Dr. Robert Moffat, Missionary and Bible translator, was born on the 21st of December, 1795.
Robert Moffat of Kuruman or if you prefer, Moshete of the Bechuanas, was the ‘father’ and pioneer of mission work in South Central Africa for over fifty years. He was also the father-in-law of David Livingstone and was largely responsible for that man also becoming a missionary in Africa, instead of China. Moffat was friend to the great king Mosilikatse of the Matabeles and of Cetewayo of the Zulus, and he was the spiritual father of many natives in places such as Griquatown and Lattakoo, amongst the Matabele and in Namaqualand. For many years, Moffat and his wife were the only Europeans north of the Orange River, six hundred miles from Cape Town on the edge of the Kalahari.
In 1816 and with little training, the London Missionary Society assigned Moffat to the task of bringing evangelism to the uncharted depths of the Dark Continent. And despite many trials and tribulations, discouragement and the dangers of warfare amongst all manner of native tribesmen, that is exactly what he did. His mission station at Kuruman was referred to as ‘the fountain of Christianity’ and Moffat’s own prediction that “Some day this spiritual desert shall blossom into a garden for God” could be said to have come true as he opened up jungle villages to the Gospel. In 1839, he returned to England and stirred up “a wave of missionary enthusiasm”, which is what inspired Livingstone.
The Scotchman from East Lothian became acclimatised to Africa’s extreme environment, learned the nature of its land and became proficient in its customs and its languages. He learned to speak Afrikaans and the Chuana (Bechuana, Sechuana) tongue. He preached and taught, and translated, and ultimately, he gave the tribesmen a written language of their own, which they could read and write. He gave them books to read, which he himself had translated into their language. He produced a spelling book, a catechism and a hymn book in the Schlapi dialect, and he also translated ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. In 1839, he completed the translation of the entire New Testament into the language of the Bechuanas; then added the Psalms. And in 1856, Moffat finally completed his translation of the entire Bible, a work which had taken him thirty years of arduous labour. As he wrote when he had finished the last verse, “…a feeling came over me as if I should die. I fell upon my knees and thanked God.” Now, whom else would a Missionary thank.
Moffat wrote in English of his adventures, producing two well known books; ‘Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa’ and ‘Rivers of Water in Dry Places: Being an Account of the Introduction of Christianity into South Africa, and of Mr. Moffat’s Missionary Labours’. He also contributed to the ‘Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society’. Somehow or other, he acquired the title of Doctor, but building on his early training as a gardener, he gained a lot of practical skills. He was all of a builder, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a cooper, a cobbler, a miller, and a printer (he had his own hand press at Kuruman) whilst at the same time, an itinerant preacher. He once mused, “I am here, not only to plant gardens in the soil but also and chiefly to plant gardens in the souls of men.” As a missionary, Moffat had a lot more success than his son-in-law, but he had to labour for ten years before he had any real success. After that, out of the blue and almost without apparent cause, the natives turned religious. In 1829, he opened a new Chapel and on the first Sunday in July that year, he had six for morning baptism and twelve for evening Communion. By 1838, his Church held nine hundred people.
Robert Moffat was born in Ormiston, in Haddingtonshire, on the 21st of December, 1795, and in ‘97, the family moved to Portsoy, in Banffshire. When he was wee, he ran away to sea, perhaps to avoid the ‘Shorter Catechism’. He had a hard time as a sailor and returned home, whereupon, at the age of eleven, he went to back to school, in Falkirk, where his parents had since moved. In 1809, having found that being a matelot didn’t suit, he tried horticulture and was apprenticed to a gardener in Polmont. During his apprenticeship, Robert went to an evening class, learned to play a wee bit on the fiddle and got some practical experience at the local ‘Smiddy’. Then in 1812, he took a job as a gardener at Donibristle, where he remained for a year. That job wasn’t too well paid and so off he went to England and got a better position with a Mr. Leigh at West Hall, High Leigh.
Like other Scotch lads, Robert Moffat was brought up ‘on porridge and proverbs’, and perhaps those last sowed some seeds in his mind. Between meetings of Wesleyan Methodists and seeing a placard announcing a local missionary meeting, young Robert saw the light. Perhaps there was no epiphany moment, but he gained a distinct notion of what he wanted to do with his life and, in 1814, under the tutelage of the Rev. William Roby, Robert declared himself for the Missions and applied to the London Missionary Society for Foreign Service. In December, 1815, Robert took a job with his future father-in-law, a pious, nonconformist Scotsman from Perthshire called Mr. Smith, of Plantation Nursery Farm, in Durkinfield, near Manchester, and got stuck in to some college training before he was ordained on the 30th of September, 1816, in Surrey Chapel, London
Off sailed Moffat in the ‘Alacrity’ with all due speed and eagerness on the 18th of October, 1816. He arrived in Cape Town on the 13th of January, 1817. He learned Dutch whilst staying with Boers in Stellenbosch and in September, headed up country for the Namaqualand Mission. That was where he made his first notable convert, the local rogue known as Africaner. Contrary to some bloodthirsty accounts, that guy wasn’t as bad as he could’ve been. The place was relatively safe and already manned by a Missionary called Ebner, whom Moffat replaced. He was left there alone in 1818, a stranger in a strange land, but he duly impressed the natives and the following year, made a trip back to Cape Town and got married. Africaner wasn’t his best man, but he had become a ‘good man’.
In 1825, Moffat and his wife settled at Kuruman, among the Bechuana tribes living to the west of the Vaal River. It was primarily there at Kuruman that Moffat worked as a missionary until July of 1870, when he returned to his native land. During his career, he and his wife returned but once to Britain, where they stayed from 1839 to 1843, engaged in a lecture tour and in getting his translations printed. Back in Africa, he lived for a time amongst the Barolongs and for twelve months, with the Matabele. In 1874, Moffat was called upon to identify the remains of his son-in-law and, on the 9th of August, 1883, at Leigh, near Tunbridge Wells, he also went to the great Mission House in the sky, via West Norwood Cemetery.