Not long after Robert Moffat entered the service of James Smith of the Dukinfield Nurseries, he fell in love with his employer's only daughter.
The father had been afraid this might happen. Returning home from Manchester on that eventful day when he had promised his friend, the Rev. William Roby, to take into his employ the young Scotch gardener who felt called of God to be a missionary, it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps it would cost him his daughter.
But Mr. Roby was so anxious to have his young protégé near him, and there had been no other opening. Besides, James Smith liked the young man and thought he would make a good workman.
Perhaps there was no ground for his fears, after all. The young man had been obliged to give up his plans, at least for the present. The London Society to whom he had offered himself, through Mr. Roby, had declined to accept him. There were so many applicants that only the best could be sent, and young Moffat had had little schooling.
End as it might, James Smith had given his word, and he would stand by it. So, about New Year's, 1816, Robert Moffat began work at the Dukinfield Nurseries.
Very soon he made the acquaintance of his master's young daughter. Beautiful in face, polished in manners, and the expectant of a considerable fortune, she was attractive enough to win the heart of any young man. To her father's new assistant she had the added charm of an interest in missions as deep as his own. Her education in a Moravian school had laid the foundations; and two years before, at a meeting in Manchester, she had been so deeply impressed with the needs of the heathen that she had sent up a silent petition to God that some time she might be permitted to work in South Africa.
From the first Robert Moffat and Mary Smith were thrown much together. Ere long they became so deeply attached that they plighted their troth one to another.
For a time the course of their true love ran smooth. But by and by there was trouble. Through the intervention of Mr. Roby, the Directors in London were induced to reconsider their decision, and bade the young Scotchman be ready to sail within a few months. He was assigned at first to the South Seas with John Williams. But presently, deeming "thae twa lads ower young to gang tegeither"—Moffat was twenty-one and Williams twenty—this was changed to South Africa. Thus strangely was God preparing to answer Mary Smith's prayer.
To his parents in Scotland his going was a trial of no common sort. Yet they did nothing to hinder, but bade him "Godspeed." The old father wrote, with dignified resignation, that "whatever might be his own feelings or those of Robert's mother, they dared not oppose his design, lest haply in so doing they should be found fighting with God."
Not so Mary Smith's parents. Both were deeply pious, and ardent promoters of missions. Yet they declared they could not relinquish their daughter and refused to give their consent.
Poor young Moffat! He had not realized that his going might cost him so much. But his life had been laid on God's altar, and he would not withdraw it. Nor did Mary Smith ask it. The idea of a separation appalled them, but their happiness must not interfere with God's work. So Robert prepared to go out alone.
By and by a letter came from the Directors that made it still harder. "All candidates are expected to take partners along with them," it said. This was a new sorrow that cost Mary Smith many tears. Yet she offered to release Robert from his engagement, and let him choose another to go in her place. But to him this seemed little short of a crime. How could he offer his hand to another when his heart was still in Mary Smith's keeping? Yet if God willed it, he must obey.
But God did not ask this sacrifice of him. "From the clearest indications of His Providence, He bids me go out alone," he wrote to his parents, after long hours of prayer; "and He who appoints crosses and disappointments also imparts resignation and grace sufficient unto the day. So I am bold to adopt the language of Eli, and to say, 'It is the Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good.'"
And so it was settled. The Directors acquiesced in the decision, and on October 18, 1816, when Moffat sailed for South Africa, leaving his heart in old England, no new tie had been formed to separate him from his loved one, and there was nothing to prevent his claiming his own should her parents ever be willing to surrender her to him. Sore as was their sorrow at parting, the young lovers thanked God for this.
Moffat's destination in Africa was Africaner's Kraal, in Namaqualand, beyond the confines of Cape Colony, where the Ebners were working. Africaner was the terror of the whole region, and all along the way from Cape Town, the young missionary heard dire predictions of the fate that awaited him. "One warned me that he would set me up for a mark for his boys to shoot at," he says; "another, that he would strip off my skin and make a drum of it to dance to; another, that he would make a drinking cup of my skull. One kind, motherly lady, wiping the tears from her eyes, bade me farewell, saying, 'Had you been an old man it would have been nothing, for you would soon have died, whether or no; but you are young, and going to become a prey to that monster.'"
But when Moffat reached the Kraal, Africaner seemed glad to see him and ordered his women to build him a house. In half an hour they had it all ready! It was a frail structure, in shape like a bee-hive, with a single opening large enough to crawl in, yet he lived in it nearly six months.
Africaner's heart was soon won and the work progressed fairly well, but life in the little hut was lonely and comfortless. Soon after Moffat arrived the Ebners withdrew, leaving him alone, with no prospect of reinforcement. He rarely saw a white face, and for nearly a year did not hear a word spoken in English.
