Carla Unseth

Women of Faith – Mary Slessor

"When you think of the woman’s power, you forget the power of the woman’s God. I shall go on.” ~ Mary Slessor

Mary Slessor was an amazing woman. There are so many things that she did and accomplished that it is hard to boil them down into blog size, or even to choose one story to define her life. However, I have a feeling that the only accomplishment Mary would see in her life was that of following God wherever He led.

Mary Slessor worked with the Efik and Okoyong people in Nigeria from 1876 until her death in 1915. She worked for the betterment of women and children, and became greatly loved and honored by those she worked with. She was even awarded prestigious positions in Okoyong society. But more than all these things, she labored to bring Christ to the people that she loved. There are many biographies of Mary that cover all of these details. The stories are amazing, but what links them all together? As I have read about Mary, I think there are several things that defined her life and ministry and made her a Hero of Faith.

Mary saw the importance of living relationally.

While many missionaries lived lives that were somewhat separated from those they served, Mary realized that she would not reach people unless she got close to them. She learned the local language, and she spent a great deal of time just visiting people and getting to know them.

Mary wasn’t guided by comfort.

I wrote previously about the role that comfort plays in our choice to become missionaries, and Mary fully understood that she should not be guided by comfort. For example, many missionaries had food imported, but Mary ate local food. Part of this was a financial decision – she supported family back home with her salary and therefore couldn’t afford imported food, but this allowed her to live in more remote locations. Also, there were many times when she herself was sick, or when travel was difficult, or when lodging wasn’t available, but Mary did not turn back. Her comfort meant very little in the face of meeting the needs of the lost.

Mary wasn’t afraid to challenge the norms.

As you have probably noticed from the first two points, Mary was not afraid to challenge the norms within the missionary community, and the same went for cultural norms. The missionary compound in Nigeria had strict rules for how missionaries should dress, act, and interact with local people. Mary challenged many of those norms and as a result was able to relate to the local people in a way that no one else did. But, Mary was also not afraid to challenge the norms of the local culture. There were many destructive and harmful cultural practices, such as killing the wives and servants of a chief when he died, trials by ingesting poison, and killing twins. Mary addressed all of these, though she is the most well-known for reversing the practice of killing twins. It was believed that one twin was fathered by the devil, and therefore both twins were killed since no one knew which twin it was. Mary rescued children from the forest, protected them in her home until they could be found a safe place, and even adopted them herself. She did not rest until the culture began to change.

Mary understood that change takes time.

Mary spent a good deal of time addressing these cultural practices. It may have seemed at times that nothing would ever change. She constantly protected people who were targeted by these practices while she tried to reason with others who wanted them done. But, she never gave up because she understood that any change within the culture would take at least an entire generation to take place. But, even more than time, Mary understood that change would take Christ.

Mary prayed.

Here is the true foundation of Mary Slessor’s legacy. She was fully aware that nothing she did would be possible without the help of God. She said, “My life is one long daily, hourly record of answered prayer. For physical health, for mental overstrain, for guidance given marvelously, for errors and dangers averted, for enmity to the Gospel subdued, for food provided at the exact hour needed, for everything that goes to make up life and my poor service. I can testify, with a full and often wonder-stricken awe, that I believe God answers prayer.” Mary was fully aware that her mission would be impossible without God. It would be impossible to forgo comfort and live relationally with people who were so different from her without God’s help. It would be impossible to challenge the norms (or even to know which ones to challenge!) without God’s help. It would be impossible to continue the fight for many years without God’s help.

Mary passed this on to us as well. She said, “Prayer is the greatest power God has put into our hands for service – praying is harder than doing, at least I find it so, but the dynamic lies that way to advance the Kingdom.” It is interesting that even to Mary Slessor, this great missionary, prayer was harder than doing. Yet she persevered in prayer because she knew that was where her strength lay. And it is the same for us.

I find myself amazed and a little overwhelmed by great women like Mary Slessor at times. How could I ever live up to the missionary legacy that she left? I think the answer lies in Mary’s understanding of prayer. We must pray, and God will equip us to leave comfort, to live relationally, to challenge norms when needed, and to persevere. Prayer is the force that will advance the Kingdom.

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

ROMANS 12:12