Mary Slessor (1848-1915) was one of the most celebrated Christian missionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For thirty-eight years she carried the Gospel to savage, degraded tribes in the dense forests of Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, courageously pioneering in areas that other missionaries and even traders avoided.
Mary’s girlhood and early adult years were filled with both extreme difficulties and encouraging spiritual influences. Both the negative and positive facts of her girlhood were used of God to forge within her the selfless, indomitable spirit that would be needed to fulfill the career of daunting, heroic service He had for her.
Mary’s father, Robert, after losing his job as a shoemaker in Aberdeen, Scotland, due to his drinking problem, moved his family to Dundee, where he worked in one of the city’s mills. As Robert descended deeper into alcoholism, conditions grew increasingly desperate for the family. Any money he could lay his hands on was spent on alcohol, and his wife was often left with nothing to feed and clothe the children.
Saturday nights were tense, fearful occasions for Mary and her mother. Having received his weekly pay in cash, Robert would stay out late drinking and then stumble home thoroughly inebriated. When his wife and Mary, the eldest daughter, offered him the supper they had denied themselves in order to provide for him, he often threw it into the fire. Sometimes when he became violent Mary was forced to flee into the streets where she wandered, alone and sobbing, in the dark.
Not many months after their move to Dundee, Mrs. Slessor had to enter one of the factories to help support her family. Mary was left to care for her siblings and undertake many of the household responsibilities. When Mary was just eleven years old, she too was put to work in a factory to help supply needed income for the family. At first she was a “half-timer” in a textile factory, working half the day and attending a school connected with the factory the other half.
By the time she was fourteen Mary had become a skilled weaver and went to work fulltime while continuing her education at the school by night. She arose at five o’clock each morning to help with household chores before going to the factory and needed to carry out similar duties after returning home at night. When Mary’s father died, the pressures on her remained enormous as she had become the primary wage earner for the family. Her life at that time was said to be “one long act of self-denial.”
Mary’s mother was a gentle, devout Christian. She always took her children to the regular church services and had them attend the church’s Sunday School. Mrs. Slessor also had an active interest in the foreign missionary enterprises her Presbyterian denomination was carrying out in India, China, Japan, South Africa and Calabar (the southeastern coastal region of modern Nigeria).
Despite Mary’s wearisome work hours, she was active in the ministries of her church. In addition to attending a Bible class for teens and adults, she participated in the weeknight prayer meetings and taught a class of “lovable lassies” in the Sabbath School. Mary’s church started a mission to reach needy young people in the tall tenements of Dundee’s slums, and she taught classes for boys and girls on Sundays and weeknights. When she and a few others attempted to carry out open-air evangelistic ministry in those underprivileged neighborhoods, roughs opposed them, pelting them with mud.
Mrs. Slessor’s children, Mary most of all, shared in her intense missionary interest. In that era missionary service was generally not open to single women. Two of Mary’s brothers showed interest in becoming missionaries but both of them died at a young age. Mary began to wonder: Would it ever be possible for her to become a missionary? Could she go in place of her brothers? Gradually those thoughts, which she expressed outwardly to no one, formed into a definite desire and determination.
When news of David Livingstone’s death reached Britain early in 1874, it created a new wave of missionary enthusiasm and played a part in leading many, Mary Slessor included, to offer themselves for service on the Dark Continent. Mary’s mother and most of her trusted spiritual confidantes encouraged her to pursue the possibility. She offered her services to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church in May of 1875 and was accepted as a teacher for Calabar.
A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s formative girlhood and young adult years as well as a record of her storied missionary career in Calabar are included in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). W. P. Livingstone’s Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (originally published 1916) is the classic full-length biography of her life. Bruce McClennan’s Mary Slessor, A Life on the Altar for God (Christian Focus, 2015) is a more recent full account of her life.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie