The Legacy of Mary Slessor
Sixty-six-year-old Mary Mitchell Slessor lay dying in the village of Use Ikot Oku, Nigeria. Feverish, weak, and going in and out of consciousness, she prayed, “O Abasi, sana mi yak” (O God, let me go). Her prayer was granted just before dawn on January 13, 1915. The woman known as eka kpukpru owo (everybody’s mother) had lived nearly forty years in Nigeria, but her death was noted around the world, and her influence lives on today.
How did Mary Slessor, a petite redhead from the slums of Dundee, Scotland, become a role model for others, even today? How did she come to wield such influence in the land known to her compatriots as the white man’s grave? How did she fit into the British Empire’s plan to “civilize” Nigeria? A study of Slessor’s life reveals certain factors leading to a missionary fervor, combined with a large measure of down-to-earth common sense. Through the trying circumstances of her youth, she learned to face and overcome difficult situations in ways that often challenged the mission methods and attitudes of her era.
The Mission at Calabar
In 1841 Hope Masterton Waddell, an Irish clergyman serving with the Scottish Presbyterian mission in Jamaica, received a copy of Sir T. Fowell Buxton’s book The Slave Trade and Its Remedy. The author proclaimed that God would inspire men from the West Indies to return to their African homeland with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Buxton’s book spurred Waddell to urge colleagues and congregants to seek to establish a mission in Africa. Slaves had been freed in Jamaica in 1833, and Waddell and other missionaries had a strong ministry among the people there.
The synod in Jamaica sent Waddell as their representative to the Foreign Mission Board in Edinburgh to plead for permission to go to Calabar, near the southeastern coast of present-day Nigeria. At first the society denied the request, but the persistence of the Jamaican group paid off, and in 1846 the first contingent of missionaries finally reached Calabar. The mission saw some successes, but for years mission stations remained for the most part clustered around the coastal villages near the mouths of the Cross and Calabar Rivers.
By the time of Mary’s birth in 1848, her mother (also Mary Slessor), like hundreds of other Scottish Presbyterians, eagerly read each issue of the Missionary Record. The United Presbyterian Church (later United Free Church of Scotland) published this monthly magazine to inform members of missionary comings and goings, progress, problems, and needs. The exploits of the famous missionary explorer David Livingstone, as well as those serving in Calabar and elsewhere, enthralled Mrs. Slessor, and she communicated her enthusiasm for missions to her children.
Mary’s childhood had a dark side in the person of her alcoholic father, Robert. In 1859 he moved the family from Aberdeen to Dundee, hoping for a change. He worked briefly as a shoemaker, then in one of the city’s textile mills, but he soon was laid off and then reverted to his old lifestyle.
Mary’s mother was already a skilled weaver and began work in one of the mills to help support the family. By the time she was eleven, Mary also went to work in the mill. Like many others around them, the Slessors lived in the slums and knew the meaning of hunger. Before long, Mary’s father and both her brothers died, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters.
David Livingstone, missionary hero of the day, had urged fellow Christians not to let die the fire of opening Africa to Christianity. Slessor responded to this call. She read everything she could lay hands on, including the works of Milton, Carlyle, and others. She became an eager student of the Bible and was convinced she must give herself to God’s service. As later years were to show, once she felt certain of God’s leading on any matter, nothing kept her from following through. This admirable characteristic sometimes put her at odds with coworkers and the mission board.
Slessor’s life, apart from twelve-hour workdays, revolved around the church. As a teenager, she began teaching Sunday school and working with a youth club. On Saturdays she often led her group on outings-running races with them, climbing trees, hiking up her skirts when necessary. Her usually docile attitude gave way to exasperation when she learned that some of the church elders disapproved of such behavior.
Her notes for a lesson she taught at Wishart Church in 1874 contain an urgent plea which is also an unwitting foretelling of her own life story.
