Mary Mitchell Slessor (1848—1915) was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to West Africa. She advocated to improve conditions for women and worked tirelessly to protect native children. Among her notable achievements was putting an end to the abusive tribal practice of twin infanticide. Early in life, Mary Slessor developed a resiliency and determination that would fuel her life’s journey as one of the first single female missionaries to make a significant and lasting impact.
Mary was born in a suburb of Aberdeen, Scotland, to working-class parents Robert and Mary Slessor. Financial hardship due to her father’s alcoholism and resultant unemployment forced the family to move to the industrialized town of Dundee, where, from the age of eleven, Mary worked long days with her parents and older brother in the textile mills. The family of nine lived in a one-room tenement house. Like other working children at that time, Mary received a limited education at the mill’s half-time school, studying after her shift ended. A passionate reader, she would prop open books at her weaving station and devour them while she worked.
Mary’s devout mother faithfully attended the United Free Presbyterian Wishart Church with her children. Mary accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior as a young teen and was soon fascinated and inspired by stories about people like the famous missionary explorer David Livingstone. With her sense of humor, genuine empathy, and down-to-earth, approachable nature, Mary became a popular Sunday School teacher. She took it upon herself to evangelize underprivileged children near and far off in outlying areas of her city.
In 1876, Mary Slessor applied and was accepted to the Scottish Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board. After only three months of training in Edinburgh, 28-year-old Mary set sail for Duke Town in Calabar, near the southeastern coast of current-day Nigeria.
Upon arrival, Mary wasted no time ministering to the local children and serving in the mission compound’s dispensary. She also set to learning the local language of the Efik people. Malaria sent Slessor back to Scotland to recover, but she returned to Calabar the following year. Soon, Mary adapted to the climate and culture, eating what the locals ate, cutting her hair short, and forsaking the impractical Victorian clothing that most European missionaries still wore.
The petite, red-headed, blue-eyed young woman was fearless in the face of many physical and spiritual perils. She moved upcountry into the dangerous district of Okoyong, where few missionaries dared to go. Slessor’s courage, medical skills, fluency in the language, and extraordinary sense of humor eventually won the respect and confidence of the local tribal chiefs and their people. She was so well-respected and influential that in 1892 she was appointed the first female British vice-consul, making her the leading law enforcement agent for that area. The local elders nicknamed her “Eka Kpukpru Owo,” meaning “Mother of all the People.”
She almost married in 1891 when Scottish missionary Charles Watt Morrison proposed. He was seventeen years younger than Mary and serving as a teacher in Duke Town. Mary placed the matter in God’s hands, praying, “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” (www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/missionary-mary-slessor, accessed 11/20/23). The mission board refused to approve the couple’s request because Slessor and Morrison had stipulated that Morrison would join Sessor in Okoyong. The two broke off their engagement.
Much of Mary’s ministry was dedicated to teaching native women and helping them rise above their circumstances of oppression. Slessor worked hard to end many cruel native customs, such as cannibalism and the killing of widows at the death of their husbands. She prayed, “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow. Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of Kings” (https://landmarkevents.org/assets/email/2019/01-14-history-highlight/, accessed 11/18/23). Her fiercest dedication was stopping the superstitious practice of killing twin babies. She finally succeeded in having the custom declared unlawful by the local chief.
In her nearly four decades in Africa, Mary Slessor rescued and adopted dozens of Nigerian children who had been abandoned to die. Like her hero David Livingstone, Mary Slessor helped open inroads for commerce and Christianity into Africa, encouraging legitimate trade and opposing human trafficking, violence, drug running, and slavery. In 1895, she founded the famous Hope Waddell Institute, where African people could receive training in medical fields and other occupations. The Efik-speaking people whom Mary lived among thrived to become one of Africa’s most evangelical Christian groups.
In 1915, weakened by episodes of fever, dysentery, and debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, Mary Slessor died in the village of Use at age 67. She was buried in Duke Town and, according to one source, was mourned by “the grandest procession that West Africa had ever seen” (https://historyswomen.com/women-of-faith/mary-slessor/, accessed 11/18/23).