Mary Slessor of Calabar, “The Great Mother”

As I sat in my cozy study, sipping my tea, and reading about Mary Slessor (1848–1915), I was keenly aware of how different our lives were in comforts and culture. But my heart beat with hers. We loved and served the same Lord. Surely I had much to learn from her. May Mary's devotion to Christ help us "consider how to stir up one another to love and good works" (Heb. 10:24).

A Post of Honor

Born in 1848 into a poor family in Aberdeen, Scotland, Mary's strong character was evident early in her life as she spent fourteen years working twelve-hour days in a factory to help provide for her mother and six siblings. But strong character doesn't ensure greatness; using that strength to serve her King is what set Mary apart. Unhappy experiences in her home life didn't cripple her. Rather they prepared her for what lay ahead.

As a young girl Mary had given her heart to Jesus Christ, and she shrank from nothing He asked of her. When she heard about a new mission work in Africa, she longed to serve her Lord there. Her answer to the many who questioned this choice was that this was the post of danger and therefore the post of honor. And so at age twenty-eight, she sailed for Calabar, heartland of the slave trade, on the coast of West Africa.

Afraid that her departure would put too much strain on her invalid mother and sole surviving sister, she had sought her mother's blessing on her mission work. Her mother's faith-filled reply freed Mary to follow their King: "You are my child, given to me by God, and I have given you back to Him. When He needs you and where He sends you, there I would have you be." She never saw her mother again this side of heaven.

Worthy of Our Best

Mary knew how to work hard. One biographer characterized her service in West Africa as "one long martyrdom." She taught, nursed, and intervened in endless disputes, which surely would have ended in death for many if it weren't for her patience and tact. She begged God for guidance and help, writing home that "my one great consolation and rest is prayer."

She traveled by foot—often barefoot—through pouring rain. I cringe at the sight of a spider, and there she was running through jungle paths filled with snakes and leopards ("God shut their mouths"), and crossing rivers swirling with alligators and hippos in flimsy canoes. When she finally made it back to one of her huts, there were still the flies and the ants to deal with.

Whether it was the flu or bronchitis or chronic malarial problems, she was seldom free from illness or pain. She often worked through a low-grade fever, and she rarely slept soundly, perhaps because she so often slept on the ground. She used no mosquito netting in her crude mud huts that she helped make by hand as she travelled from village to village. She never boiled or filtered her water. She embraced the native diet as her own, which consisted mostly of yams and oranges and corn. She deliberately gave up everything for her Master and accepted the consequences without murmur or complaint. "Everything no matter how seemingly secular or small is God's work for the moment and worthy of our very best endeavor."

A Message of Life in a Land of Death

Mary went to a people who were superstitious and engaged in dark customs and drunken orgies. Her aim was to help the poor and oppressed and most especially to protect women, who were considered nothing more than property. She worked hard to learn their heart language and was known for being able to use it better than some native speakers.

She settled into an area of constant warfare, slave markets, cannibalism, and human sacrifice. Justice was meted out by the witch doctor through trials of burning oil or the "poison bean." If a chief died, his wives and slaves would be killed or buried alive with him. If a man was insulted, whole villages could be wiped out in revenge. Mary's patience, tact, and insight into human nature slowly helped these people learn to use arbitration instead of war.

In a land of death, she brought a message of life. To people governed by hellish cruelty, she taught love and kindness. And always, always, she spoke of her Savior, who was the answer to every human need. Her influence spread from her first little encounter to over 2,000 square miles. She never counted the cost nor kept score of her accomplishments. "It comes back to this. Christ sent me to preach the gospel, and He will look after the results."

She won these people over by her sympathy, by entering into their lives and appreciating their difficulties and temptations, acting as a wise mother would. The fame of her goodness and her moral and physical courage spread, and the people came to trust her, appealing to this frail, fearless woman on their own customs and laws. She gained great political influence and never was hurt in all her dealings. When asked how a woman could be of much help, she replied, "In measuring the woman's power, you have evidently forgotten to take into account the woman's God."

Ma Akamba, the Great Mother

She never married, though not for lack of a suitor. The mission board asked Mary to break her engagement to another missionary and she did, reasoning, "We alter things for the good of our children and God does the same for us." But the loneliness and isolation she lived with were not easy.

Mary Slessor loved all children. She was called "Ma Akamba," the Great Mother, and her house was a continual busy refuge for little children. She nursed and cared for all who were brought to her, sometimes able to pass them back to their parents, other times comforting them on their way to heaven and then burying them in the ever-extending cemetery plot behind her hut.

One practice she fought against was the superstitious killing of all twins at birth, with their mother being sent off alone into the jungle in disgrace. She rescued all she could, often carrying them for miles on foot to obtain tins of milk to feed them. She had a mother's heart, and she lost many of her little ones to disease or previous abuse. Mary was surrounded with death and disease and darkness. "If my Savior had not been so close, I would have lost my reason."

But those children knew a mother's touch and voice, a mother's prayers and passion. She was a true woman. Her children had a refuge—in her and in her Savior.

Make Music Everywhere

One of the things I admire most about Mary is that she lived until she died. I mean she really lived. She served nearly forty years in Africa and stayed young in her enthusiasm, sympathy, and humor all the way to the end. One coworker wrote, "She seemed to grow more wonderful the older and frailer she became."

She established many churches and was involved in building their meeting places. She painted and mixed the cement. She taught and preached, sometimes holding up to ten services on a Sunday. And she always had new orphans or foster babies with her. Hers was a life of absolute unselfishness, of dedicated, unwearied devotion to Christ. She wrote to a friend, "Don't grow up a nervous old maid! Gird yourself for the battle outside somewhere, and keep your heart young. Give up your whole being to create music everywhere, in the light places and in the dark places, and your life will make melody." Where can we make melodies for Him today?

Would you like to learn more about Mary Slessor? If so, we recommend Mary Slessor of Calabar by W.P. Livingston.

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About the Author

Jani Ortlund

Jani Ortlund

Jani Ortlund, Executive Vice President of Renewal Ministries, loves spending her energies connecting women with the Word of God. Serving Jesus Christ through writing, speaking and discipling are her chief passions in life. Jani and Ray, Pastor of Immanuel Church, have four married children and twelve grandchildren, and minister in Nashville, Tennessee.

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