Heading into Africa Needed a Woman’s Touch: The Ministry of Mary Slessor

Mary_Slessor

Greetings, everyone. Today we return to our blog series on the History of Missions. Today we are focusing on Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish woman and missionary pioneer. She came from a horrible home with an alcoholic father who frequently kicked her out of the house (Tucker, 170). She grew up working and earning a wage to help support her family, but found fulfillment in church life away from her familial responsibilities (Tucker, 170). She spent time fighting against street gangs in Scotland in her early adult life before heading to the Calabar Mission in present-day Nigeria (Tucker, 171).

She embarked on her missionary journey in 1876, working in the established missionary center at Duke Town; but she quickly grew dissatisfied with the “cushy” setting (Tucker, 171). Ruth Tucker describes that Slessor rubbed the established missionary families the wrong way because she “admittedly had climbed every tree worth climbing between Duke Town and Old Town” (Tucker, 171). Eschewing a “soft” African missionary setting, Slessor felt called to embrace a more radical role by going into the interior of Africa, but was repeatedly stricken with malaria and had to return to her home country in order to recuperate. She returned to Africa, but this time she was stationed in Old Town, which was much further inland. “She was free to work by herself and to maintain her own lifestyle-living in a mud hut and eating local produce which allowed her to send most of her mission salary to her family back home” (Tucker, 171).

She began a new role as an itinerant evangelist and fought against the local customs of witchcraft and also the fear of twin-births, which often led to the murder of the babies and an exile for the mother (Tucker, 172). She ended up adopting seven children from such rescue efforts, and even took one back home with her on another recovery furlough (Tucker, 172). Her visit home was extended because she lost a sister and her mother grew very ill. Not long after getting back to Africa, her mother and another sister died, which actually freed her from any lingering attachments back home (Tucker, 172). These events led her to head further inland, even into places that had been hitherto closed-off to missionaries, including Okoyong. This village had the reputation of frequently killing missionaries, but Slessor insisted that such an endeavor simply needed a woman’s touch, since women were less likely to come across as threatening to the tribes (Tucker, 172).

In Okoyong, her role expanded, as she soon became a judge for the area, being “appointed the first vice-council to Okoyong, a government position she held for many years… Her methods were unconventional by British standards… but they were well-suited to African society” (Tucker, 173). Later during her career she became engaged to another missionary, but he became ill and had to leave, which ended their engagement since she would not follow him and leave Africa (Tucker, 173). She moved on to another village after some time, taking her adopted children with her. New missionaries took over her post at Okoyong and followed after her, and also after she died in Africa in 1915 (Tucker, 174). Many new mission societies targeted these African villages in the interior, largely due to Slessor’s resolve and determination to work in such remote places (Tucker, 174-75).

Unfortunately there were not reports of huge numbers converted due to her missionary work. She did not seem to mind, however, since she saw herself as preparing the way for others. Tucker describes, “She organized schools, taught practical skills, and established trade routes, all in preparation for others to follow. In 1903, near the end of her term at Okoyong, the first baptism service was held (with seven of the eleven children baptized being her own), and a church was organized with seven charter members” (Tucker, 174).

Slessor’s legacy therefore ought to be seen in her laying the groundwork for future missions. She led the way into the interior from coastal missions which she perceived as too comfy and not African enough. Thankfully she felt the call to even enter areas which were notoriously hostile to outside missionaries. She risked her life to bring the mission into Okoyong and other remote villages. She rescued children marked for death, adopting them as her own. I think, however, her willingness to eschew markings from her home country allowed her the chance to effectively minister to those in such villages.

Tucker notes, “The image of her as a Victorian lady dressed in high-necked, ankle-length flowing dresses, escorted by tribal warriors through the African rain-forests in a painted canoe, is far removed from the reality of the barefoot, scantily clad, red-haired, working-class woman who lived African-style in a mud hovel, her face at times covered with boils and often without her false teeth” (Tucker, 170). It is also noted that Slessor’s hut was frequently riddled with rats and roaches and she did not really care about her own hygiene (Tucker, 174).

Mary Slessor is thus a picture of dedication to the mission. She kept going back to Africa after heading home due to malaria and other illnesses. She embraced African living and used the African ways of reasoning to grow in fame and renown as a judge. I also like how she didn’t really bat an eye about the perceived lack of converts. In viewing her own work as preparatory for others to step in and continue it, she showed a true dedication to God’s calling in her life. She was not concerned with results, just the process and her own willingness to step out in faith.

I think that she can teach us what it means to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives, even if we don’t always see drastic positive results. I think in the United States today, this often one of the most difficult aspects of ministry and following God.