Miss Slessor – A Woman Who Stopped Evil – from Scotland to Africa with Love!
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God has raised up some brave & powerful people in the world, but few compare to Miss Mary Slessor from Scotland.
Mary Slessor: Pioneer Missionary to Nigeria
Mary Slessor was a dedicated missionary in the late 1800s to early 1900s, with a vigor and passion that brought the Lord’s Kingdom to Africa. She is now noted as one of Africa’s top missionaries, and much of West Africa was evangelized due to the open door that Mary created for the next generation of missionaries to follow after her. Born in 1848 to a Scottish family, Mary would go on to transform the world with the Gospel.
Who is Mary Slessor? Mary Slessor was a devoted missionary, with nearly 40 years dedicated to the nation of Nigeria. While pouring into the nation in which she loved, Mary would become one of the first single missionary women to make a nationwide impact. Bravely, she did missions work without a team or a family. Mary transformed whole communities with the love of the Gospel; starting orphanages, preaching the Good News, standing up for women’s rights, and saving many innocent lives from death. Today, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and churches all stand because of the impact Mary Slessor left in West Africa.
Her loving devotion to impact the world makes Mary’s missionary story the seventh in our 10 Christian Missionaries Every Christian Should Know because of her remarkable impact in West Africa and for her passion for the call of missions.
Table of Contents
- A Childhood Call to Missions
- The Journey To Life Overseas
- A Life for the Great Commission
- Life with the Okoyong Tribe
- The Late Years of Mary’s Mission
- A Legacy that Impacted the World
Timeline of Mary Slessor’s Life
Year – Event:
1848 – Mary was born on December 2nd, to a pious mother and alcoholic father.
1859 – Began work in a factory to help support her family.
1876 – Mary is appointed by United Presbyterian Church to Nigeria as a missionary and teacher.
1879 – Mary makes first visit home due to illness.
1880 – Mary returns to Calabar, becomes in charge of the women’s work at Old Town.
1883 – Second visit home with Janie, a young African girl.
1885 – Returns to Calabar, her new station is in Creek Town.
Death of her mother, December.
1888 – Entered Okoyong alone.
1891 – Third visit home because of illness with Janie.
1892 – Made British government Agent (Consul) in Okoyong.
1898 – Fourth visit home because of illness, with four of her adopted children.
1903 – Started a Mission at Itu. Reached Arochuku.
1908 – Began a home for women and girls at Use.
1913 – Mary receives the Royal Medal; began work at Odoro Ikpe.
1915 – Mary passes away at Use on January 13th.
A Childhood Call to Missions
Mary was born on December 2nd, 1848 , to a pious mother and alcoholic father. While the family struggled in poverty, they decided to relocate to Dundee, Scotland in hopes of a better life. Yet, her father’s alcohol addiction grew, so Mary was forced to work at the local mill. He would also force Mary out on the streets for days as a young child, and she was left hungry and abandoned.
Starting at the local mill, Mary was considered a “half-timer”. This meant that she would spend half of her time at the mill’s school for her education, and she would spend the other half of her time working at the mill. Even still, she was a curious child, who was fascinated by learning and asked many questions. She was considered very bright by her teachers.
Mary was the second child of seven, and on Sunday’s all of the seven children and their mother would go to church. The church is where Mary was first introduced to the idea of missions because every Sunday the pastor would speak very highly of the missionaries all around the world. Journals were published with accounts of remarkable missionary stories, captivating the imagination of young Mary. Her favorite stories to read were those of David Livingstone and his quests to Africa.
Another missionary influence in Mary’s life was surprisingly her older brother. Mary’s brother always said that he would one day be a missionary when he was grown, but sadly, the boy passed away from pneumonia. At a young age, Mary resolved to fulfill her brother’s calling from the Lord.
At Sunday School, Mary was introduced to salvation, while simultaneously being very fearful of the “eternity of fire”. She never wanted anyone to experience hell, including herself. She came to the salvation of Jesus Christ at a young age. All of these things led Mary later in life to revealing salvation to other people in the world.
The Journey To Life Overseas
As she became a young woman, Mary decided to become a Sunday School teacher. She would long imagine teaching the dark-skinned children she had heard of in Africa, but like all missionaries, she had the training to do at home.
While at home as a Sunday School teacher, Mary would evangelize children in the streets, inviting them to come to her Sunday School services. Due to the abuse, she experienced as a child from her father, Mary had deep compassion and empathy for the lost and abandoned children in the streets. This would later carry on into her ministry for the rest of her life.
When Mary was 26 years old, she was re-inspired to her call of missions. She, like the rest of the world, was enchanted by David Livingstone’s life in Africa. In honor of Livingstone’s death, she devoted herself to follow his footsteps, following the path he had started in Africa.
Two years later, Mary joined the United Presbyterian Church as a missionary teacher. Mary was also accepted into the Foreign Missions Board, and she was bold enough to go anywhere. She had high hopes to move to Nigeria, but there was never any guarantee. She had no idea if this dream would become a reality.
After training for months to be a missionary, Mary sailed for Calabar, Nigeria in 1876 .
A Life for the Great Commission
Most men who journeyed to Calabar from Mary’s home never returned. It was by no means a “safe” choice for a young, single, missionary woman. Mary stands out for her boldness and willingness to do the unthinkable of her time.
Arriving at the “White Man’s Grave”, Mary soon realized how Calabar stood to this infamous name. Many of the tribal people in Calabar had no regard for human life and killed relentlessly. Mary learned upon arrival about the twisted tradition of killing twins due to the tribal beliefs of evil spirits within the twins.
What also infuriated the young missionary were the human sacrifices to carved wooden idols. Witnessing the horrific sacrifices, Mary decided that she would stand up for the women, slaves, and children’s lives. Having no tolerance for such evil, Mary used any authority she had to stop the waste of human life.
