Missionary Stories

Mary Slessor: Pioneer Missionary to Nigeria

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Written by Madeline Peña

Mary Slessor was a dedicated missionary in the late 1800s to early 1900s, with a vigor and passion that brought the Lord’s Kingdom to Africa. She is now noted as one of Africa’s top missionaries, and much of West Africa was evangelized due to the open door that Mary created for the next generation of missionaries to follow after her. Born in 1848 to a Scottish family, Mary would go on to transform the world with the Gospel.

Who is Mary Slessor? Mary Slessor was a devoted missionary, with nearly 40 years dedicated to the nation of Nigeria. While pouring into the nation in which she loved, Mary would become one of the first single missionary women to make a nationwide impact. Bravely, she did missions work without a team or a family. Mary transformed whole communities with the love of the Gospel; starting orphanages, preaching the Good News, standing up for women’s rights, and saving many innocent lives from death. Today, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and churches all stand because of the impact Mary Slessor left in West Africa.

She was called “White Mother” by many and respected by all the tribes she encountered in Africa. Written about by the Europeans, they would say “Have you seen Mary Slessor, what a wonder!”, “What a woman worth seeing!”, “Mary Slessor, she is the most wonderful woman of all West Africa!”. Mary Slessor was buried near her home, on Mission Hill in Duke Town, Nigeria. She wanted to die in the nation she had devoted her life to.

Mary was deeply mourned by the Nigerian people, and by people all around the world. Upon her death, it was written about Mary Slessor and her mission;

“She who loved us, she who sought us,

Brought us healing, brought us comfort,
Brought the sunshine to our darkness—
She has gone—the dear white Mother—

Thus she taught and thus she labored;
Living, spent herself to help us,
Dying, found her rest among us…”

Her loving devotion to impact the world makes Mary’s missionary story the seventh in our 10 Christian Missionaries Every Christian Should Know because of her remarkable impact in West Africa and for her passion to the call of missions.

A Childhood Call to Missions

Mary was born on December 2nd, 1848, to a pious mother and alcoholic father. While the family struggled in poverty, they decided to relocate to Dundee, Scotland in hopes of a better life. Yet, her father’s alcohol addiction grew, so Mary was forced to work at the local mill. He would also force Mary out on the streets for days as a young child, and she was left hungry and abandoned.

Starting at the local mill, Mary was considered a “half-timer”. This meant that she would spend half of her time at the mill’s school for her education, and she would spend the other half of her time working at the mill. Even still, she was a curious child, who was fascinated by learning and asked many questions. She was considered very bright by her teachers.

Missionary Influence

Mary was the second child of seven, and on Sunday’s all of seven children and their mother would go to church. The church is where Mary was first introduced to the idea of missions because every Sunday the pastor would speak very highly of the missionaries all around the world. Journals were published with accounts of remarkable missionary stories, captivating the imagination of young Mary. Her favorite stories to read were those of David Livingstone and his quests to Africa.

Another missionary influence in Mary’s life was surprisingly her older brother. Mary’s brother always said that he would one day be a missionary when he was grown, but sadly, the boy passed away from pneumonia. At a young age, Mary resolved to fulfill her brother’s calling from the Lord.

At Sunday School, Mary was introduced to salvation, while simultaneously being very fearful of the “eternity of fire”. She never wanted anyone to experience hell, including herself. She came to the salvation of Jesus Christ at a young age. All of these things led Mary later in life to revealing salvation to other people in the world.

Growth To Overseas

As she grew into a young woman, Mary decided to become a Sunday School teacher. She would long imagine of teaching the dark-skinned children she had heard of in Africa, but like all missionaries, she had training to do at home.

While at home as a Sunday School teacher, Mary would evangelize children in the streets, inviting them to come to her Sunday School services. Due to the abuse she experienced as a child from her father, Mary had deep compassion and empathy for the lost and abandoned children in the streets. This would later carry on into her ministry for the rest of her life.

When Mary was 26 years old, she was re-inspired to her call of missions. She, like the rest of the world, was enchanted by David Livingstone’s life in Africa. In honor of Livingstone’s death, she devoted herself to follow his footsteps, following the path he had started in Africa.

Two years later, Mary joined the United Presbyterian Church as a missionary teacher. Mary was also accepted into the Foreign Missions Board, and she was bold enough to go anywhere. She had high hopes to move to Nigeria, but there was never any guarantee. She had no idea if this dream would become a reality.

After training for months to be a missionary, Mary sailed for Calabar, Nigeria in 1876.

A Life of Missions

Most men who journeyed to Calabar from Mary’s home never returned. It was by no means a “safe” choice for a young, single, missionary woman. Mary stands out for her boldness and willingness to do the unthinkable of her time.

