Mary Slessor (1848-1915), Scottish Presbyterian Missionary to Nigeria, Africa during 1875-1915.
Mary Slessor (1848-1915), Scottish Presbyterian Missionary to Nigeria, Africa during 1875-1915.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” - Romans 1:16, AKJV Bible

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” - Romans 1:16, New International Version Bible

In January of 1915, her body was carried through Calabar, Nigeria in the most spectacular funeral procession that West Africa had ever experienced.   She was mourned by vast numbers of the citizens of Calabar, men, women, and children, as a beloved woman who had impacted and changed the lives of multitudes; a woman who had changed the very course of history by single-handedly (with God’s Power) transformed one of the darkest regions in Africa into the light through bringing the Gospel of Christ to the people; a woman who took seriously our Lord’s command to proclaim His Gospel of love and eternal life to those who were lost.


Up until just recently, I had never heard of the Scottish missionary, Mary Slessor (1848-1915).  As my wife and I were watching recordings of sermons given long ago by one of our “heroes of the faith”, Reverend D. James Kennedy (who passed away in 2007), I noticed one entitled: ‘Mary Slessor of Calabar’, which intrigued me immediately, for I had never heard of her.  As we watched Dr. Kennedy’s message, we grew more and more fascinated with the life of this women, who grew up poor and rebellious in Scotland, until she had a soul-changing encounter with God’s Word.

Over the past two hundred years or so, many missionaries, of both sexes, left from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, obeying our LORD’S admonition to: “Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, until the end of the world…” Matthew 28:19-20  (1599 Geneva Bible).

Many of these missionaries became well known in their day, and remain prominent in the list of God’s “faithful servants”—men such as David Livingstone, John Paton, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, and Adoniram Judson—and women such as Ann Judson, Amy Carmichael, Ann Hasseltine, and Mary Slessor.  Today we often look upon such faithful Christians as heroes who went to strange and dangerous lands, often where the Gospel of Christ had never before been proclaimed and where the darkness of Satan’s minions reigned supreme.  But J. H. Morrison said about Mary Slessor:  (She) is entitled to a place in the front ranks of the heroines of history, and if goodness be counted an essential element of true greatness, if endurance be reckoned by love and self-sacrifice, by years of endurance and suffering, by a life of sustained heroism and purest devotion, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to name her equal.” 

Mary Slessor, who never married, had a very difficult early life.  She was born near the textile and mining town of Aberdeen, Scotland in 1848, right in the middle of Europe’s booming industrial revolution.  However, despite the relative prosperity of that area, Mary’s family lived a desperate and difficult life, always close to poverty due to the alcoholism of her father, a shoemaker, who always preferred “spirits” to spiritual matters for his family.  When she turned eleven years old, the “red haired girl with bright blue eyes”, as she was described, was forced by her family’s financial plight to begin working in the jute mill in Dundee, Scotland, where her family had relocated in search of a better life. She worked long and brutal hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week. At her age, however, she was considered to be a “half-timer”, which meant that she spent half of her time at the mill’s school to get a basic education, and the other half working at the mill.   She was considered to be a “curious child” who had a penchant for learning, being considered quite bright by her teachers.

Her father’s alcohol addition grew even worse in Dundee, and in drunken rages he would often force Mary out on the streets for days, and apparently she was left hungry and abandoned, until her father allowed her to return home.  Fortunately for Mary, her mother was a pious Christian woman.  Every Sunday she would take Mary and her other children to church, where she learned about Jesus and God’s love for her and for all people.  It was at this Presbyterian church in Dundee that Mary would often hear her pastor speaking highly of the missionaries serving around the world, which captivated her imagination.  She especially enjoyed hearing stories about David Livingstone’s missionary work in Africa.

When Mary turned fourteen, tragedy struck her family.  Her father and her brothers died from pneumonia, leaving only Mary and her mother to work and care for her two surviving younger sisters.  However, it was during this difficult time, when she heard the Gospel message during her Sunday school lessons, that she became a Christian, coming to love God and becoming fearful of the “eternity of fire”.  Mary never wanted anyone to suffer the torments of Hell, including herself, so at a relatively young age, there in Dundee, she turned her life over to Jesus, the Messiah.


