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

Dr. Carl K. BeckerAfrica has been blessed with a long line of outstanding Christian medical missionaries. Such remarkable individuals as David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer and Helen Roseveare come readily to mind.  “But if one medical missionary to Africa were to be singled out,” states missiologist Ruth Tucker, “for his length of service combined with his extraordinary dedication to saving the lives and improving the health standards of the African people, it would surely be Carl Becker, the great munganga [doctor] of the Congo.”

Carl Becker (1894-1990) was born and raised in Manheim, Pennsylvania. After receiving his medical training at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, he successfully practiced medicine in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, for seven years. In 1929 Becker and his wife, Marie, left Boyertown to go to the Belgian Congo (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) under the Africa Inland Mission. In doing so, Becker exchanged an annual income of $10,000-plus for a missionary’s salary of $720 per year.

Five years later Becker moved with his wife and two children to the tiny mission station of Oicha in the dense Ituri forest to work among the Pygmies and other jungle tribes. In that unlikely spot, among towering mahogany trees, Becker and his associates built a highly effective medical compound. With no long-range plan and no budget for expansion, rooms and buildings were added as they became necessary, and were often paid for out of Becker’s personal salary of just sixty dollars a month.

A Leper's Hands

A Leper’s Hands

Becker’s weekends were devoted to itinerant evangelistic ministry in the surrounding villages. Mass evangelism was carried out to the hundreds of Africans who came to Oicha each day for medical treatment. Young Christian patients being treated at the hospital were also helped to grow in their faith.

Medical ministry brought about the fruitful evangelization of two area people groups which had long been intensely discriminated against, Pygmies and lepers. As a result of the care and love they received from Becker and his Christian staff, thousands of them were drawn to faith in Christ.

With Becker being the only resident medical doctor at Oicha, an astounding total of more than 3,000 operations were performed each year and some 500 babies were delivered annually. While treating all variety of injuries and diseases, Becker did extensive research and specialized in the treatment of leprosy. By the early 1950s he was treating some 4,000 resident patients at his 1,100-acre leprosy village. The results were so impressive that medical missionaries and leprologists from all over the world visited Oicha to learn from Becker.

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 1983 editionHe also treated patients with mental illness, including some individuals who were so severely disturbed that their relatives thought they were demon possessed. Becker established a mental ward and a psychiatric clinic at Oicha. However, according to Becker’s biographer, William Petersen, the doctor “remained convinced that simple Christianity was the soundest general therapy for the mentally upset, that the Gospel of love and hope alone can banish superstition and fear.”

Becker narrowly escaped from the Congo in 1964 when it became known that Simba rebels, rapidly closing in on Oicha, were intent on capturing and executing him. Some might have thought that the good doctor, then seventy years of age, would consider retiring at that point. But a year later he was back in Oicha, rebuilding the ministry that Simba guerrillas had destroyed the previous year. And his active missionary service in Africa stretched out for another dozen years beyond that.

Art Buchwald, the prominent American newspaper columnist, once penned this remarkable tribute: “In all of Congo, the man who made the greatest impression on us was an American missionary doctor named Carl K. Becker. … We couldn’t help thinking as we left Oicha that America had its own Dr. Schweitzer in Congo.”

Another Hand on MineBut Ruth Tucker seems correct in suggesting that the greatest tribute ever paid to Becker may have been this one made by one of his African medical trainees: “Many missionaries had preached Jesus Christ to me, and many missionaries had taught Jesus Christ to me, but in the munganga I have seen Jesus Christ.”

Much profit may be gained by reading William Petersen’s excellent biography, Another Hand on Mine, The Story of Dr. Carl K. Becker of Africa Inland Mission. Ruth Tucker’s outstanding work, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, A Biographical History of Christian Missions, contains a helpful summary of Becker’s life (pages 339-342).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 1983 edition

1983 Edition

I realize that for some people the words “Fascinating” and “History of Christian Missions” might not belong in the same title. But for the skeptical, hear me out on this one. 😉

Ruth Tucker’s award-winning book, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Zondervan, 1983 & 2004), surveys two millennia of Christian missionary endeavor in an extremely readable and engaging fashion. Tucker does this by presenting compact, compelling biographies of over 100 individuals or couples who played key roles in advancing the cause of Christian missions throughout twenty centuries of Church History.

The list of people featured in this book reads like a “Who’s Who in Christian Missions.” Some of the many prominent individuals featured include the Apostle Paul, Polycarp, Count Zinzendorf, David Brainerd, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Robert and Mary Moffat, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth, John Williams, John Paton, Lottie Moon, Mary Slessor, Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward, C. T. Studd, John Mott, A. B. Simpson, Wilfred Grenfell, John and Betty Stam, Cameron Townsend, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Nate Saint, Brother Andrew, Don Richardson.

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 2004 edition

2004 Edition

Some of the book’s key chapter topics include: The Early Centuries, Evangelizing the Roman Empire; The Moravian Advance, Dawn of Protestant Missions; American Indian Missions; Single Women Missionaries; “Faith” Missionaries, Depending on God Alone; Medical Missions; Translation and Linguistics; Missionary Aviation; Twentieth-Century Martyrs; Third World Missions; Islamic Missions (a new addition to the 2004 edition of the book). Other chapters trace the development of Christian missions in South Central Asia, Africa, the Far East and the Pacific Islands.

The brilliance and appeal of this volume is that as we read the interesting mini-biographies of these influential missionaries, we gain a great overview of the sweep of missionary effort throughout Church History. Even if you choose not to read the entire book, you can read of the people and topics that are of particular interest to you.

Ruth Tucker

Ruth Tucker

Ruth Tucker is well-qualified to write such a volume. She was raised in a missions-minded Christian and Missionary Alliance church where “a deep concern for foreign missions” began developing in her heart from earliest childhood. She received the Ph.D. in history from Northern Illinois University. She has taught missions studies and church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Calvin Theological Seminary.

From my perspective, one unfortunate feature of this otherwise outstanding book is its rather pronounced critical tone concerning two particular ministry issues in past centuries: (1) women having fewer ministry opportunities than men; (2) some missionaries prioritizing their ministries above their families. While some correction concerning those matters may seem called for from our twenty-first century vantage point, we need to bear in mind that missionaries and other Christians of the past operated out of generational norms that seemed appropriate and even “biblical” in their day. While they didn’t always strike a perfect balance on those and other issues, neither do contemporary Christians. In some instances their seemingly-imbalanced examples may actually have something profitable to teach us on such issues.

On the whole, however, I highly recommend From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya to you. Your understanding of missions history and your heart for promoting Christ’s worldwide Kingdom work will be strengthened by reading this book

Copyright 2014 by Vance E. Christie