Mary Slessor Missionary to Africa

Last year it was my great privilege to visit the McManus Museum of Dundee Scotland.  There we saw a display about the brave redheaded missionary, Mary Slessor.  We were saddened to observe that much of the display touted her humanitarian efforts and downplayed her evangelistic zeal.  Mary Slessor was a godly woman who served the Lord and her African brothers and sisters whole-heartedly.  The following article summarizes an excellent biography of her life and ministry, Mary Slessor of Calabar by W. P. Livingstone.  It was originally published in the early 1900’s and can be found used online.  Modern reprints, or rather copies, are available but do not always contain clear renditions of the photos from the original, so you may want to check on that before ordering one.

Mary Slessor:  Brave Missionary Example

Mary Slessor was a sensible, thrifty Scottish lass born in 1848.  Her father’s alcoholism ruined the family financially and forced Mary to begin working at the mills when she was just eleven. An elderly neighbour woman was burdened for the souls of area children, earnestly urging them to forsake their sins and come to Christ.  Mary responded and soon began gathering street children to attend religious meetings.   A missionary spoke of the great need in Africa, particularly the Calabar region and Mary’s heart grew burdened for missions. After arranging for the care of her mother and sisters, Mary left for service in Africa.  She was 28 years old.

Mary Slessor window in Dundee, Scotland

Mary’s spent time on the African coast training under veteran missionaries.   A survey trip to the Calabar region caused her to observe, “Calabar needs a brave heart and a stout body.”[1]  Possessed of a stout heart, Mary found her body weakened by the many tropical diseases she was exposed to, but she persevered in her desire to work inland.  Mary was finally left in charge of her own station at Calabar (Nigeria).  Her earnest, winsome concern for the souls soon won the affection and admiration of the mission staff and the natives.  Mary exercised extreme frugality – eating native food, sleeping in a native house, and doing all her own work.  She quickly learned to speak the language.  Mary often travelled barefoot or by canoe to minister to various tribes, and campaigned tirelessly to end the superstitious and evil practices that often meant death for the innocent.  Her efforts were so joyful and devoted that her field directors noted, “Her labours are manifold, but she sustains them cheerfully – she enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them.”[2]

When Mary learned in 1886 that both her mother and sister had died, leaving her without family in this world, she commented, “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will be anxious about me if I go up-country.”[3]  She moved further inland to Okoyong.  The inhabitants were wild, fearless, and superstitious with no regard for life. Slowly Mary influenced the tribesmen to make changes by introducing the gospel and gently but staunchly standing against the vile tribal rituals and vengeful reprisals enacted when death or illness struck.

The “White Ma” was called upon to intercede to save lives and prevent tribal warfare.  “Run, Ma!” her friends would urge her when hearing of trouble brewing in a nearby area.  Mary would run to the area of conflict and bravely and calmly argue for the life of those facing certain unwarranted death. Her basis of argument was “the Book” and the words of the great God.  Many lives that would have been carelessly cast away at a whim or superstition were saved by the timely intervention of Mary.

When requests came from other interior tribes for White Ma to come to them with the stories of the good book, Mary longed to go.  Though her spirit was more than willing, her body was increasingly frail.  Years of privation and extreme frugality had left her body weak and unable to function and she entered heaven in her sixty-sixth year.  Mary Slessor was a faithful servant of her beloved Saviour who cared more for the souls of the lost than for any personal recognition or comfort in this life. Her unselfish work is responsible for numerous Africans coming to know the Lord.


[1] Livingstone, W. P., Mary Slessor of Calabar Pioneer Missionary (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1923), p. 32

[2] Livingstone, p. 35

[3] Livingstone, p. 51

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