In 1914, Mary Slessor, a world-famous missionary to Nigeria, fell so ill that she had to be taken by canoe to hospital. A few weeks later she collapsed again. As she lay semi-conscious she whispered "O God, release me." She died on this day, January 13, 1915, mourned by thousands of Nigerians. The Scotswoman had worked among them for thirty-nine years.
A harsh childhood prepared Mary for Africa. At eleven she prepared jute and flax for weavers. In time, she became a skilled weaver, able to manage two sixty-inch looms at once. Although exhausted, for she was "wee and thin and not very strong," Mary made the most of opportunities. She snatched whatever schooling she could get. If she was too tired to follow the arithmetic, the teacher punished her by making her stand. On early winter nights, she dodged drunks and thieves as she walked home in the dark to do her chores and face her drunken father. Often her mother pushed her out into the street so that her dad couldn't beat her.
After she became a Christian, Mary held Bible classes for children whose lives were as bleak as her own. She taught them that they could have friendship with Christ. She took groups into the countryside for picnics and raced with them. Such behavior raised the eyebrows of the stuffy people in the pews who wanted things done "properly."
One gang rejected Mary's message, jeering and literally slinging mud at her. These toughs surrounded her while their leader whirled a lead weight on a string, coming closer and closer to her face. Praying inwardly, she determined not to duck or run. Even when the lead grazed her forehead, she stood with steady eyes. The ringleader dropped the weight. "Its OK boys. She's game!" He made his whole gang attend meeting. "What is courage, but faith conquering fear?" she asked later.
On August 5, 1876 she sailed for Africa. There she saw cruel gods carved of wood and stone. The Nigerians sacrificed humans to these idols. Mary put her life on the line to rescue slaves and women from death. She fought against judgment by ordeal. A person suspected of doing wrong might be forced to eat poison beans; or boiling oil might be poured over him. Every one tested by these methods proved to be "guilty." Such cruelty infuriated Mary. When a man poured boiling oil on the hands of an eleven year old boy, Mary grabbed a scoop of the scalding liquid and chased the man to slop oil on him and "prove" that he was not innocent either.
Another evil she fought was the treatment of wives after a husband's death. A chicken was beheaded in front of the unlucky women. Depending on how it flopped, the wife was pronounced guilty or innocent of her husband's death. The legs of "guilty" wives were broken and the women thrown alive into their husband's grave.
The Nigerians enslaved and branded each other. When a chief died, dozens of slaves were killed. Unwanted babies were thrown into the bush. Twins were buried alive or thrown into the forest, their mother driven off to die. The tribes fought, danced and drank. Sometimes they ate one another. Everyone lived in terror. A secret society known as the Egbo went around in masks and beat people. Once Mary showed how weak they really were by chasing a group of Egbo and tearing off one sheepish man's mask.
By her bold actions, Mary made a major contribution in bringing an end to the worst abuses. Gradually she helped Nigerians recognize that lives are worth saving. She succeeded because she trusted God. "God and one are always a majority," she declared.
- Excerpted and arranged from Christian History Institute's Glimpses #128.
Last updated June, 2007