The young missionary would then go on to choose Duke Town as the place to launch her missionary work. This was the best choice for Mary because there already happened to be missionaries there. She learned the language and culture of the Nigerian people from fellow Christians. Age 27 is when Mary devoted herself to learning the language, Efik. This gave her the avenue to go further inland, which she desired desperately to do. Mary was most passionate about sharing the name of Jesus where it had never been heard before.
Gaining the knowledge she needed, Mary decided to leave her comfortable missionary home and travel alone. She wanted to live in the huts and villages of the people, leaving no barrier between her and them. So Miss Slessor went inland all alone, despite many protests.
Unfortunately, while gaining momentum in ministry, Mary had to return home after living in Nigeria for three years due to the unforeseen illness, malaria.
The Missionary Continues
Deadly illness would be enough to keep most at home, but not Mary. Mary returned to Nigeria, this time to Old Town.During this chapter of her life, Mary was given even more freedom than she had before from the mission board back home, to go places where missionaries had not gone before. She always longed to pioneer a way for the Gospel, just like her role model, David Livingstone.
As she lived with the tribal people, she gained more and more respect due to her lack of fear and her disbelief in superstitions. Even still, her heart was breaking for what she witnessed. Women being buried alive with their dead husbands, cannibalism, and infanticide all led Mary to be very discouraged because her heart was so broken for the innocent. She then would kneel down and pray;
“Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow. Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of Kings.”
– Mary Slessor
During this time in her life, Mary focused a great deal of energy and effort to saving twins who were facing death by the tribal leaders. She also devoted herself to ministering to the twin’s mothers, who were often isolated from the village to die.
Mary did this for three years before she had to return home yet again due to illness. This time, she took a small child she had rescued from death. She named the girl Janie, who was six-months-old at the time. Mary would raise Janie as her own.
Back home, Janie would prove to be huge evidence for the testimony of what Mary was doing in Nigeria. While at home, Mary shared her stories, which greatly inspired other Christians to missions.
Missions Moves Inland
Upon return to Nigeria, Mary was more determined than ever to travel even further still from the coast. Finally, she saw a position to go to the unreached, where no missionary had gone before. She went further inland to the depths of Old Town, Nigeria.
She would travel about with young Janie, going from village to village. In these new places, Mary saved even more twin babies and got to the heart of many vile and superstitious practices. She taught that guilt was not determined by poison drinking and that gods do not need sacrifices. Mary then started to introduce the Gospel that had never been heard of by these new villages.
Life with the Okoyong Tribe
During this time, Mary discovered the Okoyong tribe. She had a particular burden for them because the violence, drugs, and slavery was so devastating to their tribe. Their entire tribe was overcome by it, a place where darkness was rampant. Poverty, murder, and disease ruled the Okoyong’s lives.
Mary could not tear herself away from the idea of living with the tribe, even though so many other tribes advised against it.
Other tribes were not the only people who disagreed with Mary’s idea. Her mission committee disagreed as well. Finally, after years of requests which started in 1886, Mary went to the Okoyong people in 1888 . Sent with a bodyguard, Mary journeyed into Okoyong tribe territory. Despite the great protests, Mary never let fear stop her. Even still, she writes,
“I had often a lump in my throat… and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away.”
– Mary Slessor, 1888
Transformation through Missions
From here on, Mary allowed herself to be transformed by the people. Adopting every practice of theirs that she could, without giving up her faith. She even stopped dressing like a Westerner and wore tribal woman’s clothing. The Scottish woman was practically a native, besides her very light-colored skin.
In the Okoyong tribe, she would end up having close to 12 children at a time in her home; all children she has saved from being left for dead.
Mary tirelessly worked to resolve the violence within the tribe. It seemed there was an internal war amongst the people, and she realized that the heart of the issue must be found. It was obvious to Mary that there were addiction problems and hatred, but why?
Through many years spent with the people, Mary realized that the lack of even a basic economic system was causing most of the disruption. The missionary knew that this was not the Lord’s design. Without an economic system, the people were living a meaningless life that was leading to bitterness and disunity.
Unifying the Okoyong Tribe
Mary decided to unite the men through their labor, despite the chief’s disapproval. Not only did this serve as a unifying factor for the tribespeople, but they even started to created good relationships with surrounding tribes through trading. Through the newly developed relationships, the Okoyong people were introduced to Christ by other tribes that Mary had discipled. Many Okoyong members came to Christ through Mary’s devotion to God.
By introducing a basic economy to the Okoyong tribe, Mary demonstrated the genius of Livingstone’s vision for Africa. She was walking out Livingstone’s plan for the African people, the way that he saw fit. As she had always hoped, Mary was following the path of David Livingstone.
Mary dedicated 15 years of her life and ministry to the Okoyong tribe which ended in great success. There was a complete shift in the entire tribe and for the generations to come because so many souls had surrendered to Jesus.
In 1892, Mary Slessor was appointed vice-consul of the Okoyong territory by the British consul-general, Major Claude MacDonald. This meant that Mary was the judge and law enforcer for the British Government in her African territory. In this position, she never supported the British Government in their use of force towards oppressing cannibal tribes. Mary was known for her disdain towards murder, but she always transformed the village through the love of God, not through force like the British. Mary protected Nigerian tribes from the British force and imperialism, by transforming their culture rather than abolishing it.
The Late Years of Mary’s Mission
Mary was 55 years old when the Lord called her to move with her seven children to do pioneer missions work elsewhere. She would continue with pioneer missions for the remainder of her missionary life. This meant that for another 10 years Mary would bring the Gospel to tribes who had not yet heard of Jesus. It also meant that Mary was diligently laboring to plant churches where churches were unheard of.
During this season of her life, Mary was called by God to the Azo people. This was an especially dangerous mission because the area was filled with cannibals. The Azo people were also heavily influenced by the slave trade. Yet, Mary was obedient to the Lord always, which produced miraculous fruit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, even in a tribe where people were constantly dehumanized, villagers came to Christ.
