Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Calabar

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Calabar

Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian, served as a missionary to Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, for thirty-eight years. At that time Calabar was considered one of the deadliest and most degraded countries in all of Africa. While the European slave trade had been largely abolished in Calabar decades earlier, the country’s population continued to be ravaged by intertribal warfare, disease and superstitious pagan practices. Mary compassionately, courageously pioneered in areas of Calabar that other missionaries and even traders avoided.

For the first several years of her missionary career, Mary ministered in two mission settlements, Duke Town and Old Town, on the Calabar River, about forty miles from the coast. She was soon placed in charge of the mission work at Old Town and its three small outstations. In those locations she held regular school sessions for both children and adults during the week, then led worship services and a Sunday School on the Lord’s Day.

One of the horrifying, superstitious practices that Mary and the other missionaries strove to overcome was the custom of killing twin babies. Calabarians believed that the father of one of the twin infants was an evil spirit and that at least one of the twins was a monster. Twin babies were seized, their backs were broken and they were thrown out into the bush to be eaten by wild animals or insects. The infants of slave mothers who died were also left in the wild to perish. The missionaries rescued both those types of endangered infants whenever they could and took them to the missionary compounds where they were cared for and protected.

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Mary spoke out against the evils of those forms of infanticide and took several such rescued children under her care. At any given time throughout her missionary career she usually had a number of rescued and orphaned children she was foster parenting. At first the people of Calabar viewed this with suspicion, thinking Mary was in league with a devil and expecting to see her suffer ill effects as a result. But in time their superstitious suppositions faded, and she became known everywhere as “the white Ma who loves babies.” (In Calabar and neighboring regions “Ma” was a term of respect for a mother.)

After twelve years of service in Calabar, Mary was granted the longtime desire of her heart when she was given permission to carry out pioneering missionary work in the previously unreached Okoyong region, a densely forested wedge of land between the Cross and Calabar rivers north of Old Town. The Okoyongese practiced witchcraft and animal sacrifice. They plundered property and slaves from neighboring tribes. They commonly used two superstitious trials-by-ordeal to determine a person’s guilt or innocence if suspected of a crime: boiling palm oil was poured over the hands of a suspect or he was required to drink water mixed with ground powder from the poisonous esere bean. As a result, many innocent people were left badly burned or dead. The illness of a freeman was invariably considered the result of someone having practiced sorcery against him. The local witchdoctor was called to supposedly identify the guilty individuals, who were then executed by decapitation. When a chief died, many individuals were put to death to accompany him into the spirit world. Liquor, guns and chains were practically the only items of commerce that entered Okoyong. Gin or rum was in every home and was drunk by every adult and child, beginning from infancy.

Statue of Mary Slessor Holding Twins in Calabar

Statue of Mary Slessor Holding Twins in Calabar

Mary ministered among these desperately needy Okoyongese for many years. Initially she taught school and held Sunday worship services at two substantial neighboring villages, Ekenge and Ifako. She also helped undermine the prevailing and devastating liquor traffic in Okoyong by introducing more beneficial forms of legitimate trade. Okoyongese began giving their time, attention and effort to producing palm kernels and oil to trade with Calabarians in exchange for cloth, pots, dishes and other useful items. In addition to material benefits for the Okoyongese, this trade also resulted in a considerable reduction in the amount of time they spent in useless drinking and fighting.

Eventually the day came when, at Mary’s insistence and for the first time in the known history of Okoyong, the death and funeral of a chief took place without the traditional sacrifice of other individuals to accompany him into the afterlife. Chiefs and other free people, one by one and unknown to each other, secretly came to Mary to thank her for her love and courage as well as for all the peaceful, life-giving policies she was promoting. They encouraged her to keep a brave heart and to continue doing away with the old customs that invariably produced death.

