Vice Consul to the Okoyong: Mary Slessor

Women’s History Month: March
Female Missionaries

“Social responsibility becomes an aspect not of Christian mission only, but also of Christian conversion. It is impossible to be truly converted to God without being thereby converted to our neighbor.” ~John Stott

I’ve long suspected that hard times and hard work create not just physical muscle, but spiritual muscle. It was in prison that Joseph developed iron in his soul (Psalm 105:18 YLT). It was this iron and his faith that enabled him to be the leader he became. When God is grooming missionaries, He sometimes trains them in hard places. It was the bleak, cold climate of Scotland that produced two of our better missionaries: David Livingstone and Mary Slessor.

Mary Mitchell Slessor (1848-1915) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, to Robert Slessor, a shoemaker and his wife, a millworker. Unfortunately, the dad was also a drunkard and poor provider. Before his premature death, he moved the family to the slums of Dundee, where they were forced to live in substandard housing. However, Mary’s mother, a Christian, educated and refined, saw to it that her daughters, Mary, Susan, and Jane, attended a secession church, United Presbyterian, started (1846) with freed Jamaican slaves.

Still a mere youth, Mary became a millworker like her mother. At first she was dividing her time between work and school; later she was working twelve hours a day, six days a week. But she dreamed of going to Africa as a missionary. Her role model was another famous Scot, David Livingston; she knew every place he’d been and everything he’d done in Africa. She knew the continent through his eyes, and she wanted to be like him. Her motto was his “Anywhere, provided it be forward.”

After minimal training, Mary, age twenty-seven, was sent (1876) as a teacher to Mission Hill, Cross Town, Calabar, to work among the Efiks. Her salary was £60 a year. One of her first duties, besides early rising and ringing the bell to awake others, was to learn the tonal language, something she readily accomplished, perhaps appreciating that David Livingstone had also learned a tonal language. The Tropics were not as hot as she’d thought. The weather was pleasant, even cool at times. It was her first experience with harmattan, a dry, dusty West African trade wind, and with sudden storms or line squalls; she learned to stay indoors when fierce winds blew. When, like all white persons in the Tropics, she experienced jungle fever or malaria, she was sent home on furlough (1879) to do deputation work.

Within a year (1880) Mary was back in Calabar, this time assigned to Old Town. She brought medicine, education, and worship services. She spent Sunday going from one village to another. She abandoned her umbrella, shoes, hat, petticoat, waistline, and, cutting her hair, even her long tresses. She wore instead the simple high neck, long skirt, one-size-fits-all loose garment the British called a Mother Hubbard. Some of the evils she fought were the murder of twins (and the mother), human sacrifice, cruel and unnecessary punishment, drunkenness, polygamy, prostitution, and slavery. She began rescuing twins who were marked for death. One, Jane (named for her sister), became her first adopted daughter.

Again ill with malaria, her hut hit by tornado, and Jane’s twin brother, Robert (named for Mary’s deceased brother), kidnapped, Mary was ordered home on furlough (1883). When she returned (1885), she was assigned to Creek Town. She acquired more bairns, even an old blind woman who sang all day. Chiefs all over the area were requesting she come, but what Mary wanted was to go to the Okoyong, the most savage people on the face of the world. What would people say if a mission board sent a little woman to a place even grown men feared to go?

Permission was granted (1886). It was a four-hour walk through the rain forest from where the canoe made landfall. The Okoyong were not Efik, their language was different, and they were hostile—absolutely fierce. Even her escort was afraid of them. Mary told Chief Edem, Ekenge, her plan to establish a mission station, mission house, church, and schoolhouse, and that her compound would be a sanctuary for refugees. She went two more miles to Ifako; the chief there also agreed to her plan. Two villages, two new mission stations, separated by a half-hour walk. Mary moved into a hut (1888) with her window, a sewing machine, and an organ. No bed. She slept like natives: on a pile of leaves and branches. Later natives built her a fine two-room house, 24-feet-wide, with a verandah, thatched roof, mud walls, and hard-mud floor—smoked to kill vermin and whitewashed inside and out. It was the finest residence in Ekenge.

The British had civilized the Calabar (now Nigeria) area to some extent, but not the farthest reaches of the Calabar River. Cases of Western gin made their way to the Okoyong, but, Mary noticed, the natives drank only when unoccupied. Industry might keep them from booze. Mary wanted traders to come to Okoyong. When they refused, she decided the Okoyong would come to them. She arranged a meeting between King Eyo Honesty VII and Chief Edem, Ekenge, and other Okoyong chiefs. The Okoyongs’ visit to the Anglicized native in Creek Town was as eye opening as the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. After Chief Edem, for the first time, saw how the rest of the world lived, he confessed he wanted to be like King Eyo Honesty VII.

