Mary Slessor, Heroine of Calabar

by Basil Miller

God uses the most insignificant lives for His glory. He often selects some person from an unknown home and with His redeeming love builds a character that all the ages remember. Humble folk, who can listen to the heavenly Voice calling them to His service, become the great [servants] of God.

David Livingstone, who [brought] the Gospel to Africa, was such a person. David went from a Scottish weaver's home to Africa, that he might blaze a Gospel trail across the Dark Continent. And when he was doing all those marvelous things, God was preparing another humble heart for mission work in Africa. Mary Slessor, a Scottish girl, patterned her life upon the career of the mighty David Livingstone. He was her hero. When the word came, "Livingstone is dead, and his heart is buried in Africa," Mary's soul thrilled at the challenge he gave, "I go to Africa to make an open door...Do you carry out the work I have begun."

Sitting in church, tired from her long hours at the weaving mills, Mary had a sudden vision of Africa. Not beautiful pictures, but horrible with slave scenes, captured [natives] being taken to other lands as slaves, alligators and crocodiles swimming in the muddy waters, ever ready to devour black children, cannibal chiefs at their awful feasts, battles with spears and bloodshed. These were the things she saw, and seeing she responded to Livingstone's call.

She answered the divine challenge, and became the heroine of [Calabar, Africa]. Her story thrills us today, for she lived under the hand of God, and worked in constant communion with heaven.

Mary was born in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, though her life made Dundee famous, for she spent most of her early days there. The winds were wild on December the second, 1848, when shoemaker Slessor came home and found that a baby girl had been born to his wife. Doubtless he went out that night and drank a toast to his new child, for he was a drunkard, as well as a poor shoemaker. His wife was a Christian. Being the second child of seven born to the Slessors, Mary was to suffer more from her father's drinking than the other children.

The home was humble and needy but the frail, refined, soft-spoken, praying mother knew the power of prayer. When trouble came, she lifted her voice to God and asked Him to supply all the family's needs according to the riches of His glory.

Having lost his job in Aberdeen because of drunkenness [her father] decided that he would follow the family as they moved to Dundee. Secretly Mother Slessor hoped that a change of cities might alter the companions of her husband and that he might give up drinking. But she was disappointed, for he spent all his money for drink. Often the family was in need of food.

This forced the frail little Mary to long hours of work at the weaving mills when she was eleven years old. At fourteen she was an expert weaver, and though her days were filled with factory duties, she found time during the evening to attend school. She loved to read and there were many delightful books in the Sunday school library. The stories of Livingstone in Africa were especially interesting to her.

Mary's heart was stirred by a missionary from Africa who came to their little church and told of his experiences. As she listened, her eyes growing large and round, she said to herself, "I wish I could do something to help the bush-children. I am going to be a missionary when I grow up, and go out there and teach those folks the right way." She dreamed of Africa.

"But you're only a girl," taunted her older brother Robert. "I'm going to be the missionary in this house."

Waiting for her time to come, she worked in the Sunday school, and assisted in a slum mission, where tough gangs of boys often near-mobbed her. But she prayed her way through and God held her true to the vision of being a missionary. One day William Anderson, a missionary to the West Coast of Africa, came to the little church and told of the needs of his district. Mother Slessor prayed, that her son Robert would feel called to go. Instead, Robert became a missionary to New Zealand where he died a few years later.

This left Mary to carry the missionary torch in the family, for the words of Livingstone were a constant challenge to her, and she longed to go. Finally in 1875, she applied to the Foreign Mission Board of her denomination for a place in Calabar. The position was granted for there was a need for workers at that station.

She was sent to Aberdeen for a three months training course. When she asked Mother Slessor about going, the godly woman replied, "My lassie, I'll willingly let you go. You'll make a fine missionary, and I'm sure God will be with you."