Mary Slessor

Mary Slessor

Mary did continue to manifest marked courage in her dealings with the Okoyongese. On numerous occasions she was seen taking large, drunken mean by the neck, pulling them away from their alcohol and throwing them to the ground! She once stopped and confiscated a canoe-load of machetes that were being taken upriver for use in war. Several times she played a key role in preventing tribes from going to war with each other. On one such occasion she intervened between two tribes that were on the brink of attacking each other. Though her heart was beating wildly, she stood between them and made them pile their rifles on opposite sides of her. With mounds of weapons heaped up over five feet high on both sides, she then negotiated a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

Four years after beginning her ministry in Okoyong, the British Government asked Mary to carry out a new judicial responsibility in that region. For many years British authorities had exercised only minimal influence over the coastal regions of Calabar, while tribes like the Okoyongese further up the Cross River wholly ignored and opposed British directives. Recognizing Mary’s unique position and influence in Okoyong, British authorities asked her to organize and supervise an indigenous court and empowered her to do all that was necessary to promote the reception of new laws in the region.

Mary presided over the court at various locations throughout Okoyong. Large groups of tribal leaders came to consult her about adjusting their customs to the new laws. Through these activities justice was promoted for the local people and the rule of law was promoted in the region. Though Mary did not relish that type of service, she sought to carry it out faithfully, believing it to be part of the ministry the Lord had for her to do. Those efforts helped to greatly reduce such practices as killing infant twins, the poison bean ordeal and executing individuals at the deaths of chiefs. Mary gained a reputation as a tough but just judge, and Okoyongese

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

came from great distances to have their trials held before her.

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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

Mary Slessor
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.

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Scotland

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Scotland

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 SlessorMary’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.

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie#          #          #

 

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

Catherine Booth

Catherine Booth as a young woman

When Catherine (Mumford) Booth, the future “Mother of the Salvation Army,” was just nine years old, she once saw a raucous crowd coming down the street of her girlhood town of Boston in Lincolnshire, England. The crowd shouted and jeered at a young man, obviously intoxicated, who was being dragged along by a policeman.

Catherine had often heard her father, a zealous proponent of total abstinence, speak publicly on the evils of drunkenness. A tenderhearted child, she instinctively felt pity for this individual who was obviously under the destructive influence of alcohol. Though normally shy, she now boldly stepped forward, took the drunkard’s hand and smiled up at him. That simple act of compassion and support had a calming effect on the man. Ignoring the continued ridicule of the crowd, Catherine bravely walked alongside the drunk, helping to steady him as he was led off to the town jail.

William Booth as a young man

William Booth as a young man

Catherine married William Booth, an itinerant Methodist evangelist, in June, 1855. Three years later William was appointed to be the pastor of a large Methodist congregation in the city of Gateshead in northern England. There Catherine devoted two evenings a week to house-to-house visitation in the lower-class neighborhoods of town where alcoholism and poverty prevailed. She prayed and read Scripture with people, shared and showed God’s love to them, invited them to church and succeeded in persuading a number of “drunkards to abandon their soul-destroying habits.”

Of one particularly pitiful home situation Catherine wrote: “I found a poor woman lying on a heap of rags. She had just given birth to twins, and there was nobody of any sort to wait upon her. I can never forget the desolation of that room. By her side was a crust of bread and a small lump of lard. … I was soon busy in trying to make her a little more comfortable. The babies I washed in a broken pie-dish, the nearest approach to a tub that I could find. And the gratitude of those large eyes, which gazed upon me from that wan and shrunken face, can never fade from my memory.”

In the years that followed William returned to itinerant evangelistic ministry, and Catherine began a fruitful public speaking ministry of her own. After they moved to western London in 1865, Catherine was invited to minister at a meeting of the Midnight Movement for Fallen Women. Two or three hundred prostitutes were at the meeting, and she spoke to them “as one sinful woman to another.” So fervent was her appeal, that some of them responded to her plea to reform their lives.

