Mary Moffat, I Presume (May-Jun 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Shawn Tyler
May-June 2002

Mary Moffat was born to Robert and Mary Moffat at Griqua Town in the Cape Colony of South Africa in 1821. Robert and Mary Moffat were missionaries who founded the Kuruman Mission Station under the auspices of the London Mission Society. Mary began her studies in South Africa but eventually traveled to London where she completed her education. Afterward, she returned to South Africa and joined her parents in the work at Kuruman Mission Station.

After a brief furlough in England in 1843, the Moffats were returning to Kuruman in November by ox-wagon, when David, a young single missionary from the new Mobatsa Mission, rode 150 miles to meet them near the Vaal river. Robert Moffat had met David in London three years earlier and had encouraged him to become a missionary in Africa. However, it was his daughter’s first time to meet David. According to Robert Moffat, Mary’s neatly dressed appearance impressed David and he was at once “smitten with Mary’s charms.” David stayed with the Moffats in Kuruman through Christmas, and during that time Mary’s friendship with David became quite strong. On January 6, 1844, Mary said goodbye to David as he returned to Mobatsa Mission.

On February 16th, David shot a lion which had attacked the livestock of some local people. In its dying anger, the lion grabbed David and crushed the bone in his left shoulder. It was decided that David should return to Kuruman Mission to recuperate fully. There, Mary took responsibility for this work and afforded David both attention and affection. Under the shade of the orchard trees in May, 1844, David asked Mary to become his bride. Mary accepted his proposal even though she had received several others. David described Mary to a friend of his as “not romantic.” Mary is “a matter of fact lady, a little thick black-haired girl, sturdy and all I want.” Indeed a photo of Mary later in life does little to accentuate her beauty.

In the photo, Mary has her hair parted down the middle and pulled straight back into a bun that is covered by a white-laced bonnet. She has a plain face with thick eyebrows, piercing eyes and a mouth that turns downward at the edges. She is wearing a black, voluminous dress which hints at a large frame. A lace collar and a cameo are the only adornments. Mary is holding a Bible in her lap with her pudgy left hand. Her right hand is resting on a small table. Mary reflects the austere, no-nonsense attitude of the Victorian Age. This physical description, however, should in no way detract from her spiritual strength and missionary zeal.

Mary waited at Kuruman for the next seven months while David returned to Mobatsa to build his future wife a house. During construction, Mary would receive letters from David about its progress. At one point he wrote, “We have nothing to put into it (the house) is no matter, for I shall think it furnished when you are here.”

On January 2, 1845, Mary was married to David at Kuruman in the presence of her parents. After a brief time, she moved to Mobatsa and became David’s partner in mission work. She is described by others who met her as “sensible, submissive, and worthy of the reward to be received on the day of judgment.” Mary began an infants’ school at Mobatsa as David worked with the medical and pastoral duties. However, their work at Mobatsa would be short lived. Disputes arose between them and their coworker Mr. Edwards to the point that it became known in London. Arthur Tidman, the Foreign Secretary of the London Mission Society, wrote to encourage Mary and David in October 1846, but they ended up leaving Mobatsa to establish a new mission station at Chonuane some forty miles further north.

At Chonuane, Mary and David ran into problems with Boers, the Dutch farmers. Political tension caused the Boers to be suspicious of the British missionary “spies.” It was this same year that Mary gave birth to their first born son, Robert. A second child, Agnes, followed quickly the next year. Mary and David eventually moved again to a new mission station at Kolobeng.

For four years, Mary and David worked at Kolobeng. It was not an easy time. Mary gave birth to their third child in 1848 and their fourth, Elizabeth, in 1850. However, Elizabeth took ill after only two weeks and died from high fevers. Even David’s medical abilities could not save her. Mary and David’s stay at Kolobeng coincided with a two year drought for the area. Local tribal leaders believed the drought was due to the mission being started there. Pressure mounted for Mary and David to leave and seek another place. Another shock happened after the death of Elizabeth. Mary came down with a mysterious illness that brought about paralysis to the right side of her face. David carried her 270 miles back to Kuruman where she gradually recovered.

In 1851, Mary and David started out on another trek to seek a good place for a new mission station. During this trek, Mary gave birth to their last born, William on August 13th. Realizing the toll that numerous treks into the interior of Africa had on her and the family, Mary agreed to travel back to England with their four children on April 23, 1852. David remained in Africa and continued to make evangelistic trips into the interior and set up a new mission station. Mary and the children first settled in Hamilton, Scotland with David’s parents. The house was very small and living conditions were difficult. Mary stayed only six months before she moved on to Hachney, then to Manchester, then to Kendal, and finally to Epson. Though supported by the London Mission Society, Mary and the children suffered with their domestic accommodations and their separation from David.

Almost four years after Mary had left Africa, David arrived in England on December 9, 1856. Upon reuniting with David, Mary vowed not to ever be parted from her husband again. They toured England giving reports of Africa. Mary and David made many appeals for funds to establish yet another new mission station in Africa’s interior. Then on March 12, 1858, with snow falling, Mary and family left England. This would be Mary’s last departure.

Mary and David spent most of 1858 traveling down to Africa and then making an unsuccessful bid to journey up the Zambezi River. Instead they set up a mission at Tete some forty miles from the mouth of the Zambezi. Additional treks followed, but for Mary, illness caught up with her in 1862. On April 21, Mary went down with malaria at Shupunga. She did not respond to treatment. David tried every medical technique he knew. He even held a prayer vigil by her bedside for days as she slowly slipped away. On April 27, 1862, Mary died. She was buried in the shadow of a huge Baobab tree hundreds of miles from her parents. Two weeks later, David wrote in his diary, “My dear, dear, Mary has been this evening a fortnight in heaven – absent from the body, present with the Lord …. For the first time in my life I feel willing to die.”

Mary was a faithful wife and mother of four. She traveled the interior of Africa when few men dared to do so. She suffered from exposure to the sun, heat, sickness, and dangers from man and beast. She traveled into unknown regions and tribal groups establishing new mission stations and eventually giving her life for her faith. Mary’s work and sacrifice are not often talked about, but I wanted to bring them to light for you in this article. Her work is worth remembering, yet her efforts always stand in the shadows of her more famous husband whose name today is synonymous with missionary, explorer, and philanthropist – Dr. David Livingstone.

I traveled to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe October 18-27, 2001. There I ran into the legend of Dr. David Livingstone, but I was intrigued also by his less famous wife, Mary. I wanted to introduce you to Mary Moffat Livingstone because I felt she deserved recognition for her own work and deeds regardless of who her husband was. She was a brave woman, and the repercussions of her faith and work are still felt in Southern Africa today.

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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