Robert Moffat 1795-1883

By Rev Bill McCully
Minister at East Hull Presbyterian Church

This biographical sketch was an address given at the EPCEW Summer Conference for Young People – August 2003

Robert Who?

If this was your first thought when you read the title of this article, then you will be in the company of a great many others. Robert Moffat is not a familiar name in this land of ours and, sadder still, is not a name that is recognised by many of God’s people either. Here is a man who served the Lord faithfully for 50 years in the most trying of circumstances – about whom the then prime minister of South Africa, said, “Among missionaries, there was none greater, none holier”.

As the first white man to enter Southern Rhodesia, he was used by God to:

  • lay the foundations of the Christian Church in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
  • translate the Bible into Sechuana, and
  • toil among the horrors of tribal warfare.

We hope this brief account of his life will be enough to give you a desire to read more about him.

Early Days

Robert was born in the village of Ormiston, to the south East of Edinburgh. He was the eldest of seven children, having four brothers and two sisters. His father worked as a ploughman and gardener. The family may not have had much in the way of material wealth, but they had a treasure that would never fade nor rust – both parents were strong Scottish Calvinists and raised their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Robert records that his first schoolbook was a copy of the Shorter Catechism to which an alphabet was attached. Once he had mastered the alphabet he went straight into the Catechism.

At age 10 he ran off to sea and made several coastal voyages. To his parents’ relief he returned after two years and spent another short period at school. Leaving school at 13 he was apprenticed to a nursery gardener in Polmont, a position that often required him, even in the bitter cold of a Scottish winter, to be at work at 4 am.

Yet during this time he managed to attend evening classes to learn a little Latin and mensuration (measurement of geometric quantities). Here also he learned to play the violin.

Eventually he moved to Manchester and here the passionate preaching of Methodist preachers touched the emptiness of his soul. “For many weeks I was miserable, I wished that I was converted, but I could not believe that I was. I thought I had the faith required and that I had repented or turned to the Lord and could adopt the words, ‘To whom shall I go but to thee, O Jesus’, but still my soul was like a ship in a tempest”.

Such was his desire not only to be converted but to know that he was converted that he resolved to be as wicked as he could so that if he was converted he would notice all the better. But the dread of dying in his sins soon put an end to this resolution.

Still, the emptiness of his soul hung heavily upon him, and he applied himself to the reading of Scripture. However, the words he read, far from bringing comfort, brought him greater anxiety. He thrust himself into prayer, but found that a great black cloud was between him and the throne of God.

Throughout all this his desire for salvation grew more desperate and he continued seeking after God in reading and prayer. One evening while reading Romans, the passages that he was so familiar with, appeared so different to him – “Can it be possible that I have never understood what I have been reading? Turning from one passage to the other, each sending a renovation of light into my darkened soul, the book of God, the precious undying Bible, seemed to be laid open, and I saw at once 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”.

He was now about 18.

Call to Service

Not long after this on a visit to Warrington, his attention was held by an advertisement for a missionary meeting held by the Rev. William Roby. The advertisement held him fixed to the spot. The time of the meeting was long past and so he continued with his shopping but writes that the man who returned home that night was not the same as the one that had left.

He could not shake the missionary cause that was in his mind. It was a burden on his heart, but who would want him, uneducated as he was?

Soon after this Rev. Roby spoke at a conference in Manchester and Robert was much impressed with him. That evening in his boarding house he overheard someone say that Rev. Roby was known to recommend young men for the mission field, a remark that sank into Roberts heart and led to a night of prayer.

In fear and trembling his visited the Rev. Roby who listened patiently and kindly to his desire to reach the heathen for his Saviour and so began the path that lead Robert into the London Missionary Society.

On the 30 September 1816 he was ordained at Surrey Chapel along with John Williams (the martyr of Erromanga) and several other young men.


On the 18th October he sailed for the cape, arriving at Cape Town on the 13th January 1817.

Unfortunately, the authorities refused permission for him to proceed to his station in Namaqualand, but the time of waiting was not wasted for he used it to learn Dutch. He did this by isolating himself from his English speaking friends and staying with a Dutch farmer. Soon he was conducting services in that language.

When permission was eventually given he set off and was accompanied by another missionary for part of the way. Hospitality was given at the farms they passed through. Many of the farmers thought Robert was going to his death as he was heading for the Kraal of Afrikaner. Afrikaner and his sons had been taught to kill and plunder by the Boers themselves. Fleeing from their Boer masters, they had set up business for themselves, attracting many followers and terrorising the countryside – he was a man with a great price on his head.

It was a time when the Boers viewed the coloured races as little more than beasts – a practice Robert sought to stop. At one farm, after supper, Moffat was asked to conduct family worship. The big Bible was produced and the family seated round the room. “But where are the servants?” asked Moffat, “Do you mean the Hottentots?” was the reply. “Let me go to the mountains and call the baboons; or stop boys, call in the dogs”.

Robert did not repeat his request of for the servants to be brought but continued with the worship. After a psalm was sung, he read from Luke, the story of the Syrophoenician woman and laid emphasis on the words “Even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from the children’s table”. The farmer stopped the worship and called the servants into the house. “My friend, you took a hard hammer and you have broken a hard head”.


Robert stayed in Namaqualand for just over a year, it was a year of isolation from other white men, and a year of living in constant view of the natives, but such was the life he lived that it spoke to people. Afrikaner soon began to ask questions and then became an altered character. A great friendship grew so that when Robert fell ill it was Afrikaner himself who tended him.

