Mary Mitchell Slessor was a Scottish missionary to Nigeria. Her work and strong personality allowed her to be trusted and accepted by the locals while spreading Christianity, protecting native children and promoting women’s rights. She is acknowledged for having stopped the killing of twins among the Efik, an ethnic group in Nigeria.
Mary Slessor was born to a poor working-class family. She was the second of seven children of Robert and Mary Slessor. Her father Robert, originally from Buchan, was a shoemaker by trade. In 1859, the family moved to Dundee in search of work. Robert Slessor was an alcoholic and, unable to keep up shoemaking, but took a job as a laborer in a mill. Her mother, a skilled weaver, also went to work in the mills. At the age of eleven, Slessor began work as a “half-timer” in the Baxter Brothers’ Mill, meaning she spent half of her day at a school provided by the mill owners and the other half working for the company.
The Slessors lived in the slums of Dundee. Before long, Mary’s father died of pneumonia, and both her brothers also died, leaving behind only Slessor, her mother, and two sisters. By age fourteen, Slessor had become a skilled jute worker.
Her mother was a devout Presbyterian who read each issue of the Missionary Record, a monthly magazine published by The United Presbyterian Church. As a result of her mother’s dedication, Mary developed interests in religion and mission work and became a Christian at a very young age.
Service as a Missionary
In 1875, Slessor was accepted to go with the Calabar Mission and at age 27, she sailed for off to Nigeria after her training in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was stationed in Duke Town as a school teacher. While in Duke Town, she quickly learned Efik, the local language, and enjoyed teaching to some degree, but her heart was set on doing pioneer work. After three years, she was sent home on furlough because of malaria. When she returned, she was given a new task in Old Town, where she had the freedom to work by herself and live as she pleased. Slessor decided to live with the local people as they lived and began to learn more and more about the culture of the local tribes which included practices such as Witchcraft, Spiritism and cruel tribal customs. All these existing traditions at the time were hard to fight against or even oppose. However, the most shocking of these traditions to Slessor was that the birth of twins were considered an evil curse. Natives feared that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin. Unable to determine which twin was fathered by the evil spirit, the natives often abandoned both babies in the bush. Slessor adopted every child she found abandoned, and sent out twins’ missioners to find, protect and care for them at the Mission House.
After only three more years, Slessor was sent home on yet another furlough because she was extremely sick. As she returned home, she took Janie, a 6-month-old twin girl she had rescued and ended up spending three years in Scotland staying to look after her ill mother and sister. While in Scotland, she would often speak to churches and share stories from Africa. She then returned to Africa again, more determined than ever to pioneer into the interior. She was bold in her ministry and fearless as she traveled from village to village. Slessor rescued hundreds of twin babies thrown out into the forest, prevented many wars, stopped the practice of trying to determine guilt by making them drink poison, healed the sick, and told the people about God.
By late 1914, it was clearly evident that Slessor’s history of recurrent fever outbreaks had caught up with her. She refused to return to Scotland on the advice of her friend and well-wishers despite her failing health and continued fervently with her mission work. It got to a point where she could no longer make the usual long trek into the rainforest and had to be carried along in a hand-cart. By early January 1915, while working at her secluded station near Use Ikot Oku, she suffered a vicious fever and would eventually die on 13 January 1915. Slessor was given a state funeral with the Union Jack draped over her coffin while it was escorted down the Cross River to Duke Town.
On a further mission to Nigeria in 1888, Slessor inserted herself into the daily lifestyle of the Okoyong and Efik people for 15 years. In an area previously thought too dangerous to do mission work after previous male missionaries were killed, Slessor believed that she could make a difference by calming the natives with laid-back personality. Her approach will prove successful as she will later on become the vice-consul of Okoyong. Her insistence on lone stations often led Slessor into conflict with the authorities and gained her a reputation for eccentricity. Her exploits were often lauded in Britain and she became known as the “White Queen of Okoyong”.
Slessor’s importance in the history of the development of the church in Africa cannot be denied. She is fondly spoken of in present-day Calabar, venerated in both Scotland and southeastern Nigeria and was chosen as one of the Millennium persons of Calabar in 2000. She is honored and remembered by different landmarks that include Mary Slessor Road, Mary Slessor Roundabout, Mary Slessor Church and a few statues in her likeness carrying twin babies. More recently in 2009, her work in Calabar was recognized when Clydesdale Bank in Scotland featured her on the back of the banks £10 note. She was not only an exceptional missionary, more importantly, she was a tireless of advocate of human rights.
- “Mary Slessor”. History Makers. Asia Link. Web. 20 September 2016. <http://www.historymakers.info/inspirational-christians/mary-slessor.html>.
- “Slessor Mary”. Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Web. 25 September 2016. <http://www.dacb.org/stories/nigeria/slessor_mary.html>.
- “’The Queen of Okoyong’: The Legacy of Mary Slessor”. BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. Web. 02 January. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-30577100>.
- “Mary Slessor”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 08 August. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Slessor>.