Heroes of the Faith: Mary Slessor, Mother to Orphans in Nigeria
Mary Slessor was a Scottish missionary to Nigeria.
Mary Mitchell Slessor was born on December 2, 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland. She was the second of seven children born to Robert and Mary Slessor. Her father was a shoemaker, but the family were very poor, due to his alcoholism. Her mother often worked in the mills to help make ends meet.
At the age of eleven, Mary went to school have a day and worked in the mills half a day.
Soon thereafter, her father and two brothers died of pneumonia. By the age of fourteen, she was working twelve hour days in the mill.
She soon shared an interest in her mother’s faith. When a school was set up nearby, she decided she wanted to teach.
Upon learning of the death of missionary and explorer David Livingstone, she decided to follow in his footsteps. She applied to the United Presbyterian Church’s Foreign Mission Board and received her training.
She set sail on August 5, 1876 on the SS Ethiopia, arriving in West Africa a month later. She worked hard to learn the tribes language and traditions.
She was forced to return to Scotland to recover after contracting malaria. She returned to Calabar, in South Africa, sixteen months later.
She adopted every child she found abandoned and either cared for them at the Mission House or adopted them as her own. Twins were especially taboo to the people she served and seen as evil. For this reason she found many twins.
She adopted one twin and named her Janie, when the boy twin died.
Two deputies inspecting the mission in 1881-2 stated, “…she enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them.” This they attributed partly to the singular ease with which Slessor spoke the language.
She and Janie later returned to Scotland on a health furlough for the next three years. She
cared for her mother and sister and shared her missionary work at many churches.
Upon returning, she continued to rescue twins, heal the sick and spread the gospel. She soon received word of the death of her mother and sister.”She was overcome with loneliness, writing, “There is no one to write and tell my stories and nonsense to.” She had also found a sense of independence, writing, “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will worry about me if I go up country.”
In August 1888, she traveled north to Okoyoung, where only male missionaries had been and were often killed. She learned to speak the native language of Efik and made close personal friendships. for the next fifteen years she lived with the people in a traditional Efiks house.
She became known as Ma Slessor.
“Her insistence on lone stations often led Slessor into conflict with the authorities and gained her a reputation for eccentricity. However, her exploits were heralded in Britain and she became known as the “white queen of Okoyong”. Slessor continued her focus on evangelism, settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education.”
In 1892, she became vice-counsul in Okoyong and presided over the native court. In 1905 she was named vice-president of Ikot Obong native court.
In 1913 she was awarded the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Even failing health did not stop her work.
Mary Slessor died on January 13, 1915. Her body was covered with a Union Jack flag and travelled down the Cross River, which was the “colonial equivalent of a state funeral”.
Several memorials in and around Calabar and Okoyong testify to her value and memory. A girl’s house in Ghana was opened and named “Slessor House”.
“A bust of Slessor is now in the Hall of Heroes of the National Wallace Monument in Stirling.”
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