Such was the change in this man that he agreed to travel to Cape Town with Robert even though he had a huge price on his head. In Cape Town Afrikaner was interviewed by the governor and so greatly was the governor impressed that the warrant for his arrest was cancelled and the reward money was spent on presents for Afrikaner and his people.

Moffat was now to be sent to Bechwanaland and Afrikaner determined that he and his people would move with him – such was their friendship. Sadly it was not to be, for shortly after Africaner’s return to Namaqua land he died and his people divided.


During the time that Robert had been waiting to hear of his acceptance by the mission society, he had fallen in love and got engaged to the daughter of his employer, Mary Smith. She had to remain in England but in 1819 she arrived in Africa. She and Robert were married in St. George’s Church, Cape Town, at Christmas. They were to enjoy 50 years together.

Bechwanaland (Botswana)

Together they set out for Lattakoo (later called Kuruman) but were forced to stop at Griqua to await governmental approval before continuing and it was here that their first child, Mary, was born. – Little Mary would become the wife of David Livingston.

After some months the awaited permission arrived and the couple moved to Lattakoo, a journey of some 100 miles.

Language had been one of the greatest obstacles for reaching these people and many of those used as interpreters proved unreliable. One translated the words of the preacher, The salvation of the soul is a great and important subject, as, The salvation of the soul is a great and important sack.

Robert determined to master the language. As soon as his family was settled in, he isolated himself in a village and so learnt the language quickly and effectively.

The first years here were full of discouragement for Robert, though his family grew in an unexpected way. Once when trying to reach the outlying tribes he came upon a party of Bushmen digging a grave to bury one of their women who had died. However, he also discovered that they intended to bury her two children – Alive! The only way he could stop them was by adopting the children himself.

The Bechwana people did not want the gospel and were unwilling to abandon their customs and superstitions. They had little or no sense of honour and were crafty and cunning. Polygamy was practised and the wives were little more slaves who did all the hard work. The more wives a man had the less work he had to do. They stole what they could, as much as they could, and as often as they could from the missionaries. House or garden, it made little difference.

Of this time Robert records that the only gains were “Those of resignation, and peace, the results of prayer, patience and faith in the unchangeable purposes of God”. This discouraging time was to last six years.

The seed so patiently sown and so long apparently unfruitful began to spring up. Old heathen practices began to be abandoned. Many were presenting themselves for baptism but only after careful examination were they accepted.

In 1829, an embassy sent by Chief Moselekatsi of the Matabele nation arrived at Kuruman, sent by the chief to report on all the wonders he had heard. The men begged Robert to return with them. It was a journey of over 190 miles of tortuous and hostile country, a journey Robert was to make five times in his lifetime.

Eight hundred warriors with shields and spears welcomed him and another 300 gathered around their chief, who had been a commander under chief Shaka. With these fierce people he was able to share the gospel.

During his few moments of ease, Robert had been translating the New Testament into Sechuana, beginning at Luke. As soon as this book was completed he organised its printing. He finished the whole New Testament at Kuruman, but in order to get it printed he had to return to England (1838 – 1841) to obtain the help of the Bible societies. It was his first furlough in 23 years.

During his absence, reinforcements arrived at Kuruman. He was now enabled to arrange for an extension of missionary work to tribes not yet visited.

By this time his daughter Mary had married David Livingston and was living with him at Chowane among the Bakwains. They were dependent on Kuruman for their supplies.

In 1855 Robert received word that Moselekatsi wanted to see him again and at the age of 60 he set out on a journey that has been described as “Epic” by explorers used to making arduous journeys. By now he was short of teeth and struggled with the rusks Mary had sent along for the journey.

The two men greeted each other with tears in their eyes, the chief unable to stand because of dropsy. Within three days Moffat had him on his feet again.

The Gospel was once again preached in the Kraal.

In 1857 he completed the translation of the Old Testament. It had taken 17 years.

In 1859 the friendship between these two men was to lead to the building of a mission in the chief’s lands. Robert had been there for the arrangements when the time came for him to leave. Moselekatsi held his hand and said, “Go in peace. I shall take care of your teachers. I love them”.

By 1868, at the age of 73, he knew his days at Kuruman were drawing to a close. The years had been filled with joy and sorrow. Robert, their eldest son, died within reach of home. Mary, the wife of David Livingston, had perished on the Zambesi. Their son in law, Jean Fredoux, had been killed at his mission station.

Robert Moffat had carved out an oasis in the wilderness, where the sick came to be healed, and worn out missionaries came to recover. The people lived in huts, attended school and church. His God had been gracious to him.

On 20 March 1870 he preached his last sermon at Kuruman. Most of the congregation were the children of his first congregation of 50 years ago.


Robert and his wife arrived in England on 25 July 1870. A fund was established for their wellbeing. On January 10th 1871, Mary, his wife of 50 years, passed into Glory. In 1872 the University of St Andrews gave him a doctorate. And on the 9 August 1883, at the age of 88, he was called home to his Master.

End Note

There is much in this man’s life to encourage us in our witness for Christ, much to thank our God for, but there is something here that I believe is often overlooked. Here is a man with little formal education, and yet, a man used mightily in the hand of his God. In the work of God the most important thing anyone can have is the call of God upon their heart and soul. Robert Moffat had many obstacles to overcome to get to the place God had prepared for him; it was the unstoppable call of God that carried him over them all. The comfort of hiding behind a lack of qualifications was not for him, as so many are inclined to do to day. What he lacked, the call of God drove him to obtain.