On 13 January 1915, after almost 40 years of faithful service, 66-year-old Mary Slessor died of malaria fever near Calabar, Nigeria. On the centenary of her death we do well to remember this dynamic and inspiring redhead from the slums of Dundee.
Mary was born in 1848 in Aberdeen. Her shoemaker father, Robert, was an alcoholic, unable to manage his own business. The need to find work led the family to Dundee, where Robert and his wife Mary took jobs in Baxter Brother’s linen mill.
The cramped and insanitary conditions aggravated the effects of Robert’s alcoholism and led to his death from pneumonia. Mary developed a strong sense of responsibility to help her mother and family. Like many girls from the surrounding homes, she worked in the mill from six in the morning to six at night, with only an hour’s break.
The family attended Wishart United Presbyterian (UP) Church. At home, Mary’s mother taught her children to pray, and read to them from the Bible, Christian classics and the Missionary record of their church. The Bible’s vision of the divine majesty of Jesus, the beauty and grace of his life and atoning death on the cross, won Mary’s heart and life’s devotion.
With her good looks, unconventional cropped hair and contrasting gentle voice, Mary worked at Quarry Pend UP mission in Cowgate, an area notorious for its drunken and violent youth.
One night a gang surrounded her in the street. The leader swung a heavy lead weight on a cord threateningly close to her head. As it shaved her brow she stood her ground. The lad smiled and exclaimed: ‘She’s game, boys!’
On the wall of her home in Nigeria hung the photograph of a Christian man, with his wife and family. The man was the youth who had swung the lead.
The death of David Livingstone in 1873 led 26-year-old Mary to apply to the UP mission. After missionary training in Edinburgh, she set sail on 5 August 1876 and arrived in Nigeria a month later.
It was among the tribes of the Calabar region that Mary found her life’s work. She quickly learned the Efik language, adapted to a simple lifestyle in a small house made of traditional materials, ate local food, shared the gospel and worked hard for the good of the people, in every way possible.
Mary soon discovered that dark practices born of fear ruled people’s lives and demeaned women. One was polygamy. Extra wives raised a man’s status and provided cheap labour for his farm.
If the Ekpo masquerade appeared and was seen by any woman, she was immediately in danger of harm, even death. When twins were born, it was believed that one was the child of an evil spirit, but as no one knew which, both were often put inside clay pots and abandoned in the forest. The mother was shunned because it was believed she was guilty of some great evil.
Mary challenged such practices, encouraging twins to be brought to her for protection. Her household always included babies and young children, and she raised six girls and two boys as her own. One of her earliest twin adoptees, Jane, lived with her until she died.
Ignorance and superstition led many to fear Western medicine. Mary had to battle for smallpox vaccinations and other medical benefits to be accepted. Though sometimes discouraged, she believed God’s grace would prevail. She once prayed, ‘Lord, the task is impossible for me, but not for thee. Lead the way and I will follow’.
Rising from her knees, she reasoned with herself, ‘Why should I fear? I am on a royal mission. I am in the service of the King of kings’.
After years of struggle, a change came over Efik society. Known as ‘Mother of all the peoples’ or, more simply, ‘Ma’, Mary gained the respect of traditional leaders, and the terrorising of women and killing of twins became less common.
Letting her light shine
Other missionaries considered Mary foolhardy for flouting European convention: going bareheaded in the tropics, barefooted through the forests, declining to boil drinking water, and abandoning her Victorian petticoats to cope better with the climate.
Her motive was simply to remove any barrier that got in the way of communicating the gospel, which she shared with anyone willing to listen. She played an important role in settling disputes, at first on an informal basis but after 1892 as the British vice-consul in Okoyong, presiding over the native court.
As one biographer said, not unfairly, ‘She was a natural meddler, with an iron will, and the role of magistrate suited her well’. In this way, she brought the stability of British law and order, softened by Christian values, to troubled and divided communities.
The UP mission in Calabar began with radical ideas which suited Mary’s outlook. In 1841, Irish-born Hope Waddell, a minister of the United Secession Church serving with the Scottish Missionary Society in Jamaica, read Sir T. Fowell Buxton’s book, The slave trade and its remedy,advocating that ex–slaves return to Africa with the gospel of Christ.
