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Mary Slessor and Her Work in Calabar

by J. A. W. Hamilton

Mary SlessorOn December 2nd, 1848, Mary Slessor was born of humble parents. in Aberdeen [Scotland]. Her father was a shoemaker, and very far from being a good example to his seven children, being addicted to drink. Her mother was a refined and sweet-faced woman, and it was from her she got her soft voice and loving heart. From earliest memory she had desired to become a missionary, arid when at play she always pretended she was keeping school, and that the scholars were black boys and girls.

Unhappy days came for her when her father lost his situation through intemperance, and removed from Aberdeen to Dundee. The poor wife hoped that in a strange city and away from old companions, her husband would begin afresh and succeed. The money realised from the sale of the furniture melted away, and the new home was bare and comfortless. All the family were delicate, and it was not long before three of the children died. The frail little mother did her best, but the hardships and privations were too much for her, and she waged an unsuccessful battle with disease and death.

Mary's own recollection of herself at this period was that she was "a wild lassie." When she thought of many of the incidents of these days she felt half amused and half ashamed. But very early she was changed. An old woman living in a single back room, having a desire to "save some," gathered some of the girls to talk to them, young as they were, about their eternal welfare.

One cold winter night, as they sat around her bright fire, listening to her pleadings and warnings she said in Scotch, "Do you see that fire? If you were to put your hand into the flame it would be very sore. It would burn you. But if ye don't repent and believe in the Lord Jesus, your soul will be in the everlasting fire" (Matt. 18:8).

The words went like arrows to Mary's heart, the vision of eternal punishment was ever before her, she could not sleep, and then she earnestly sought the Lord. She sometimes said it was fear drove her to the Saviour, but once inside the Kingdom, she became the messenger of love and mercy, Things at home became darker and harder, and the frail mother was forced to enter one of the factories to help maintain the home, and at the early age of eleven years, Mary also was sent out to earn her livelihood. She became what is known as a "half-timer, " one who wrought half the day and went to school in connection with the works on the other half. When she handed over her first wages to her mother, the latter wept over them, and put them away, as too sacred to use. The hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and when Mary went on full-time she rose at five every morning to help in the house-work before leaving for the factory.

At this time she was almost wholly uneducated. But her mind was opening, and in order to study, she began to steal time from her sleep. She carried a book with her to the mill, and read it every free moment. So anxious was she to learn, that she read on her way to and from the factory. Her only outside interest was the Church. From the Sunday School she passed into the Bible Class, and enjoyed the teaching, and extracted all she could out of it. The explanation of much in Mary's character lies in these early years, and to fully understand her the unhappy circumstances of her home must be taken into account.

Mr. Slessor was not cured by the change. Every penny he could lay hands upon was spent in drink, and the mother was often in sore straits to feed the children. Unceasing were the efforts of wife and daughter to hide the skeleton in the home. The fear of exposure before the neighbours, the dread lest Mary's church friends would come to know the secret, made the two sad souls pinch and struggle with endless patience. The fact that the family was never disgraced was attributed to prayer. Their faith not only saved them from despair, it made them happy at times. Yet these days left their mark on Mary for life. Naturally gentle, loving, and sensitive, what she passed through hurt and saddened her. To the end the memory would send a shaft of bitterness across her sweet and sunny nature. Yet suffering has its compensations. It made her the fierce champion of little children and the refuge of the weak and oppressed. It prepared her to attack the trade in "spirits" on the West coast of Africa, and for dealing with the drunken tribes among whom she came to dwell. Sad though it was, it was the beginning of the training for her life-work.

Although tired with a long day's work at the factory, and although it was a long way to the church, Mary never missed a service. "We would as soon have thought of going to the moon as of being absent from a service," she wrote shortly before she died, "and we throve very well on it too." She owed much to the help of Christian friends, but more to her Bible. Once a girl asked her for something to read, and she handed her the Book, saying: "Take that, it has made me a changed lassie."

Wishart Church stood in the midst of slums. Pends, or arched passages, led from the Cowgate into tall tenements with outside stairs which led to a maze of landings and homes. Tides of young people poured out of these tenements night and day, and ran about the streets in undisciplined freedom. Mary loved them in spite of their roughness, and when a young people's meeting was determined on, volunteered as a teacher. There began her second period of training. Wild youths made sport of the meetings and tried to wreck them. Open-air work was dangerous, but she and a few others attempted it; they were opposed by roughs and pelted with mud. There was one gang that resolved to break up the mission. One night they held her up in the street. The leader carried a piece of lead at the end of a cord, and began to swing it round and round her head. She never winced. "She's game, boys," he exclaimed, and all turned into the meeting. For fourteen years Mary worked in the factory for ten hours each day, yet finding time to cultivate her mind. Her spirit was eager, she read much and quickly.

There never was a time when Mary was not interested in foreign missions. The story of Calabar had impressed her as a child, for the founding of the mission had been a romance. In no part of the foreign field were the conditions more formidable. Calabar exhibited the worst side of nature and of man. It was called the white man's grave. But Mary Slessor shrunk from nothing her Master would have done.

In May, 1875, she offered her services to the Foreign Mission Board, and she was accepted as a teacher for Calabar, and told to continue her studies in Dundee. Later she continued her studies in Edinburgh. She was now twenty-eight years old, a type of woman peculiar to Scotland, the result of her godly mother's teaching and the severe discipline of her earlier years. She sailed on August 5, 1876. At the docks she saw going on board the steamer by which she was to travel, a large number of casks of beer and spirits, and exclaimed; "Scores of casks, and only one missionary!" Miss Slessor's first impressions of Calabar were favourable, but it was not long before she had to revise her opinion of it. Nature was beautiful, but beneath its fair appearance lurked influences that were cruel and pitiless. "Calabar needs a brave heart and a. stout body," she wrote. Years of preaching, visiting, helping and healing followed. Many were the weary hours, the fevers, the loneliness, and the sharp combats with sin. What a land she found it to be!—formless, mysterious, terrible, ruled by witchcraft and the terrorism of secret societies, where guilt was decided by ordeal of poison and boiling oil; where scores of people were murdered when a chief died, where twins were done to death, and the mothers banished to the bush; also, a land full of diseases, fevers, and white men's graves.

Of all her wonderful work I cannot tell you, of how many twin-children she saved from death, rearing them up as her own, and proving to the amazement of these deluded people that they were not demon-children; of all the changes made, the churches formed, and of the Royal recognition that came to her in the end. And yet, what was she? Only a working girl, plain in appearance and in dress, diffident and self-effacing. But, as one says, "She possessed something we could not grasp, something indefinable. It was the glow of the Spirit of Christ which lit up her inner life and shone in her face, and which, unknown even to herself, was the source of her distinction and power."

From Twelve Clever Girls by J. A. W. Hamilton. London: Pickering and Inglis, Ltd., 1937. Chapter 4.

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