Towards the end of her missionary career, in 1904, Mary evangelized and discipled the Itu tribe, and she stayed with this tribe for several years, starting a missionary base in the region. This base would be a turning point for the younger generation of missionaries, a launching point for the furthering of the Gospel.
From the Itu, the Ibo, the Azo people groups, and beyond, Mary produced much fruit for the Kingdom of God. Many tribal people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Mary’s tremendous fame helped in the matter because she was trusted quite quickly by most tribes. Through the last years of her ministry, Mary planted churches and taught the next generation of missionaries so that they would also be successful missionaries in Africa.
The End of Mary’s Mission
It was in 1913, before the end of Mary’s life, as well as her missionary career, that Mary received an award from the British government as an “Honorary Associate of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem”. However, Mary’s life was not one of material gain, and she reportedly felt embarrassed to receive the award. The devoted missionary knew that her reward was in Heaven.
Mary was struck with malaria once again, but this time she refused to go home. In 1915, when Mary Slessor was 66 years old, she passed away in her mud hut in a village called Use. Mary was not alone, she was surrounded by the children who loved her, as she went to be with her Father in Heaven.
An account of her death recalls;
“The men-murdering world war with its flood of horror reached the far seclusion of Odore Ikpe and caused acute suffering to the little gray-haired lady there, more suffering than her worn-out body was able to sustain, and there she breathed her last on earth surrounded by the children whose lives she had saved”
Old Mammy Fuller, an Okoyong tribeswoman wrote of the weeping and wailing of Africa during the funeral of Mary Slessor. Old Mammy Fuller would miss the missionary dearly herself, but knowing God because of Mary, she called out, “Do not cry, do not cry. Praise God from whom all blessings flow”.
Mary Slessor, named “Eka Kpukpru Owo“, meaning “everybody’s mother” was carried through Calabar in the grandest procession that West Africa had ever seen. She was mourned by many; a woman who had impacted the lives of a great multitude, a woman who single-handedly transformed dark places into light through the Gospel. A woman who proclaimed the Good News, eternal life and love to those who were lost. She was buried on a white-sanded hill, the Mission Hill at Duke Town.
She was called “White Mother” by many and respected by all the tribes she encountered in Africa. Written about by the Europeans, they would say “Have you seen Mary Slessor, what a wonder!”, “What a woman worth seeing!”, “Mary Slessor, she is the most wonderful woman of all West Africa!”. Mary Slessor was buried near her home, on Mission Hill in Duke Town, Nigeria. She wanted to die in the nation she had devoted her life to.
Mary was deeply mourned by the Nigerian people, and by people all around the world. Upon her death, it was written about Mary Slessor and her mission;
“She who loved us, she who sought us,
Brought us healing, brought us comfort,
Brought the sunshine to our darkness—
She has gone—the dear white Mother—
Thus she taught and thus she labored;
Living, spent herself to help us,
Dying, found her rest among us…”
Although Mary fought an uphill battle, with God, she taught the Nigerians that all lives are valuable to both God and man. Even in the face of adversity, Mary would write,
“God and one are always a majority”
– Mary Slessor
A Legacy that Impacted the World
Mary Slessor was a missionary with an activist mentality, who transformed a nation through the Gospel. She opened up doorways to the unreached and brought Christ-like morality to places of despair.
Mary touched the hearts of those in Nigeria, and she also captivated the hearts of the Scottish, and the world alike. Mary also taught the British how to cherish the Nigerian people, and in return, there was greater peace. She inspired many British citizens to become missionaries, and so the influx of missionaries was sent to Africa following her life.
Mary not only loved the Nigerian people but she also never gave up. Her perseverance serves as a precedent to other missionaries, demonstrating that persistence and patience are key. She was a prime example of determination, which led to her reforming tribal societies. This led to an outpouring of women’s rights, the innocent children’s lives saved, education systems, and orphanages.
Mary wanted to share the light of Christ to those who needed it desperately. This missionary shows us that even in the face of discouragement, giving our devotion to the Lord’s plan will always lead to the highest success for the lost.
-  Mary Slessor 1848-1915: “Mother of All the Peoples”
-  Dictionary of African Christian Biography: Mary Slessor
-  Mission to Educate: A History of the Educational Work of the Scottish Presbyterian Mission in East Nigeria 1846-1960
Mary Slessor – Scottish missionary to West Africa
Mary Slessor: Mission Africa
The story of Mary Slessor’s battle to bring the gospel and civilization to the “Dark Continent.”
The place is the Calabar River on the slave coast of Africa. The time is an afternoon in September 1876. A rusty ocean steamer is heading toward the mouth of the Calabar. This part of Africa is known as the White Man’s Grave, and only a fool could come here without being afraid. The land a few miles from shore is unexplored. Killer elephants and lions, swarms of insects, witch doctors, and cannibals live there. To enter that land would mean death.
Life means little along the Calabar. Slavery is common and to kill a woman or a slave means nothing. If a family has too many children, they will just leave the unwanted child in the bushes to die. The birth of twins is thought to be an evil sign. Twin babies are cruelly murdered, and their mother is driven from her home to die in the jungle.
There is no respect for truth and honesty here. “Do right” would be a meaningless phrase, for these people do not understand what is right. The law of the jungle is “do whatever you can get away with.” For this reason, people live their short lives in fear and filth.
The boat drops anchor well up the Calabar River beside a rough town. This is Duke Town. The mission station at Duke Town is the destination for the only woman traveling aboard the steamer. Mary Slessor is coming from Scotland to serve God in this harsh climate. A small boat from the mission comes alongside the steamer and takes her to shore.
