Born in 1848 in Scotland, Mary Mitchell Slessor was the second of seven children. She attributed much of her godly character to her upbringing. “I owe a great debt of gratitude to my sainted mother,” said Mary. Her father was an alcoholic, which resulted in a family life of poverty and strife. When she was eleven years old, Mary started working to help provide for her family. Her wages were soon the primary source of income, working 10 hour days to make ends meet. Her life was one long act of self-denial. All her own interests were laid aside for the sake of the family. She was content with bare necessaries as long as they were provided for. Mary was extremely close to her mother as they prayed continually for God’s provision and protection.
Mary became a Christian at a young age. She enjoyed going to church; it was a wonderful outlet from her miserable home life. She was not well-educated, but loved to read, and would stay up late soaking up any book she could find. She loved reading the Bible most of all, studying Jesus and his life in the gospels. Mary dreamed of doing pioneer work in the remote interior of Africa. At the time, missions work was mainly for men, so she was encouraged to get involved with home missions. It was her older brother who was planning to go as a missionary, but when Mary was 25 years old, he died. She wondered if maybe she could go in his place. Early in 1874 the news of the death of David Livingstone stirred the church and created a great wave of missionary excitement. Mary was then determined to go!
In 1875, Mary was accepted to go with the Calabar Mission. So, at age 27, she sailed for Calabar (located within present day Nigeria). She was stationed in Duke Town as a school teacher. Her living conditions seemed too nice for a missionary, and she was discouraged at how routine her job was. She learned Efik, the local language, quickly and enjoyed teaching to some degree, but her heart was set on doing pioneer work. After three years, she was sent home on furlough because of malaria. When she returned, she was given a new task in Old Town, where she had the freedom to work by herself and live as she pleased. Mary decided to live with the local people as they lived. Her childhood of poverty made this lifestyle seem fairly normal. And, this way, she was able to save part of her missionary salary to send back to her family in Scotland.
Mary began to learn more and more about the culture of the local tribes. Witchcraft and spiritism and cruel tribal customs were hard to fight against. One custom that broke her heart was ‘twin-murder’. The tribes thought that twins were a result of a curse caused by an evil spirit who fathered one of the children. Both babies were brutally murdered and the mother was shunned from society. Overwhelmed and depressed, she knelt and prayed, “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow.” Rising, she said, “Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of kings. Mary rescued many twins and ministered to their mothers. She was continuously fighting against this evil practice, often risking her life to stop the leaders from killing twins. The Lord gave her favor with the tribesmen, and Mary eventually gained a respect unheard of for a woman.
After only three more years, Mary was sent home on yet another furlough because she was extremely sick. As she returned home, she took Janie, a 6-month-old twin girl she’d rescued. She was home for over three years, staying to look after her mother and sister, who were ill. While home, she would speak to churches and share stories from Africa. Everyone loved Janie and the story of her rescue, it was a powerful testimony. She then returned to Africa again, more determined than ever to pioneer into the interior. She was bold in her ministry and fearless as she traveled from village to village. Mary rescued hundreds of twin babies thrown out into the forest, prevented many wars, stopped the practice of trying to determine guilt by making them drink poison, healed the sick, and told the people about the great God of love whose Son came to earth to die on the cross that sinful men might have eternal life.
While in Africa, she received word that her mother and sister had died. Now Mary had no one close to her. She was overcome with loneliness. She wrote, “There is no one to write and tell my stories and troubles and nonsense to.” But she also found a sense of freedom, writing, “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will be anxious about me if I go upcountry.” So, in August of 1888, Mary went north to Okoyong the ‘up-country’ of West Africa. It was an area that had claimed the lives of missionaries in the past, but Mary was sure that pioneer work was best accomplished by women, who were less threatening to unreached tribes than men. For 15 years she stayed with the Okoyongs, teaching them, nursing them and being a peacemaker, they eventually made her a judge for the whole region.
During one of her sick leaves, she met Charles Morrison. He was a young missionary teacher serving in Duke Town. Although he was 18 years younger than her, they soon fell in love. Mary accepted his marriage proposal, but only after he assured her that he would work with her in Okoyong. Sadly, the marriage never happened. His health did not even allow him to stay in Duke Town, and, for Mary, missionary service came before personal relationships. She was destined to live alone with her adopted children. Mary’s lifestyle consisted of a mud hut (infested with roaches, rats, and ants), irregular daily schedule (normal in African culture), and simple cotton clothing (instead of the thick petticoats and dresses worn by most European women at the time). The other missionaries were unable to relate to her life. Mary didn’t focus on health precautions or cleanliness much. Although she did suffer from malaria occasionally, she outlived most of her missionary coworkers.
She was 55 when she moved on from Okoyong with her seven children to do pioneer work in Itu and other remote areas. She had much fruit with the Ibo people. Janie, her oldest adopted daughter, was a valuable asset in the work. So, for the last ten years of her life, Mary continued doing pioneer work while others came in behind her. Their ministry was made much easier because of her efforts. In 1915, nearly 40 years after coming to Africa, she died at the age of 66 in her mud hut. Mary Slessor has become an inspiration to all who hear her story. She was not only a pioneer missionary, but also a pioneer for women in missions.
By Rebecca Hickman
Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary, by W.P. Livingstone.
God and One Red Head: Mary Slessor of Calabar, by Carol Christian and Gladys Plummer.
From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, by Ruth A. Tucker