From the 1830s onward, the idea was discussed within the Jamaican presbytery. In 1846, the first contingent of African and European missionaries reached Calabar and was successful in starting a work, which has grown to be a large denomination known as the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria.
However, they were joined by missionaries who held that Africans, by virtue of their race, could not exercise authority responsibly. Mary had no patience with such prejudice or passivity.
Burdened to reach areas where the gospel had not yet penetrated, she determined to do two things. She would step out in faith herself, with or without missionary colleagues, and she encouraged the sending out of Nigerian Christians eager to serve.
Her zeal led to some progress, but the Scottish Presbyterian emphasis on an educated ministry meant that few national pastors were ordained. To Mary’s frustration, the national workers sent out by the Presbyterian mission were restricted to being school teachers, while other missions encouraged them also to plant churches and conduct worship at weekends.
Being faithful unto death
West Africa was not known as the ‘white-man’s grave’ for nothing. Mary often suffered attacks of malaria and knew that one might prove fatal, but she fearlessly persisted with her work.
She once wrote to a colonial official, ‘Don’t talk about the cold hand of death. It is the hand of Christ’. A final severe bout of fever in January 1915 led to her death at her remote home, near Use Ikot Oku.
Her body was transported down river to Duke Town for the equivalent of a state funeral. Nigeria’s Governor-General, Sir Frederick Lugard, telegraphed his ‘deepest regret’ from Lagos and published a warm tribute in the Government gazette.
Mary Slessor never sought accolades. Responding to suggestions that she ought to be handsomely rewarded for her work, she replied with a question, ‘What would I do with starry crowns, except to cast them at His feet?’
Today she is remembered in Nigeria, Scotland and around the world for her commitment to the rights of women and children, for the improvement she brought to the lives of black Africans and, above all, for leading many to faith in Jesus.
In Scotland, she is commemorated in Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens, in a magnificent memorial window now housed in the McManus Galleries, Dundee, and also by being the first non-royal woman to appear on a British bank note, the 1997 Clydesdale Bank £10 note.
In Nigeria, she is still remembered by her Efik nickname of Obongawan Okoyong (Queen of Okoyong). I have been privileged to visit the Calabar area where, to this day, you can find a Mary Slessor Road, a Mary Slessor roundabout and a Mary Slessor church.
Statues of her, usually carrying twins, are found at various locations. Mary Slessor’s true memorial, however, is in the lives and churches of those who were led by her words and example to love and serve Christ.
Inspiring new generations
Many have been amazed at what Mary achieved, but she was astonished too. How could God use a girl like her from the slums of Dundee? She believed that the secret lay in the prayers of others.
She wrote: ‘I have always said that I have no idea how or why God has carried me over so many funny and hard places, and made these hordes of people submit to me, or why the government should have given me the privilege of a magistrate among them, except in answer to prayer made at home for me. It is all beyond my comprehension.
‘The only way I can explain it is on the ground that I have been prayed for more than most. Pray on, dear one — the power lies that way’.
Informed and persistent prayer remains the vital backbone of mission. But prayer has to be accompanied by action. Action in the steps of Mary Slessor is still needed today, to reach the unreached, to train nationals for the work and to take risks for God.
In her notes for sharing with Wishart UP Church in 1874, the year she felt called to serve God in Africa, Mary gives us an insight into what made this firebrand tick and what continues to inspire many (including the author) to follow her sacrificial service at home and overseas:
‘Thank God for such men and women here and everywhere, who in the face of scorn and persecution . . . dare to stand firmly and fearlessly for their Master. Their commission is today what it was yesterday. “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”. . .
‘Not the nice easy places only, but the dark places, the distant places . . . to the low as well as the high, the poor as well as the rich, the ignorant as well as the learned, the degraded as well as the refined, to those who will mock as well as to those who will receive us, to those who will hate as well as to those who will love us.’
Rev. Dr Sid Garland has served with Mission Africa (formerly Qua Iboe Mission) since 1987. He and his wife Jean and their three children went to Samuel Bill Theological College, not so far from Calabar, before later transferring to Jos, and returning to Belfast in 2010. Sid continues to serve as Executive Director of Africa Christian Textbooks (ACTS), regularly visiting both Nigeria and Kenya to encourage the publishing and distribution of Christian literature.