In a world where the generations of every century pursue order, stability, ease and pleasure, every once in a while a few peculiar souls come along who seem to flee from these pursuits. They abandon all natural securities, most common comforts, and almost everything else that is considered to make life tolerable and pleasurable. They swim against the strong currents of public opinion, violating all the norms. They don’t follow the ideas and counsel of the world around them but, rather, follow the teaching of Jesus Christ ; “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16.24-25 King James Version). Such people are a living mystery, and such a person was Mary Mitchell Slessor.
Mary was born in 1848 in Gilcomston, near Aberdeen, Scotland. The family that she was born into was very poor, largely as the result of her father’s, Mr. Robert Slessor’s, drinking problems. For years, Mary agonized over the abuses of an alcoholic father. At age eleven, Mary took on weaving work at a clothing factory in order to support her mother and siblings. There she worked from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., being given one hour for breakfast and one hour for dinner.1 On the weekends she regularly went to Sunday school. From Sunday school Mary went to Bible class and acquired an interest in spiritual things. The spiritual instruction that she received was like a ray of hope shining into an otherwise painful life.
Just as she received a ray of hope for herself, Mary’s life became a ray of hope to other children. She began teaching a class of “lovable lassies” every Saturday as a part of her church’s “Sabbath School.”2 God was very real to Mary and her hunger to know God better grew with every passing day. W. P. Livingstone has said:
She wished to know all He (God) had to tell her, in order that she might rule her conduct according to His will. Most of all it was the story of Christ that she pored over and thought about. His Divine majesty, the beauty and grace of His life, the pathos of His death on the cross, affected her inexpressibly. But it was His love, so strong, so tender, so pitiful, that won her heart and devotion and filled her with a happiness and peace that suffused her in her life like sunshine. In return she loved Him with a love so intense that it was often a pain. She felt that she could not do enough for one who had done so much for her. As the years passed she surrendered herself more and more to His influence, and was ready for any duty she was called upon to do for Him no matter how humble or exacting it might be. It was this passion of love and gratitude, this abandonment of self, this longing for service, that carried her into her life work. 3
With this kind of passion burning within her, it was impossible not to notice Mary’s faith.
One group of people who were quick to notice Mary’s faith was the group of street kids and gang members who filled the streets and alleys around Wishart Church. This church, which Mary attended, was located in the slums.
A decision was made to open a mission and Mary became involved by teaching a class of boys and girls. For years, Mary, now a young woman, laboured exhaustively in both the factory and the mission. She lived a life of poverty and often endured mistreatment from gang bullies. Through these experiences she matured as a Christian, and God was preparing her for even greater service.
Mary’s vision for greater service began to take form when she heard visiting missionaries tell their stories of adventure, peril and victory. Mary’s mother was also stirred by missionary stories. On one occasion, a pastor named William Anderson gave a moving appeal to Englishmen to serve the needs of the “Calabar” mission. 4 Calabar was a small outpost in a British region of West Africa, today a part of Nigeria. Mrs. Slessor desired to dedicate her son, John, to this mission. However, over time John’s health weakened and he died at a young age. Unexpected by Mrs. Slessor, Mary developed a burden to fulfill this calling herself. 5
Could it be that Mary had a calling to such a mysterious place as Calabar? The history of this mission outpost was as intriguing as Africa itself. In the early nineteenth century, a certain slave ship was wrecked as it traveled through the West African region of Calabar. The crew of the ship included a young medical surgeon, named Mr. Ferguson, who, along with the other members, made contact with Calabar’s natives. These natives treated them kindly and made a lasting impression on Ferguson’s mind. In time, another slaving vessel picked up the crew and Ferguson made his way, eventually, to Liverpool, England. In Liverpool he had a spiritual conversion to Christian faith. Having undergone this transformation, Ferguson now wanted to serve the African people. Through his efforts, communication was again made with the Calabar natives and a small mission outpost was established in 1846.6 Calabar was no paradise. It gained a reputation for sickness, disease and swift death, especially for Europeans who dared to journey there.