On August 5, 1876, she sailed. As she went on board she caught sight of many whiskey casks which carried liquor to the dark-skinned natives. She remarked, "Scores of casks, and only one missionary."

Mary had a dauntless spirit. She felt that with God's help she was a match for any problem that might stand in her way.

She was now twenty-eight years old. God led her into the jungles where she brought many savages under the Gospel's power single-handed. As a preparatory step for the time when she was to carve a career for herself that was unmatched by any woman missionary, she worked in the coast town of Calabar. Before she died God took her where no white man even had trod.

Green Africa was a feast to her factory-tired eyes. Mary was very enthusiastic with the work on the Coast, the tropical forests round about, and she eagerly climbed the highest trees in the neighborhood. She soon discovered that in the jungles and in the waters were deadly fevers and lurking animals that would rend her limb from limb. This made little difference to Mary, for she had come to touch hearts with Gospel hope and not to fear jungle diseases or savage tribes.

She lived in Duke Town on Mission Hill and made her home with the Andersons, whom she affectionately called Daddy and Mamma. Her time was occupied with language study and teaching. But she always heard the jungle call, and longed to boat up the river which ran through the town. When three years had passed she was stricken with a tropical fever. Knowing that a sick missionary could never hope to bring the Gospel to the jungles, Mary asked to be returned to Scotland where she could recuperate. After a short visit to the homeland she returned renewed in body and soul.

Much to her delight she had charge of the mission work alone. She ate native foods and lived thriftily so that she could save money to send to Mother Slessor at home. The secret of her power with the natives was that she became one of them, and lived exactly as they did. She loved the blacks with all the passion of her soul, and their problems became hers.

Mary longed to go to the inland jungle country and though she continued her work on the coast she thought about and prayed for an opportunity to go to the interior.

The twin murder superstition of the Dark Continent, which caused parents to murder one of the twins born to them, thinking that it was devil-sent, was an evil which Mary hated. One day a twin which had been left for dead was brought to her. Mary took the child into her home as her own. This was the beginning of a marvelous career of twin-rescuing which finally resulted in the natives abandoning the practice entirely.

Some of these rescued children grew up to be loving daughters and sons of their white mother.

After twelve years on the coast, the Mission Board gave Mary permission to open a mission station in the wild up-river country of Okoyong, where ferocious savages and dreaded cannibals lived. She labored there throughout the rest of her life.

Up the river at the village of Ekenge, she opened a station with the consent of Chief Edem. She dedicated her life to transforming the savages through the Gospel she lived as well as preached. With her own hands she built a little hut, native-fashion, and began a career of cannibal-taming unmatched by any woman. The chief's sister, Ma Eme, became one of Mary's greatest friends, and was often responsible for saving her life.

With her five adopted orphan children Mary turned completely native. She wore no shoes, ate whatever food the natives provided, drank unfiltered water, slept on the ground, and trailed through the rain soaked jungles. One time she was called by a neighboring chief, who was friendly with Edem, to visit his son. She went mile after mile through the jungle at night where even the natives were afraid to accompany her. Throwing off all her excess rain and mud soaked clothing, she finally arrived dressed in only the barest of underclothing.

When the chief saw her, he knew the sacrifice she had made for his sake. This opened the hearts of his tribe to her message of salvation. Year in and year out she worked, living like the natives and taking their problems as her own. Often when called at night she would rush out in her nightgown. She said, "Of course, they were not to know but what it was a court dress!"

She frequently risked her life to settle problems which arose among the tribes. Savage villages would attack each other, killing all the men and children, and enslaving the women. When the chief's son died, the village thought that a neighboring tribe was the cause of the death, and the warriors attacked the other group, killing, plundering, burning the village, and capturing some of the people.

Mary pled with the chief to spare the people but to no avail. When the time for the trial came, she saw the natives preparing the poison-cup, a favorite method of killing enemies and determining the source of trouble. She raced to the side of a woman who was about to be forced to drink the poison, grabbed her by the hand and took her to the mission house, where she challenged the enraged chief to come and get her. Eventually the chief's ire cooled and Mary began to soothe his wild nature.

