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Christian History Home > 1997 > Issue 56 > The Paradox of David Livingstone: A Gallery of Pioneers & Pallbearers

The Paradox of David Livingstone: A Gallery of Pioneers & Pallbearers
Those closest to the remarkable explorer were often remarkable themselves.
Steven T. Grezlak | posted 10/01/1997 12:00AM

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Robert and Mary Moffat

(1795-1883) (1795-1871)
Pioneer in-laws

Though Livingstone's name is most often attached with the opening of Africa for missions, in many ways, it was Robert and Mary Moffat who provided the scaffold, 50 years in the making, upon which later missionary successes were built.

Born in Ormiston, Scotland, Robert was raised in a Presbyterian home, but the faith didn't take at first. He "ran off to sea" for a time and at 14, became apprenticed to a gardener. At 19 he underwent a spiritual rebirth, and a year later heard a message by a London Missionary Society director. Soon after, he applied to the society and eventually was accepted for service. In 1816 he sailed for Cape Town.

Meanwhile he had taken up with Mary Smith, the daughter of his employer. She too wanted to be a missionary, but her parents forbade her marriage for more than three years before allowing her to travel to South Africa to wed Robert.

Disillusioned with "confused and deplorable and awful" missionaries in the Cape Colony, the Moffats moved in 1825 to the Kuruman mission station, which would later be Livingstone's first home. After several years of vainly attempting to communicate in the rudimentary trading language called Cape Dutch, Robert began what was to be his finest legacy: translating Scripture and spiritual training texts into Tswana.

Even after 29 years of effort, Robert knew his version was imperfect, especially when the natives asked why Paul had demanded to be armed with guns! In addition, there were no Tswana words for many Christian concepts. Moffat translated the word sin into cow dung, and the word for holiness he used usually meant "a nice fat ox or cow."

The paths of Livingstone and the Moffats first crossed in 1840 when Robert secured Livingstone for the work at the mission. "Perhaps," wrote Moffat biographer E.W. Smith, "Livingstone and Moffat agreed better than any two men in the field."

Livingstone's relationship with Robert's wife was not as positive, especially after he married their daughter, also named Mary. Ironically the elder Mary, whose parents had vehemently opposed her move to Africa, repeatedly chided Livingstone for risking her daughter's life by taking her further into the continent. The elder Mary lived in Africa for 50 years, then died a few months after returning to England when she and Robert retired.

"He was the father and pioneer of South African mission work" concludes one official biographer. Regarding his wife, Mary, it adds, "For fifty years [she] shared all her husband's hardships and trials," and when discussing their impact on that region, adds, "Her name must be associated with his."

Charles Livingstone

Ineffectual "General Assistant"

"I am at a loss how to treat him," wrote David Livingstone about his brother, eight years his junior. These words summarize the frustration Charles engendered among the seven men who constituted the ill-fated Zambezi Expedition.

He had worked in the same cotton factory as young David and, like his brother, used what little free time he could spare for education. Feeling a call to missions, he emigrated to America to get ministerial training.

He pastored in, coincidentally, Livingstone County, New York, and later traveled to England on a leave of absence (likely due to a nervous breakdown). Though he had not seen his brother for years, David asked Charles to join him on the Zambezi Expedition.

His official title was "General Assistant and 'moral agent,'" and his unofficial duties included photography (which he knew little about) and personal assistance to David. However, "As an assistant he has been of no value," wrote David in his journal. "Photography very unsatisfactory. … Meteorological observations not creditable, and writing the journal in arrears."

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