Mary determined to go. In 1875, she applied to a foreign mission board which, in turn, accepted her. In 1876, she was sent to Edinburgh for special training and tearful friends wished her well. On August 5th of that year Mary boarded the steamer, “Ethiopia,” – destination – West Africa.7 On September 11th, the Ethiopia crossed from the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the mud-coloured Calabar rivers. She was in a new land. On one side, she could see the flat Niger delta and, on the other side, she could see the Cameroon Mountains. As she journeyed upriver through the swampland, she was gazed upon by many natives. She was in a world of broken islands, with parrots flying above her and alligators slipping into the waters below her.8
Mary’s thoughts moved from the scenery around her to the purpose of her journey, serving God in the Calabar mission. In the following days, she met the staff of four ministers, four men teachers, four women teachers, a native minister and eighteen agents. Together, they served a weekly gathering of over a thousand natives.
She was put to work immediately, teaching in a day school. While Mary enjoyed working within this established community, her interests became drawn more and more to the out-district areas surrounding it. To her delight, young boys took her on visits through the bush into these areas. Mary applied herself zealously and learned the Efik language. She began venturing deeper and deeper into the out-district areas. She was studied curiously by the natives who came to call her “Ma.” 9
While many natives, out of curiosity, desired to meet Mary, Mary’s reason for contact was not curiosity but, rather, to share with them the love and gospel of Jesus Christ. She zealously and joyfully engaged in this endeavour. Time and time again, the personal cost for this service ran high. Mary suffered from loneliness. She also frequently came down with fevers, which sometimes brought her close to the point of death. Through these trials Mary persevered and put her trust in God.
Mary trusted God for more than just her work in Calabar. She requested of her mission permission to move to a more remote outpost called “Old Town.” In 1880, this request was granted and Mary moved there. From Old Town she was now closer to other small stations such as Qua, Akim and Ikot Ansa, which she visited repeatedly. Though there was not much in Old Town, there was a dilapidated house made of wattle and mud for her to live in. Mary prayed for the natives, visited their sick, conducted a Sunday school and, in a short period of time, was holding services which were attended by eighty to a hundred natives. She made great headway and even chiefs began confessing that their laws and customs were at variance with God. 10
One custom that especially grieved Mary was the treatment of newly born twins and their mothers. When a native mother gave birth to twins, it was believed that both she and at least one of the twins were cursed. The mother would be driven outside of the community and forced to live alone in the bush. The twins would then be discarded in the jungles and left to die. Time and time again, Mary would seek out the twins and bring them back to the camp. They would live with her and she would raise them herself.
Heroic deeds like these were respected by many natives. Large numbers of tribes-people became fiercely loyal to her. When she needed to travel from village to village, there were always young men who were willing to paddle her canoe. They could be heard singing, “Ma, our beautiful, beloved mother is on board, Ho! Ho! Ho!” 11
However, not everyone sang Mary’s praises. Mary frequently challenged long-standing tribal laws and customs. To some, this was very offensive. To others, it meant the salvation of their lives. On one occasion, two young sixteen-year old wives were caught leaving an area designated for women and entering a yard where a boy was sleeping. They were sentenced to receive a hundred stripes each. After the whipping, it would be customary to have salt rubbed into their wounds and to have further torture carried out. Mary intervened, rebuking both, the young women for their actions, and their judges for their excessive cruelty. In the end, the penalty was reduced to ten stripes and nothing more.12
In 1888, Mary was forty years old. At this time, a new threat faced the tribal people of the area. A warring tribe, known as the Okoyong, had conquered the Ibibios, east of Calabar. The Okoyongs were greatly feared for their violence, witchcraft, contempt of authority, plundering of property and slave stealing. Learning a little about them, Mary became burdened to reach out to them. All of her friends pled with her not to take on this challenge. Her friends said that the Okoyong were unreachable, and that she was liable to get herself killed. One young man exclaimed, with many sobs, “I will constantly pray for you, but you are courting death.” 13 Mary counted the cost for this mission and said, “I am going to a new tribe up-country, a fierce, cruel people, and everyone tells me that they will kill me. But I don’t fear any hurt – only to combat their savage customs will require courage and firmness on my part.” 14 When it was apparent that Mary could not be dissuaded, a Mr. Bishop agreed to accompany Mary to the tribe. Together, with a couple of others as well, and with five children, who Mary had rescued from abandonment, they headed up-river in a canoe.
