Mary Slessor – An Unconventional Missionary

Mary Slessor – An Unconventional Missionary

Mary Slessor became a legend in her time and continued to influence a generation of missionaries. Her name is still remembered in admiration both in her native Scotland (her image appeared on a 1997 Clydesdale Bank £10 note) and on her mission field of Nigeria.

            Part of her notoriety has been due to her nonconformity. She ventured by herself where men feared to tread, called equally to task tribal chiefs and mission boards, and adopted African dress and customs at a time when many missionaries still considered Victorian mores irrevocably tied to the gospel message.

            Blunt and headstrong, she received and dispensed much criticism. Sporting a short haircut that most Victorian women would have considered a misfortune, she defied European beliefs on propriety, expediency, and efficiency. At a time when many prospective missionaries listed poor time management as one of their capital weaknesses, she learned to walk at her own pace, realizing that “Christ was never in a hurry.”[1]

            She was only forty-four when the British government, recognizing her achievements in establishing a working relationship with a people most Europeans considered unreachable, appointed her vice-consul over the native court. With this title, she became the first woman magistrate in the world. Fourteen years later, she became vice-president of the Ikot Obong native court. As such, she stood up for justice and for the rights of the underserved, especially women.

            Today, she is mostly remembered for her rescue and care of twin babies who, in the local culture, were left to die. Her first commitment, however, was always firmly to the gospel.

Early Life in Dundee

            Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 1848 in Gilcomston, a suburb of Aberdeen, Scotland, the second of seven children. When her father Robert, a shoemaker, lost his job due to alcoholism, the family moved to Dundee to look for work. Mary’s mother, a weaver, taught her daughters the same trade. At age eleven, Mary went to work in a textile mill where she became the family’s main breadwinner.

            A bright young girl, she read books and furthered her education on her own. Eager to be a good Christian, she found discouragement in The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge, a famous book at that time. When a friend asked her why she was cast down, Mary answered, “I can’t meditate, and Doddridge says it is necessary for the soul. If I try to meditate my mind just goes a' roads.” Her friend told her not to worry. “Go and work, for that's what God means us to do.”[2]

            Mary definitely worked hard. In spite of her hard work in the factory and her studies at home, she was active in the local Presbyterian church, volunteering to teach children at a church-sponsored mission. She also distributed Christian papers published by the YMCA.

            Her feisty character became evident once when she stood firm while a gang leader swung a weight increasingly closer to her face. “She’s game, boys!”[3] the bully said. Later, he and his gang visited Mary’s church.

            At the same time, Mary could be afraid of crowds, and once she avoided crossing a field because there was a cow in it. These contradictions continued throughout her life, making her both fiercely bold and desperately dependent on Christ.

Further from Britain

            She became interested in missions following the death of David Livingstone, when Africa was on everyone’s lips. She then applied to the Foreign Mission Board to serve as a teacher in Duke Town, in the region of Calabar, Nigeria. Still concerned for her family, she committed to send most of her salary home every month.

            After receiving approval and attending a three-months missionary training, she sailed to Africa in August 1876. At that point, all her fears and hesitations came to the surface as she broke down and cried. “Pray for me,”[4] she told a friend.

            She took seriously the Foreign Mission secretary’s advice that she spend as much time as possible with the local women in order to learn their language, Efik. But she was surprised to see that none of the women had yet joined the church. “Something more must be done for the women here if we are to raise the men,”[5] she said. Throughout her life, reaching the women was one of her main commitments.

            Gradually, she started to move away from the coast where most foreigners lived and closer to Africa’s interior. When her mother and sister, the last surviving members of her family, died within a year from each other, she felt that her ties with her homeland were irrevocably severed. “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain,” she wrote, “and no one will be anxious about me if I go up-country.”[6]

            She not only went further into Africa’s interior, eventually settling in Okoyong, but she discarded many of the precautions that preoccupied other foreign missionaries. She walked barefoot, drank unboiled water, and shunned the protection of mosquito nets and sun-hats. This she did to save time, believing that she could get used to living as the natives did. These habits and her unkept appearance caused some missionaries to consider her “mad and dangerous.”[7]

            At the same time, she was conscious of saving her strength and kept the Sabbath rest religiously. The patience she expressed when she stated, “Christ is never in a hurry” was the result of having to wait for God to bear fruit in a difficult field.

Building a Family

            Mary came close to being married during a brief engagement to Charles Watt Morrison, a Scottish missionary teacher at Duke Town who was seventeen years her junior. Mary sought the approval of the Foreign Mission Board, but warned them that she would not leave Okoyong, where no other missionary was willing to go. She then left the matter in God’s hands: “If it be for His glory and the advantage of His cause there to let another join in it I will be grateful. If not, I will still try to be grateful, as he knows best.”[8] The board didn’t allow Morrison to join her in Okoyong, and she considered the matter closed. Shortly after, he had to return to Scotland due to his poor health.

            Although she didn’t marry, Mary had a large family, as she kept taking in abandoned twin babies (the locals believed that twins were the result of a relationship with evil spirits). She took them with her even during her rare visits to Britain, where she promoted the work in Africa.

            As time went on, she suffered from a painful and crippling form of rheumatoid arthritis. Still, she refused to leave her post. “Oh, if only the war were over and all my children safe in the Kingdom,” she told a friend, “how gladly I would go!”[9] She died of fever and dysentery on 13 January 1915, surrounded by her children.


[1] William Pringle Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary, Hodder and Stoughton, 1915, 27

[2] Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 11

[3] Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 9

[4] Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 17

[5] Jeanette Hardage, Mary Slessor - Everybody's Mother: The Era and Impact of a Victorian Missionary, 20

[6] Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 51

[7] Hardage, Mary Slessor, 123.

[8] Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 114

[9] Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 332


Simonetta Carr