Mary Slessor – Missionary To Calabar (Part 1)
Arranged from existing biographies of Mary Slessor (1848-1915)
It was as a twenty-eight-year-old single lady that Mary Slessor sailed from Scotland to Calabar, Nigeria in 1876. The steamer that carried her fifty miles up the Cross River to disembark at Duke Town traveled a route that many a slave ship had traveled in days gone by. Bringing in products such as gin and guns, the ships sailed out with their cargo of African slaves. These slaves had been stolen or captured in tribal pillages. A good number of slaves died under pitiful conditions while in captivity awaiting a ship to carry them to some far-off destination.
It was over thirty years before Mary Slessor arrived that an agreement had been reached between British officials and the chiefs of the area that external slave trade would be halted. But there were still many slaves serving their African masters. The slave trade had done much to degrade the people and to cheapen the value of life. The brutality and violence that accompanied the slave trade still had its effect on the area. Human blood yet flowed freely. Human sacrifice was still practiced, especially at the death of a preeminent African when widows and slaves were killed to provide the retinue thought necessary to accompany the deceased as he departed this life.
Mary Slessor was not ignorant of conditions she would be meeting in this land of her calling, for “Calabar” had been a household word since her childhood. Her mother, a gentle, devout woman, had been enchanted with the report of a missionary on leave from Calabar who told of what was being done to help the Africans in this area which had been so adversely affected by the slave trade.
Mrs. Slessor borrowed the “Missionary Record” magazine from the church library and read to the children. When another missionary came to speak of Calabar, she took her son John and Mary to hear him. She encouraged her children to play they were teaching African children. Mrs. Slessor’s desire and prayer was that one of her sons would one day join the ranks of the gallant Calabar missionaries. But the oldest son, Robert, died as a child, and John was destined also to leave this life as a young man. But there came a day when Mary Slessor confided to her mother that she had a growing conviction that she should go to Calabar. Mrs. Slessor was delighted.
Mary’s Years of Preparation
It was only about two years after serious thought of going to Calabar came into Mary’s mind that she was boarding the steamer for that land. But her preparation for the hardships of life in Africa had begun years earlier. Her father was a shoemaker and her mother a weaver. Economic conditions in Scotland in that day forced both father and mother to work to support the family of seven children, three of whom died in childhood. To Mary fell the responsibility of looking after her younger brothers and sisters. The family lived in a poor section of the city of Dundee for some years, crowded into one room.
When Mary was eleven years old she went to work half day at the weaving mill. The other half day she attended school. This made a full and wearying schedule for a girl not especially robust. When she was fourteen she began to work full time. Mary and her chums of this poor section of the city became known as “wild lassies,” and Mary was a ringleader among them.
Her fighting spirit showed itself in Saturday night bouts with her drinking father. She responded to his violence with anger, and the result was that she was sometimes pushed out and locked out of the tiny home, until he quieted down and Mrs. Slessor could unlock the door and let her daughter slip in from the cold, into safety from the drunks passing by on the streets.
The New Mary
Mary attended Wishart Memorial Church regularly with her mother and brothers and sisters, but the messages seemed to make little impression. It was through an elderly saint of the community who gathered the “wild lassies” into her home and warned them that hell would be the end result of their wild living that Mary came to realize her lost condition and came to the Savior, “…whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:8-9).
She began to read the New Testament and other religious books. Because she had difficulty understanding, she concluded that she should attend night school two nights a week. David Livingstone, then a popular figure in Scotland, became her hero. She began to read books while operating the looms, as he had done during his days as a weaver.
Mary grew into a thoughtful, clear-thinking young lady, more and more interested in the Bible. She was deepening in the knowledge of Christ and she learned to talk to the Lord any time, anywhere.
The pastor asked her to teach a Sunday school class of young children. Mary also volunteered to help the pastor with a youth club in the mission which he opened in the slum area. The ruffians of the area harassed the mission workers and tried to break up their meetings held outside in warm weather. The pastor advised the mission workers to go to and from meetings in pairs, but Mary often did not bother to find a companion. Her earlier life on the streets had given her a reputation as a fighter, and she felt safe. One day as she went alone to a meeting, a gang of youth surrounded her. The leader began to swing a lead ball on a cord around his head toward Mary. Undaunted she challenged him: if she did not flinch, they would all come to the meeting and be on good behavior. They accepted the challenge. The leader swung the ball closer and closer to Mary’s head. Within a foot it came and she stood her ground without faltering. “She’s game, boys!” the leader called, and he pulled the weight back. They went to the meeting, and she was able afterward to involve some of them in social work in the area.
(To be continued)