Robert Moffat (1795-1883), was brought up near Edinburgh by devout Christian parents, who filled his heart and mind with accounts of the exploits of missionaries in other countries. After being apprenticed as a gardener and a brief experience as a sailor, Robert Moffat determined to join the London Missionary Society. However, his first application was rejected. Undaunted, the Scot tried again the next year and was accepted.
In October 1816, at Surrey Chapel in London, he and 8 others were set apart for the work of the LMS. One of the others was John Williams, who was destined to lose his life at the hands of cannibals in the South Seas. Robert Moffat set sail for Africa, arriving in Cape Town in January 1817.
The government officials frowned on missionary activity as being likely to provoke unrest amongst the natives of the interior. The journey into the interior was long, dangerous and arduous. He came near death on several occasions, including from lions, poison and starvation. Robert was shocked at the low standards of behaviour and prevalent immorality as he set out to establish a mission station amongst the tribes along the Orange River. However, his first missionary journey was blessed with the conversion of the most notorious bandit and murderer in the country, Afrikaner. His name was synonymous with terror. He was a killer who had murdered a white farmer and his family, he was feared throughout the territory. When Robert returned to Cape Town with Afrikaner, the entire community was stunned at the obvious transformation of this notorious savage into a gentle and humble Christian.
In December 1819, Mary Smith, whose parents had initially refused permission, arrived from England to marry Robert Moffat. Together they set off for Bechuanaland and settled at Kuruman. For the next 50 years, the Moffats would develop this mission station into a model that many others copied. Mary and Robert became one of the greatest husband-wife teams in missionary history.
Their prospects for success seemed bleak indeed, as the Tswanas were gripped by witchcraft and threatened the Moffats, demanding that they left. The resolution of the Moffats in standing their ground completely amazed the Tswana, who declared that they had never seen such bravery before.
During a tribal war, Robert Moffat’s intervention secured peace and deep respect and gratitude. However, it was 9 years before the first converts were baptised and the Church at Kuruman established.
After learning the Tswana language, Robert Moffat translated the Westminster Catechism and some great Hymns of the Reformation into Tswana. He was the author of the very first Hymn in Tswana. He then translated the Gospel of Luke into Tswana and ultimately the whole Bible. This was the very first complete Bible to be translated into an African language.
After his painstaking work in translating the Gospel of Luke, Moffat travelled to Cape Town to have the translation printed, but was astounded to find the printers unwilling to accept the work. He realised that the only alternative was to print it himself. So, he was forced to learn printing skills and to acquire a printing press. This he took back with him to Kuruman. By 1840, the New Testament was completed and to print this required his return to England.
During this time in Britain, he challenged David Livingstone to respond to the “smoke of a thousand villages where the Name of Christ has not yet been preached.” Livingstone was later to become Moffat’s son-in-law.
By 1851, Moffat had completed the translation of the Old Testament into Tswana. It had taken him 29 years to translate the whole Bible into Tswana. He also wrote “Missionary Labours and Scenes in South Africa” and translated “Pilgrim’s Progress” into Tswana.
Robert Moffat was a tireless evangelist and on one visit to a neighbouring village he was awakened by “the eager clamour of the natives who had gathered.” He preached to them and then retired to wash. He returned to his tent for breakfast, only to find that the people had gathered there for a second sermon. The people listened attentively and discussed what they had heard and later were back that same day for another service.
Mission to the Matabele
Another amazing achievement of Robert Moffat was the friendshiphe developed with Mizilikazi, the King of the Matabele (in present day Zimbabwe). Mizilikazi was a vicious tyrant feared by his people and the long-suffering neighbouring tribes, many of whom were enslaved by him. Yet Mizilikazi developed a strong respect for Robert Moffat and they struck up a friendship which lasted 30 years. When the London Missionary Society proposed to establish a mission amongst the Matabele, Robert’s own son, John Moffat, was the first to volunteer for this daunting task. Robert Moffat had the satisfaction of seeing his work in Kuruman reproduced some 700 miles away by his own son. They were the first missionaries among the Matabele.
Of the seven children born to Robert and Mary Moffat, five became actively involved in missionary service. His daughter became a teacher at the mission school in Kuruman. Education and literacy training were always of great importance in Moffat’s missionary strategy.
In 1870, after 53 years of service in Africa, the Moffats retired to Britain. His last 13 years were devoted to promoting the cause of Christ in Africa, travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles.
Pioneer Bible Translator
Although Robert Moffat was overshadowed by his famous son-in-law, often being referred to as the father-in-law of David Livingstone, Moffat was the more effective evangelist, Bible translator and educator of the two. David Livingstone was, without doubt, the greatest missionary explorer and the most effective campaigner against the slave trade in Africa, but it is to Robert Moffat that the honour belongs of first translating the complete Bible into an African language
“For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12
Dr. Peter Hammond
This article was adapted from the first chapter of The Greatest Century of Missions book (224 pages with 200 photographs, pictures, charts and maps), available from
Christian Liberty Books,
PO Box 358 Howard Place 7450
Cape Town South Africa