So who was Mary Slessor? If you were able to ask Mary about herself she would answer, “I’m just a wee wifie from Dundee!” She was from Dundee but she was much more than a wee wifie. She was first and foremost a Christian woman who felt strongly a calling from God to give herself as a missionary to Calabar, Nigeria.
Born in Aberdeen, Mary moved with her family to Dundee when she was 11 years old. As a young woman, Mary worked in Baxter’s Mill as a weaver. Her mother was a godly Christain woman who took all her children to church. It was there, at the Wishart Church (now united with The Steeple Church) that Mary heard about missionary work in Africa, and all about her hero, David Livingstone. Her mother had very much hoped that one of her sons would take up to the call to the mission field but this was never to happen as all of her sons died young and by the time Mary went to Calabar only two of her six siblings were still living – Susan and Jane.
It was after the death of David Livingstone in 1874 and with encouragement from a church friend that Mary began to wonder if she could answer the call to West Africa. After much thought and prayer and many talks with Mr Logie of Tay Square Church where she helped with Sunday School, she put herself forward in 1875 to The Foreign Mission Board. A short training course in Edinburgh followed and by the 5th August, 1876, she was on her way from Liverpool to Calabar. The journey of her life as a missionary had begun and was to continue for some 39 years.
While in Scotland Mary is still remembered as a pioneer missionary, though less so in the rest of the UK, in Calabar 100 years since her death she is remembered as a great Christian woman, someone who became “The Mother of all the peoples” and lovingly known as “Ma”. In Scotland she is known mainly for the rescuing of abandoned twins and by some as someone who worked for the rights of the women of Nigeria. But she was so much more than that and would no doubt be bemused by those who call her a feminist! She saw herself as being called by God to Calabar to teach people about the Christian faith. She dealt with the situations she found among the local people and many different tribes as they arose, being accepted as an intermediary in squabbles, and was eventually appointed as a magistrate.
Mary found that many of the tribes treated women very badly. Women were regarded as possessions and of very little value. She saw that she could work with the women and children and while this was a large part of her work, she also had contacts and involvement with the chiefs in the many tribes, at one point taking one chief by the hand to meet another chief so they could trade with each other!
Among the missionaries Mary was unique in that she wanted to live with the people. Being very much a free spirit she found the mission house life, and constraints on what she could and couldn’t do, very difficult. She saw the need to get alongside the locals, and so learned the local language, Efik, and many of the local customs. This helped her in working to break down barriers between the different tribes.
During her long service in Calabar Mary helped stop the killing of twins who were thought by the tribespeople to be the result of evil spirits. She rescued and adopted many of the twins, taught the people about God and the Christian faith, and helped set up churches, schools and medical care. Mary lived among the tribes and was in constant demand to bring “God and Book” to the people. She had many friends and co-workers, many of whom died young because of the conditions in the area, known as “the white man’s grave”. Mary, herself, was often ill but always recovered to carry on her work.
On trips back home to Scotland, Mary would bring some of her adopted children with her. She spoke at numerous church meetings when home, yet she found this a nerve-wracking experience. The woman who in Calabar had no fear, was often too overcome to speak to the crowd, and on one occasion asked the men to leave the meeting. She would also cross the road if she saw a dog coming towards her! By 1885 her remaining family in Dundee had passed away. She felt the loss greatly, and was heard to say she now had more heavenly family than earthly family.
Early in 1900 she was appointed a magistrate by the British government. She held courts and dealt with many of the disputes between the different tribes, something she had already done for years at the request of the chiefs, but now she had to keep records of all that was said and what judgements she made. She made friends with many of the British district commissioners, often inviting them to spend Christmas with her, the children and fellow missionaries.
In 1913 in recognition of all that she had done and achieved in Calabar, King George V awarded her the Order of St John’s Cross.
Mary Mitchell Slessor passed away at Itu, Calabar on the 13th January, 1915, and was buried in the western missionary graveyard in Calabar. It is almost impossible to put into words her achievements, and that of her co-workers, in Calabar at that time, but perhaps a comment from the filming of the celebrations in 1960 when Nigeria became an independent country best sum it up when the narrator said, that in no small part what was happening in Nigeria was due to the work of Mary Slessor all these years ago.
Mary was a great Christian woman who lived by these words she wrote in her Bible, “God plus one is always a majority”.
If you wish to find out more about this amazing woman there are many books about her life, as well as information on the Internet.
Some suggested reading:
Mary Slessor of Calabar – Pioneer Missionary by W.P. Livingstone (1916)
God and One Redhead: Mary Slessor of Calabar by Carol Christian & Gladys Plummer (1970)
Mary Slessor: The Barefoot Missionary by Elizabeth Robertson (2001)
Mary Slessor: Everyone’s Mother by Jeanette Hardage (2010)
Mary Slessor: A Life on the Altar for God by Bruce McLennan (2014)