Mary Slessor – Missionary To Calabar (Part 3)
Arranged from existing biographies of Mary Slessor (1848-1915)
It was in 1888 that Mary Slessor, with twelve years of experience in missionary work in Calabar, Nigeria, made her entry into the Okoyong Tribe, upstream from the headquarters mission station. This was the first time a white person had been permitted to live in this wild region. Mary Slessor, and five African orphan children whom she had taken into her care, would be the first ray of Christian light into this area that knew only the evil practices of heathen darkness.
With the simple medicine she had with her and with faith, prayer and God’s help, she began to minister to the needy among them. God gave successful healings in some key instances. In this way she gradually won the friendship and confidence of the people. Then she was able to gather them and introduce them to reading and to the teachings of the Bible. How wonderful to tell them of Christ and of a loving, forgiving God! "How beautiful...are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings… that publisheth salvation" (Isa. 52:7).
But the good tidings they found difficult to believe, so alien was it to these people steeped in revenge. Revenge killings and ceremonial killings were common. Taking her life in her hands, time and again Mary rushed into the midst of an assembled crowd when tortures and killings were in the making. She interceded on behalf of the innocent. She defied even the chiefs for their cruelty and injustice. This sometimes aroused fierce anger. Had not God been with her and given her a power which they acknowledged however reluctantly, she would have been mobbed and killed. "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (Psa. 46:7, 11); "We may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me" (Heb. 13:6).
One custom Mary fought persistently was the killing of twins. It was thought that one twin was the offspring of an evil spirit. Not knowing which twin it was, both were killed. The mother became an outcast and lost all her possessions. Whenever Mary learned of the birth of twins, she wasted no time getting there and rescuing the unfortunates if she was not too late. On her property they were safe. Children of a slave woman who died in childbirth had to be rescued also lest they be thrown away. Another custom she fought was the forced drinking of poison in cases of trouble when there were several suspects, to determine who the guilty person was. Many innocents died in this way. In every way Mary endeavored to demonstrate to the people the value of human life. She sought to teach them that God is loving and merciful, and that every individual is of much value in His sight. "He shall spare the poor and needy…. He shall redeem their soul…and precious shall their blood be in His sight" (Psa. 72:13-14).
Mary was one of the few, if not the only one, who would make nighttime treks through the forest. Emergencies necessitated this at times. She knew vicious creatures were prowling in the darkness. "O God of Daniel, shut their mouths," she prayed as she hurried along. And God heard that prayer. Mary’s life, like the Apostle Paul’s, was full of peril. She, too, hazarded her life for Christ. "Courage," she insisted, "is only the conquering of fear by faith." She had a strong confidence that God was guiding and protecting her, and so she went dauntlessly onward. "What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee" (Psa. 56:3).
Chiefs from afar began to seek out Mary. She came to speak the language like an African, and she knew the customs and the thinking of the Africans as few outsiders did. She had unusual sway over the people. British officials sought her help in dealing with them. She arbitrated many local problems, sitting patiently, busily knitting while she heard the tales of trouble, and then made her wise and just judgments.
"A Loving Heart, Willing Hands and Common Sense"
There alone in the bush Mary sensed constantly the need for additional help in working among these people. Mission officials within the country could not spare workers from other stations. Fever was taking a fearful toll, either putting missionaries in a grave or sending them home broken in health. In appeals to those in the homeland, Mary asked for those of "a loving heart, willing hands and common sense." But few were the recruits that came, and for many years Mary labored on alone.
For a brief time, there flamed a bright hope of companionship in her labors among the Okoyong. A male missionary in Calabar, some years younger than herself, became attracted to Mary and wanted to marry her. They became engaged. How joyful was the prospect of companionship in her difficult and lonely jungle work! However, the mission officials vetoed the young man’s leaving his teaching assignment where Christianity had already been somewhat established and going to the jungle to work with her. Mary had dedicated her life to go to those who had no one else to sow the Gospel seed among them and she would not go back on that consecration. She left it in God’s hands and chose to abide by the officials’ decision. Only Mary knew the cost of thus laying all on the altar for God. But He was her first love and she trusted Him to enable her to carry on with the heavy load. She could say with the Psalmist David, "God is my helper" (Psa. 54:4).
Late night hours often found her still at work. There was a steady stream of African visitors coming for help. There were emergency calls out into the bush to answer. There were house repairs, gardening for the family, the care of the babies and children she had adopted. One visitor happened into her home when she was bathing four babies in four buckets of water. When they were bathed and dried, four more had a turn. A little one being nursed back to health often interrupted her nights of sleep with crying.
School hours were known to be irregular, but she worked at teaching to read and to do simple figuring so they could trade and earn a respectable living. Africans were informally trained to do the teaching. Unfortunately, institutionally trained teachers were slow in coming.
Through Mary’s inspiration, an industrial school was started in a port town where young people with ability could learn useful trades along with becoming established in their Christian life. This equipped them to go into the bush and teach and preach Christ as well as practice their trade.
After less than ten years among the Okoyong, Mary could report that the area was sufficiently changed so that outsiders could safely come in for business or for pleasure. Traders were welcome. Killings at funerals had stopped. Raiding for slaves had ceased. Although the superstition regarding twins was not fully wiped out, there was more tolerance. Choice children from around were sent to her for training. Several of the Okoyong had received Christ as Savior and were His followers. All this she knew and gratefully acknowledged was due to the Lord’s protection and help. "Thou art great, and doest wondrous things; Thou art God alone" (Psa. 86:10).