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Mary Slessor (1848-1915)

Missionary to the Cannibals of Nigeria

Biography

Mary Slessor, a pert, blue-eyed, red-haired girl in Scotland, had always felt called of God to go to the black people in Calabar, Africa, to bring them the gospel of Jesus Christ. When she was a young girl, she learned that many cannibal tribes there had not yet heard about Jesus Christ. And white men risked being on the menu for supper if they dared to venture into the interior!

"Some day I will go and tell them about the Lord Jesus," she vowed. And finally, when she was 27, the day came when she boarded a ship headed for Africa with the blessings of a mission. Since missionaries had not yet pushed into the dangerous unexplored wilderness where the real savages lived, Mary contented herself with seeking to reach the people in the settled towns where the missions were located, especially in Duke Town.

Field Opened Wide By Love

After a while, Mary began making trips to some outlying stations. Her joy and love for the Lord shone in her face and spoke through her halting voice, as she sought for the right words in the native language. Soon great crowds were coming to see and hear the white "Ma." Mary was appalled at the heathen customs she saw. The chiefs of the villages had many wives and slaves over whom they held the power of life and death. Another missionary told her, "Many are cannibals. When a chief dies, his wives and slaves must have their heads cut off, and they are buried with him."

The custom that caused Mary the greatest anguish of heart, however, was that of killing twin babies and driving the mothers out to die. They did this for fear of evil spirits.

Mary started rescuing the twin babies and mothers before they could be murdered, and she took them into her home. After a while, the natives saw that Mary went unharmed by evil spirits in spite of all the twin babies and mothers all around her. They also saw how healthy the children were, and as a result they gave up the practice of killing twin babies and their mothers.

But, Mary still had the burden on her heart to go into the unexplored wilderness, Okoyong; and finally the mission board grated permission for her to go. A king who had turned to Christ, King Eyo Honesty VII, offered her his royal canoe, and he fitted it out especially for her. Up the river she went, with only the native rowers accompanying her. The natives at a village she finally reached were deeply impressed that she had had enough courage to come to them alone.

The people were given over to drunkenness, witchcraft, murder, warring, and wickedness of every kind. As Mary went through the jungles telling them about Jesus Christ, many turned to Christ and their way of life was changed. Gradually all the chiefs and people came to look to her for guidance and wisdom, and she was able to put a stop to some terrible customs and wars.

Mary's Hard Choice

Then Mary met Charles Morrison, a mission teacher at Duke Town. Although Mary was quite a bit older than he, they fell in love. Charles asked Mary to marry him.

Mary raised her blue eyes to his. "I will, Charles," she answered, "if the Lord will permit."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"We will have to get permission from the mission board [of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland] for you to join me in my work in the jungles, for I am sure the Lord would not have me leave that."

"I'm willing to join you in that work, Mary," Charles exclaimed eagerly. Then a sober look came over his face. "But what if the board says I can't? Would you join me in the work in Duke Town?"

Mary shook her head emphatically. "Oh, Charles, you know I couldn't! The Lord has opened a marvelous door for me among the jungle people. I must continue telling them about Christ and leading them out of their terrible heathen customs! To leave a field like Okoyong without a worker in order to go to one with a dozen workers, where the people have the Bible and plenty of privileges--oh, I just couldn't do it. You know that!"

Charles knew it, and that made him love her even more. Mary wrote concerning this matter: "I lay it all in God's hands and will take from Him what He sees best for His work in Okoyong. My life was laid on the altar for those people long ago, and I would not take back one jot or tittle of it. 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 try to be grateful, as the Lord knows best."

The board disapproved of the marriage. Thus Mary's dream of love, marriage and family was shattered. But, humbly she said, "What the Lord ordains is right." And the heartache she suffered no one ever knew.

Charles was broken by the disappointment, and soon his health failed. He returned to his home in England, and after a while he died.

God's Leading Justified

Mary went on to become the first missionary to the real cannibal land. She pressed ever deeper into the mysterious, weird forest and met more and more tribes given over to the heathen practice of cannibalism. Perhaps because she was a lone woman and did not pose the threat that a man might, she was able to travel unharmed by these fierce cannibals. Thus she was able to bring them the good news of Christ that turned multitudes from darkness to light--from cannibalism to Christ.

Two books were found among Mary's treasured keepsakes after her death. One contained the initials "M.S." and "C.M.," and the other contained the signatures, "Mary Slessor" and "Charles Morrison."

[Note: The place where Mary died is now known as Nigeria.]

Written by Muriel Larson

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