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Mary Slessor of Calabar

I have been challenged by the story of a bonny lassie about five-feet-two-inches tall and weighing not much more than a hundred pounds. She hailed from Scotland, but history declares her Mary Slessor of Calabar.

People often call Mary the first woman missionary, and though you may never have heard of her, she was so renowned throughout the world a hundred years ago that she became almost as famous as David Livingstone. In these days of raising the consciousness of women, it is more than appropriate to learn the story of this heroine.

Mary Slessor was born on December 2, 1848. Few have celebrated that day in her honor. Mary’s family moved from Aberdeen to Dundee, a town where she would hear the call to go to Africa.

Her father drank himself to death, causing Mary to go to work in a weaving mill at the tender age of eleven. From six in the morning until six at night she worked amidst the shaking and the incredible din of the mill. She became, in her mid-teens, according to her testimony, a “wild lassie,” not really interested in the things of God at that time.

Fortunately a widow lived nearby who was greatly concerned about the young girls in the neighborhood. She would gather them together and tell them about Jesus Christ. Having come to Christ, Mary immediately began to grow in grace dynamically. She took as a motto for her life the words of Jesus when He said, “Learn of Me.” She set out to do precisely that: to learn about Jesus Christ and to become ever more like Him.

Mary had a vast reserve of love for Christ. She had, indeed, fallen deeply in love with Jesus Christ. Her spiritual radiance captivated people and drew them nigh to her.

First, she learned that Jesus Christ was the only Son of God, and His Father had made Him a missionary—One with a great compassion and concern for the souls of men. Second, she learned another lesson from Christ: courage was necessary if one was going to reach people for Christ. Third, she learned the importance of confidence in prayer. She learned that she could trust in God for all things. This was a lesson that would carry her well through the coming years of her ministry.

Mary applied to become a missionary, and after some persistence she finally was accepted. She wanted to go to Calabar—a fearful land on the equator under the knee of Africa on the west coast. Calabar comprised the worst of nature and the worst of human nature. The people who dwelt there were bloody, savage, and cruel. They were fetish worshippers, headhunters, and cannibals, but as far as Mary was concerned, it was just a ladies’ tea party. She was undaunted and ready to go.

She began her ministry in the mission station and learned about Africa and what it meant to live and minister there. She learned the language of the people and spoke it with great fluency. Though she had a great ministry there, she was not content. She knew there was an inland region in the triangular part separated by three rivers where dwelt the people of the Okoyong—people no missionary had gone to before. After much pleading, she was given permission to go as a pioneer solo missionary. She entered into this dreaded area of the country and began to proclaim the Gospel with incredible results. This whole area was changed by the preaching of the Word.

Still, she was not satisfied. Mary learned that beyond Okoyong, deeper in the heart of Africa, was an area where there were four million savages so ferocious, so fierce, that even the government soldiers feared to penetrate into the land. These four million cannibals were so degraded, their customs so vile, that it stretches the imagination to consider the types of things they did.

They worshipped fetishes; they murdered twins; they turned the mother of twins out into the jungle to be devoured by beasts because they believed that twins were brought about by a union with a demon. Almost half of the population was in slavery.

When a man died, his slaves were killed. When the chief died, they would eat fifty slaves; twenty-five more would have their hands tied behind them, and their heads would be whacked off. Unmarried women were chattel. They could be raped, tortured, and murdered at will. It was an incredible degradation, especially for women. Children were considered no better than animals, often simply left to die. Why bother with them?

Mary’s heart was touched by the plight of twins, always left to die or ground to pieces in a pot. She would snatch them up and take them. At first the people were astonished, because they believed that anybody who touched a twin would die, but Mary didn’t die. She gathered around her over many years these young bairns, as she called them, to nurture them.

Finally, she decided she was going to penetrate this area. Where groups of armed soldiers refused to go, Mary Slessor went alone, but not really alone. She had six children with her because there was no place to leave them. One was just an infant she had to carry in her arms. The children would have been killed if she had left them behind. She went down the river, landed their canoe, and walked up the trail that led into the very heart of cannibal land, where juju worship, the worship of a demon in a tree, was practiced.

There was a long path that led to the central village, to a lake and across a bridge to an island in the middle of the lake, where stood a shrine to the juju god. As people passed to make their ceremonies at the shrine, thousands would be captured every year and thrown into slavery and dealt with in the most debased sort of fashion. Along this pathway came red-headed, blue-eyed Mary Slessor, the bonny lass of Scotland.

In incredible ways, by her faith in God, her prayer, her winning countenance, and the love she demonstrated, she was accepted. People milled around her and looked. They had never seen a white person before. They touched her skin.

She began to teach them about the Son of God who had loved them enough to die for their sins. Astonishingly God opened up their hearts. They became very willing to hear. One after another the heads of the various villages yielded their lives to Christ. One after another the tremendous, horrible customs plaguing these people for years were abolished: the murder of twins, infanticide, the slaughter of wives and slaves, the trial by poison and boiling oil, and all the other terrible customs.

Perpetual warfare among the different tribes had continued for centuries. When Mary would hear of a tribe of warriors going out to attack another tribe, she would run barefooted through the jungle, with its poisonous snakes and plants, and head them off, standing in front of a whole host of armed cannibals with outstretched arms to demand that they stop. They did.

She prayed and trusted God. She believed that by His power she could do all things. Christ continually wrought supernatural works, transforming the whole area. They even built a Mary Slessor Mission Hospital right there in the cannibal lands. A school and a home for girls and wives were built, as well as many other institutions. Mary Slessor, by the grace of God, transformed that whole region for Jesus Christ.

When she died, they came by the scores, by the hundreds, by the thousands—ex-cannibals and ex-headhunters, ex-fetish worshippers and ex-juju fanatics. They came, having been transformed by the Gospel of Christ.

Mary Slessor was alone at first. But today the majority of people in the mission field are women. Hundreds of thousands have gone into missions since she was born on this earth. God has used her life in a mighty, incredible way to be an instrument of His grace.

What was the secret of Mary’s life? She had learned of Christ. She had learned of His compassion and His concern for souls. She had learned His courage. She had learned His steadfast faith in prayer. She said that prayer is the greatest power God has given into our hands for service. Praying is harder work than doing.

She said, “I have no idea how and why God has carried me over so many hard places and made these hordes submit to me, except in answer to prayers at home for me. I have been prayed for more than most. Pray on.”

Mary Slessor went to Calabar. When she died, the cry went out, “Everybody’s mother is dead,” because she had learned of Christ. May we hear the words of Jesus speaking to us today: “Learn of Me.”