Thank God! For such men & women here & everywhere, who in the face of scorn, & persecution . . . dare to stand firmly & fearlessly for their Master. Their commission is today what it was yesterday. ‘Go ye into all the world, & preach the Gospel to every creature.’ . . . not the nice easy places only, but the dark places, the distant places . . . to the low as well as the high, the poor as well as the rich, the ignorant as well as the learned, the degraded as well as the refined, to those who will mock as well as to those who will receive us, to those who will hate as well as to those who will love us.
She answered her own challenge to go when news reached Britain of Livingstone’s death in 1874.
The Foreign Mission Board agreed to send Slessor to Calabar as a teacher upon completion of a three-month training course in Edinburgh. She wrote in later years that the training would have been more beneficial had it been “more practical.” Whatever the training, it surely did not include house-building and concretemaking, chores she found herself involved in through the years. At the same time Slessor continued to be a serious student and teacher of the Bible in Africa. She came to exemplify the truth set forth by missions historian Andrew Walls that missionaries “set themselves to intellectual effort and acquired learning skills far beyond anything which would have been required of them in their ordinary run of life.”
Arrival at Calabar
Slessor embarked for Calabar on August 6, 1876, and in September set foot on African soil at Duke Town, forty miles inland up the Calabar River estuary. Neither the oppressive tropical climate nor the innumerable insects or wild animals could dampen her high hopes, wonder, and enthusiasm. She admired her teacher, longtime missionary Mrs. Euphemia Sutherland, whom she dutifully followed around as she learned the business of being a “female agent”–teaching, dispensing medications, and making the rounds of the women’s yards surrounding Duke Town, mission headquarters in the greater Calabar region.
Slessor eagerly followed advice given her to make the study of the Efik language her highest priority. She was such an apt student of the language that she was described by Africans as having an Efik mouth.
During her first years in Calabar Slessor began to understand the religious beliefs of the people, their social relationships, their laws and customs (especially as represented by the governing Ekpe fraternity), and the problems presented by polygamy, slavery, and drunkenness. She abhorred the practices of twin-murder and the sacrifice of wives and slaves upon the death of a chief. She began to make elevating the status of women one of her priorities. Her eccentricities and headstrong personality became more evident as she broke tradition by shedding her Victorian petticoats and climbing trees. She marched bareheaded and barefoot through the jungle and declined to filter her water–habits she maintained for years.
Within three years Slessor, now thirty years old, was ill and homesick. Frequent attacks of fever sidelined her, and she suffered from the harmattan, the dusty Saharan wind that blew during the dry season and consumed her energy. She went home to Scotland, but after a stay of a little over a year, she returned to Calabar.
Slessor had begged to go to a different station and was delighted to find she was assigned to Old Town, a few miles up the Calabar River. Here she was freer to go her own way, though in theory she remained under the supervision of Duke Town. She found that by living like an African (tea was the only European nicety she allowed herself), she could now live more cheaply and send more of her small salary home to care for her mother and sisters. Responsible for several outstations, she trekked miles through the jungle to conduct Sunday services, telling everyone she met about the Savior of the world sent by the one true and loving God.
For years missionaries had rushed to rescue twins or orphaned babies before they could be killed. Slessor herself became a champion baby-saver. One of her earliest twin adoptees, Jane, lived with her until Slessor’s death more than thirty years later. From then on, her African household always included babies and young children. Eventually, she raised six girls and two boys as her own.
As early as 1882 Slessor began to explore along the river. She sometimes stayed away for days at a time, visiting different villages, meeting the people, listening to their stories of hardship and sorrow, carrying medicine to treat their illnesses, and preaching informally. The people responded with affection to her open acceptance of them and her mastery of their language. She began to travel further afield in response to appeals from village chiefs. In Ibaka, thirty miles downstream, people came from miles around to see the white Ma (an honorific term similar to Madam, often applied to a mother figure). She dispensed medicines, worked with the women, and held morning and evening services daily for two weeks.
In 1883 Slessor returned to Scotland, sick again, with baby Janie in tow. The child was a great attraction in the churches and homes visited. The furlough extended to two and a half years, with one delay after another. Finally, Slessor left her mother and younger sister in the care of a friend and returned to Calabar in 1885, this time to Creek Town, across the river and farther inland from Duke Town.
She served with other missionaries in Creek Town but longed to move on to new territory. She had told the Calabar Mission Committee of her desire to go to the people of Okoyong even before her first furlough. When both her mother and her remaining sister died by early 1886, she had no more family ties to Scotland. She mourned–then looked toward the move she felt God called her to. She said, “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”
Mission representatives had visited Okoyong territory numerous times but found no welcome there. Fearsome reports of guns and drunkenness, trial by ordeal with poison beans, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and skulls on display circulated about the people and the territory–between the Cross and Calabar rivers, about thirty miles from Duke Town. Understandably, the mission committee in Calabar was not enthusiastic about sending a lone woman into such danger, but finally at the end of 1886 they approved her request. Then ensued more than a year of negotiations with Okoyong chiefs. Slessor finally took matters into her own hands in June 1888 and went alone to finalize arrangements for her move. “I had often a lump in my throat,” she admitted, “and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away.”
Slessor trekked four miles inland from the Calabar River to Ekenge, where she met Chief Edem and his sister, Ma Eme, and received a promise of land for her house. Thus began fifteen years of service to a people who sometimes loathed her but more often loved her. Ma Eme became Slessor’s friend and often aided the white Ma in rescuing babies, women, and slaves, though she did not become a Christian through the years, as Slessor had so hoped.
Mary considered Okoyong territory home, first in Ekenge, then in Akpap a few miles away, where the people moved when farmland soils were depleted. It was here that stories of her reckless bravado in dealing with dangerous situations grew and spread throughout neighboring districts. Chiefs and slaves alike came to believe that the white Ma had a special magic of her own. Here, too, many of her personal encounters with other white men and women-missionaries, military men, and popular Victorian traveler Mary Kingsley–were recorded. Kingsley, who called Slessor a “veritable white chief over the entire [Okoyong] district,” observed, “Her great abilities, both physical and intellectual, have given her among the savage tribe an unique position, and won her, from white and black who know her, a profound esteem . . . and the amount of good she has done, no man can fully estimate. . . . [Okoyong] was given, as most of the surrounding districts still are, to killing at funerals, ordeal by poison, and perpetual internecine wars. Many of these evil customs she has stamped out.”
In 1890, while Slessor recuperated back in Duke Town from fever, she met a new missionary teacher, Charles Morrison, eighteen years her junior. He was attracted to her both by her reputation and by the fact that they both enjoyed literature and poetry. How the couple kept their deepening friendship out of the limelight in Calabar is hard to fathom. The relationship is not mentioned in other missionary correspondence, but when Slessor returned to Scotland for furlough in 1891, she appeared wearing an engagement ring. She had agreed to marry Morrison on the condition that the Foreign Mission Board approve his going to join her in Ekenge. It did not.
For Slessor there was never any thought that she would leave the ministry to which God had called her or abandon her assurance that she was to keep moving forward, so the engagement was off. She left no written record of her relationship with Morrison or her disappointment at being denied marriage.
In 1892 the British consul general, Major Claude MacDonald, appointed Slessor vice consul of the Okoyong territory. She had insisted that “her people” were not ready for a British court system, so it was natural to hand the job officially to her, since she was already doing it informally. She served several years, then resigned over a disagreement with a new young district commissioner. She resumed the same job again (now called vice president of the native court) in 1905 and became well known for her quick and fair, though often unconventional, judgments.
Arochuku lay up Enyong Creek, off the Cross River. The Aro people purportedly continued slaving expeditions, taking of skulls, and cannibalism. Accounts, even if exaggerated, by survivors who had escaped from Arochuku were the last straw for the British. In 1901 the Foreign Office decreed that “persuasion was useless with these cannibals” and proceeded to attack and defeat them. Though she may not have questioned the British military intervention at Arochuku, the use of force was not Slessor’s own method of operation. She did take firm stands against the evils she saw (and was known in later years to box the ears of unruly men as if they were naughty children), but she always sought to win people by telling of, and demonstrating, the great love of God.