Great indeed was his need of Mary Smith's care. "I have many difficulties to encounter, being alone," he wrote to his parents. "No one can do anything for me in my household affairs. I must attend to everything, which hinders my work, for I could wish to have almost nothing to to do but instruct the heathen. I am carpenter, smith, cooper, tailor, shoemaker, miller, baker, and housekeeper—the last the most burdensome. An old Namaqua woman milks my cow, makes a fire, and washes. All the other things I do myself, though I seldom prepare anything till impelled by hunger. I wish many times my mother saw me. My house is always pretty clean, but oh, what a confusion among my linen."
During the long winter evenings at the old home in Scotland, his mother had taught her boys to knit and sew, while she told them thrilling stories of Moravian missions. Robert had sometimes rebelled, but now he was glad, for he had frequent need to make use of his needle.
Meanwhile Mary Smith was breaking her heart, far away in old England. She was sure God was calling her to Africa and was afraid she was doing wrong not to go. But her parents showed no signs of relenting.
There was nothing to do but to wait and to pray, and this both the young people were doing. Thousands of miles lay between them, yet their prayers were ever ascending in united petition to heaven.
Their great solace was letters—long, loving letters that kept them in touch with each other. But on November 26, 1818, one came to Robert in Africa that he was not glad to receive. In it his dear Mary told him, with sore sorrow of heart, that since her father declared he would never give his consent, she had at last relinquished all hope of coming to Africa. It well-nigh crushed him, yet in his sorrow he drew closer to God.
But God was merely testing the faith of His children, and their prayers had been heard after all. Less than a month later Mary Smith's parents suddenly and unexpectedly gave their consent to her going!
"This is by no means what I expected a week ago," she wrote to Robert's parents. "Previous to the arrival of the last letters, my father persisted in saying I should never have his consent; and my dear mother has uniformly asserted that it would break her heart; nevertheless, they both yesterday calmly resigned me into the hands of the Lord, declaring they durst no longer withhold me."
When the news reached Robert in Africa he wrote to his parents at once: "I have just received letters from Miss Smith. The whole scene is changed. I have now reason to believe that God will make her path plain to Africa. This, I trust, will be soon, for a missionary without a wife in this country is like a boat with one oar."
Mary Smith lost no time in preparing to go to her lover. The wedding, of course, would take place in Africa. It was out of the question for Robert to come for his bride. It was a hard journey for a young girl to take all alone, and there was some delay in securing her passage; but at length, on September 7, 1819, she boarded the "British Colony" and sailed for the Cape in the care of a minister of the Dutch Church and his wife.
Be it not thought that her going cost her no sorrow. Eager as she was to be at work with Robert in Africa, the anguish of parting with father and mother and brothers was almost unbearable.
Meanwhile in Africa, Robert was being put to another sore test. Early in 1819, Dr. Philip and Mr. John Campbell arrived from London to inspect the various stations, and begged Moffat to make the tour with them. They needed his help, but it would take nearly a year and prevent his meeting his betrothed when she landed in Africa. Was it his duty to go? Could he let strangers meet her, even though they were dear friends of his? But God had been good, and His work must be first. So he said he would go, and God accepted his spirit of sacrifice but did not exact its full payment. About midway in the journey war broke out with the Kaffirs, and the party had to turn back, bringing Moffat to Cape Town when the "British Colony" swung into port.
Their meeting was very affecting. "My cup of happiness seems almost full," Mary Smith wrote to her parents. "I have found my dear friend all that my heart could desire, except his being almost worn out with anxiety, and his very look makes my heart ache. Our worthy friend, Melville, met me on board and conducted me to his house, where a scene took place such as I never wish to experience again. We have received each other from the Lord and are happy."
To this Robert adds in the same letter: "When the news of your beloved daughter's arrival reached me, it was to me nothing less than life from the dead. My prayers were answered, and the promises which had long been my refuge were fulfilled. Mary, my own dear Mary, is now far distant from you; but let this comfort you, that, although in a land of strangers, she is under the care of our ever-present God, and united to one who promises to be father, mother, and husband to her, and will never forget the sacrifice you have made in committing to his care your only daughter."
Three weeks later, on December 27, 1819, the long-deferred wedding took place in St. George's Church, Cape Town, Dr. Philip taking the place of the absent father, and the Melvilles opening their house for the feast. Shortly after, the young couple left in ox-wagons for their wedding journey of six hundred miles to their field.
Such was the happy ending of the romance of the Moffats. Theirs was a union truly ideal. For more than fifty years they walked hand in hand, doing God's work with a zeal that has rarely been equaled.
Through it all Mary Moffat was the truest of helpmeets. "My father never would have been the missionary he was but for her care," says their son. When God took her home, the sense of her loss overwhelmed her poor husband. "For fifty-three years I have had her to pray for me," was his first pitiful cry when he found she was gone. But what a precious gift of God she had been!
From Love Stories of Great Missionaries by Belle M. Brain. New York: Fleming H. Revell, ©1913.