Mary Slessor is 29 years old. She comes from a poor family. Her father was a drunkard, but her mother was a godly woman. Since she was 11, Mary has earned her living working in factories for twelve hours a day, six days a week. Despite these hard circumstances, she served God faithfully in Scotland, and the hardships have helped prepare her to serve Him now in Africa.
The Duke Town missionaries have had some success in the coastal regions. They have built a school, hospital, orphanage, and chapel at the station. Through their preaching and teaching they have been able to stop some of the worst heathen practices. The village leaders are beginning to realize that what they call “God-law” (the teachings from the Bible) makes sense. On any Sunday there are several hundred natives in services.
This was the situation when Mary Slessor began her work teaching in the mission station and visiting in the coastal and river villages. As soon as Mary could learn the local languages, she went without a translator. She was told that it was dangerous to travel alone, but she found that she could get to know the people better in this way.
The farther Mary traveled from the mission station, the greater needs she found. Mary told the natives the good news of Christ. She urged them to quit worshiping the skulls of dead men and not to be afraid of “evil spirits.” The new missionary taught, “Do not kill the wives and slaves of a ‘big man’ when he dies. They cannot help him in the next life.” She showed the women better ways to fix food and keep homes and children clean.
Sometimes at night Mary would lie awake on a dirt floor in some coastal village. “Oh Lord,” she prayed, “I thank Thee that I can bring these people Thy Word. But Lord, there are other villages back in the jungle where no white man has gone. They need Jesus, too. Help me reach them!” Then, whenever she had an opportunity, she would ask another missionary or a native about her going to these villages. The answer was always the same: “No. You would be killed. They cannot be reached.”
Her worst enemy was the tropical diseases which hit her so suddenly. There were many times when it seemed as though she were about to die, but she pulled through. It was a real temptation to forsake this unhealthy area and return to the cool mists of Scotland.
The Scottish missionary did go home on a short furlough, but she soon came back to Africa. She was thrilled to learn that she was now to be on her own at an outstation. Her new home was Old Town, some distance upriver from Duke Town.
Her first view of Old Town was of a human skull swinging from a pole in front of the town meeting house. Each hut had its own little gods. Mary’s “home” was a mud hut next to a trader.
Her days were full of treating sick, teaching the Bible, and visiting neighbors. Mary became known throughout the area for her wise, fair counsel. There was a Christian chief, King Eyo Honesty the Sixth, who often asked Mary for advice in dealing with white men. She, in turn, asked him for help in working with the natives.
Mary was successful in Old Town, but she was also deeply burdened for the remote Okoyong tribe that had never heard the gospel. How could she bring the love of Christ to these people as well? They valued only three things: guns to have power, chains to keep their slaves, and liquor to dull their minds. But God was leading her there, and Mary was willing to trust God to show her how to win these savage people to Christ.
Mary prayed for God’s leading. At last, in June 1888, she quietly announced that she would go upriver alone and find a place to settle. “You will die. You will die,” her friends told her. They wept at the prospect of her leaving.
King Eyo Honesty said that if she must go, he would send her as a “big person” in his own special canoe. It was the grandest canoe in all of Calabar. Mary accepted Eyo’s offer and headed for the land of the Okoyong. The farther they went, the more her twenty paddlers wanted to turn back. They feared the Okoyong. But the Lord was with the group, and they arrived safely. The Lord had also prepared the heart of the chief of the first village they found. Mary was the first outsider ever allowed to live there. The chief also said that she could build a school.
This area was far more wicked than any Mary had seen. The people respected only vengeance and cruelty. To a people who did not know what love was, Mary brought the love of Christ.
This was a wild time for the missionary. Hardly a day went by without a serious crisis. Mary knew that she could not expect to change their lives immediately, but she could not merely stand back and watch these people do wrong. She got little rest and her health was bad. But she was always there when she was needed.
Whenever Mary heard of any trouble, she would rush to the scene. As she approached, the men would be preparing for war. They passed around liquor, danced, and yelled threats at the other side. They were in war paint, and their spears and shields glimmered in the sun. The skulls and scalps of earlier victims waved from poles.
Just as the two sides were about to rush together, they saw a small, seemingly calm woman standing on a log between them. “Out of the way, Ma. We fight!”
She ignored the shouting warrior.
“Out of the way. You die, too, white Ma. Move on!”
“Shoot if you dare!” she called back.
When the two sides came to remove this gray-haired obstacle, Mary knew that she had won. She would scold them as children, plead with them to show mercy, or suggest they move to the shade of a tree to talk. Mary knitted while they talked, and she got a lot of knitting done. After hours of talking the men were calmer and too tired to fight. They went home without bloodshed.
News of trouble might come too late for Mary to get there in time. If this happened, she would go to her table, pull out a fine piece of parchment, and quickly make big marks all over it. She then sealed this with wax and tied it with a great red ribbon. A runner sped this important document to where the fight was about to begin. Mary’s scribbles were nothing but nonsense, but none of the Okoyong could read! The warriors would spend the day puzzling over the important piece of paper sent by the “white Ma.” They would still be studying the document when Mary arrived in person to settle the dispute.
After a time, Mary realized that as long as the Okoyong had nothing else to do, they would get drunk, and drunkenness always led to fighting. “Perhaps,” she thought, “if they knew there was something better, this would stop.”
Mary displayed her nicest possessions: some cloth, a teapot, and an old sewing machine. The Okoyong liked what they saw. “You can have nicer things than this if you take the palm oil and yams to the traders,” she told them.
“These things you have–very nice,” said one chief. “But it is no good. Traders afraid to come here. No good for us to go to them. River gods kill us.”
“I will go with you. You will be safe.
“No. Too much bad.”
Mary told of the wonderful things down the river. Finally they agreed to go and loaded a canoe. The chiefs and warriors shook with fear as they set off towards Duke Town and Old Town.