No sooner had the military conquest ended than Slessor determined to move up Enyong Creek into Aro country. She told the missions committee that it was time for an ordained missionary to come to Akpap and build up the church for Okoyong so she could move on. (By now she was telling the Foreign Mission Board what she expected to happen, not just making polite requests.) Her fame preceded her arrival, and she began a new work in 1904 at the village of Itu on the west bank of the Cross River near the junction of Enyong Creek, the place that became her headquarters for several years.
About this time Charles Partridge became district commissioner of the Itu area, and he and Slessor began a long friendship. His headquarters was twenty-five miles from Itu, so they often had occasion to correspond. He saved her many letters to him written from 1905 through 1914 and donated them to the city of Dundee in 1950. In these letters we see Slessor’s relationship with someone outside the church whose friendship she valued highly. Partridge wrote in his presentation of the letters, in which he acknowledges his own agnosticism and his disdain for missionaries in general: “I have had intercourse with many distinguished people. . . . Of the women, I place first Mary Slessor, whom you call ‘the White Queen of Okoyong’! She was a very remarkable woman. . . . Excepting Miss Slessor, I thoroughly disapprove of all missionaries!”
Slessor wrote to Partridge about people they both knew- British officers, local chiefs, missionaries, and others; she discussed everything from legal cases she was handling to the weather and insects. She shared much more with him than she did with many mission coworkers.
Slessor took her beloved adopted son Dan with her on her final furlough to Scotland in 1907. While there she wrote to Partridge several times. On one occasion she responded to news of an illness he had: “[T]hen comes your letter with its woeful tale of sickness. . . . I ought to be preaching to you & telling you ‘it serves you right’ for you are such an agnostic. & etc. etc. but I am too sorry to indulge in this. . . . Have you good reading? It is such a good help to keep off nervousness & weariness to have a good book, & someone to read with.” & When she returned to Africa, the plucky trailblazer continued to move forward, “just to take hold,” and she spent the last four years of her life itinerating between Use Ikot Oku and Ikpe, twenty miles apart on Enyong Creek, a long and difficult trek before roads were built. Much of that time she was deathly ill, but always she rallied, even crawling to Sabbath services when necessary, determined to carry out the commission she was convinced was hers. In each new place she faced the same problems she had contended with at previous stations.
In 1913 Mary Slessor received an award from the British government. She was elected an Honorary Associate of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. When she actually received the medal, she was most embarrassed. In keeping with her character, she accepted it on behalf of all the missionaries who served in Calabar.
Slessor’s last letter to Partridge was written on Christmas Eve 1914. She confided that she did not much care whether or not she survived her “long illness.” She was depressed by the deaths of two friends and by the news of the war in Europe. Less than a month later, she died.
Mary Slessor’s stubborn drive to open new territory to education and the presentation of the gospel message stands as a prime example of what Ogbu Kalu, Nigerian church historian and professor of world Christianity and mission at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, refers to as “a broader view of the style and vision of the [missionary] enterprise.” He states, “Her vision was much broader and more activist than her compatriots could imagine.”
Slessor demonstrated her social activism in a number of ways: her persistent rescue of twins and orphans, in some cases adopting and raising the children as her own; her determination to make life better for women in general, especially in setting up vocational training schools for them; her use of the “each one teach one” principle later espoused by Frank Laubach and other modern literacy proponents (she would send a couple of boys who had learned to read into a village that had invited her to come, and they would teach not only reading but also what they knew of the Bible); and her participation in settling disputes, whether as an agent of the British government or on an informal, personal basis. She brought a semblance of order to communities in a time of social and political upheaval.
Kalu says, “Slessor represents [a] genre of missionary presence which rejected the social and spatial boundaries created by the ‘ark syndrome’ in missionary attitude.” In Calabar she was a catalyst that challenged the mission to change emphasis, to become a sending body rather than a mostly stationary body, a practice the mission’s converts had been urging for some years. She garnered support from younger mission colleagues, in addition to being admired by British colonial personnel and the people of the districts where she lived and worked.