Arriving at the “White Man’s Grave”, Mary soon realized how Calabar stood to this infamous name. Many of the tribal people in Calabar had no regard for human life and killed relentlessly. Mary learned upon arrival about the twisted tradition of killing twins due to the tribal beliefs of evil spirits within the twins. What also infuriated the young missionary were the human sacrifices to carved wooden idols. Witnessing the horrific sacrifices, Mary decided that she would stand up for the women, slaves, and children’s lives. Having no tolerance for such evil, Mary used any authority she had to stop the waste of human life.

The young missionary would then go on to choose Duke Town as the place to launch her missionary work. This was the best choice for Mary because there already happened to be missionaries there. She learned the language and culture of the Nigerian people from fellow Christians. Age 27 is when Mary devoted herself to learning the language, Efik. This gave her the avenue to go further inland, which she desired desperately to do. Mary was most passionate about sharing the name of Jesus where it had never been heard before.

Gaining the knowledge she needed, Mary decided to leave her comfortable missionary home and travel alone. She wanted to live in the huts and villages of the people, leaving no barrier between her and them. So Miss Slessor went inland all alone, despite many protests.

Unfortunately, while gaining momentum in ministry, Mary had to return home after living in Nigeria for three years due to the unforeseen illness, malaria.

The Missionary Continues

Deadly illness would be enough to keep most at home, but not Mary. Mary returned to Nigeria, this time to Old Town. During this chapter of her life, Mary was given even more freedom than she had before from the mission board back home, to go places where missionaries had not gone before. She always longed to pioneer a way for the Gospel, just like her role model, David Livingstone.

As she lived with the tribal people, she gained more and more respect due to her lack of fear and her disbelief in superstitions. Even still, her heart was breaking for what she witnessed. Women being buried alive with their dead husbands, cannibalism, and infanticide all led Mary to be very discouraged because her heart was so broken for the innocent. She then would kneel down and pray;

“Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow. Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of Kings.”

– Mary Slessor

During this time in her life, Mary focused a great deal of energy and effort to saving twins who were facing death by the tribal leaders. She also devoted herself to ministering to the twin’s mothers, who were often isolated from the village to die.

Mary did this for three years before she had to return home yet again due to illness. This time, she took a small child she had rescued from death. She named the girl Janie, who was six-months-old at the time. Mary would raise Janie as her own.

Back home, Janie would prove to be huge evidence for the testimony of what Mary was doing in Nigeria. While at home, Mary shared her stories, which greatly inspired other Christians to missions.

Missions Moves Inland

Upon return to Nigeria, Mary was more determined than ever to travel even further still from the coast. Finally, she saw a position to go to the unreached, where no missionary had gone before. She went further inland to the depths of Old Town, Nigeria.

She would travel about with young Janie, going from village to village. In these new places, Mary saved even more twin babies and got to the heart of many vile and superstitious practices. She taught that guilt was not determined by poison drinking and that gods do not need sacrifices. Mary then started to introduce the Gospel that had never been heard of by these new villages.

Missionary to the Okoyong Tribe

During this time, Mary discovered the Okoyong tribe. She had a particular burden for them because the violence, drugs, and slavery was so devasting to their tribe. Their entire tribe was overcome by it, a place where darkness was rampant. Poverty, murder, and disease ruled the Okoyong’s lives.

Mary could not tear herself away from the idea of living with the tribe, even though so many other tribes advised against it.

Other tribes were not the only people who disagreed with Mary’s idea. Her mission committee disagreed as well. Finally, after years of requests which started in 1886, the mission committee granted Mary permission to go into the Okoyong people in 1888. Sent with a bodyguard, Mary journeyed into Okoyong tribe territory. Despite the great protests, Mary never let fear stop her. Even still, she writes,

“I had often a lump in my throat… and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away.”

– Mary Slessor, 1888

 

Transformation through Missions

From here on, Mary allowed herself to be transformed by the people. Adopting every practice of theirs that she could, without giving up her faith. She even stopped dressing like a Westerner and wore tribal woman’s clothing. The Scottish woman was practically a native, besides her very light colored skin.

In the Okoyong tribe, she would end up having close to 12 children at a time in her home; all children left for dead.

Mary tirelessly worked to resolve the violence within the tribe. It seemed there was an internal war amongst the people, and she realized that the heart of the issue must be found. It was obvious to Mary that there were addiction problems and hatred, but why?

Through many years spent with the people, Mary realized that the lack of even a basic economic system was causing most of the disruption. The missionary knew that this was not the Lord’s design. Without an economic system, the people were living a meaningless life that was leading to bitterness and disunity.

Unifying the Okoyong Tribe

Mary decided to unite the men through their labor, despite the chiefs disapproval. Not only did this serve as a unifying factor for the tribespeople, but they even started to created good relationships with surrounding tribes through trading. Through the newly developed relationships, the Okoyong people were introduced to Christ by other tribes that Mary had discipled. Many Okoyong members came to Christ through Mary’s devotion to God.