King Eyo hosted a great feast for the visiting chiefs. He showed them the good things they could have if they gave up their old ways. He told them that the God of the “white Ma” was the true God. Eyo was kind to the poor, backward Okoyong chiefs. Before they left he gave them each presents, including some fine cloth. The Okoyong could hardly believe their good fortune.
As a result of these meetings, the Okoyong region was opened to outsiders. Mary had done what traders, soldiers, and diplomats had been unable to do for four hundred years. There was now a reason for honest work. This experience was a turning point in the life of the Okoyong people.
In time, many of the Okoyong would accept the gospel. Free of their pagan fears and drunkenness, they could now understand God’s love for them. The idols disappeared from the villages and in their place small churches were built. A court system was established to settle disputes, and Mary was made the first judge.
Civilization came more quickly to the Okoyong than it did along the coastal regions. For hundreds of years the white traders along the coast had tried to force the natives to change. It was not until the gospel changed the people’s hearts that real progress was made.
As for Mary, she felt a tug on her heart for the region beyond the Okoyong. Her converts in Okoyong protested, “We love you. They will kill you. Do not go.” Mary loved the Okoyong people, just as she had loved the people of Old Town. But her call was, “Onward! I dare not look back.”
Mary’s reputation as a great and wise woman and as a fair and honest judge had gone before her into the land of the Azo, a dreaded cannibal tribe. At first the Azo people seemed to show little interest in her message, but soon many accepted Christ. Mary reported that there was one town that had two hundred converts. None of them could read, so she pleaded for pastors to come to instruct the new Christians.
In the time she had left, Mary did all she could. She walked the paths until she was too old and feeble. Some Scottish friends sent her a cart that could be used to pull her to the villages. They urged Mary to come to Scotland for a rest. She wanted to, but prayed instead that God would give her the strength to finish the job among the cannibals. Strength came and she worked faster and harder.
Two years later, in January 1915, the Lord took Mary home to be with Him.
A government boat was then sent to carry her body down the river to Duke Town. She was buried on a hillside by the mission station where she had first served.
The group which gathers on that cemetery is a testimony to the life Mary Slessor lived. There are high government officials who found they could trust this woman’s advice. A dignified tribal chief, once a cannibal, stands there. He found the “white Ma” a faithful friend. There is a young man whom Mary nursed through a fever. Twins are there who would have been murdered at birth had she not come. As they look up from her grave to the land around them, they see a country that Mary Slessor claimed for Christ while standing on the deck of a rusty ocean steamer almost forty years before.
This land cannot be the same again, nor can they.
+Reprinted from FAITH for the Family (1977). © Bob Jones University, www.bju.edu. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
> More Mary Slessor
- From Weaving Shed to Mission Field by C. J. L.
- “Ma,” the Missionary Heroine of Calabar by E. E. Enock and J. Chappell.
- Mary Slessor: the Dundee Factory Girl Who Became a Devoted African Missionary by J. J. Ellis.
- Mary Slessor by Cuthbert McEvoy.
- Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary by W. P. Livingstone.
- The Story of Mary Slessor for Young People… by W. P. Livingstone.
- White Queen of the Cannibals: The Story of Mary Slessor… by A. J. Bueltmann.
Slessor, Mary 1848 to 1915 Presbyterian Nigeria
The Legacy of Mary Slessor
Sixty-six-year-old Mary Mitchell Slessor lay dying in the village of Use Ikot Oku, Nigeria. Feverish, weak, and going in and out of consciousness, she prayed, “O Abasi, sana mi yak” (O God, let me go). Her prayer was granted just before dawn on January 13, 1915. The woman known as eka kpukpru owo (everybody’s mother) had lived nearly forty years in Nigeria, but her death was noted around the world, and her influence lives on today.
How did Mary Slessor, a petite redhead from the slums of Dundee, Scotland, become a role model for others, even today? How did she come to wield such influence in the land known to her compatriots as the white man’s grave? How did she fit into the British Empire’s plan to “civilize” Nigeria? A study of Slessor’s life reveals certain factors leading to a missionary fervor, combined with a large measure of down-to-earth common sense. Through the trying circumstances of her youth, she learned to face and overcome difficult situations in ways that often challenged the mission methods and attitudes of her era.
The Mission at Calabar
In 1841 Hope Masterton Waddell, an Irish clergyman serving with the Scottish Presbyterian mission in Jamaica, received a copy of Sir T. Fowell Buxton’s book The Slave Trade and Its Remedy. The author proclaimed that God would inspire men from the West Indies to return to their African homeland with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Buxton’s book spurred Waddell to urge colleagues and congregants to seek to establish a mission in Africa. Slaves had been freed in Jamaica in 1833, and Waddell and other missionaries had a strong ministry among the people there.
The synod in Jamaica sent Waddell as their representative to the Foreign Mission Board in Edinburgh to plead for permission to go to Calabar, near the southeastern coast of present-day Nigeria. At first the society denied the request, but the persistence of the Jamaican group paid off, and in 1846 the first contingent of missionaries finally reached Calabar. The mission saw some successes, but for years mission stations remained for the most part clustered around the coastal villages near the mouths of the Cross and Calabar Rivers.
By the time of Mary’s birth in 1848, her mother (also Mary Slessor), like hundreds of other Scottish Presbyterians, eagerly read each issue of the Missionary Record. The United Presbyterian Church (later United Free Church of Scotland) published this monthly magazine to inform members of missionary comings and goings, progress, problems, and needs. The exploits of the famous missionary explorer David Livingstone, as well as those serving in Calabar and elsewhere, enthralled Mrs. Slessor, and she communicated her enthusiasm for missions to her children.
Mary’s childhood had a dark side in the person of her alcoholic father, Robert. In 1859 he moved the family from Aberdeen to Dundee, hoping for a change. He worked briefly as a shoemaker, then in one of the city’s textile mills, but he soon was laid off and then reverted to his old lifestyle.