At a certain point, they had to leave the canoe to journey inland on foot. This would be a four-mile trek to the Okoyong camp. It was decided that Mary and the children would go on ahead and make contact first, while the others would follow with all of the supplies. Soaked by the rain, Mary and the children trudged through the dark, noisy jungle. The oldest boy was eleven, the next oldest boy was eight and the other boy was three. A five-year old girl and an infant girl, slung in a bundle, were the other two children in this company. Together, they entered the Okoyong village to find it largely unoccupied. Most of the tribe was away attending a funeral, but they did return and Mary met the chief. Permission to stay with the tribe was granted to Mary. She gained the respect of these tribes-people and spent her time in prayer, helping the sick and tending to the children. Again, she challenged the laws and customs of the tribe. On one occasion, a tribes-girl visited the hut of a slave, something which was not allowed, and in the end hung herself. Consequently, another slave was accused of using sorcery to influence her actions. He, in turn, was sentenced to death. Mary protested, coolly and patiently, and the sentence was lessened to a flogging, food deprivation and cutting of his skin.15 On another occasion, a woman gave some food to another tribesman without her husband’s permission. Consequently, she was tied to a post so tightly that she screamed in pain. Next, burning oil was to be applied to her. Again, Mary intervened and pled for the woman’s release. In this case, Mary succeeded in moving the captive to Mary’s own residence where the captive was protected from a violent crowd. The crowd eventually dispersed, bringing the situation to an end. 16
Mary did not remain exclusively in Okoyong. News would be brought to her of chiefs from neighbouring villages who were in need of medical attention. Mary would go to them with medicine and attend to their needs.
In some villages, chiefs permitted Mary to have mission houses erected. Mary graciously went ahead with these projects but refused to make use of the slave labor which was offered to her for this purpose. 17
Slavery was one of many customs that Mary opposed. While some resented her meddling with their traditions, others appreciated Mary’s bold and heartfelt stands. Repeatedly, tribes-people would come to her in secret and thank her for the safety that she was bringing to many of them. One tribesman, named Edem, even said, “We are all weary of the old customs.”18 Mary continued loving and serving all who crossed her path. One day, some village women told Mary that they had heard the sound of a child feebly crying by a certain pathway that they had crossed earlier in the day. Mary went in search of the child and found the little girl, who at this point was barely alive. She nursed her back to health and adopted her. The child was named after herself, Mary.19
Mary’s life was a continual mix of gentle, kind deeds, such as adopting abandoned children, and bold, courageous deeds, in which she confronted and opposed evil practices. On one occasion, two tribes had decided to fight each other. As armed warriors from each side began closing in on each other, Mary rushed in between them and insisted on them finding a peaceful solution to their conflict. After a time, the warriors walked up to Mary, one by one, and laid their guns down at her feet. In the end, there was a pile of guns five feet high on either side of Mary and no fighting occurred.20
On another occasion, Mary was preparing to take a furlough trip to England. She was also very sick at this time. In the middle of this, a message was brought to her telling about a certain young man who had shot himself in the hand. Because it seemed that the man’s injury was not life-threatening, Mary gave instructions to the messengers on how to bandage and treat the wound. However, almost immediately, other messengers came saying that the man was dead, and that two tribes were going to fight each other over this ordeal. Mary determined to go and try to bring peace to the situation. Her friends tried to stop her, insisting that she was too weak with sickness, and that she would probably miss her steamer to England. Mary could not be dissuaded. Upon arriving at the village, she asked one of the chiefs about the