Mary Slessor – Missionary To Calabar (Part 4)
Arranged from existing biographies of Mary Slessor (1848-1915)
Returning to Calabar, Nigeria in 1898 from another leave in Scotland, Mary Slessor found that the brief period of mission expansion up the river had been cut short by the deaths of five missionaries, with four more forced home by sickness. This disheartening situation seemed to forbid further expansion. In fact, some existing stations outside the towns had to be closed.
Yet Mary felt that her work among the Okoyong was done, and her desire was to push on inland, even to the cannibalistic Aro tribe. This desire was fed by visits from upcountry chiefs. They had heard of this white woman with the Okoyong. They heard of her power to help sick people and of her going on long walks to rescue babies. She spoke their language. She knew their customs. She was just in settling quarrels. They especially needed her help now. The British had forbidden the bloody rituals with which they served their gods. They had heard of God and of good things that happened when He was served. But their understanding was very limited. They wanted to know more. They sought out Mary Slessor. Even chiefs from the Aro tribe came. Sometimes they sent for her to come to them to settle their quarrels. They asked for schools, and to be taught about God.
Constrained by Love
Unable to restrain herself longer, Mary temporarily left her Okoyong station in the care of young Africans in response to the pleading of upcountry chiefs. She went to help them start a school and to tell them of God. There were no trained African teachers to leave with them, but she sent whom she could.
Returning to the Okoyong after fifteen years of living alone, Mary was delighted to have a lady missionary move to her village to serve with her. What a blessing to have someone help shoulder the load! But shortly thereafter Mary had confirmation from God that she was to move upriver. She was now past fifty years of age. Not only did she continue to suffer from bouts of fever, but painful rheumatism bothered her.
Nevertheless she made her recommendation, and it was eventually approved. Instead of taking her next leave in Scotland, she would spend six months of that year surveying the upcountry area. She would visit the chiefs who were urging her to come and to tell them of God and to teach them to read. The British were beginning to build roads into the area. The motor launch made river travel faster.
Although the mission was reluctant to send a woman to open up the new field, there was no one else available. New recruits would not be qualified to enter this area where there was still tribal fighting. So Mary with her little family of African children, set out on a period of exploration. "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13).
Her first stop was at Itu, strategically located on the river. Here she established a school and church. There was a steady stream of visiting chiefs, urging her to come to them. But when they saw how sick and tired this brave woman was, they studied her building and went home and built their own. Then they returned to ask for a teacher. All Mary had to send was some of her best students. Before long there was a good number of little school-church buildings in the area.
Mary and her family usually lived in simple mud huts, moving from place to place as the Lord led. Permission was granted to continue her itinerating during the last six months of her leave time. This enabled her to enter the Aro tribe area. Here, too, she found them longing to hear of God. Once when lost in their territory, she came upon two of the tribesmen. They told her they had built a church building and were waiting for her to come teach them. She could not accompany them at that time, but she promised to return.
The pattern of Mary’s life for the next ten years was similar to this: laboring long hours, often late into the night; frequently trekking or traveling by canoe from one village to another; highly esteemed and sought out by the African chiefs for advice and settling of their troubles. She was known to hold as many as twelve services on Sunday. This involved walking over ten miles.
She still suffered frequently from attacks of malaria. At times she started out on her journeyings ill. Dosing herself with medicine, she curled up in the canoe to get what sleep and rest she could, crowded around with the children, and surrounded by building supplies of cement and lumber or with battered tin trunks of personal belongings and the necessary "chop box" containing their food. She usually arrived strong enough to handle the affairs that met her. This encouraged her to believe that God wanted her to continue her work. She felt she was the "feet" of the church at this time.
As she continued to push her tired body, however, sometimes she had to be carried in a hammock. The gift of a bicycle delighted her and was most helpful after roads were opened up. When painful rheumatism made riding the bicycle impossible, she had a lightweight wheelchair sent out from Scotland, and she was pushed by her young friends.
As she pressed into new areas, she met with the cruel heathen customs she had encountered and conquered through God among the Okoyong. There was so much to do. The laborers were so few. Where, oh where, were the men to carry the Gospel throughout this vast area? She knew it was not the fault of the mission. The appeal had gone forth. The Spirit of God was asking, "Who will go?" But there was little willing response of – "Here am I, send me!" And so weary Mary carried on until one day in 1915, when thousands of Africans mourned her passing from her forty years of labor among them to her heavenly home.
Mary loved the Africans and she proved that love in unselfish, unflinching ways. She did not consider herself the unusual missionary she was acclaimed to be. It is not what we can do for God that counts, she felt, but how much we are willing to let God do through us.
In her busy life she had limited time for stated periods of prayer. Much of her communion with the Lord was done as she moved from place to place and as she worked. She said: "My life is one long, daily, hourly record of answered prayer. For physical health, for mental overstrain, for guidance given marvelously, for errors and dangers averted, for enmity to the Gospel subdued, for food provided at the exact hour needed, for everything that goes to make up life and my poor service, I can testify, with a full and often wonder-stricken awe, that I know God answers prayers."
The courage she demonstrated was a faith based on God’s promises. Notes written on the margins of her Bibles tell that she was often poring over God’s Word, hearing His voice speaking to her, drawing upon His Word for all she needed in her strenuous life. Mary Slessor, like all of us, had only one life to give to her beloved Lord and Savior. She gave it fully. Her life teaches us what sacrifice is. And it teaches us what God will do through a life laid down in sacrificial labors for Him.
"I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry…. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen" (1 Tim. 1:12, 17).