Mary Slessor (seated) with a Nigerian family

Mary Slessor (seated) with a Nigerian family

Throughout her thirty-eight year missionary career in southern Nigeria, West Africa, Mary Slessor (1848-1915) exhibited the spirit of a true pioneer missionary. She was never content to settle down permanently in one location, but was always seeking to advance Christ’s kingdom work into hitherto unreached areas.

The first twelve years of her missionary career were spent along the coastal region of Calabar, where Scottish missionaries of the United Presbyterian Church denomination had ministered for three decades. Mary then gained permission from the UPC Foreign Mission Committee to carry out missionary service in the previously unreached Okoyong region, which she did for the next seventeen years. (See my June 21, 2017, Perspective for a summary of her courageous, compassionate service during those first two periods of her missionary career.)

In 1904 she once again gained the Foreign Mission Committee’s permission to expand her work further inland to a pair of unreached tribes, the Ibo and the Ibibios. Slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism had been carried out among them from time immemorial. While the British Government was seeking to curtail those practices, they were known to persist, especially in more isolated regions.

Mary Slessor at a Nigerian village

Mary Slessor at a Nigerian village

In opening that new work, Mary was initially granted one year in which to carry out itinerate ministry in the area. She took with her a small group of Christian teenagers whom she had trained in Okoyong to assist her in the new ministry. Amazingly, by the end of that year of itinerating, Christian schools and congregations had been established in six towns and villages along Enyong Creek which ran between the Ibo and Ibibios.

When Mary’s year of ministry travels concluded, her mission board desired her to resume her former responsibilities back in Okoyong. But she could not reconcile herself to that prospect, explaining: “There is an impelling power behind me, and I dare not look backward. Even if it cost me my connection with the Church [denomination] of my heart’s love, I feel I must go forward. I am not enthusiastic over Church methods. I would not mind cutting the rope and going adrift with my bairns, and I can earn our bite [food] and something more.” She was greatly relieved when the Mission decided to free her from normal responsibilities at a fixed base so from that point forward she could act as a pioneer missionary.

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Her advance into Ibibios territory was aided by the fact that the British government was building roads in that region. “Get a bicycle, Ma,” government officials said, pointing to the road, “and come as far as you can. We will soon have a motor car service for you.” At fifty-seven years of age Mary gamely learned to ride a bicycle after a government official presented her with a brand new model from England.

The early months of 1909 found Mary covered with painful boils from head to foot. “Only sleeping draughts keep me from going off my head,” she related. She later became severely ill from blood poisoning. She was taken to Duke Town near the coast where members of the mission attentively nursed her back to heal. But after five weeks of such care she was eager to resume her ministry responsibilities inland, and did so before some officials and doctors thought it fully advisable.

Mary Slessor Memorial in Dudee, Scotland

Mary Slessor Memorial in Dudee, Scotland

Eventually her health declined to the point that the Mission’s doctor forbad her to travel by bicycle. Hearing of her need for an alternative means of transportation, a group of ladies in Scotland sent her a Cape cart, a basket-chair on wheels capable of being maneuvered along quite easily by two boys or girls.

In the closing years of her life Mary established churches and schools in the villages of Ikpe, Odoro Ikpe and Nkanga further up Enyong Creek. She carried out ministry at those locations unaided by fellow missionaries. To her deep disappointment, the Mission had already concluded that health conditions were not safe enough in that region to place other missionaries there. To the end, however, she continued to be assisted by several African girls who lived with her as foster daughters.

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

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A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s storied missionary career in Calabar is recorded 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

Thanks everybody for the great response to my Thanksgiving perspectives article on what we can learn about giving thanks in all circumstances from the life of Corrie ten Boom. My friends over at Chosen Books saw the article and wanted to partner up for a special giveaway. Three winners will receive a Corrie ten Boom prize pack featuring the 35th anniversary edition of The Hiding Place, the young reader’s edition of The Hiding Place and Life Lessons from the Hiding Place.

