Sunday, January 20, 2008

Heroines of the Mission Field: Mary Moffat

I've recently been reading A Scottish Christian Heritage by Iain H. Murray, and one of the chapters is about the life of Robert Moffat, missionary to South Africa for more than 50 years from 1817 until 1870. I guess he is not the most famous nineteenth century missionary, and in fact, he is perhaps better known as the father in law of David Livingstone. Even less well known is his wife Mary. As I read about the work of the Moffats I was keen to learn more about Mary Moffat and I tracked down a book written in the late 1800's called Heroines of the Mission Field, by Emma Raymond Pitman.

Mary Moffat was born in 1795 near Manchester, England. She and Robert Moffat met when he was working as a gardener for her father, who owned a nursery in Cheshire. They both shared a common desire to undertake mission work and Robert was sent out to South Africa by the London Missionary Society in 1816. Mary was keen to marry Robert and accompany him, but her parents forbade it. Two years later, Mary's parents relented much to Robert's delight, "for a missionary in this country without a wife is like a boat with one oar."

They married as soon as Mary arrived in South Africa and as Murray writes,
Mary's companionship came in time for the many hard years that lay ahead.
The Moffats worked tirelessly to bring the gospel message to the Batlaping people, but
discouragements abounded. Initial threats from the Batlaping people subsided into constant thieving, allied with stony indifference to anything spiritual.
As a woman in this environment, Mary faced particular trials, detailed by Mrs Pittman:
females [who] flocked around her...viewed her as a curiosity, to be teased, robbed or let alone, as it pleased them...The houses were as unlike English ideas of comfort as they were possible to be. These huts... were composed of a number of poles placed in circular form and covered with mats. When the sun shone, it was unbearably hot; when it rained the water poured in, while it was not unusual for dogs and serpents to force their way into some quiet corner.
Mary Moffat herself described the circumstances in which she laboured each day, with her house full of any number of locals, "leaving us not room enough even to turn ourselves". She goes on,
While some were talking, others would be sleeping, and some pilfering whatever they could lay their hands upon.
They worked for a decade without any sign of a change in the people around them and the London Missionary Society was considering abandoning the work. However, in 1829, at last six people were converted. Throughout these difficult years, Mary supported her husband in his work, even when he doubted whether they would ever see any fruit. Mary said,
We may not live to see it, but the awakening will come as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

Her faith in the promises of God was further illustrated by her ordering a communion cup and plates from England in 1827, before anyone had been converted. They arrived one week before they were needed in 1829.

She raised seven children, four of whom became missionaries themselves. Robert often had to travel around the surrounding countryside, and Mary was left alone on the mission station, although on some occasions she travelled with him, with all the danger that entailed. At the end of her life, someone said to her, "God has honoured you to be a great helper to your husband", to which Mary replied,
I always studied my husband's comfort, never hindered him in his work, but always did what I could to keep him up to it.

Although our lives today are very different today to that experienced by Mary Moffat, there is much we can learn from her faithfulness in carrying out God's work, and the dedication with which she pursued her helper role.


Anonymous said...

Hello again--

Hope all is going well with you. When I read of such dedicated wives of ministers, it always makes me want to tighten up my own be a better wife.

Most of all I want to be a godly person. For truly, Jesus is my center, my core, my heart. I say it often...and mean it every time!

Shirley Buxton

Marcia Wilwerding said...

It is so refreshing to hear of a 19th Century woman missionary who fulfilled her ministry by following her biblical role of supporting her husband and rearing her children. So many today send their children to boarding school and pursue their own ministry career. Thank you for sharing this. I hope to read up on this myself.

Marcia Wilwerding