She took seriously the Foreign Mission secretary’s advice that she spend as much time as possible with the local women in order to learn their language, Efik. But she was surprised to see that none of the women had yet joined the church. “Something more must be done for the women here if we are to raise the men,” she said. Throughout her life, reaching the women was one of her main commitments.
Mary Slessor became a legend in her time and continued to influence a generation of missionaries. Her name is still remembered in admiration both in her native Scotland (her image appeared on a 1997 Clydesdale Bank £10 note) and on her mission field of Nigeria.
Part of her notoriety has been due to her nonconformity. She ventured by herself where men feared to tread, called equally to task tribal chiefs and mission boards, and adopted African dress and customs at a time when many missionaries still considered Victorian mores irrevocably tied to the gospel message.
Blunt and headstrong, she received and dispensed much criticism. Sporting a short haircut that most Victorian women would have considered a misfortune, she defied European beliefs on propriety, expediency, and efficiency. At a time when many prospective missionaries listed poor time management as one of their capital weaknesses, she learned to walk at her own pace, realizing that “Christ was never in a hurry.”
She was only forty-four when the British government, recognizing her achievements in establishing a working relationship with a people most Europeans considered unreachable, appointed her vice-consul over the native court. With this title, she became the first woman magistrate in the world. Fourteen years later, she became vice-president of the Ikot Obong native court. As such, she stood up for justice and for the rights of the underserved, especially women.
Today, she is mostly remembered for her rescue and care of twin babies who, in the local culture, were left to die. Her first commitment, however, was always firmly to the gospel.
Early Life in Dundee
Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 1848 in Gilcomston, a suburb of Aberdeen, Scotland, the second of seven children. When her father Robert, a shoemaker, lost his job due to alcoholism, the family moved to Dundee to look for work. Mary’s mother, a weaver, taught her daughters the same trade. At age eleven, Mary went to work in a textile mill where she became the family’s main breadwinner.
A bright young girl, she read books and furthered her education on her own. Eager to be a good Christian, she found discouragement in The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge, a famous book at that time. When a friend asked her why she was cast down, Mary answered, “I can’t meditate, and Doddridge says it is necessary for the soul. If I try to meditate my mind just goes a’ roads.” Her friend told her not to worry. “Go and work, for that’s what God means us to do.”
Mary definitely worked hard. In spite of her hard work in the factory and her studies at home, she was active in the local Presbyterian church, volunteering to teach children at a church-sponsored mission.