situation. He responded, “I have heard of no war, but will enquire regarding it in the morning, if in the event of there being war, you persist in going on you prove your ignorance of the people, who from all times have been a war-loving people, and who are not likely to be helped by a woman.”21 Mary responded, “In measuring the woman’s power, you have evidently forgotten to take into account the woman’s God.”22 Mary continued to walk through the village and, sure enough, came across bands of armed men preparing to fight. She boldly addressed them and reasoned with them on the futility of fighting. The men from one of these bands silently stood like a wall in front of her. However, after a few moments, something unexpected happened. An old man stepped out of the crowd of the other band men, walked up to Mary and knelt at her feet. He then admitted that someone from his tribe was responsible for the shooting. He begged her to use her influence to stop the ensuing slaughter. Mary immediately began giving instruction and advice. Representatives from both tribes were brought together and very tense negotiations were initiated. At first, it looked like a slaughter was unavoidable but, in the end, the injured tribe agreed to accept a payment in exchange for peace. Now that the conflict had been resolved, a second problem was developing. Mobs of armed tribesmen now wanted to celebrate the peaceful settlement by consuming a supply of liquor. Mary foresaw the danger that this posed and forbade the opening of the crates of liquor. There was much opposition to this, so Mary spread a layer of her own clothing over top of the liquor crates. 23 Mary had been given honorary status in the Egbo Society. According to their customs, if someone touched her garments, which were now spread over the liquor crates, they would be violating Mary. 24 They did not dare to do this, but they did continue to demand the liquor. In the end, a compromise was reached and Mary allowed one glass of gin to be consumed by each of the older and chief men in the crowd. Mary remained until evening to be sure that there was no further danger and then began her journey back to the ship port. 25
Having endured this trial, Mary caught her ship to England, not knowing that in England she would be facing a trial of another kind. Mary was forty-two years old and single. Her fame had spread in England. One of her many admirers was a Mr. Charles W. Morrison. Morrison worked as a teacher-trainer of mission agents and ministers. He fell in love with Mary and proposed to her. They discussed their future and Mary stressed the importance of her continuing her work in Okoyong. The twenty-five year old Morrison was willing to go with Mary and endure whatever hardship would face them in Okoyong. She accepted his proposal and engagement ring, and they began telling their friends the happy news. How would the Mission Board react to this news? Mary reassured the Board of her commitment to the people of Okoyong. She told them that she believed Mr. Morrison would make a very good missionary, and that they would be able to relieve each other in their work.26 The Board responded in a letter to Morrison, saying that Morrison had already committed to working for them in the capacity of teacher-trainer and that he was needed for that position at the present time. Morrison took this news quite hard. His health was broken to the point where he had to leave his work and remain at home as an invalid. Mary wrote a moving letter to Morrison’s mother, saying that the two must part but, if Morrison’s health improved and the way opened for him to come to Africa, their engagement would stand. Morrison’s health remained fragile and he was not able to get permission to go to Calabar. He was advised to find a dry climate and he decided to live for a time with his brother in North Carolina, U.S.A. He made this trip, but died not long afterwards. 27 Mary overcame the disappointment of this experience and continued to serve God in the Calabar-Okoyong area.
It is important to understand how loosely governed this part of West Africa was in the late-1800s. There was no central native government and the British consular jurisdiction over this area was disputed.28 In 1889, England took steps to establish an efficient and working administration by creating “the Niger Coast Protectorate.”
