the remains of Dr. Livingstone who died laboring on the mission field in Africa. Moffat would out live Livingstone by ten years.

In 1857 the translation of the Old Testament was completed and Moffat was finished with his life-long translation of the Bible.

"I felt it to be an awful thing 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 complete. 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.”

Moffat continued his travels and preaching until health problems would force him to leave Africa and return to England. It was 1870 and the country welcomed the Moffats back warmly. Mary died a year later after fifty-three years of marriage. Moffat continued to travel around the United Kingdom preaching and advocating the cause of missions.

Stephen Ross writing for Wholesome Words-Worldwide Missions says of Moffat:

“Tall and manly, with shaggy hair and beard, clear cut features and piercing eyes, Moffat’s exterior was one to impress native races, while his childlike spirit and modest and unselfish nature insured a commanding influence. He was the father and pioneer of South African mission work, and will be remembered as a staunch friend of the natives, an industrious translator, a preserving teacher, and a skillful organizer.”

In May 1881, he was entertained at the Mansion House, London, at a dinner given by the lord mayor in his honor, which the Archbishop of Canterbury, representatives of both houses of Parliament, and all the leading men of the religious and philanthropic world attended. He was also honored to speak at Westminster Abbey.

On August 9, 1883, Moffat while talking with a friend, reached down to wind his watch with a trembling hand and said, “I wind this for the last time.” The next morning the 88 year old pioneer missionary and true soldier of the Cross was dead.

The London Times printed:

Perhaps no more genuine soul ever breathed. He addressed the cultured audiences within the majestic halls of Westminster Abbey with the same simple manner in which he led the worship in the huts of the savages.”John 10:16 “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”

JJ (Dark) Di Pietro
Cane Creek Church