Lacy Irvine Moffett was born the eldest child in a large and vibrant Christian family. His parents had wanted to become foreign missionaries of the Presbyterian Church, but had been prevented from doing so by reason of health. Since God had said “No” to their hearts’ desire, they determined with his help, to prepare children to do what had been denied them. Six of their sons and daughters eventually went to China (perhaps a record for one generation of one family).
Lacy was born on February 10, 1878 in Churchville, Virginia where his father, the Rev. Alexander Stuart Moffett, was then pastor. His boyhood was spent mostly in Virginia and Kentucky. He graduated from Centre College in Kentucky and received his theological training at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, from which he graduated with the B.D. degree in 1902. Early on, he sensed God’s leading to missionary work in China, but realizing the great need for renewed interest in missions in the home Church, he gave himself for two years to the “Forward Movement,” traveling throughout the Southern States. This movement met with splendid success and resulted in a large number of new workers going to overseas mission fields . In this work, Lacy was closely associated with Leighton Stuart, and they became fast friends for life. In 1904, Moffett and Stuart married two Rodd sisters, Kate and Aline, of New Orleans, and both couples were soon on their way to China.
For the first four years in China, the Moffetts lived in Suzhou (Soochow) where they began the arduous, but fascinating job of learning the Chinese language, coming to love the Chinese people, and beginning their preaching and living of the Gospel in their adopted land. They continued this work together for thirty-six years.
In 1908, the Moffetts transferred from Suzhou to Jiangyin (Kiangyin). Moffett’s work in Jiangyin involved shepherding the churches and chapels scattered throughout Jiangyin County. In the early years of his service, he dealt with a variety of problems and difficulties. Many of the Chinese evangelists and church members had come into the churches with poor understanding and perhaps some mixed motives. The Church had gotten a bad name. It was Moffett’s task to undo much that had been gone amiss and to get the church on a spiritual foundation. In later years, he would say, “For the first ten years, we turned more people out of the Church than we took in.” In this extremely difficult work, he was wonderfully blessed in having as his Chinese associate a very remarkable man by the name of Liu The Sen.
Lacy Moffett was a well-rounded man with many and broad interests. During his boyhood in America, he had learned to hunt, and he loved it. He took this hobby to China with him and spent many enjoyable hours in the fields thus engaged. In China, he also developed a keen interest in local bird life. Until that time, almost no scientific work had been done in China in the field of ornithology. Moffett became a recognized authority on the birds of East China, becoming co-author of two important books on this subject: Birds of the Lower Yangtse Valley and A Check List of the Birds of China. Working with Andrew Allison, also of Jiangyin, he employed a Chinese collector and sent hundreds of bird skins, properly prepared and identified, to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. and the Philadelphia Academy of Science in Philadelphia.
Lacy was one of the founding members of a group of missionary men who camped yearly in a lovely bamboo-covered mountain valley in western Zhejiang Province. The fellowship and friendships of “Camp Biteaway” are among the most cherished memories of many Presbyterian and Baptist missionaries to China. How the hills did resound with the joyous laughter of these men-become-boys for a carefree week in God’s glorious out-of-doors! Lacy really loved this camp and continued to go even when he was not physically able to make the long and strenuous hike to the camp and had to ride in a sedan chair.
Moffett was a good missionary strategist. He never forgot for a minute what he was in China for — to witness to the love of God in Christ and build his Church. The span of his missionary life was a turbulent and boisterous one—the revolution resulting in the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty, the beginnings of the Republic of China, the terrible “warlord” years, growing nationalism and resentment over many real and imagined oppressions of China by the West, the early years of Communism, the rising threat of Japan, and finally the war itself. All of these came within his missionary lifetime.
Alternately, the American missionary was the hero and the black villain. The strains and the stresses of those years cannot be fully understood or appreciated by any except those who experienced them. During these trying times, Moffett never lost his poise or seemed to be confused. There was serious danger at times, but he never seemed afraid. His face was toward the future and the dark clouds of potential disaster never greatly upset him. He would remind those around him: Were we not Christians and were we not there to minister to the situation whatever it might be? Was not all a part of the life and work of a Christian missionary? And had we not His promise, “Lo, I am with you always?”
One of the most fruitful plans that Moffett conceived was the gathering together once a month of all the evangelistic workers, Chinese and missionary. For three days, they lived and worked together. In the mornings, they met for prayer, Bible study, and conference; in the afternoons, they visited in the homes of the Christians in the nearby villages; and in the evenings, they preached to the crowds either in the local chapel or in some tea shop on a busy street. At the end, the men returned to their respective places of work, encouraged by fellowship, enlightened by study, uplifted by common prayer and shared experience.
Like all other missionaries, Moffett had many interesting and amusing experiences which he loved to tell.
On one occasion, he was returning Kiangyin from a trip to Shanghai. At the Wusih railway station, he hired a Chinese coolie to carry his baggage to the steam launch that would take him Kiangyin. He paid the customary price to the coolie, but it was indignantly refused: “It will cost you twenty cents and not just this dime,” said the coolie. “But ten cents is what all the Chinese are paying,” protested Lacy. “Yes, I know,” said the coolie, “but isn’t it worth an extra ten cents to be an American?” Yes, he got his ten cents and a friendly laugh with it.
No sketch of any of the Moffetts would be complete without some mention of their family life. While in China, eight children were born: Alexander Stuart (1905), John Rodd (1906), Lacy Irvine (1908), Robert Breedlove (1910), Florence Crawford (1911), Newton Craig (1914), Martha Ethel (1918), and Catherine Aline (1923). Courtesy was a basic characteristic of the home. They were always polite, to one another and to all who came near them.
After many years in China, when the door was closed by the World War II and by the communists, Moffett fitted himself quickly and easily into the home church. He served several city churches as a supply preacher and was the beloved pastor of the Banner Elk Church (North Carolina) with its mountain chapels.
As the mounting infirmities of the years began to catch up with him, Moffett grew old gracefully. Finally on October 2, 1957, after several days of deepening weakness, he passed away.
Adapted from the eulogy by Charles W. Worth, a co-worker of Moffett, at the memorial service for Lacy Moffett, October, 1957.
- Eulogy by Charles W. Worth, a co-worker of Moffett, at the memorial service for Lacy Moffett, October, 1957.
- Also see Lawrence D. Kessler, The Jiangyin Mission Station.