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Mary Slessor – Missionary To Calabar (Part 2)

Arranged from existing biographies of Mary Slessor (1848-1915)

    While young Mary Slessor was zealously and joyfully serving God among the children and youth of her home city of Dundee, Scotland, there came news of the death of her missionary hero, David Livingstone. His dying plea was that others would carry on the work of taking the Gospel to Africa. Thoughts began to grow in Mary’s mind – thoughts about Africa, thoughts about Calabar, Nigeria. But, she reasoned, those sent to the mission field were usually professional people – preachers, teachers, doctors. She was a mill worker. Too, what of the climate? That area of Africa was known as the "white man’s grave." Word had just come of two more lady missionaries who had died of fever in Calabar. Would it be worth risking her health and her very life?

    But thoughts of Calabar would not go away. Instead it became a certainty to her that she must apply. Her application was accepted. A three-month course was completed, and Mary was on her way to serve with the Scottish Mission to Calabar in 1876. "I will go in the strength of the Lord God: I will make mention of Thy righteousness, even of Thine only" (Psa. 71:16).

Mary’s Introduction to Missionary Service

    Mary’s first work was to teach in the schools and to visit the women in their yards. Mary was appalled by the life of the African women. They had to support themselves and the children by their work on the farms. A wife could be rejected by her husband at any time and for any reason. A slave woman had no rights and no protection.

    Mary felt compassion for the slave women. Her girlhood labors gave her understanding and sympathy. With the help of the slave women who spoke the local Efik language, and with arduous study and a good teacher, she began to learn the Efik language with surprising speed, and in later years she was said to speak it very well.

    She longed and prayed for more of the love of God to enable her to love the people as He loved them. It was her love for the Lord and her trust in Him that kept her persevering with the visitation regardless of the depressing things she saw in this non-Christian society.

    At the time of Mary’s arrival the mission was working mostly in Creek Town and Duke Town, and in a few outstations of the nearby area. In this sphere of influence they had succeeded in great measure in stopping ritual killings, human sacrifices and other similar practices. But there were hardly a hundred converts to Christ.

    Mary was taken to visit the outstations. She found the beauty and excitement of the African forests appealing, but she had to learn to avoid crocodiles, leopards, scorpions, snakes and such dangerous wildlife. There were no roads, only narrow bush paths and river travel by canoe.

    Not far beyond Duke Town, where the mission headquarters was located, were vast unmapped areas. The missionaries had made some exploratory visits in this direction. After thirty years in the towns, they were anxious to preach the Gospel in these areas also. But the tribes here seemed hostile and missionaries were not welcome. One on an exploratory journey barely escaped with his life. A few African teachers from the towns sent to this area had to eventually flee back to safety also. Heathen fear and practices held a strong grip on this area.

    Yet this was the area that beckoned Mary Slessor. She learned of the Okoyong tribe. Their territory lay along the old slave trading routes. These people had learned to trust no one and no one trusted them. A warlike people, they carried their weapons always with them. Mary spoke of going to the Okoyong, but no one took her seriously. It was unsafe for a male missionary to go there. How much more so for a woman, when the society held women in such low regard.

    Anyway, for now Mary was occupied with fighting off repeated attacks of malaria, which kept her frequently from her teaching. It was not yet known that the mosquito was the carrier of malaria. Mary was sent back to Scotland on leave after about three years rather than after the customary four because of these frequent bouts with fever.

Returning for a Second Term

    Returning to Calabar sixteen months later, Mary was given the Creek Town station to manage. She was glad to be on her own and she conducted the work there in an energetic, capable manner. Often on Sundays she preached four times, walking a half mile or more from one station to another to do so.

    She began to take abandoned children into her home to care for them with the assistance of African girls. The rest of her life she would have babies and children surrounding her, even traveling with her in most primitive and hazardous conditions. African children completely won her heart.

    As she succeeded in training Africans to take the responsibilities of her station, she ventured out farther into the bush. She sought to break down the barriers between herself and the Africans and to understand their ways of thinking. She came to realize that the spirit world is very real to them. There were their gods, and the spirits of dead ancestors, as well as spirits that lived in stones, rivers and all living things. All these had to be appeased and worshiped. Then there was witchcraft – fearful witchcraft, through which enemies could put destructive curses on one.

    "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of Me, saith the Lord" (Isa. 54:17).

Returning for a Third Term

    It was after Mary Slessor returned to Nigeria from her second leave in Scotland that she purposed to enter the wild, unmapped territory where the Okoyong tribe lived. She determined to go upcountry to live with the Okoyong if they would have her. Against pleadings of other missionaries and African friends, who felt it foolhardy for a woman missionary to go there alone, Mary obtained permission to live among them, taking with her five young African orphans.

    "Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness" (Isa. 41:10).

    The Okoyong were in frequent armed conflicts with their neighbors. They drank heavily. Their lives reflected the great spiritual darkness in which they lived. The chief men were reserved in their welcome of Mary as she moved into their midst. Living conditions in the little mud hut given to her were primitive and crowded. The larger, better home promised to her was long in coming. But "God and one are always a majority" was her premise as she set to work among them.

    (To be continued)