Mary Slessor’s importance in the history of the development of the church in Africa cannot be denied. She is remembered–by some, venerated–in both Scotland and southeastern Nigeria. In 2000 she was chosen one of the millennium persons of Calabar, the place she began her witness. She is honored in the area with statues, each a likeness of Slessor holding twin babies. A hospital and schools are named for her. In Scotland a ten-pound note bears her picture. Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath at her grave in Calabar in 1956. The museum in Dundee displays stained glass windows that depict events from her life. Slessor herself would have shunned such goings-on. Regardless, she left a trail of churches and schools, a host of people who admired her deeply–and many who still do.
Slessor Notebook, 1874, Dundee Museum, DUNMG/MSColl, 1984- 258.
James Buchan, The Expendable Mary Slessor (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 25.
Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), p. 172.
W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1916), p. 55.
Buchan,* Expendable Mary Slessor*, p. 84.
Mary H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988; originally published 1897), p. 74.
Buchan, Expendable Mary Slessor, p. 168.
Charles Partridge, “Letter [to Dundee],” August 24, 1950, Dundee Central Library.
Mary Slessor, “Letter [to Partridge],” October 3, 1907, Dundee Central Library.
Ogbu Kalu, “Personal Correspondence [E-mail to author],” February 25, 2002.
Works by Mary Slessor
Dundee Archives, Dundee, Scotland
“Personal Letters [misc.],” 1876, 1901-14.
“Personal Reports,” Women’s Missionary Magazine, 1901-13.
Dundee Art Galleries and Museum DUNMG/MSColl
“Diaries,” 1911 and 1914 (1956-16(a-b)).
“Notebook,” 1874 (1984-258).
Personal Bibles (with handwritten commentaries), 1910 and undated (1984-257; 1953-6(c)).
“Personal Letters [misc.],” 1877-1914 (1986-396; 1986-397(1-2); 1998-102; 1984-259(1-5); 1980-510).
Dundee Central Library, Local Studies Department
“Letters [to Charles Partridge],” 1905-14.
“The Prodigal Son [in Efik],” voice recording. Recorded by Charles Partridge in Nigeria; ca. 1905.
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
“Personal Letters [misc.],” 1884-1914 (Acc 5239/1; 6825/15).
“Personal Reports,” Missionary Record of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland [title varies], 1875-1915.
University of Edinburgh Main Library, Department of Special Collections “Letter [to Agnes Young],” February 24, 1913.
Works About Mary Slessor
Of numerous biographies the most useful for study are: Buchan, James. The Expendable Mary Slessor. New York: Seabury, 1981.
Christian, Carol, and Gladys Plummer. God and One Redhead. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970.
Livingstone, W. P. Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
Significant information on the Scottish Presbyterian mission work in Calabar or on Mary Slessor appears in:
Hudson, J. Harrison, Thomas W. Jarvie, and Jock Stein. Let the Fire Burn: A Study of R. M. McCheyne, Robert Annan, and Mary Slessor. Dundee: Handsel Publications, 1978, pp. 42-65.
Johnston, Geoffrey. Of God and Maxim Guns: Presbyterianism in Nigeria, 1846-1966. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier Univ. Press, 1988.
Kalu, Ogbu, ed. A Century and a Half of Presbyterian Witness in Nigeria, 1846-1996. Lagos: Ida-Ivory Press, 1996.
Luke, James. Pioneering in Mary Slessor Country. London: Epworth, 1929.
McFarlan, Donald M. Calabar: The Church of Scotland Mission, 1846-1946. London: Thomas Nelson, 1946.
Proctor, J. H. “Serving God and Empire: Mary Slessor in South-Eastern Nigeria, 1876-1915.” Journal of Religion in Africa 30, no. 1 (2000): 45-61.
Taylor, W. H. “Mary Slessor (1848-1915), Pedagogue Extraordinary.” Scottish Education Review 25, no. 2 (1993): 109-22.
Taylor, W. H. Mission to Educate: A History of the Educational Work of the Scottish Presbyterian Mission in East Nigeria, 1846-1960. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
This article is reprinted from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Oct. 2002, vol. 6, No. 24, by permission of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, New Haven, Conn. For details visit www.OMSC.org. All rights reserved.