Mary Slessor was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on December 2, 1848. Her father was a drunkard, but her mother was a godly woman. From the age of 11 she worked twelve hours a day, six days a week in factories.
Known as ‘Carrots’ because of her red hair, young Mary came to know the Saviour when an old widow ‘gathered children around her fire, and used that fire as her text.’ “If ye dinna repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, your soul will burn in the lowin’, bleezing’ fire forever and ever,” she said.
Mary Slessor in later life would say that it was fear that drove her to the Saviour, but once inside the Kingdom, she became a messenger of love and mercy.
In 1874 the news of David Livingstone’s death sent a wave of missionary enthusiasm through England. Mary offered herself to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church. Two years later, at the age of 28, she sailed for Africa, arriving at Duke Town in September 1876.
Africa was the Dark Continent and the region she went to, on the Calabar River in what is now Nigeria, was then the slave coast of Africa and known as the White Man’s Grave. Tropical diseases, cannibals, tribal fighting, wild animals, witch doctors and swarming insects were among the hazards new to the confident young woman from Aberdeen.
To a place where life was cheap, murder and revenge was common and morality was absent, Mary Slessor threw in her lot at the small mission station. But her heart burned to go where what man (or woman) and the gospel had not gone. This may be due to the example of Livingstone, whose life clearly impacted her sense of call to Africa.
After a short furlough Mary, having learned the local languages, was allowed to go alone to a new mission outpost, Old Town. From her mud hut, with the assistance of a Christian chief, King Eyo Honesty the Sixth, Mary worked tirelessly with the natives.
Still she yearned to go further into the interior, but was warned repeatedly that she would be killed. Her determination won out and King Eyo offered his grand canoe to take her up river in June 1888 to reach the remote Okoyong tribe. These godless natives cared only for weapons to give them power, chains to hold their slaves and alcohol. They knew of these things from the white traders and soldiers who had made occasional forays into the region.
The first village she came to she was given permission by the chief to live among them, due to the reputation which had preceded her. Here, however, she found wickedness beyond her expectations, where daily bloodshed was to be expected. She personally intervened in the regular battles of vengeance and drunken rage, by standing between the warring parties. She would take the two groups into the shade so they could explain their grievances, while she knitted. After hours of talking the fight would be abandoned.
She even resorted to sending official looking notices with symbols painted on them and official wax seals, to keep the waring sides busy deciphering until she could get there to intervene. She ultimately quietened their drinking and fighting by introducing them to the rewards of enterprise, showing how their palm oil and yams could be traded downstream for things they had never had.
After four hundred years of white involvement in Africa Mary Slessor did what no soldier or diplomat had achieved. The love of Christ changed the hearts and the lifestyles of these natives.
But Mary was not satisfied. She pressed on yet further upstream to reach the Ayo cannibal tribe, where she worked until her death. When she was too frail to walk she was supplied a cart by friends back home. And so she laboured until her death in January 1915 at the age of 66.
For nearly 40 years she had laboured tirelessly for the souls of the Dark Continent. Her legacy can still be seen today in the ongoing vibrancy of the Nigerian church, which shines bright in the continent where many of the Lord’s servants gave their lives.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com