The modern missionary movement, which had its origins in the late eighteenth century, continued to make advances during the nineteenth, often with great cost to the missionaries involved. Initially the missionaries were men and the only women to be seen in missionary work were the wives of married missionaries. This outlook began to change during the nineteenth century and eventually single women were accepted by missionary societies. One such single woman was Mary Slessor.
Mary was born in Aberdeen in 1848. Her family were very poor and circumstances forced them to move to Dundee. There the whole family lived in one room and slept on a mattress on the floor. She was often hungry. When she was fourteen, after a rudimentary education, she started to work full-time in a mill, with her weekly hours numbering almost sixty.
Despite their poverty, Mary’s mother had taken her family to church and Mary developed an interest in missionary work at a young age. After she was converted in her teens she began to prepare herself for possible missionary work. One reason behind her thinking was the sad fact that her elder brother, who had intended to be a missionary, had died and she wondered if she should become a missionary instead of him. The area of Africa that she felt burdened over was Calabar in south-east Nigeria and eventually she arrived there as a missionary of the Calabar Mission in 1876.
Her first period there lasted less than three years. Initially she worked among women and also taught in the school. She quickly learned the local language (Efik) and became a fluent speaker of it. Unfortunately she contracted malaria and had to return to Scotland to recover. When she returned to Calabar she was allowed to work by herself and to live where she wanted. She chose to live with the local people who were very poor. Her upbringing in a poor home in Scotland had prepared her for such a lifestyle in Africa.
Mary became aware of some of the horrible practices that existed among the local people. One was the murder of twins (the locals regarded the birth of twins as a curse) and Mary determined to rescue as many as she could as well as to take care of the mothers who were shunned by society for giving birth to them. On her next trip home to Scotland she took a rescued six-month old baby girl with her. She took the baby with her whenever she was on a speaking engagement and the presence of the infant was a living example of Mary’s work.
She then returned to Africa determined to push further inland. Inevitably she became involved in many local situations. In addition to rescuing children, she acted as a peacemaker between warring tribes and told the local people about the love of God for sinners. When she heard about the death of her mother and sister, she realised that she was free to focus on travelling even further inland. So she journeyed to Okojong and continued her manner of work there, living in a mud hut.
When she was fifty-five, she moved on again and worked among other people groups for over a decade. She died in 1915 in a mud hut after a painful illness, having given forty years of her life to serving Christ among the poor people in Nigeria. Her method of doing mission, which we would describe as incarnational and sacrificial, worked in that it enabled her to draw near to the people she wanted to tell about Jesus.
What was the secret of her commitment? She had learned tenacity in her childhood situation, but it required more than that to keep her serving the Lord in difficult circumstances as an adult. Perhaps the secret is found in words she wrote about herself: ‘If I am seldom in a triumphant or ecstatic mood, Christ is here and the Holy Spirit. I am always satisfied and happy in his love.’