Calabar's White Queen

by Bernard R. DeReemer

According to J. H. Morrison, Mary Slessor "is entitled to a place in the front ranks of the heroines of history...."  Her love and self-sacrifice, years of endurance and suffering, as well as heroism and devotion, make it difficult if not impossible to name her equal.

Mary was born in 1848 at Aberdeen, Scotland. After her alcoholic father's early death, she worked 12 hours daily in a textile factory to help support the family. In spite of limited schooling, she gradually learned to express herself both in speech and writing in language that was "lucid and vigorous."

Through the witness of a neighbor she came to know the Lord and served faithfully in church and Sunday school. Her girlhood dream was to become a missionary to Calabar, a region of Nigeria on the west coast of Africa, often called "the white man's grave" because of prevalent hunger, fever, and death.

In 1875 she offered herself to the United Presbyterian Church Foreign Mission Board. The following year she was on the way to the land of her dreams. There, like many others, she would battle the twin scourges of sickness and loneliness. Readily gaining the confidence of the people, she carried medicine, attended to the sick, listened to tales of suffering and sorrow, and gave sympathy and practical help.

Mary held services morning and evening and with difficulty "prevented the one from merging into the other." Many heard the good news of Christ for the first time.

In order to feed hungry nationals, Mary lived for long periods on rice and sauce. Letters back home to Scotland urged prayer "for us hereearnestly [and] definitely."

Infanticide caused much heartbreaking destruction of life. Children were of little value. She rescued hundreds of twin babies thrown out into the forest to die, because of superstition; made friends with women, healed the sick, tended children, and did "any little service that came in our way."

Mary soon discovered that schools go hand in hand with churches in missionary effort, and began hers before buildings were even available. The school room was "the veranda of a house by the wayside, the seats were pieces of fire wood, the equipment an alphabet card hung on one of the posts." In spite of such primitive conditions, good progress was made.

The power of witchcraft "dominated the lives of the people like a dark shadow...." Witch doctors—"some of the cunningest rogues the world has produced"—held people in terrible bondage. Mary constantly and bravely battled the results of their handiwork. Thefts of every kind went on indiscriminately.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the gospel was drink. Mary often found that there was not a sober man and hardly a sober woman within miles.

Mary actually prevented many wars, often intervening and serving as mediator between rival factions, at great personal danger. Eventually she became in effect a consular agent, conducting public affairs of the tribe and presiding at national courts.

At Okoyong in a short time "she had built a hut; a good house with accommodations for children, servants, and visitors; a dispensary; a church, and a double-roomed boathouse." All the national labor was cheerfully volunteered but from time to time she distributed among the workers presents from the mission boxes.

Work did not always progress rapidly.  Sometimes people would attend services, sing, pray, and profess to accept the gospel.  Then they would leave and continue their feuding and drinking. Tempted to become impatient or discouraged, Mary reminded herself, "He that believeth shall not make haste." Late in the 1890s she could report positive changes:

Raiding by the tribes and capturing slaves had almost stopped;

Women were gaining respect;

Tribes were trading peacefully with whites;

In general, greater value was placed on human life.

In 1913 she was honored with the Maltese Cross from the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England for meritorious service. Two years later illness finally closed the career and claimed the life of the pioneer who had labored so long, faithfully, and sacrificially. It was the queen's final coronation; she would await the Judgment Seat of Christ and a multitude of crowns.

Quoted material is from Mary Slessor of Calabar, by W. P. Livingstone (N.Y.: Geo. H. Doran, n.d.)

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