Ally’s #20 Mary Slessor of Calabar–Pioneer Missionary by W.P. Livingstone

In perusing the free books available on my Kindle, I came across a number of missionary biographies. I had not heard of Mary Slessor, but the term “pioneer missionary” gripped my attention. This 364 page account of Mary’s life in Africa is incredibly thorough…perhaps a bit too thorough for my taste, but very compelling nonetheless.

To begin, the author touches on Mary’s childhood in Scotland and the influence her mother had on her spiritually. At a tender age, Mary had to work to help support her family, and in her spare time, she poured herself into ministering to the community around her. She was gifted in teaching and evangelism and would make the rounds, gathering children up from their beds for Sunday school. She was an endearing and irresistible  combination of tenderness, sympathy, sincerity, and ruggedness. I greatly enjoyed seeing how God shaped, stretched, and prepared Mary for the mission field of West Africa.

During her mid-20s, Mary was “thrilled into action” by the death of Dr. Livingstone, famed explorer and pioneer medical missionary to Africa. In May of 1875, she applied to serve in the region of Calabar (modern day Nigeria) with the Foreign Missions Board. She was accepted and adjusted well to Africa, her first few years being a time of mentorship under the guidance of a small group of seasoned missionaries. But rather than cling to the relative comfort and security of an established missionary compound, Mary desired to venture out, as the Apostle Paul did, to regions where Christ had not been named.

It took some coaxing, but Mary was eventually granted permission to travel deep into the bush, or as Joseph Conrad may have called it, into the “Heart of Darkness.” In this place, revenge killings were commonplace, young girls were promised in marriage to older men and lived in harems, ritual killings were performed in honor of the dead, twins didn’t survive long after birth and their mothers were shunned because they were a bad omen, people were highly superstitious, and those accused of wrongdoing had to prove themselves innocent by drinking poison or submitting to being burned with boiling oil. Mary’s goal was not to “Westernize” this group of “savages,” but to show them the importance of life because of the value God places on it.

As a white woman, Mary was an object of fascination and constant attention. Ironically, because she was a woman, she did not pose an immediate threat to the male leadership (i.e. they didn’t feel the need to place her head on a stake); however, she won many a battle and inched her way to a place of heavy influence in her village. It was remarkable to see how God used this little Scottish woman to defend the weak and to change deadly traditions that had been practiced for centuries.

As Mary moved deeper into uncharted territory, she saw great need and repeatedly made requests for workers to come out into the harvest. Sadly, her request was not honored until she finally went home to her Father in heaven. It was depressing to read that while the members of the church were unwilling to come work shoulder-to-shoulder with Mary, it was her death, like Livingstone’s, that inspired action. These words were among the saddest in this account:

Over the vast, sun-smitten land she wept, as her Master wept over the great city of old, and she did what she could do–no woman could have done more–to redeem its people, and sought, year in, year out, to make the Church rise to the height of its wonderful opportunity–in vain. She knew, however, that the presentation of startling facts and figures alone would never rouse it to action; these might touch the conscience for a moment, but the only thing that would awaken interest and keep it active and militant would be a revival of love for Christ in the hearts of the people; and it was for this she prayed and agonized most of all.

I believe the author, W.P. Livingstone, utilized a large collection of Mary’s letters to piece together the history of her experiences in Africa. He left out no details. I would’ve appreciated it if he had been more selective in the stories he included, as I began to feel myself starting to skim halfway through the book. It’s not that the stories weren’t interesting–they were just repetitive. One other criticism I have of the book relates to the manner in which the tribes Mary served were spoken of. This book can be rather politically incorrect at times, and has a noticeable condescending tone towards 19th century Africans.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in pioneers missions and/or women serving in the mission field. If you think Elisabeth Elliot is awesome, then Mary Slessor will knock your socks off. God used her in some truly amazing ways to impact the western region of Africa for His glory.


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