Robert Moffat Opens Up African Missions

Robert Moffat was born in East Lothian, Scotland, to staunch Calvinistic parents on December 21, 1795. His mother read missionary stories to her children when they were young and that made an indelible impression on young Robert.

With few academic possibilities and living near a shipping port Robert went to sea as a lad and endured many hair-raising dangers. His parents were relieved when he gave up sailing for studies. But at 14 he was apprenticed to a gardener. A few years later, under a different gardener, he attended Wesleyan Methodist meetings in Cheshire and found himself under conviction of sin.

“One evening,” he later wrote, “while poring over the Epistle to the Romans … I saw what God had done for the sinner and what was required of the sinner to obtain the divine favour and the assurance of eternal life” (R. Moffat, by E.J. Smith, page 21).

Then on a journey to a nearby village he saw notice of a returned missionary speaking locally. This brought back memories of his mother’s stories and he resolutely decided to become a missionary.

However his academic limitations were a problem for selection to missionary work. In 1815 he was ‘reluctantly’ accepted by the newly founded London Missionary Society.

On 18 October, 1817, at the age of 21, he sailed on the “Alacrity” for Cape Town, South Africa … leaving his fiancée, Mary Smith, behind. He had met her about six years earlier. In 1813 this 18 year-old Scottish lad had been employed as a gardener in Manchester, England. And his employer had a daughter. Robert already had felt the call to Africa as a missionary, but Mary’s parents refused to give their consent when he proposed marriage.

Robert’s first achievement in South Africa was to learn Dutch, so he could preach to the Boors. He then took an arduous journey to the mission station at Afrikaner’s camp. There he was quickly put in charge, and under his preaching the chief, Afrikaner, and his brothers were converted and took up some of the mission work.

Robert then took Afrikaner to Cape Town to meet the English authorities. It was now two years since arriving in Africa and to his delight this young pioneer missionary received letters “bearing the joyful tidings that he might expect to welcome Mary later in the year”.

Complications arose, however, in the form of a deputation from the London Missionary Society. It was requested that he accompany these gentlemen inland, which meant he would not be in Cape Town when his Mary arrived. It was a conflict of duty … or love.

But with the L.M.S. deputation he set off (duty won!), only to find that a tribal war had broken out and it was necessary for them to turn back. Thus when Mary Smith arrived, in December, 1819, Robert Moffat was there to meet her, and they were married a few days later. He wrote a letter home that confessed “her arrival was to me nothing less than life from the dead.” Together they laboured for Christ for 50 years. One of the daughters, also named Mary, married David Livingstone.

For the first ten years of their labours, establishing a new mission base among the Bechuana, they had no spiritual fruit. But when one person began enquiring about the Lord, Mary asked friends back home to send over a Communion service, which they did. By the time it arrived, three years later, there were 120 people ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with the Moffats.

Robert Moffat translated the whole Bible into the Bechuana tongue, a task that took him thirty years. When it was completed he fell to his knees and thanked God for the strength to see it though, among his many other endeavours.

Moffat also evangelised the Hottentots, ruled over by Africaner, a feared warrior chief. Africaner eventually became a “zealous witness for Christ” (Vision and Valour, by T.J. Bach, page 55).

It was during the first furlough in England that a young medical student heard Robert Moffat say, “I have seen in the morning sun the smoke of 1000 villages where no missionary has ever been.” The young medical student caught the vision and ventured forth to become one of Africa’s greatest missionaries. He was David Livingstone – who later married Robert Moffat’s daughter, Mary, in 1844!

In his half century in Africa the former gardener carried many burdens: Unbearable heat, privations, arduous physical labour of all kinds as he single-handedly built mission stations from the dust, facing death at the point of a spear, burying several of his children (child and adult) including his first child – Mary, identifying the remains of his son-in-law – David Livingstone, and losing his wife in his latter years.

England gave this man great honour. He was an inspiration and a pioneer of exceptional acclaim. By the twenty-first century South Africa, with all its troubles, is a remarkably Christianised nation, thanks to the foundations laid by men who gave their all for Africa.

It was at the age of 88, at the home of another daughter in Kent, England, that this pioneer missionary went to be with his Lord. It was 9 August, 1883.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

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