Mary Slessor was born in Scotland in 1848. Her father was an alcoholic who wasted his pay on drink so she started working in a weaving factory at 11 years of age to help support her family. By the age of 14 she was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Her father died and she continued working that schedule to support her family until she entered her missionary training when she was 27 years old.
She was active in the church from an early age and didn’t let her long work hours keep her from participating. Her heart for missions was utilized in Scotland by reaching out to children in the poor section of town and teaching them Bible lessons through the years. Her childhood was hard but it helped prepare her for the many difficulties she faced in Africa.
Finally, on August 5, 1876, she left Liverpool on the steamer Ethiopia and she arrived at Calabar on the coast of Nigeria on September 11th, 1876 to begin her 39 year career as a missionary to the natives there.
She found herself in a pagan land where those accused of wrongdoing had boiling oil poured over their hands or were required to drink poison to prove their guilt or innocence. The wives of a dead chief were strangled or buried alive with their husband so they could go with him into the spirit-world. Hard hearted chiefs would sell men and women into slavery or have them beheaded for a cannibal orgy. Twin babies would be killed and their mother would be driven into the jungles defenseless to die. Women had no rights and were treated like pack animals. Men perished in endless, senseless, tribal warfare. Witch doctors tormented the people and controlled them with curses. And, most of all, the people lived in spiritual darkness which kept them impoverished and hopeless. (Sound like “noble” savages to you? Tribes needing to preserve their cultural traditions? People in danger of being corrupted by missionary influences?)
Mary soon learned the native language of the people of Calabar, Efik. She mastered it so well that even the natives said she knew their tongue better than they did. She came to understand their idioms, gestures, and temperament so well that no one could lie to her and get away with it.
She lived her life under the African sun with a bare head and traversed the dangerous jungles, day and night, with bare feet. She lived on native food, drank unfiltered water, often slept on the ground, and did many other things that would have quickly killed most non-Africans.
Mary rescued hundreds of twin babies from eminent death and raised many of them in her own household. She worked hard at trying to educate the natives away from their fear of twins and getting the mothers and sometimes fathers to accept them. It was a never ending ordeal as she went into new territories.
The natives (including the chiefs) loved her and called her Ma, which means lady. They allowed her to be a judge among them and she used her influence to turn them away from alcohol and toward more productive living. She brought healing treatments to the sick, intervened to prevent many wars and stopped the practice of trying to determine guilt or innocence by the poison ordeal among the tribes she worked with. She also used her great influence among them to stand against the abusive treatment of women and the tyranny of the witch doctors.
Mary never tired of her main priority which was telling the people about God’s love and His Son who came to earth to die on the cross so repentant sinners could have eternal life. Through her efforts, she personally led hundreds of savages to new life in Christ. And Jesus blessed her labors by allowing her to establish several churches and to accomplish her dream of building a home for abused and displaced women.
Mary felt great trepidation when required to speak to groups of Scots and Brits– especially when men were present. However, she would not shirk her duties for her own personal comfort, so, on her furloughs, after she had recovered from exhaustion or an African fever that had laid her low, she spent considerable time telling the church crowds stories from her life in Africa.
In her simple, soft spoken style, she shared her experiences with hunger, thirst, deprivation and loneliness in darkest Africa. She talked about suffering from tropical fevers, dealing with drunken cannibals, calming warmongering natives, and fearlessly facing death threats from natives and wild animals times without number to save the lives and souls of the African natives she loved for Jesus’ sake. She never doubted that God would protect her as she did His bidding.
Her audiences were moved to tears as she told them about the slave markets, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. But the best loved stories were of the many twins and other deserted babies she rescued from death when they were thrown into the forest to die of hunger or to be eaten by ants or leopards. The stories came to life for them on the visits when Mary brought some of her beloved African “bairns” with her.
Mary Slessor suffered from jungle fevers many times through the years which weakened her body and left her with aches and joint pains. Her physical limitations slowed her down but never stopped her from moving into new territory and accomplishing what she set out to do. She lived out the old adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” Having kept the faith and having finished her course, she died in Nigeria on January 13th, 1915 at 67 years of age.
J. H. Morrison pays her this tribute: “She is entitled to a place in the front ranks of the heroines of history, and if goodness be counted an essential element of true greatness, if eminence be reckoned by love and self-sacrifice, by years of endurance and suffering, by a life of sustained heroism and purest devotion, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to name her equal.”
“She was indeed a queen — a queen ruling in love over natives in Africa and a queen among the heroines of the Christian church.” The White Queen of Calabar by Eugene Myers Harrison
Note: I found Mary Slessor’s life to be very inspiring. In addition to the many books about her, The African Movie Channel, AMC, has an 11 part series on the Life of Mary Slessor.