In 1891, a Sir Claude MacDonald was appointed Consul-General of the Protectorate, and he began organizing vice-consuls to bring administration to these districts. He wished to send someone to Okoyong, as well. Mary advised him that the natives of Okoyong would not respond well to foreign rule and to foreign laws being imposed on them. Realizing Mary’s unique position of influence in the region, MacDonald appointed her to run a native court. She had mixed feelings over this appointment, but she did accept it and began presiding over the court. After these many years, Mary had gained the trust of Okoyong’s chiefs and had a good working relationship with them. Many natives came to her for help with personal and social problems. 29
One day, Mary found herself with a problem of her own. While traveling by canoe between Okoyong and Umon, together with some men and some of the twin children, they encountered a hippopotamus who was quickly moving through the waters towards them. It attacked the canoe savagely. One of the men thrust his paddle into the hippopotamus’s open mouth and this caused the canoe to turn sharply to one side. Mary began shielding the children by holding tin basin covers between them and the infuriated hippopotamus, who was still trying to grip and upset the canoe. It rushed at them several times, bellowing and snapping its jaws. The men kept swinging their paddles in the air and Mary and the children prayed for help. After being struck many times by the paddles, the hippopotamus retreated. 30
Another dimension to Mary’s life was her correspondence with loved ones in Britain. Although she was thousands of miles away from them, Mary maintained friendships across the seas. She would lovingly enquire about the lives of others, especially young people, anxious to know if they had consecrated themselves to the Lord. 31 She also received letters from many others in Scotland, England, Canada and America, and these proved to be a great source of encouragement to her. On one occasion, she was traveling by foot for miles along a hill road and was feeling weary and depressed. A messenger handed her a letter and she sat down in a bushy spot to read it. Livingstone says, “As she read all the tiredness fled, the heat was forgotten, the road was easy and she went blithely up the hill.” 32
People came to Mary because her life was so different and was graced with so much love. There was no end to her many sacrifices. She frequently was strained by sickness as she endured the harsh conditions of nineteenth-century Africa. Livingstone has said that “her life was one long martyrdom.”33 Things that proved fatal for other people, did not seem so for her. She would not use mosquito netting, something which was considered to be an indispensable protection against malaria and other viruses. Neither did she wear a hat, despite the hot African sun. She traveled barefoot in places where snakes and poisonous plants were common. She ate native foods.34 All who knew her, marvelled over her life and over the choices that she made. One deputy, a Dr. Laws, thought “that few women, or even men, could have stood the isolation that she endured.” 35 She did not live for herself but, rather, for her Lord, Who had chosen her as His child and had commissioned her as His servant. Livingstone writes:
She had deliberately given up everything for her Master and she accepted all the consequences that the renunciation involved. What she did was for Him, and as she was not her own and had taken Him at His word and believed that He would care for her if she kept in line with His will, she went forward without fear, knowing that she might, through inadvertence, incur suffering, but willing to bear it for His sake and His cause. Her faith and devotion led her into strange situations, and these shaped the character of her outward life and habits.36
This beautiful devotion to the Lord also found expression in her ability to sympathize with those whom she served. She intimately felt their pain. She wrote to one friend, “If I told you what I have seen and known of human sorrow during the past months you would weep till your heart ached.”37 She bonded deeply with tribal women and Livingstone writes, “She entered into their lives as few have been able to do. She treated them as human beings, saw the romance and tragedy in their patient lives, wept over their trials, and rejoiced in their joys.” 38 She had an undying love for the babies of the bush who had been abandoned. She would find them, receive them as her own, watch over them at night and, in many cases, nurse them back to health. Sometimes they would be returned to their parents, and other times they would stay with Mary. Those children who died, she would dress and place inside a box with flowers. She would hold a service for them, bury them in graves and mourn over them as if they were her own children. 39 At times, she saw the fruit of her labours and, at other times, her results seemed discouraging. However, she never lost hope and, on one occasion, said, “There is not much progress to report and yet very much to thank God for, and lead us to take courage.” 40 She also said, “After all, it comes back to this, Christ sent me to preach the gospel, and He will look after results.” 41
For years, Mary battled with ill health. On Friday the 8th of January, 1915, the sixty-six year old Mary Slessor sat in a deck chair writing letters. That afternoon she experienced a bad fever and a doctor was sent for. Mary was very weak and lay resting for the next few days. The girls she had rescued and raised stood around her bedside. At 3:30, on the 12th, Mary died. Two funerals were held for her, one in English and the other in the Efik language. These were attended by natives, government officials, merchants, missionaries and others. Flags flew at half-mast as her coffin was carried past crowds of on-lookers to its burial spot.