William and Catherine Booth

William and Catherine Booth

That summer William carried out a six-week mission in London’s East End. That section of the city was infamous for its extreme poverty, degradation and despair. Unemployment, drunkenness, prostitution and all variety of crime abounded. The East London Christian Revival Union (later renamed The East London Christian Mission) was formed to help raise prayer and financial support for the fledgling ministry. Through Catherine’s expanding ministry to well-to-do audiences in London’s West End she was able to acquaint them with and raise support for the East End mission.

William soon sensed the Lord’s leading to discontinue itinerant ministry in order to dedicate himself to this new mission. One night after walking from the East End to their home in the West End, he announced to his wife: “O Kate, I have found my destiny! As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, ‘Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labors?’ And there and then in my soul I offered myself and you and the children up to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.”

CaCatherine Booth by Roger Greentherine later recorded her initial responses to that declaration: “I remember the emotion that this produced in my soul. I sat gazing into the fire, and the Devil whispered to me, ‘This means another departure, another start in life!’ The question of our support constituted a serious difficulty. Hitherto we had been able to meet our expenses out of the collections which we had made from our more respectable audiences. But it was impossible to suppose that we could do so among the poverty-stricken East Enders—we were afraid even to ask for a collection in such a locality.

“Nevertheless, I did not answer discouragingly. After a momentary pause for thought and prayer, I replied, ‘Well, if you feel you ought to stay, stay. We have trusted the Lord once for our support, and we can trust Him again!’”

That further step of faith and obedience eventually led the Booths to found the Salvation Army with its pronounced emphases on ministering to the spiritual and material needs of the lower classes of society. The remainder of their lives was devoted to promoting and carrying out multifaceted, large-scale ministry to hurting, needy individuals throughout Britain and the world.Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

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A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life of compassionate Christian service is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Roger Green’s Catherine Booth, A Biography of the Cofounder of the Salvation Army (Baker, 1996) provides a more comprehensive account of her life.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Fanny Crosby in older age

Fanny Crosby in older age

Fanny Crosby, the most prominent hymn writer of the nineteenth century, composed the lyrics for some 9,000 songs over the course of her songwriting career, which stretched out for more than fifty years. Through the years a number of fascinating true stories were preserved about how some of those songs came to be written or how they were used of the Lord to bring spiritual benefit to individuals.

Fanny composed over 1,000 hymns for William Howard Doane, a hymn writer and publisher from Cincinnati, Ohio. Not long after Fanny and Doane first met, he stopped by her New York apartment with the declaration, “I have exactly forty minutes before my train leaves for Cincinnati. Here is a melody. Can you write words for it?”

“I will see what I can do,” Fanny replied. She later related: “Then followed a space of twenty minutes during which I was wholly unconscious of all else except the work I was doing.” At the end of that time she recited the words to “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” to Doane, who quickly copied them down before dashing off to catch his train.

William Howard Doane

William Howard Doane

Probably more real-life incidents came to be known involving that hymn than any other song Fanny ever wrote. One of the most touching involved a pastor, Dr. John Hall, who went to see the ailing daughter of one of his parishioners. When the girl’s father came downstairs in tears, the clergyman asked, “My dear friend, what is the trouble? Has the little girl gone home?”

“No,” the father answered, “but she has asked me to do something that I cannot do. Anything that wealth might buy she may have. But I cannot sing ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’ for I never sang a note in my life.”

“Oh, I will go up and sing it for her,” the minister responded reassuringly. He did, and the child slipped into eternity just as he sang the hymn’s last two lines:

Wait till I see the morning

Break on the golden shore.

The words from another of Fanny’s best-known hymns, “My Savior First of All,” were once used of the Lord to safeguard a number of people from spiritual deception. A man suddenly appeared in London, claiming to be the Messiah. Charismatic and persuasive, he drew large crowds for many weeks. But one evening as he was speaking in a public square, a small Salvation Army band passed by singing “My Savior First of All” with its closing lines, “I shall know Him, I Shall know Him, By the print of the nails in His hand.”

The sizeable crowd spontaneously joined in singing that chorus. Presently someone pointed at the self-proclaimed Messiah and challenged, “Look at his hands and see if the print of the nails is there.” When no such marks were revealed, the man promptly lost his following.

Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby

Money meant little to Fanny. She normally lived in simple apartments, sometimes in a rather poor part of town. She was extremely generous. Often she gave all the money in her possession to help some needy individual, then asked the Lord to provide what she needed for her own food, rent and other basic necessities of life.

One day someone said to her, “If I had wealth I would be able to do just what I wish to do, and I would be able to make an appearance in the world.”

“Take the world but give me Jesus,” Fanny instantly replied. That remark led her to write one of her most famous hymns, which bore those words as its title.

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Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

These and other remarkable hymn stories of Fanny Crosby, along with her fascinating life story, are related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). The story of her life is shared in her own words in Fanny J. Crosby, An Autobiography (Baker, 1995, and Hendrickson, 2015). A more comprehensive account of her life and ministry is provided in Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See, The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Eerdmans, 2005).

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Christmas gift book pix 2
Recently I heard of a mother who is buying four gifts for each of her children this Christmas: something to wear; something they need; something for fun; something to read. Sounds like a good balance to me.

As one who has a great appreciation for (and writes) historic Christian biographies, allow me to promote that type of book in the “something to read” gift category. Such biographies are not only interesting and entertaining but also spiritually inspiring and instructive.

They relate the fascinating real-life stories of some of the most outstanding and significant Christians in the history of the Church. The examples of such faithful, fruitful Christian servants encourage and challenge us to love Jesus more deeply and to serve Him more actively, even sacrificially. We’re encouraged not only to be faithful but also faith-filled in our service of Christ.

Christmas gift books pix 1There are lots of good historic Christian biographies that have been published for younger children and older youth. Check out Christian Focus Publication’s Trailblazer series (under its CF4Kids imprint), YWAM’s Christian Heroes Then & Now series, as well as similar series by other publishers.

Plenty of great Christian biographies have been published for adults also. Be sure to peruse the outstanding biography offerings of Christian Focus Publications (including its History Makers series), EP Books (including its Bitesize Biographies), and Banner of Truth Trust. A number of other evangelical Christian publishers offer additional quality biographies.

When giving a biography as a gift, of course, it’s important to give a book that we think the recipient will find interesting. That could be about a person they’ve already heard of. Or it could be about an individual who, though unknown to them, had such a compelling story that we know they’ll find it engaging. It could also be a biography that really ministered to us, and we’re confident it will do the same for them.

Christmas gift books pix 3While children’s and youth biographies tend to be fairly consistent in story-like style and briefer length, adult biographies can differ more widely. Some adult-level biographies are intended for a popular audience and are of more manageable length. Others are more scholarly and extensive. Again, it’s good to give a biography according to the interest level of the person receiving it as a gift.

Biographies are good gifts not only for family members but also for friends. Biographies make great gifts for people we appreciate in ministry and for those who are preparing for vocational Christian service.

Of the biographies I’ve written, here’s who I think they would especially appeal to:

Hudson Taylor, Gospel Pioneer to China and John and Betty Stam, Missionary Martyrs – Great for youth (as opposed to very young children) and anyone interested in missions. Young adults processing the issues of marriage and call to vocational ministry may find the John and Betty Stam biography especially beneficial.

Women of Faith and Courage – Christian women and older girls will appreciate this collection of abbreviated biographies on Susanna Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Catherine Booth, Mary Slessor and Corrie ten Boom.

Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians – This collection of short, true stories from the lives of outstanding Christians on a variety of key themes (such as Family, Prayer, Service, Adversity, etc.) appeals to adults and youth alike. Great for personal reading or family devotions.

David Brainerd: A Flame for God, Adoniram Judson: Devoted for Life, and Andrew Murray: Christ’s Anointed Minister to South Africa – These somewhat longer volumes (300+ pages) are probably best suited for somewhat older and more serious biography readers. All three of these biographies would be encouraging reads for pastors, missionaries and lay leaders.

Happy shopping and beneficial reading to you and yours this Christmas season!

Copyright 2015 by Vance E. Christie