Eventually Mary  became a Sunday school teacher at her church in Dundee.  She would often go out onto the streets, talking with younger children and inviting them to come to her classes on Sunday.  Having experienced abuse from her own father as a child, she developed a deep compassion for these lost and often abandoned children, and exhibited an empathy for their plight that would be reflected in her missionary ministry later in her life.  By the time she reached the age of 26 Mary responded to God’s call to become a missionary.  Since one of her heroes was David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, she resolved to follow in his footsteps. 

Eventually, the Foreign Missions Board of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland accepted Mary.  At the age of 27, after undergoing training for missions work, she sailed for Calabar, Nigeria..  She knew that many of the male missionaries who went to the place she was determined to serve God didn’t return, for Western Africa was not considered to be a safe location, especially for a  young, single woman.  As Madeline Pena wrote in Bethany Global: 

“Arriving at the ‘White Man’s Grave’, Mary soon realized how Calabar (got) its infamous name.  Many of the tribal people had no regard for human life and killed relentlessly.  Mary learned upon arrival about the twisted tradition of killing twins due to the tribal beliefs of evil spirits within the twins.  What also infuriated the young missionary were the human sacrifices to carved wooden idols.  Witnessing the horrific sacrifices, Mary decided that she would stand up for the women, slaves, and children’s lives (and) used any authority she had to stop the waste of human life.

(Mary)…(chose) Duke Town as the place to launch her missionary work.  This was the best choice…because there (were other) missionaries there.  She learned the language (called Efik) and culture of the Nigerian people from fellow Christians.  This gave her the (ability) to go further inland….  Mary was most passionate about sharing the name of Jesus where it had never been heard before.  Gaining the knowledge she needed, Mary decided to leave her comfortable missionary home and travel alone.  She wanted to live in the huts and villages of the people, leaving no barrier between her and them.  So Miss Slessor went inland all alone, despite many protests.”

After her initial three years of work, however, in 1879 Mary was forced to return home to Scotland, having contracted malaria, which would plague her for the rest of her life.  This “minor inconvenience” couldn’t keep her away from her missionary work, and in 1880 she returned to Nigeria, this time to a place farther inland called Old Town.  Her mission board gave her more freedom than she had previously, and she always determined to be a “Christian pioneer” for the Gospel, just as her role model, David Livingstone, had been.  Living among the native people inland from Calabar, over time Mary gained increasing respect from them because of her lack of fear and her strong repudiations of their superstitions.  But she was constantly saddened and repulsed over what she witnessed among the tribal people:  Women being buried ALIVE with their deceased husbands, cannibalism, and endless infanticide. 

During this time—from 1880 to 1883—she concentrated her efforts on sharing the Gospel with the tribal people, but devoted much time and energy to the saving of twin children who constantly faced death by their tribal leaders.  She also devoted much time and love to the mothers of those twins, who were usually banished from the tribal village, often dying alone in the jungle.  However, after three  years her nemesis, malaria, struck her again, and she returned home to Scotland to recuperate.  This time, though, she brought back to Scotland an infant she had rescued from certain death.  Mary named the girl Janie (who was only 6 months old at the time), and raised her as her own child, and always took the child with her as she went from village to village.


In God’s Providence, it was during these years that Mary came across the Okoyong Tribe.  Madeline Pena wrote of Mary during this time:

“She had a particular burden for (the Okoyong Tribe) because (of) the violence, drugs, and slavery (that were) so devastating to their tribe.  Their entire tribe was overcome by (these evils), (in) a place where darkness was rampant. Poverty, murder, and disease ruled the Okoyong’s lives.  Mary couldn’t tear herself away from the idea of living with the tribe, even though so many other tribes advised against it.” 

Apparently even her own mission board disagreed with her desire to live with the Okoyong people.  But after several years of requests, Mary was finally allowed to settle with that tribe in 1888.  She initially was sent with a bodyguard that accompanied her into the Okoyong Tribe’s territory.  Despite the protests and warnings of her friends and fellow missionaries, she never let fear stop her.   She even put herself physically between two warring groups, forcing them to listen to her message of God’s love, and stopping the violence.  In these potentially dangerous encounters, Mary wrote:  “I had often a lump in my throat…and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away.”  But God sustained her.

