Real Heroes – Mary Slessor

What motivated one of the first overseas women missionaries?


Mary Mitchell Slessor (2 December 1848 – 13 January 1915)

Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 1848 in Gilcomston, Scotland in a poor working class family. The Slessors moved to Dundee where they lived in the slums. Before long, Mary’s father and brothers died of pneumonia, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters.

Mary’s mother was a devout Presbyterian who read each issue of the Missionary Record, a monthly magazine that kept its members up to date with the life and work of missionaries. Mary developed an interest in religion and particularly in mission, however in those days mission overseas was seen as men’s work and Mary was encouraged to be involved with home mission. When a mission was opened in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), Mary volunteered  to teach there.

Mary’s older brother was to become a missionary but died before he was able to take up the post. This plus the death of  David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer, – convinced Mary that she should in fact become an overseas missionary and continue the work Livingstone had started. Eventually in 1875, Mary was accepted to go with the Calabar Mission, part of modern day Nigeria.

At Calabar Mary learnt the local language, Efik, and became a school teacher. Life was easy, in some ways too easy for mary who longed for a challenge. After a period at home recovery from malaria Mary returned to Africa where she was given a posting that allowed her far more freedom than had previously been granted her. Mary made up her mind to live alongside the local people. and in fact the life of poverty she had lived in Scotland had prepared her well for this.

It was by living in these conditions that Mary was able to learn more about the culture of the local tribes as well as the language. Mary soon began to understand the hold that witchcraft and spiritism had on the people and the terrible customs that this led to. One such custom  was ‘twin-murder’. Traditional beliefs held that twins were a curse and as such babies were brutally murdered and the mother caste out of society. Mary dedicated a lot of her ministry combatting this terrible practice, saving many twins and ministering to their mothers. Through continued hard work, and Mary believed the grace of God, Mary began to find favour in the eyes of the tribesmen, and eventually gained a respect unheard of for a woman.

In August 1888, Mary decided that the time had come for her to move on up north to Okoyong the ‘up-country’ of West Africa. This was an area of the continent that had claimed the lives of many missionaries but Mary was not daunted by this fact. Mary’s pioneering spirt believed that a woman could succeed where so many men before her had failed. She believed that a woman would be accepted more readily in the tribes than a man as she would be seen as posing less of a threat to the local village leaders. For 15 years Mary was proven right as she lived and worked with the Okoyongs people, teaching them, nursing them and being a friend until eventually, against all odds, they made her a judge for the whole region.

In 1915 Mary died at home in her mud hut, it had been 40 years since she had arrived as a missionary in Africa. Her life continues to be an inspiration to many people  even today but she is also remembered as a pioneer for women in mission, working at a time when it was seen as impossible for women to become overseas missioners.

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