At another time when two cannibal tribes went to battle, Mary ran ahead of the warriors, until she stood between the spear-carrying tribes. She argued with the chiefs until they gave up their feud. In Scotland she ran from a mouse, but here in cannibal land she did not fear the wildest savage or the armies of the most ferocious chief. God was her shield and protection.

In 1891 the British government made her Vice-consul of Okoyong, and though she disliked the duties of judge and official, she was distinctly fitted for such work. Writing of the change the Gospel had made in the people's hearts and lives she said, "No tribe was formerly so feared because of their utter disregard of human life, but human life is now safe. No chief ever died without the sacrifice of many lives, but this custom has now ceased. Some chiefs, gathered for palavar at our house, in commenting on the wonderful change, said, 'Ma, you white people are God Almighty. No other power could have done this."'

Mary spent many hours settling tribal disputes and thus saved them from cannibalistic battles. She usually knit when the court sat, and spoke a quiet word to one side and then the other, until the hot-tempered savages cooled their anger and took her advice to settle the difficulty in a friendly manner.

In 1896 the Mission Board granted her a furlough and with four of her black children she visited the familiar scenes of her childhood. Speaking before various churches and groups she awakened the people to Africa's call. However, she said, "I would rather face a mob of savages than to speak if there is a man in the audience."

As far as she was concerned her Okoyong work was at an end, for she had won the savages through the gospel. She felt that another missionary could now carry on the work, and she longed to push farther inland where cannibals still lived and mighty pioneering work was necessary.

"I feel drawn on and on," she said at this time, "by the magnetism of this land of dense darkness and mysterious, weird forests."

With the Board's blessings, upon returning to Africa she opened a station at Itu, an old slave market on Enyong Creek. Here she repeated the successes of Okoyong, and later built a hospital, which was supervised by a medical missionary. With the aid of her converted boys and girls from Okoyong the Gospel spread rapidly among the cannibals. The savages had heard of the white Ma, and they anticipated her coming with mixed feelings of fear and love. Her blessed life made winning them an easier task than she faced at Okoyong.

Again the government made her president or judge of the wild Itu district. The officials became fond of this mighty representative of the Christ life. The savages were gradually won and converts came to Christ until it was necessary for Mary to send for an ordained minister to administer the Communion to them, for she felt that she was not a minister but only a pioneer for Christ, and she wanted the mission to take on organized church work.

Mary's fame spread to the surrounding districts, and with it came the call for the white Ma to send teachers who could tell the story of Christ and His power to save.

In 1912 her health demanded a rest. She vacationed in the Canary Islands. Everyone treated her royally, and she was soon able to return to her jungle home.

The native woman's station in life was little above that of a beast. Mary made this evil a matter of prayer and prayer was answered in the establishment of the Slessor Industrial Home for women and girls where they were trained for native trades and made self-sustaining. Following her return from the Canary Islands, the King of England gave her the silver Cross of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The official letter stated that the honor is "only conferred on persons distinguished for philanthropy."

Mary's work was at an end. In August of 1914 when World War I broke out, she was dreaming of a visit to the homeland, but traveling conditions were unsafe and she postponed the trip. Later in the year she succumbed to a fever. The Christian doctor from the Slessor Hospital at Itu treated her. She gradually sank away until one day she made the scarcely audible remark in the native Efik tongue, "O Abasi, sana mi yok," "O God, release me."

During the next three days, Janice, one of the little twins she had rescued now grown to womanhood, watched over her bed. Toward the dawn of January the fifteenth someone remarked, "Day must be dawning." Day was dawning for Mary, for she went to her eternal home. She was buried in Africa's soil which she so dearly loved.

From Ten Girls Who Became Famous by Basil Miller. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©1946. Lightly edited.

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