The continent of Africa has been dubbed the “Dark Continent” by missionaries. Africa is a grand and mysterious land, full of wildlife, and having a rich history, with ancient civilizations, and intriguing geography. It is also a continent that abounds in the deepest pagan practices of witchcraft and superstition involving cruelties and dangers hard to imagine. Those who dared to explore Africa, or were sent there to do missions, more often than not were martyred or died of sickness. Ruth Tucker writes that “Black Africa, known for centuries as the ‘white man’s graveyard,’ has claimed the lives of more Protestant missionaries than any other area of the world.”
The earliest missionaries to Africa came during the eighteenth century and began labors in the Cape Cod colony with the Moravians. By the end of that century the London Missionary society was laboring in South Africa, and through Robert Moffat they began penetrating the interior of the country. Robert Moffat is known not only as the patriarch of South African missions, but also as one of Africa’s greatest missionaries of all times.
Moffat was born in 1795 and raised in Scotland in humble circumstances that allowed very little in the way of formal education or Bible training. His parents were Presbyterians, and his mother is said to have gathered herchildren together on cold winter evenings to read aloud stories of missionary heros. Initially, however, Robert did not show interest in religious things, but pursued the vocation of a gardener. He moved to England to begin a career in gardening at the age of seventeen. He joined a small Methodist society that was meeting in a nearby farm house. After coming into contact with Rev. William Roby, a director of the London Missionary Society (LMS), Robert applied for missionary labors through the LMS. He fell in love with the daughter of his boss, but her parents were not willing to allow her to accompany him to Africa. So, after being accepted as missionary, he left her behind and landed in Cape Cod in 1817 with four other missionaries.
After eight months of language study, Robert Moffat was not content to remain in the civilized areas where other missionaries were laboring. He wanted to bring the gospel into the interior of Africa, where no white men had ever gone, despite the fact that the travel was very difficult and dangerous. Rivers, rocks, swamps, and forests had to be avoided or mastered in some way. By day the travel was intensely hot and by night very cold. There were wild animals to contend with, including lions, jackals, hyenas, crocodiles, snakes, and monkeys. Then there were also the warlike bushmen, who did not warmly receive the gospel that Moffat was bringing. Even those familiar with the country rarely undertook these journeys. But Moffat was motivated by his missionary call. He was determined to learn the language and the customs, and he gradually became physically acclimated to Africa’s extreme climates.
Moffat had heard about Africaner, an African chief who was guilty of many terrible crimes throughout the colonies. Africaner had come into contact with some missionaries and was thought to have become more civilized. Moffat wanted to establish a mission in Africaner’s village. Although warned by many not to go, and nearly dying of thirst on the way, in January of 1818 Moffat came into the presence of the chief. The chief seemed pleased. He instructed his people to build Moffat a hut. For one year Moffat led worship services morning and evening each day and gave education to the children of the village, teaching them to read and write. Soon the chief showed interest and started to read the Bible, which Moffat hadtranslated into their language. In time there appeared more and more evidence of sincere conversion and of genuine repentance on the part of the chief. Moffat was thrilled with this evidence of God’s goodness in his work. But he was also becoming increasingly lonely for companionship. He wanted to make a trip to Cape Town, and he suggested that the chief, Africaner, accompany him. Africaner feared for his life because of the murders that he had committed in those areas and was hesitant to make the trip, but Moffat convinced him of the protection and forgiveness of the Christians.
The day Moffat came to Cape Town with Africaner became a pivotal day in the history of missions to the Africans. The evidence of God’s grace was seen by all. The man who had been a murderer was now compassionate toward others and sought to be a peacemaker to warring tribes. The LCM encouraged Moffat to move on to a work among another tribe, the Bechuanas. Reluctantly, Robert said goodby to Africaner and agreed to their proposal. A letter from Mary, his girlfriend, thrilled him in that she wrote that her parents had agreed to her leaving and traveling to Africa to marry Robert. After being apart for so long, with no communication, a joyful reunion took place and they were married shortly thereafter.
Mary became an important part of the work of missions in Africa as she joined her husband for what would be 30 years of remarkable service among this remote tribe. Their home would be blessed by ten children, two of whom died in infancy. But first, there was the honeymoon, which involved arduous travel covering fifteen miles a day for eight weeks with a single missionary along with them to begin their labors among the Bechuanas. Through hard work, which included being a builder, a carpenter, a smith, and a farmer, along with his preaching duties, he slowly built trust among the nationals. When a warring tribe threatened the Bechuanas, Moffat tried to avert war. When that was not possible he equipped the Bechuanas with firearms so that they were able to conquer the Zuluas. It was then that the tribe began to recognize Moffat’s bravery and compassion for them and they respected him more as a friend. But it was more than twelve years before the gospel began to bear fruit in the lives of the nationals. God’s grace began to work in the hearts of the people, and heathen songs and dancing came to an end. Prayers and the songs of Zion were heard on the lips of the people. Converts were made, and they turned away from their wicked habits. After showing themselves faithful over a period of time, they were baptized, and the gospel began to spread to other tribes.
Moffat began to realize the need to get the Bible translated into their language if the Word was to have any lasting impact in their lives. So he not only translated the entire Bible, but was able to get a printing press, learned how to operate it, and started printing Bibles in the language of the people.
In the fifty years that Moffat was missionary in Africa, he returned only once to England before going back to retire. Today it is customary for missionaries to go to foreign countries for a definite number of years, and we as a denomination see much wisdom in allowing our missionaries regular furloughs to return home. But Robert Moffat went to Africa to work as long as God would permit him, which ended up being fifty years. In all that time he took only one furlough back to England, and that after twenty-three years. During his furlough he was so booked with teaching engagements, and so determined to get the Bible translated and printed, that he ended up staying in England four years, during which time God used him mightily for the promotion of missions in Africa. He was able to convince many young men to consider seriously the African mission, including one young man, David Livingstone, who would become his son-in-law, and who returned to Africa a couple of years before Moffat to build mightily on what Moffat had begun. Although Livingstone often receives the majority of attention regarding African missions, Livingstone was more the adventurer and explorer, while Moffat was the preacher, teacher, and translator who devoted his life to discipling the nationals.
After his furlough, Moffat returned to Africa and spent the next 27 years in active service, increasingly expanding and developing new fields in other areas and to other tribes, but spending the majority of his time thoroughly teaching and establishing the Bechuanas in the Scriptures. In 1870 he retired from his labors after one of his sons took over his work. His wife died the next year, but God would allow Moffat to outlive many of his own children and Livingstone as well. He died in 1883 at the age of 88 years. At the time of his death The London Times wrote: “Moffat’s name will be remembered as long as the South African Church endures, and his example will remain with us as a stimulus to others, and as an abiding proof of what a Christian missionary can be and can do.”
We see the wonderful work of God’s grace through human messengers. Robert Moffat, born in poverty, without a formal education, did not seem destined for much of a future. We do not despise the day of small things. God was pleased to use Robert Moffat to bring the gospel to His people in South Africa, calling them out of darkness into His glorious light. To the Dark Continent came a great light! We are small in numbers, limited in resources and opportunities, yet have been entrusted with a glorious gospel. God is pleased to use your individual witness for His glory, as well as that of our churches and sister churches in America, Canada, and throughout the world, as He gathers His church by His Word and Spirit.