By introducing basic economy to the Okoyong tribe, Mary demonstrated the genius of Livingstone’s vision for Africa. She was walking out Livingstone’s plan for the African people, the way that he saw fit. As she had always hoped, Mary was following the path of David Livingstone.

Mary dedicated 15 years of her life and ministry to the Okoyong tribe which ended in great success. There was a complete shift in the entire tribe and for the generations to come because so many souls had surrendered to Jesus.

Appointed Leader

In 1892, Mary Slessor was appointed vice consul of the Okoyong territory by the British consul general, Major Claude MacDonald. This meant that Mary was the judge and law enforcer for the British Government in her African territory. In this position, she never supported the British Government in their use of force towards oppressing cannibal tribes. Mary was known for her disdain towards murder, but she always transformed the village through the love of God, not through force like the British. Mary protected Nigerian tribes from the British force and imperialism, by transforming their culture rather than abolishing it.

The Late Years of Mary’s Mission

Mary was 55 years old when the Lord called her to move with her seven children to do pioneer missions work elsewhere. She would continue with pioneer missions for the remainder of her missionary life. This meant that for another 10 years Mary would bring the Gospel to tribes who had not yet heard of Jesus. It also meant that Mary was diligently laboring to plant churches where churches were unheard of.

During this season of her life, Mary was called by God to the Azo people. This was an especially dangerous mission because the area was filled with cannibals. The Azo people were also heavily influenced by the slave trade. Yet, Mary was obedient to the Lord always, which produced miraculous fruit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, even in a tribe where people were constantly dehumanized, villagers came to Christ.

Towards the end of her missionary career, in 1904, Mary evangelized and discipled the Itu tribe, and she stayed with this tribe for several years, starting a missionary base in the region. This base would be a turning point for the younger generation of missionaries, a launching point for the furthering of the Gospel.

From the Itu, the Ibo, the Azo people groups, and beyond, Mary produced much fruit for the Kingdom of God. Many tribal people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Mary’s tremendous fame helped in the matter because she was trusted quite quickly by most tribes. Through the last years of her ministry, Mary planted churches and taught the next generation of missionaries so that they would also be successful missionaries in Africa.

The End of Mary’s Mission

It was in 1913, before the end of Mary’s life, as well as her missionary career, that Mary received an award from the British government as an “Honorary Associate of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem”. However, Mary’s life was not one of material gain, and she reportedly felt embarrassed to receive the award. The devoted missionary knew that her reward was in Heaven.

Mary was struck with malaria once again, but this time she refused to go home. In 1915, when Mary Slessor was 66 years old, she passed away in her mud hut in a village called Use. Mary was not alone, she was surrounded by the children who loved her, as she went to be with her Father in Heaven.

An account of her death recalls;

“The men-murdering world war with its flood of horror reached the far seclusion of Odore Ikpe and caused acute suffering to the little gray-haired lady there, more suffering than her worn-out body was able to sustain, and there she breathed her last on earth surrounded by the children whose lives she had saved”

Old Mammy Fuller, an Okoyong tribeswoman wrote of the weeping and wailing of Africa during the funeral of Mary Slessor. Old Mammy Fuller would miss the missionary dearly herself, but knowing God because of Mary, she called out, “Do not cry, do not cry. Praise God from whom all blessings flow”.

Mary Slessor, named “Eka Kpukpru Owo“, meaning “everybody’s mother” was carried through Calabar in the grandest procession that West Africa had ever seen. She was mourned by many; a woman who had impacted the lives of a great multitude, a woman who single-handedly transformed dark places into light through the Gospel. A woman who proclaimed the Good News, eternal life and love to those who were lost. She was buried on a white sanded hill, the Mission Hill at Duke Town.

Although Mary fought an uphill battle, with God, she taught the Nigerians that all lives are valuable to both God and man. Even in the face of adversity, Mary would write,

“God and one are always a majority”

– Mary Slessor

A Mission that Impacted the World

Mary Slessor was a missionary with an activist mentality, who transformed a nation through the Gospel. She opened up doorways to the unreached and brought Christ-like morality to places of despair.

Mary touched the hearts of those in Nigeria, and she also captivated the hearts of the Scottish, and the world alike. Mary also taught the British how to cherish the Nigerian people, and in return, there was greater peace. She inspired many British citizens to become missionaries, and so the influx of missionaries was sent to Africa following her life.

Mary not only loved the Nigerian people but she also never gave up. Her perseverance serves as a precedent to other missionaries, demonstrating that persistence and patience are key. She was a prime example of determination, which led to her reforming tribal societies. This led to an outpouring of women’s rights, the innocent children lives saved, education systems, and orphanages.

Mary wanted to share the light of Christ to those who needed it desperately. This missionary shows us that even in the face of discouragement, giving our devotion to the Lord’s plan will always lead to the highest success for the lost.

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