Born DECEMBER 2, 1848

Mary Slessor. [PD-1923]

Mary Slessor. [PD-1923]

Mary heard someone in the village screaming. She knew it came from the center of the nearby crowd. She ran to the gathering, pushing her way to the front. To Mary’s horror, a woman lay on the ground, tied to stakes, a man standing above her about to pour scalding oil over her. Mary threw herself between the man and the help-less female. The man danced angrily around Mary with the hot oil in hand. Her bravery eventually rescued the woman from the inhumane ritual, winning Scotland native, missionary Mary Slessor, a voice among Africa’s Okoyong people.


Mary didn’t seem at first to be missionary material. The woman who dubbed herself “wee and thin and not very strong” was timid in many ways. But her first 28 years had prepared her for the rigors of the mission field. She survived a difficult childhood, raised in poverty with an alcoholic father. Beginning at age 11, Mary worked half of every school day in the local mill. As a young adult, she served at a local mission

Mary had become a devoted Christian in her teen years. In 1873, when she learned that David Livingstone, missionary to Africa, had died, it deeply moved her. She read that before his death, he gave a general challenge for others to “carry out the work I have begun.” Mary felt led to respond to the challenge.

Mary applied to the Foreign Mission Board. She volunteered to go to the Calabar people of Nigeria. Following five months of preparation in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mary boarded a ship for Africa


Nigeria in West Africa. Photo by Tzzzpfff.

Nigeria in West Africa. Photo by Tzzzpfff.

Mary’s work began at a mission post in Duke Town. She found herself in a strange land in West Africa where alcoholism, ritualistic torture, and witchcraft devalued human life. Shortly after her arrival, she contracted malaria. Could the petite, redheaded missionary beat the odds on the dangerous mission field?

The fever sometimes sidetracked Mary. But she always forged ahead. She relocated further up the Calabar River to a mission in Old Town. To Mary’s advantage, she  mastered the regional Efik language.

The Calabar River and the Efik language kept taking Mary to new places. She spent more and more time in the villages. She connected with the people, letting them know she cared about what mattered to them. She brought medicine for their illnesses. She let her light shine in both actions and words, gaining the title of respect “White Ma.”


After a furlough that ended in 1885, Mary left her mother and sister ill in Scotland. She returned to Nigeria where she served for a while at a mission station in Creek Town. Mary had always wanted to travel further inland. In 1886, when word came that her mother and sister had died, Mary fought back the loss and loneliness by venturing further.

The mission board reluctantly sent Mary to a people who practiced human sacrifices and cannibalism. Mary made the trip on the river with these reflections: “I am going to a new tribe up-country, a fierce, cruel people, and everyone tells me they will kill me, but I don’t fear any hurt—only to combat their savage customs will require courage and firmness on my part.”

Mary Slessor and adopted children. [PD-1923]

Mary Slessor and adopted children. [PD-1923]

One of Mary’s greatest ministries was rescuing twins from death. Superstitious belief concluded twins to be a bad omen. They were often left alone in the wild to die. Mary took some of them as her own, raising many sets of twins at one time and proving the error of the superstition.

She eventually brought a dignity to the Okoyong women and children that didn’t formerly exist.


Mary defined the self-sacrificing missionary. She ate what the natives ate and lived under the same primitive conditions they did. Mary loved the people to Jesus, providing them with medical care, schools, and churches. Another way she advanced their lives was through her involvement with the Hope Waddell Institute, which trained Africans in trades.

Both the Nigerians Mary served and the British Government trusted her while not trusting each other. The British appointed her a magistrate for the area. Mary won favor with both sides through her astute and always fair decisions. In 1913, the Government acknowledged Mary’s service; they awarded her the Maltese Cross from the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.

Mary Slessor Memorial, Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen, Scotland. © Copyright Bill Harrison. Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Mary Slessor Memorial, Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen, Scotland. © Copyright Bill Harrison. Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Just as meaningful were designations of honor from the Africans Mary served. Along with “white ma” the Nigerians complimented her with the title”Mother of All the Peoples.”

Mary’s health declined after 1905. Her pioneer spirit once withstood jaunts through the dangerous jungle and risky encounters with locals, but that stamina and strength were ebbing. One final struggle with fever took her to her Heavenly reward in early 1915.

Two of Mary’s many statements about her missionary service were “Christ sent me to preach the gospel and He will look after the results” and “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

LET ME KNOW: How has Mary’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.




Youtube videos about Mary are on this page-



About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
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