At this point, Mary became slowly transformed by these people, and adopted many of the tribal practices without giving up her Christian faith.  She even began wearing tribal women’s clothing.  As she lived among and told the people about God’s love for them, Mary would sometimes have up to 12 children in her home, children that she had rescued from being killed or forced into the jungle and to certain death.


As Mary was warned, and as she soon discovered, the Okoyong People were a violent group, forever warring among themselves.  After several years she came to the conclusion that the lack of even a basic economic system caused most of the disruptions among the people, and they lived in constant bitterness and disunity.  Madeline Pena, writing in Bethany Global, said of Mary at this time:

Mary decided to unite the (Okoyong) men through their labor, despite the chief’s disapproval.  Not only did this serve as a unifying factor…but they even started to create good relationships with surrounding tribes through trading.  Through the newly developed relationships, the Okoyong people were introduced to Christ by other tribes that Mary had discipled.  Many Okoyong people came to Christ through Mary’s devotion to God.”


God blessed Mary’s work among the Okoyong tribe, and she ministered to them for 15 years in total, and ended her work with them with great success, for the attitudes of those people changed completely, with results that lasted for many generations.  However, she was constantly plagued with malaria attacks, and in 1891 Mary and Janie returned to Scotland until she could recuperate sufficiently and return to Nigeria.  By 1892 Mary was back in Okoyong territory, where the British Counsul-General appointed her Vice-Counsul of that territory, in effect making Mary the judge and law enforcer for the British government (Nigeria was a part of the British Empire at the time). 

Differing from the traditional British attitudes of ruling conquered peoples, Mary never supported the British colonial government in its use of force in suppressing warring or cannibal tribes.  She always showed a great disdain towards murder and other evil practices, but she always did her best to change the minds and attitudes of the people through teaching them of God’s love for them, and did her best to intercede against her own British government as it practiced its usual force and imperialism.  She always believed in transforming people and their culture, rather than abolishing it and forcing the colonials to become “proper” British citizens.

By the time that Mary reached 55 years of age, the LORD moved her (and her seven children by this time) to do pioneer missions work elsewhere in Nigeria, and she spent the remaining ten years of her life bringing Christ’s Gospel to remote tribes who had never heard of Jesus, and building churches in areas of which they had never been heard.  Eventually during this time, God sent Mary to the Azo People, which was particularly dangerous, for that area was plagued by cannibalism, and the area was cursed by the evil slave trade of that time.  But through God’s grace and the power of The Holy Spirit, even among these Azo people  many villagers came to a saving knowledge of Christ.  Eventually she worked among the Ito, the Ibo, and the Azo people, and reached even more remote regions of Nigeria.  Mary’s great fame in the entire area caused many of these people to turn from their pagan ways and become Christians. 

By the year 1913, Mary was honored by the British government, being awarded as an “Honorary Associate of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.”, but it was reported that she felt embarrassment after receiving that award, and she always believed her real reward was in Heaven.  Shortly after this, Mary was again struck with malaria, but this time she determined to not go home again to Scotland.  On January 13, 1915, at age 66, Mary went home to be with her LORD and Savior, dying in a mud hut in a village called Use, in which she had established a girl’s school, surrounded by those who loved her. 

Mary Slessor, called ‘EKA KPUKPRU OWO’, meaning “Everybody’s mother”, almost single-handedly (“God and one are always a majority”, as she always said) changed dark places controlled by Satan into the Light of God, through the Gospel.  After a historic funeral procession Mary was buried on what is called “Mission Hill” at Duke Town, Nigeria, greatly mourned by the Nigerian people and, indeed, by people all over the world at that time.  Someone in Nigeria wrote about Mary and her mission:

          “She who loved us, she who sought us,

          brought us healing, brought us comfort.

          Brought the sunshine to our darkness—

          She has gone—the dear White Mother.

          Thus she taught and thus she labored;

          Living, spent herself to help us.

          Dying, found her rest among us.”

(I’m indebted to the following sources for the details of Mary Slessor’s amazing life:

  • D. James Kennedy, from a sermon entitled: ‘Mary Slessor of Calabar’;
  • The blog: LANDMARK EVENTS, (undated);
  • The blog: BETHANY GLOBAL UNIVERSITY, (undated).

From each of which I’ve quoted freely.)

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