Mary’s mother was already a skilled weaver and began work in one of the mills to help support the family. By the time she was eleven, Mary also went to work in the mill. Like many others around them, the Slessors lived in the slums and knew the meaning of hunger. Before long, Mary’s father and both her brothers died, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters.
David Livingstone, missionary hero of the day, had urged fellow Christians not to let die the fire of opening Africa to Christianity. Slessor responded to this call. She read everything she could lay hands on, including the works of Milton, Carlyle, and others. She became an eager student of the Bible and was convinced she must give herself to God’s service. As later years were to show, once she felt certain of God’s leading on any matter, nothing kept her from following through. This admirable characteristic sometimes put her at odds with coworkers and the mission board.
Slessor’s life, apart from twelve-hour workdays, revolved around the church. As a teenager, she began teaching Sunday school and working with a youth club. On Saturdays she often led her group on outings-running races with them, climbing trees, hiking up her skirts when necessary. Her usually docile attitude gave way to exasperation when she learned that some of the church elders disapproved of such behavior.
Her notes for a lesson she taught at Wishart Church in 1874 contain an urgent plea which is also an unwitting foretelling of her own life story.
Thank God! For such men & women here & everywhere, who in the face of scorn, & persecution . . . dare to stand firmly & fearlessly for their Master. Their commission is today what it was yesterday. ‘Go ye into all the world, & preach the Gospel to every creature.’ . . . not the nice easy places only, but the dark places, the distant places . . . to the low as well as the high, the poor as well as the rich, the ignorant as well as the learned, the degraded as well as the refined, to those who will mock as well as to those who will receive us, to those who will hate as well as to those who will love us.
She answered her own challenge to go when news reached Britain of Livingstone’s death in 1874.
The Foreign Mission Board agreed to send Slessor to Calabar as a teacher upon completion of a three-month training course in Edinburgh. She wrote in later years that the training would have been more beneficial had it been “more practical.” Whatever the training, it surely did not include house-building and concretemaking, chores she found herself involved in through the years. At the same time Slessor continued to be a serious student and teacher of the Bible in Africa. She came to exemplify the truth set forth by missions historian Andrew Walls that missionaries “set themselves to intellectual effort and acquired learning skills far beyond anything which would have been required of them in their ordinary run of life.”
Arrival at Calabar
Slessor embarked for Calabar on August 6, 1876, and in September set foot on African soil at Duke Town, forty miles inland up the Calabar River estuary. Neither the oppressive tropical climate nor the innumerable insects or wild animals could dampen her high hopes, wonder, and enthusiasm. She admired her teacher, longtime missionary Mrs. Euphemia Sutherland, whom she dutifully followed around as she learned the business of being a “female agent”–teaching, dispensing medications, and making the rounds of the women’s yards surrounding Duke Town, mission headquarters in the greater Calabar region.
Slessor eagerly followed advice given her to make the study of the Efik language her highest priority. She was such an apt student of the language that she was described by Africans as having an Efik mouth.
During her first years in Calabar Slessor began to understand the religious beliefs of the people, their social relationships, their laws and customs (especially as represented by the governing Ekpe fraternity), and the problems presented by polygamy, slavery, and drunkenness. She abhorred the practices of twin-murder and the sacrifice of wives and slaves upon the death of a chief. She began to make elevating the status of women one of her priorities. Her eccentricities and headstrong personality became more evident as she broke tradition by shedding her Victorian petticoats and climbing trees. She marched bareheaded and barefoot through the jungle and declined to filter her water–habits she maintained for years.
Within three years Slessor, now thirty years old, was ill and homesick. Frequent attacks of fever sidelined her, and she suffered from the harmattan, the dusty Saharan wind that blew during the dry season and consumed her energy. She went home to Scotland, but after a stay of a little over a year, she returned to Calabar.
Slessor had begged to go to a different station and was delighted to find she was assigned to Old Town, a few miles up the Calabar River. Here she was freer to go her own way, though in theory she remained under the supervision of Duke Town. She found that by living like an African (tea was the only European nicety she allowed herself), she could now live more cheaply and send more of her small salary home to care for her mother and sisters. Responsible for several outstations, she trekked miles through the jungle to conduct Sunday services, telling everyone she met about the Savior of the world sent by the one true and loving God.
For years missionaries had rushed to rescue twins or orphaned babies before they could be killed. Slessor herself became a champion baby-saver. One of her earliest twin adoptees, Jane, lived with her until Slessor’s death more than thirty years later. From then on, her African household always included babies and young children. Eventually, she raised six girls and two boys as her own.
As early as 1882 Slessor began to explore along the river. She sometimes stayed away for days at a time, visiting different villages, meeting the people, listening to their stories of hardship and sorrow, carrying medicine to treat their illnesses, and preaching informally. The people responded with affection to her open acceptance of them and her mastery of their language. She began to travel further afield in response to appeals from village chiefs. In Ibaka, thirty miles downstream, people came from miles around to see the white Ma (an honorific term similar to Madam, often applied to a mother figure). She dispensed medicines, worked with the women, and held morning and evening services daily for two weeks.
In 1883 Slessor returned to Scotland, sick again, with baby Janie in tow. The child was a great attraction in the churches and homes visited. The furlough extended to two and a half years, with one delay after another. Finally, Slessor left her mother and younger sister in the care of a friend and returned to Calabar in 1885, this time to Creek Town, across the river and farther inland from Duke Town.
She served with other missionaries in Creek Town but longed to move on to new territory. She had told the Calabar Mission Committee of her desire to go to the people of Okoyong even before her first furlough. When both her mother and her remaining sister died by early 1886, she had no more family ties to Scotland. She mourned–then looked toward the move she felt God called her to. She said, “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”
Mission representatives had visited Okoyong territory numerous times but found no welcome there. Fearsome reports of guns and drunkenness, trial by ordeal with poison beans, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and skulls on display circulated about the people and the territory–between the Cross and Calabar rivers, about thirty miles from Duke Town. Understandably, the mission committee in Calabar was not enthusiastic about sending a lone woman into such danger, but finally at the end of 1886 they approved her request. Then ensued more than a year of negotiations with Okoyong chiefs. Slessor finally took matters into her own hands in June 1888 and went alone to finalize arrangements for her move. “I had often a lump in my throat,” she admitted, “and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away.”
