Papers of Robert Moffat (1795-1883)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-220
  • Dates of Creation
      [ca. 1841]-1875
  • Language of Material
      English, tsw
  • Physical Description
      1 file containing letters and portrait. English and Tswana (Bechuana / Setswana / Sechwana / Sechuana).
  • Location
      Gen. 1732

Scope and Content

The collection consists of four letters from Moffat (c 1841, 1873-1875) referring to engagements and to payment for 'Scripture Lessons'; The Lords Prayer in Tswana in Moffat's hand (after 1870); an engraved, autographed portrait of Moffat; and the first verse of a hymn in the Tswana language in Moffat's hand (1841).

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Moffat, Scottish missionary in South Africa, was born in 1795 at Ormiston, East Lothian. In 1813 he left home for High Leigh, near Liverpool where he worked as an under-gardener and where he became a Methodist. He was appointed as a missionary to South Africa by the London Missionary Society in 1816 and arrived at Cape Town in 1817. He spent his first year in Namaqualand where he converted the chief, Jager Afrikaner. In 1819 Moffat married Mary Smith who had come out from England to be with him and who was to play a vital role in his work. After some moves, caused by warfare amongst Zulu tribesmen, the Moffats opened a mission station in 1825 in Kuruman, south-east of the Kalahari, where they stayed for forty-nine years. The station became one of the foremost Protestant missionary communities in Africa and attracted many converts to the church. Moffat was known for his efforts to improve living standards in Africa by improving methods of agriculture and irrigation. He travelled widely, paying several visits to the Ndebele with whose chief he had become friendly. His last visit in 1859 resulted in the establishment of an London Missionary Society mission near Bulawayo, Matabeleland. Moffat became fluent in the Tswana (Setswana / Sechwana / Bechuana) language and in 1839 completed his translation of the New Testament. His translations became a standard and were of enormous importance to the growth of Christianity in Southern Africa. He also translated Pilgrim's Progress, compiled a Tswana hymn-book and in 1857 the whole bible was published in Tswana. He spent the years from 1839 to 1843 in England and in 1840 published Missionary Labours which went through four editions in three years. This and other works such as Rivers of Water in a Dry Place (1863) made him the best known missionary in Britain. It was while he was in England that he met David Livingstone and secured him for the Bakwana mission. Livingstone married Moffat's daughter Mary in 1844. Failing health or, as Moffat himself put it, an 'over-taxed brain' compelled him 'to return to the land of his fathers' in 1870 and he settled in London. Moffat's wife died in 1871, but he remained active promoting foreign missions and raising funds for a seminary at Kuruman Station to train Africans for missionary work. Criticised by some as paternalistic and as lacking a deep understanding of African culture, Moffat was, nevertheless, one of the pioneers of the missionary movement in Southern Africa. He was made a D.D. of Edinburgh University in 1872 and died in 1883 in Leigh, Kent, England.


The material is in one file.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

The first six items were purchased by the University of Edinburgh Library from Winifred A. Myers in 1967, the verse in Tswana was purchased in 1970 from Peter Eaton.


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. (2) Anderson, Gerald H. (ed.). Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998. (3) Cameron, Nigel M. de S. (ed.) Dictionary of Scottish Church History. Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1993.

Compiled by Caroline Brown, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Revised by Graeme D Eddie.

Other Finding Aids

Alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives. The collection is mentioned in the Edinburgh University Library subject checklist (C3) Manuscripts on Africa.

Conditions Governing Use

Contact the repository for details.

Related Material

Edinburgh University Library holds another Moffat letter to a friend concerning his grandson (27 November 1871, Gen. 863/8/66). New College Library has some Moffat correspondence and other material particularly in the James Cunningham (CM) and William Dickson (WD) collections. The correspondence in the latter continues until Moffat's death in 1883, full details are in the Index to Manuscripts in New College Library. The National Archives of Zimbabwe holds correspondence of Robert Moffat; some of Moffat's journals are at the School of Oriental and African Studies Library, London University; the Billy Graham Center Archives, Illinois, has some Moffat material; the National Library of Scotland has an extensive collection of missionary records including some Moffat correspondence; and collections of Moffat's journals are also available in published form.

Geographical Names