Mary Slessor was born into a working-class, United Presbyterian Church, family in Aberdeen in 1848. As a child in Dundee, she was enthralled by stories of missions in Africa. For years, she read diligently as she worked in the mills, and eventually, in 1875, she was accepted as a teacher for the mission in Calabar, Nigeria. Her fluency in the local language, physical resilience and lack of pretension endeared her to those to whom she ministered. She adopted unwanted children, particularly twins who would otherwise, according to local superstition, have been put to death. She was influential in organising trade and in settling disputes, contributing much to the development of the Okoyong people with whom she later settled. She died, still in Africa, on this day in 1915.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
My parents often entertained visiting preachers to our chapel and as a young, ardent Christian, I can remember being thrilled and excited when Missionaries from Abroad came to tell us wonderful stories about their ministry. They embodied the words of Isaiah. That’s where the work of the gospel needed to take place – abroad.I can remember thinking: perhaps that’s what I should do? I didn’t! I was too comfortable and scared.
Mary Slessor was no stranger to poverty and oppression: her father was an abusive alcoholic and she became the main breadwinner aged 11. Her faith and church life upheld her; she determined to be a pioneer worker in the remote African interior. From age 27 until death she did just that and ‘with the spirit of the Lord upon her’ she fought cruel tribal customs and witchcraft. One custom that broke her heart was ‘twin-murder’. Some tribes thought twins were a result of a curse caused by an evil spirit who fathered one of the children. Both babies were brutally murdered and the mother was shunned. Overwhelmed and depressed, she knelt and prayed, “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow.” Rising, she said, “Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of kings.” Mary rescued many twins and ministered to their mothers.
Our work as missionaries today is much closer to home. We may not face some of the conditions that Mary did and our stories may not have the romantic ring I remember from childhood, but the task is just as great as we follow Jesus more faithfully and involve ourselves in trying to make a real difference in our local communities. Let us not be too comfortable and scared, but rise from prayer and say with Mary Slessor: “Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of kings”
Holy God, Help me to listen to your call to go wherever you want me to be. Whatever the challenge, give me the bravery to respond. Whatever the need, give me the will to serve. Where there are broken hearts, help me find compassion. Where there are imprisoned minds, help me find wisdom. Where there is oppression, help me find courage. Lord, the task is always too great for me, but not for you. Lead the way and I will follow. Amen
The Rev’d Lis Mullen is a retired minister and member of Kendal URC