Corrie ten Boom Prize pack

Win a Corrie ten Boom Prize Pack

Shoemaker and apprentice pix 1William Carey (1761-1834) is commonly credited with being “the father of modern missions.” He grew up in Paulerspury, Northamptonshire County, England. Carey was a spiritually indifferent boy, despite the fact that his devout parents taught him to read the Bible from a very early age and religiously took him to the village’s Anglican Church. As a young teenager Carey was apprenticed to a shoemaker named Clarke Nichols in the neighboring village of Piddington. There Carey gravitated toward irreligious companions and became addicted to “lying, swearing and other sins.”

However, a fellow apprentice, John Warr, regularly talked with Carey about religious and spiritual matters. Warr attended the worship services of a nearby group of Dissenters, who were also known as Nonconformists. Like most Englanders in that day, Carey despised Dissenters for not adhering to the Church of England. Though Carey arrogantly argued against Warr’s views on Christianity, the latter’s earnest verbal witness and consistent Christian lifestyle began to have a positive influence. Carey started attending church more frequently in hopes of finding relief from the growing burden he had come to have on his soul. He also determined to set aside his habitual sins and sometimes sought to pray when alone.

Paulerspury Anglican Church as where Carey attended as a boy.

Paulerspury Anglican Church as where Carey attended as a boy.

God used an incident that occurred just at that time to show Carey the badness of his own heart and his need for a complete spiritual transformation. It was customary in that part of the country for apprentices to collect “Christmas boxes”—small cash gifts, sometimes collected in earthenware boxes—from the tradesmen with whom their masters had dealings. (These gifts were considered a token of Christmastime goodwill toward the apprentices for their service of the tradesmen throughout the year.) That Christmas season Clarke Nichols sent Carey to Northampton, six miles northwest of Piddington, having given him money with which to purchase some supplies for his master. Nichols also gave Carey permission to collect “Christmas boxes” for himself from the Northampton tradesmen whom they serviced.

From Mr. Hall, an ironmonger, Carey received a shilling, worth twelve pence. After collecting a few more shillings from other tradesmen, Carey went to purchase “some little articles” for himself. Only then did he discover that the shilling he had received from Hall was counterfeit, made of brass. He substituted one of Nichols’ shillings for the artificial one in order to complete the purchase. Too late he realized that his personal items had cost “a few pence” more than the gift money he had just collected. Expecting to be severely reproached by his master for his careless mishandling of money, Carey resolved “to declare strenuously” that Nichols himself had inadvertently given him the counterfeit coin when he entrusted funds to him with which to buy supplies for his master.

Carey afterward related: “I well remember the struggles of mind which I had on this occasion, and that I made this deliberate sin a matter of prayer to God as I passed over the fields [walking] home. I there promised that if God would but get me clearly over this, or in other words, help me through with the theft, I would certainly for the future leave off all evil practices. But this theft and consequent lying appeared to me so necessary that they could not be dispensed with. A Gracious God did not get me safe through.”

William Carey in middle age.

William Carey in middle age.

Nichols was suspicious and sent Warr to investigate the matter. Hall, the ironmonger, admitted having given Carey the bogus coin. Carey’s own attempted deception of his master was thus discovered and as a result: “I was therefore exposed to shame, reproach, and inward remorse, which increased and preyed upon my mind for a considerable time. I at this time sought the Lord perhaps much more earnestly than ever; but with shame and fear.”

The Lord graciously used that painful and humiliating event to help Carey realize his need to believe in and receive Christ Jesus as his Savior from sin. Not long after, when Carey was seventeen years old, he was born again spiritually through personal faith in Jesus.

This Christmas season as we celebrate the coming of Christ Jesus into the world, may we also be deeply grateful to God for showing us our own need for the Savior and for drawing us to saving faith in Him.

Copyright 2015 by Vance E. Christie