Over time Mary helped to civilize the area. Sir Claude Macdonald appointed her Vice Consul to the Okoyong (1892-1904), a position she held for more than a decade. When Adoniram Judson, Burma, had been offered a government job, he’d replied that he was a minister of the Word. “I have no time to make money.” David Livingstone had also been a consul. Mary working as an employee for the British government was probably a good thing. The official status gave her the muscle she needed to get the job done. She judged all disputes, and her word was final. When a smallpox epidemic occurred (1896), corpses were stacked everywhere, even lying underfoot in the jungle. They couldn’t keep up with the dead. Mary turned the mission house into a hospital, made coffins herself, and dug graves. Charles Ovens, a Scot carpenter, and another missionary came to help. Ovens returned to Akpap (1898) to build her a large mission house. Over the years he built her more than one two-story European-style house, and sometimes his work was so fine that she was embarrassed by its luxury.

After Mary had pioneered and civilized the work, on the fifteenth anniversary (1903) of her being in Okoyong, the Foreign Mission Board sent a man, Reverend Weir, to serve Communion, baptize converts, and set the church in order. Mary took unpaid leave to do itinerant evangelism along the Enyong Creek. As doors opened, she worked her way to other villages (Akpap, Arochuku, Ite, and Use) and other tribes (Abo, Igbo, Ibibio). She found people everywhere wanting schools. She told them there was no education without Christ. The chief of Akani Obio was so desperate for her to come that he chopped down the sacred Juju tree to build a church. Within months there were churches ar Oko, Odot, and Asang. Christianity blossomed among the Ibios and Ibibios. The mission board was so happy with her progress, they even coughed up funds, built a medical facility (Mary Slessor Mission Hospital), and sent Dr Robertson, a physician from Cape Town. Realizing the need for vocational education, Mary was also a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar.

The British, in an onslaught of European culture, were opening the region at lightning speed, with dirt roads, automobiles, railroads, and communications. They appointed Mary a judge (1906-09) and gave her a bicycle. But as she aged, her health declined. She received a gift from Scotland: a cape cart, a two-wheeled carriage, equipped with a hood. Two youngsters wheeled her around. She was carried to church and taught from an easy chair on the verandah. During the off season, the mission board (1912) sent her to the Canary Islands for two weeks of sea and sun. Near the end of her life (1913), upon the recommendation of Sir Frederick Lugard, governor-general of Nigeria, and approval of King George V, Mary was given the Maltese Cross. She told the children to obey the government because it was sympathetic to Christian work. Sadly, she reflected, she had brought civilization to thousands but salvation to only hundreds.

Of course, all the modernization was a means to an end: World War I. August 1914. Nigeria was British. Neighboring Cameroon was German. Germans were now in the sky with dirigibles, where they could drop bombs from heights. Would the Germans launch an armada of bombers over the British? “So we have now taught the Africans how to kill each other with modern weapons.” Fortunately, for Mary, she didn’t see much of World War I. She died within months. At Use. Her last words were in Efik: O Abassi, sana mi yok (“O God, let me go!”). Through the jungle drums reverberated the news: Eka kpukpru owo (“the mother of us all”) is dead. Left behind were her earthly possessions: her mother’s wedding ring, her watch, compass, fountain pen, two Bibles, and a hymnal. The United Presbyterian Church put a huge slab of Scottish granite to mark her grave. Charles Ovens remarked, “It will take more than that to keep the Mary Slessor I knew down!”

Mary was commemorated (1998) on £10 banknotes issued in Scotland by the Clydesdale Bank, replacing David Livingstone, whose image had been featured. MV Mary Slessor (1930), a British cargo vessel, was named for her; it hit a mine and sank in World War II (1943).

“I have always said that I have no idea how or why God has carried me over so many funny and hard places, and made these hordes of people submit to me, or why the Government should have given me the privilege of a Magistrate among them, except in answer to prayer made at home for me. It is all beyond my comprehension. The only way I can explain it is on the ground that I have been prayed for more than most. Pray on, dear one—the power lies that way.” ~Mary Slessor

“Prayer is the greatest power God has put into our hands for service—praying is harder than doing, at least I find it so, but the dynamic lies that way to advance the Kingdom.” ~Mary Slessor

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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