“In measuring the woman’s power, you have evidently forgotten to take into account the power of the woman’s God. I shall go on.”
–Mary Slessor (1848-1915)
The exploration and missionary work of David Livingstone and Henry Stanley inspired scores of others to embark on Africa— women as well as men. Most of the women, not surprisingly, envisioned their ministry sheltered within the confines of an established mission station. Exploration and pioneer work was not even an option for a single female missionary— not until Mary Slessor arrived on the scene.
The story of Mary Slessor, as much as the life of any missionary in modern history, has been romanticized almost beyond recognition. The image of her as a Victorian lady dressed in high-necked, ankle-length flowing dresses, escorted by tribal warriors through the African rain forests, is far removed from the reality of the barefooted, scantily clad, red-haired, working-class woman, who lived African-style in a mud hovel, her face at times covered with boils, and often without her false teeth. Yet, her success as a missionary pioneer was amazing, and the oneness she felt for the Africans has been equaled by few. She held the distinction of being the first woman vice-consul in the British Empire, but the greatest tribute she ever received was paid to her before her death by fellow missionaries who knew her well and, in spite of her faults and eccentricities, honored her as a great woman of God.
Mary Mitchell Slessor, the second of seven children, was born in Scotland in 1848. Her childhood was marred by poverty and family strife, due largely to the sporadic work habits of her alcoholic father, who had been known to throw her out into the streets alone at night after he had come home drunk. At age eleven, she began working alongside her mother at the textile mills as a half-timer while she continued on in her schooling. By the time she reached fourteen she was working ten-hour days, and for the next thirteen years she was the primary wage earner in the family.
Though she later referred to herself as a “wild lassie,” there was little time or opportunity for leisure in the crowded, polluted working-class district where her family lived. Church activities, however, offered a fulfilling outlet from her miserable home life. She taught Sunday school, and when she was in her early twenties she working with the Queen Street Mission. Here, she confronted street gangs that tried to break up her open-air meetings in the blighted neighborhoods of Dundee— neighborhoods that served as a training ground for her work in Africa.
Since early childhood, she had been deeply interested in overseas missions— particularly the Calabar Mission, established two years before her birth. Her missionary-minded mother hoped her only living son, John, would become a missionary, but his death shattered her dreams. But the tragedy opened the way for Mary to escape the mills and to take her brother’s place. The Calabar Mission had always made room for women.
In 1875 Slessor applied to and was accepted by the Mission, and in the summer of 1876, at the age of twenty-seven, she sailed for Calabar (located in present-day Nigeria), long known for its slave trade and deadly environment. Her earliest years in Africa were spent at Duke Town, where she taught in a mission school and spent time in the nearby villages. But she was dissatisfied with her assignment, never feeling at ease with the social niceties and ample lifestyle of the missionary families comfortably stationed at Duke Town. Life was too routine. Only a month after her arrival she had written, “One does need a special grace to enable one to sit still. It is so difficult to wait.” Her heart was set on doing pioneer work in the interior, but for that “privilege” she would have to wait.
After less than three years in Africa and weakened by several attacks of malaria (and many more of homesickness), Slessor was allowed a furlough to regain her strength and reunite with her family. She returned to Africa refreshed and excited about her new assignment at Old Town, three miles further inland along the Calabar River. Here she was free to work by herself and to maintain her own lifestyle— living in a mud hut and eating native food that allowed her to send most of her mission salary to her family back home. No longer was her work routine. She supervised schools, dispensed medication, mediated disputes, and mothered unwanted children (children deemed demonic and rejected by their families). On Sundays she became a circuit preacher, trudging miles through the jungle from village to village, sharing the gospel with those who would listen.
Evangelism in Calabar was a slow and tedious process. Witchcraft and spiritism abounded. Cruel tribal customs were embedded in tradition and almost impossible to eradicate. One of the most heartrending of these customs decreed that a twin birth was a curse. In many cases both babies were killed, and the mother was exiled to an area reserved for outcasts. Slessor not only rescued twins and ministered to their mothers, but also fought the perpetrators, sometimes risking her own life. But after three years she was once again too ill to remain in Africa.
On her second visit home she was accompanied by Janie, a baby girl she had rescued from death. She and Janie were a sensation— so much so that the mission committee extended her furlough. She was also detained by her sickly mother and sister. In 1885, after nearly three years’ leave, she returned to Africa, determined to penetrate further into the interior.
Soon after she returned, Slessor received word of her mother’s death, and three months after that of her sister’s. Another sister had died during her furlough, and now she was left alone with no close ties to her homeland. She was despondent and almost overcome with loneliness: “There is no one to write and tell all my stories and troubles and nonsense to.” But along with the loneliness and sorrow came a sense of freedom: “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will be anxious about me if I go up-country.” Always restless, she was convinced that her calling was to preach in ever more remote areas
“Up-country” to Slessor meant Okoyong, a remote area that had claimed the lives of other missionaries who had dared to penetrate its borders. Sending a single woman to that region was considered by many to be an exercise in insanity, but she was determined to go and would not be dissuaded. After visiting the area a number of times with other missionaries, she was convinced that such work was best accomplished by women, who, she believed, were less threatening to unreached tribes than men. So in August of 1888, with the assistance of her friend, King Eyo of Old Town, she was on her way north. (continued…)
Isaiah 45:22, 23b — “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other… Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.”
Acts 1:8 — (Jesus said), “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Romans 10:17 -18 — Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
O God of all the nations of the earth, remember the multitudes who, though created in thine image, they have not known thee, nor the dying of thy Son; and grant that by the prayers and labors of thy holy church they may be delivered from all superstition and unbelief and brought to worship thee; through him who thou hast sent to be the resurrection and the life to all men, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Francis Xavier, Missionary to India, Japan, and Borneo (1506-1552)