When I first started reading missionary biographies as a fairly young Christian, I think I had the impression that they all came from perfect Christian families. After a while I learned that there is no such thing. But I also came across Mary Slessor’s biography. Her father was an alcoholic, like mine was, and it it encouraged me that someone with a similar background could go on and serve the Lord wholeheartedly.
Mary Slessor was a girl in Aberdeen, Scotland in the 1800s. She had a godly mother and a drunken father. Her father could be violent, raging, throwing much-needed food into the fireplace, locking her out of the house to spend the night on the streets. Even after his death Mary carried the shame of his drunkenness on her shoulders.
She had been interested in missions for several years, particularly a country in west Africa called Calabar.
The great Scottish missionary David Livingstone was Mary’s hero. She’d read Missionary Travels, hardly stopping to breathe. A second time. A third time. He was a Scot, just like her. He was the second oldest of seven children, just like her. He had been poor, just like her. He had even worked in textile mill many years, just like her! How many times had she told herself, Then cannot I be a missionary just like him? Yes, to Africa just like Livingstone.
But then how many times had her heart ached when she remembered what a godly father Livingstone sprang from? His father presented him from infancy with a “consistent example of piety” so priestly, Livingstone claimed, that his father could best be depicted only by the father Bobby Burns described poetically in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” Unfortunately, Mary remembered every stanza Burns composed about that Bible-living patriarch, including the conclusion: “From scenes like these, old Scotia’s grandeur springs.”
(From Mary Slessor, Queen of Calabar, by Sam Wellman.)
Livingstone’s death had a profound impact on Mary’s life, convicting her that she had hesitated long enough. She sought much counsel about giving her life as a missionary, wrestled with whether her family could get by without her income, was convinced and encouraged by her mother that the family would be all right, and finally offered herself to the Foreign Mission Board. She didn’t specify that she was interested in Calabar, however, for she wanted to leave that as a final test to make sure she was following God’s leading and not her own. She wasn’t sure if she would be accepted as she had little education and no skill except as a mill worker. Yet the board called her and told her Calabar has asked for more teachers. She was brought to Edinburgh for training and sailed for Africa in 1876. She faced the unknown, jungle animals, jungle diseases, and abhorrent practices with faith and courage.
Soon after landing in Calabar she began to realize the difficulty and seeming impossibility of the work to which she had committed herself. She saw huge, hideous alligators sun ning on the mud banks and swimming in the streams… She saw the barracoons where the captured Negroes were penned until the slave-ships arrived. She found herself in a land where terrified prisoners dipped their hands in boiling oil to test their guilt under some accusation, where wives were strangled or buried alive to go with their dead chief into the spirit-world, where heartless chiefs could order a score of men and women to be beheaded for a cannibal orgy and sell a hundred more into the horrors of slavery. What could one frail, timid woman do, confronted by such an appalling situation? Overwhelmed and depressed, she knelt and prayed, “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow.” Rising, she said, “Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of kings.”
Mary rescued hundreds of twin babies thrown out into the forest, prevented many wars, stopped the practice of trying to determine guilt by the poison ordeal, healed the sick, and unweariedly told the people about the great God of love whose Son came to earth to die on the cross that poor sinful human beings might have eternal life. The Master she loved and served so ardently crowned her labors by permitting her to establish a number of churches and to see hundreds … [converted].
(From Blazing the Missionary Trail by Eugene Myers.)
She didn’t go to just one African village. She continually felt called to go deeper into Africa despite warnings of dangers from headhunters and cannibals. A chief warned her, “You are going to a warlike people. You are likely to get killed on the way. Anyhow, they would not listen to what a woman says.” Mary answered, “When you think of the woman’s power, you forget the power of the woman’s God. I shall go on.”
I discovered yesterday a video called “One More River: The Mary Slessor Story” in two parts (here and here, each about a half hour long) that appears to be something of a documentary from Scottish TV about her life. I’ve only watched the first part so far, and there is a great deal of dead time, but it is still pretty interesting. I especially love how it starts out: “If you think all Victorian women were ladies in lavender crinolines swooning at the sight of a mouse, think again.”
(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)