It is impossible to know just how many lives were touched by Mary Slessor. Numerous chiefs were brought to Christ through her witness. A number of churches were raised up in the tribal communities where she laboured. In 1914, Itu had a congregation of 109. The Okpo congregation had a101 members, Asang had 428, Obufa Obio had113 and Ntan Obu had 111. 42 If we count those who journeyed from other regions to see her, her influence covered an area of over 2,000 square miles. Even in Northern Nigeria, people spoke of her as “good White Ma who lived alone.” 43
Mary once wrote:
It is a real life I am living now. Not all preaching and holding meetings, but rather a life and an atmosphere where the people can touch and live in and be made willing to believe in when the higher truths are brought before them. In many things it is a most prosaic life, dirt and dust and noise and stillness and sin in every form, but full, too, of the kindliness and homeliness and dependence of children who are not adverse to be disciplined and taught, and who understand and love just as we do. 44
Mary’s life will forever be a testimony to the victory of living faith. She further wrote these words for us to consider:
My life is one long daily, hourly record of answered prayer. For physical health, for mental overstrain, for guidance given marvellously, for errors and dangers averted, for enmity for the Gospel subdued, for food provided at the exact hour needed, for everything that goes to make up life and my poor service. I can testify with a full and often wonder-stricken awe that I believe God answers prayer. I know God answers prayer. I have proved during long decades while alone, as far as man’s help and presence are concerned, that God answers prayer. Cavilings, logical or physical are of no avail to me. It is the very atmosphere in which I live and breath and have my being, and it makes life glad and free and a million times worth living. I can give no other testimony. I am sitting alone here on a log among a company of natives. My children, whose lives are a testimony that God answers prayer, are working around me. Natives are crowding past on the bush road to attend palavers, and I am at perfect peace, far from my own countrymen and conditions, because I know God answers prayer. Food is scarce just now. We live from hand to mouth. We have not more than will be our breakfast today, but I know we shall be fed, for God answers prayer. 45
Mary’s inspiring life of faith shines like a light in the darkness. She has one last word of advice for us to consider:
Don’t grow up a nervous old maid! Gird yourself for the battle outside somewhere, and keep your heart young. Give up your whole being to create music everywhere, in the light places and in the dark places, and your life will make melody … Mine has been such a joyous service…God has been good to me, letting me serve Him in this humble way. I cannot thank Him enough for the honor He conferred upon me when He sent me to the Dark Continent. 46
1. W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1924), 4.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Ibid., 8.
4. Ibid., 13.
5. Ibid., 13.
6. Ibid., 14-15.
7. Ibid., 20.
8. Ibid., 22-23.
9. Ibid.., 25.
10. Ibid., 35.
11. Ibid., 39.
12. Ibid., 41-42.
13. Ibid., 64.
14. Ibid., 57.
15. Ibid., 70.
16. Ibid., 72.
17. Ibid., 85.
18. Ibid., 102.
19. Ibid., 104.
20. Ibid., 105.
21. Ibid., 108.
22. Ibid., 108.
23. Ibid., 109-111.
24. Carol Christian and Gladys Plummer, God and One Redhead: Mary Slessor of Calabar (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), 84.
25. W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary, 111.
26. Ibid., 114.
27. Carol Christian and Gladys Plummer, God and One Redhead: Mary Slessor of Calabar, 89-90.
28. W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary, 27.
29. Ibid., 128-129.
30. Ibid., 171.
31. Ibid., 173.
32. Ibid., 325.
33. Ibid., 131.
34. Ibid., 131.
35. Ibid., 145.
36. Ibid., 132.
37. Ibid., 54.
38. Ibid., 133.
39. Ibid., 138.
40. Ibid., 154.
41. Ibid., 154-155.
42. Ibid., 343.
43. Ibid., 344.
44. Ibid., 270.
45. Ibid., 293.
46. Ibid., 322.