Slessor trekked four miles inland from the Calabar River to Ekenge, where she met Chief Edem and his sister, Ma Eme, and received a promise of land for her house. Thus began fifteen years of service to a people who sometimes loathed her but more often loved her. Ma Eme became Slessor’s friend and often aided the white Ma in rescuing babies, women, and slaves, though she did not become a Christian through the years, as Slessor had so hoped.
Mary considered Okoyong territory home, first in Ekenge, then in Akpap a few miles away, where the people moved when farmland soils were depleted. It was here that stories of her reckless bravado in dealing with dangerous situations grew and spread throughout neighboring districts. Chiefs and slaves alike came to believe that the white Ma had a special magic of her own. Here, too, many of her personal encounters with other white men and women-missionaries, military men, and popular Victorian traveler Mary Kingsley–were recorded. Kingsley, who called Slessor a “veritable white chief over the entire [Okoyong] district,” observed, “Her great abilities, both physical and intellectual, have given her among the savage tribe an unique position, and won her, from white and black who know her, a profound esteem . . . and the amount of good she has done, no man can fully estimate. . . . [Okoyong] was given, as most of the surrounding districts still are, to killing at funerals, ordeal by poison, and perpetual internecine wars. Many of these evil customs she has stamped out.”
In 1890, while Slessor recuperated back in Duke Town from fever, she met a new missionary teacher, Charles Morrison, eighteen years her junior. He was attracted to her both by her reputation and by the fact that they both enjoyed literature and poetry. How the couple kept their deepening friendship out of the limelight in Calabar is hard to fathom. The relationship is not mentioned in other missionary correspondence, but when Slessor returned to Scotland for furlough in 1891, she appeared wearing an engagement ring. She had agreed to marry Morrison on the condition that the Foreign Mission Board approve his going to join her in Ekenge. It did not.
For Slessor there was never any thought that she would leave the ministry to which God had called her or abandon her assurance that she was to keep moving forward, so the engagement was off. She left no written record of her relationship with Morrison or her disappointment at being denied marriage.
In 1892 the British consul general, Major Claude MacDonald, appointed Slessor vice consul of the Okoyong territory. She had insisted that “her people” were not ready for a British court system, so it was natural to hand the job officially to her, since she was already doing it informally. She served several years, then resigned over a disagreement with a new young district commissioner. She resumed the same job again (now called vice president of the native court) in 1905 and became well known for her quick and fair, though often unconventional, judgments.
Arochuku lay up Enyong Creek, off the Cross River. The Aro people purportedly continued slaving expeditions, taking of skulls, and cannibalism. Accounts, even if exaggerated, by survivors who had escaped from Arochuku were the last straw for the British. In 1901 the Foreign Office decreed that “persuasion was useless with these cannibals” and proceeded to attack and defeat them. Though she may not have questioned the British military intervention at Arochuku, the use of force was not Slessor’s own method of operation. She did take firm stands against the evils she saw (and was known in later years to box the ears of unruly men as if they were naughty children), but she always sought to win people by telling of, and demonstrating, the great love of God.
No sooner had the military conquest ended than Slessor determined to move up Enyong Creek into Aro country. She told the missions committee that it was time for an ordained missionary to come to Akpap and build up the church for Okoyong so she could move on. (By now she was telling the Foreign Mission Board what she expected to happen, not just making polite requests.) Her fame preceded her arrival, and she began a new work in 1904 at the village of Itu on the west bank of the Cross River near the junction of Enyong Creek, the place that became her headquarters for several years.
About this time Charles Partridge became district commissioner of the Itu area, and he and Slessor began a long friendship. His headquarters was twenty-five miles from Itu, so they often had occasion to correspond. He saved her many letters to him written from 1905 through 1914 and donated them to the city of Dundee in 1950. In these letters we see Slessor’s relationship with someone outside the church whose friendship she valued highly. Partridge wrote in his presentation of the letters, in which he acknowledges his own agnosticism and his disdain for missionaries in general: “I have had intercourse with many distinguished people. . . . Of the women, I place first Mary Slessor, whom you call ‘the White Queen of Okoyong’! She was a very remarkable woman. . . . Excepting Miss Slessor, I thoroughly disapprove of all missionaries!”
Slessor wrote to Partridge about people they both knew- British officers, local chiefs, missionaries, and others; she discussed everything from legal cases she was handling to the weather and insects. She shared much more with him than she did with many mission coworkers.
Slessor took her beloved adopted son Dan with her on her final furlough to Scotland in 1907. While there she wrote to Partridge several times. On one occasion she responded to news of an illness he had: “[T]hen comes your letter with its woeful tale of sickness. . . . I ought to be preaching to you & telling you ‘it serves you right’ for you are such an agnostic. & etc. etc. but I am too sorry to indulge in this. . . . Have you good reading? It is such a good help to keep off nervousness & weariness to have a good book, & someone to read with.” & When she returned to Africa, the plucky trailblazer continued to move forward, “just to take hold,” and she spent the last four years of her life itinerating between Use Ikot Oku and Ikpe, twenty miles apart on Enyong Creek, a long and difficult trek before roads were built. Much of that time she was deathly ill, but always she rallied, even crawling to Sabbath services when necessary, determined to carry out the commission she was convinced was hers. In each new place she faced the same problems she had contended with at previous stations.
In 1913 Mary Slessor received an award from the British government. She was elected an Honorary Associate of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. When she actually received the medal, she was most embarrassed. In keeping with her character, she accepted it on behalf of all the missionaries who served in Calabar.
