Stories Worth Rereading: Moffat and Africaner

Robert Moffat, the poor Scotch lad, who, by living on beggar’s fare, managed to get an education in theology and medicine, must evermore stand as one of the great pioneers of Central African exploration. When on the last day of October, 1816, that memorable year in missions, he set sail for the Cape of Good Hope, he was only twenty years of age. But in all the qualities that assure both maturity and heroism, he was a full-grown man.

As not infrequently occurs, his greatest obstacles were found, not in the hopeless paganism of the degraded tribes of the Dark Continent, but in the apathy, if not antipathy, of the representatives of Christian governments. The British governor would have penned him up within the bounds of Cape Colony, lest he should complicate the relations of the settlers with the tribes of the interior. While fighting out this battle, he studied Dutch with a pious Hollander, that he might preach to the Boers and their servants.

Afterward, when permission was obtained, while traveling to the country of the Bechuanas, at the close of his first day’s journey he stopped at a farmhouse and offered to preach to the people that evening. In the large kitchen, where the service was to be held, stood a long table, at the head of which sat the Boer, with his wife and six grown children. A large Bible lay on the table, and underneath the table half a dozen dogs. The Boer pointed to the Bible as the signal for Mr. Moffat to begin. But, after vainly waiting for others to come in, he asked how soon the working people were to be called.

“Working people?” impatiently cried the farmer.

“You don’t mean the Hottentots,—the blacks! You are not waiting for them surely, or expecting to preach to them? You might as well preach to those dogs under that table!” A second time, and more angrily he spoke, repeating the offensive comparison.

Young as Mr. Moffat was, he was disconcerted only for a moment. Lifting his heart to God for guidance, the thought came into his mind to take a text suggested by the rude remarks of the Boer. So he opened the Bible to the fifteenth chapter of Matthew and read the twenty-seventh verse: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Pausing a moment, he slowly repeated these words, with his eyes steadily fixed on the face of the Boer. Again pausing, a third time he quoted these appropriate words. Angrily the Boer cried out, “Well, well, bring them in.” A crowd of blacks then thronged the kitchen, and Moffat preached to them all.

Ten years passed, and the missionary was passing that way again. Those work-people, who held him in the most grateful remembrance, seeing him, ran after him to thank him for telling them the way to Christ in that sermon.

His whole life in Africa was a witness to miracles of transformation. He had no scorn nor contempt for the sable sons of Africa. He found the most degraded of them open to the impressions of the gospel, and even the worst and unimpressionable among them were compelled to confess the power of that gospel to renew. One savage, cruel chief, who hated the missionaries, had a dog that chewed and swallowed a copy of the book of Psalms for the sake of the soft sheepskin in which it was bound. The enraged chief declared his dog to be henceforth worthless: “He would no more bite or tear, now that he had swallowed a Christian book.”

This godly, devoted missionary preached and taught the warlike Bechuanas till they put away their clubs and knives, and farming utensils took the place of bows and arrows and spears. This strange change in African savages came to be talked over among the people. It was so wonderful that the other tribes could account for it only as an instance of supernatural magic. There was nothing they knew of that would lead men like the Bechuanas to bring war to an end, and no longer rob and kill.

Mr. Moffat was especially warned against the notorious Africaner, a chief whose name was the terror of the whole country. Some prophesied that he would be eaten by this monster; others were sure that he would be killed, and his skull turned into a drinking-cup, and his skin into the head of a drum. Nevertheless, the heroic young missionary went straight for the kraal of the cruel marauder and murderer. He was accompanied by Ebner, the missionary, who was not in favor in Africaner’s court, and who soon had to flee, leaving Mr. Moffat alone with a bloodthirsty monarch and a people as treacherous as their chief.

But God had armed his servant with the spirit, not of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. He was a man of singular grace and tact. He quietly but firmly planted his foot in Africaner’s realms, and began his work. He opened a school, began stated services of worship, and went about among the people, living simply, self-denyingly, and prayerfully.

Africaner himself was his first convert. The wild Namoqua warrior was turned into a gentle child. The change in this chief was a moral miracle. Wolfish rapacity, leonine ferocity, leopardish treachery, gave way before the meekness and mildness of the calf or kid. His sole aim and ambition had been to rob and to slay, to lead his people on expeditions for plunder and violence, but he now seemed absorbed by one passion, zeal for God and his missionary. He set his subjects to building a house for Mr. Moffat, made him a present of cows, became a regular and devout worshiper, mourned heartily over his past life, and habitually studied the Word of God. He could not do enough for the man who had led him to Jesus.

When the missionary’s life hung in the balance with African fever, he nursed him through the crisis of delirium. When he had to visit Cape Town, Africaner went with him, knowing that a price had been set for years upon his own head as an outlaw and a public enemy. No marvel that when he made his appearance in Cape Colony, the people were astonished at the transformation! It was even more wonderful than when Saul, the arch-persecutor, was suddenly transformed into Paul, the apostle.

Mr. Moffat once said that during his entire residence among this people, he remembered no occasion on which he had been grieved with Africaner or found reason for complaint; and even his very faults leaned to the side of virtue. On his way to Cape Town with Mr. Moffat, a distance of six hundred miles, the whole road lay through a country which had been laid waste by this robber and his retainers. The Dutch farmers could not believe that this converted man was actually Africaner; and one of them, when he saw him, lifted his hands and exclaimed: “This is the eighth wonder of the world! Great God, what a miracle of thy power and grace!”

He who had long shed blood without cause would now with as little hesitation shed his own for Christ’s sake. When he found his own death approaching, he gathered his people around him, and charged them, as Moses and Joshua did Israel: “We are not now what we once were, savages, but men professing to be taught according to the gospel. Let us, then, do accordingly.” Then, with unspeakable tenderness and gentleness, he counseled them to live peaceably with all men, to engage in no undertaking without the advice of Christian guides, to remain together as one people, and to receive and welcome all missionaries as sent from God. Then he gave them his parting blessing.

His dying confession would have graced the lips of the apostle of the Gentiles: “I feel that I love God, and that he has done much for me, of which I am totally unworthy. My former life is stained with blood: but Jesus Christ has bought my pardon, and I shall live with him through an eternity. Beware of falling back into the same evils into which I have so often led you, but seek God, and he will be found of you, and direct you.”

Having said this, Africaner fell asleep, himself having furnished one of the most unanswerable proofs that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

Arthur T. Pierson, in “The Miracles of Missions,” second series, copyright by Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York.