Slessor’s last letter to Partridge was written on Christmas Eve 1914. She confided that she did not much care whether or not she survived her “long illness.” She was depressed by the deaths of two friends and by the news of the war in Europe. Less than a month later, she died.
Mary Slessor’s stubborn drive to open new territory to education and the presentation of the gospel message stands as a prime example of what Ogbu Kalu, Nigerian church historian and professor of world Christianity and mission at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, refers to as “a broader view of the style and vision of the [missionary] enterprise.” He states, “Her vision was much broader and more activist than her compatriots could imagine.”
Slessor demonstrated her social activism in a number of ways: her persistent rescue of twins and orphans, in some cases adopting and raising the children as her own; her determination to make life better for women in general, especially in setting up vocational training schools for them; her use of the “each one teach one” principle later espoused by Frank Laubach and other modern literacy proponents (she would send a couple of boys who had learned to read into a village that had invited her to come, and they would teach not only reading but also what they knew of the Bible); and her participation in settling disputes, whether as an agent of the British government or on an informal, personal basis. She brought a semblance of order to communities in a time of social and political upheaval.
Kalu says, “Slessor represents [a] genre of missionary presence which rejected the social and spatial boundaries created by the ‘ark syndrome’ in missionary attitude.” In Calabar she was a catalyst that challenged the mission to change emphasis, to become a sending body rather than a mostly stationary body, a practice the mission’s converts had been urging for some years. She garnered support from younger mission colleagues, in addition to being admired by British colonial personnel and the people of the districts where she lived and worked.
Mary Slessor’s importance in the history of the development of the church in Africa cannot be denied. She is remembered–by some, venerated–in both Scotland and southeastern Nigeria. In 2000 she was chosen one of the millennium persons of Calabar, the place she began her witness. She is honored in the area with statues, each a likeness of Slessor holding twin babies. A hospital and schools are named for her. In Scotland a ten-pound note bears her picture. Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath at her grave in Calabar in 1956. The museum in Dundee displays stained glass windows that depict events from her life. Slessor herself would have shunned such goings-on. Regardless, she left a trail of churches and schools, a host of people who admired her deeply–and many who still do.
1. Slessor Notebook, 1874, Dundee Museum, DUNMG/MSColl, 1984- 258.
2. James Buchan, The Expendable Mary Slessor (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 25.
3. Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), p. 172.
4. W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1916), p. 55.
5. Buchan, Expendable Mary Slessor, p. 84.
6. Mary H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988; originally published 1897), p. 74.
7. Buchan, Expendable Mary Slessor, p. 168.
8. Charles Partridge, “Letter [to Dundee],” August 24, 1950, Dundee Central Library.
9. Mary Slessor, “Letter [to Partridge],” October 3, 1907, Dundee Central Library.
10. Ogbu Kalu, “Personal Correspondence [E-mail to author],” February 25, 2002.
Works by Mary Slessor
Dundee Archives, Dundee, Scotland
“Personal Letters [misc.],” 1876, 1901-14.
“Personal Reports,” Women’s Missionary Magazine, 1901-13.
Dundee Art Galleries and Museum DUNMG/MSColl
“Diaries,” 1911 and 1914 (1956-16(a-b)).
“Notebook,” 1874 (1984-258).
Personal Bibles (with handwritten commentaries), 1910 and undated (1984-257; 1953-6(c)).
“Personal Letters [misc.],” 1877-1914 (1986-396; 1986-397(1-2); 1998-102; 1984-259(1-5); 1980-510).
Dundee Central Library, Local Studies Department
“Letters [to Charles Partridge],” 1905-14.
“The Prodigal Son [in Efik],” voice recording. Recorded by Charles Partridge in Nigeria; ca. 1905.
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
“Personal Letters [misc.],” 1884-1914 (Acc 5239/1; 6825/15).
“Personal Reports,” Missionary Record of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland[title varies], 1875-1915.
University of Edinburgh Main Library, Department of Special Collections “Letter [to Agnes Young],” February 24, 1913.
Works About Mary Slessor
Of numerous biographies the most useful for study are: Buchan, James. The Expendable Mary Slessor. New York: Seabury, 1981.
Christian, Carol, and Gladys Plummer. God and One Redhead. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970.
Livingstone, W. P. Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
Significant information on the Scottish Presbyterian mission work in Calabar or on Mary Slessor appears in:
Hudson, J. Harrison, Thomas W. Jarvie, and Jock Stein. Let the Fire Burn: A Study of R. M. McCheyne, Robert Annan, and Mary Slessor. Dundee: Handsel Publications, 1978, pp. 42-65.
Johnston, Geoffrey. Of God and Maxim Guns: Presbyterianism in Nigeria, 1846-1966.Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier Univ. Press, 1988.
Kalu, Ogbu, ed. A Century and a Half of Presbyterian Witness in Nigeria, 1846-1996.Lagos: Ida-Ivory Press, 1996.
Luke, James. Pioneering in Mary Slessor Country. London: Epworth, 1929.
McFarlan, Donald M. Calabar: The Church of Scotland Mission, 1846-1946. London: Thomas Nelson, 1946.
Proctor, J. H. “Serving God and Empire: Mary Slessor in South-Eastern Nigeria, 1876-1915.” Journal of Religion in Africa 30, no. 1 (2000): 45-61.
Taylor, W. H. “Mary Slessor (1848-1915), Pedagogue Extraordinary.” Scottish Education Review 25, no. 2 (1993): 109-22.
Taylor, W. H. Mission to Educate: A History of the Educational Work of the Scottish Presbyterian Mission in East Nigeria, 1846-1960. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
This article is reprinted from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Oct. 2002, vol. 6, No. 24, by permission of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, New Haven, Conn. For details visit www.OMSC.org. All rights reserved.
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