Feast of Mary Slessor (January 11)   Leave a comment

Mary Slessor

Above:  Mary Slessor

Image in the Public Domain



Scottish Presbyterian Missionary to West Africa

The Church of England celebrates the life of Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian, on January 11.

True stories of Western missionaries who devastated indigenous cultures, often while functioning more as agents of a particular imperial power rather than as emissaries of Jesus Christ, are numerous.  Such accounts help to explain the bad name Christianity has acquired in many cultural settings, especially in places where another religion has a longer history.  This post celebrates the life and legacy of a missionary of a different stripe–one who respected the people she sought to convert to Christ and met practical needs while avoiding the opposing fallacies of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

Mary Slessor had a difficult youth.  Slessor, born at Aberdeen, Scotland, on December 2, 1848, was the second of five children–two sons and three daughters–of Robert and Mary Slessor.  The family was impoverished.  Robert, a shoemaker then a mill worker, was an alcoholic and an abusive husband.  Mary, the mother, was a weaver and a mill worker.  Our saint started working at a mill half-time at the age of 11 years.  At the time she also attended school at that mill.  Three years later, after her father and two brothers had died, she started working ten hours a day.

Our saint grew up a member of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1847-1900), which merged into The United Free Church of Scotland (1900-1929), which reunited with The Church of Scotland (1560-present).  From an early age Slessor had a fascination with missionaries.  In 1875, upon learning of the death of David Livingstone (1813-1873), she decided to become a missionary.  Our saint applied to the United Presbyterian Church’s Foreign Missionary Board, which accepted her.  Our saint, aged 28 years, sailed for West Africa on August 5, 1876.


Above:  Map of a Part of West Africa

Image Source = Rand McNally World Atlas–Imperial Edition (1968)

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Our saint spent most of her life as a missionary to the Efik people in that art of West Africa now called Nigeria.  She spent a few years back in Scotland because of health-related furloughs, recovering from malaria more than once, but she lived mostly in West Africa from 1876 to 1915.

Among my first lessons in cultural anthropology in college was that both ethnocentrism and cultural relativism were fallacies.  Ethnocentrism is the idea that one’s culture is the standard by which to evaluate other cultures.  This fallacy overlooks shortcomings in one’s own culture and merits in other cultures.  Cultural relativism reacts to the arrogance of ethnocentrism by arguing for the absence of a standard according to which to evaluate cultures.

Unfortunately, ethnocentrism has marked much of the Christian missionary movement for a long time.  (Many missionaries have avoided that error, fortunately.)  Ethnocentrism was part of Slessor’s worldview when she became missionary.  Fortunately, she grew out of that way of thinking, thereby becoming a more effective evangelist.  She also rejected the fallacy of cultural relativism.

Our saint, for many years headquartered at Calabar, on the coast, saved the lives of many people.  She helped to end the practice of testing innocence or guilt by forcing the accused person to drink poison.  She also saved the lives of hundreds of abandoned newborn twins.  Local superstition held that a mother of twins had sinned grievously, and that one of the twins was an evil spirit.  The practice of abandoning newborn twins in the wilderness horrified our saint, who saved many of them and adopted some of them.

Slessor respected the people among whom she worked, gaining their confidence and respect.  She lived in a hut, not in the missionary compound, and devoted herself to addressing practical needs.  She helped to found a vocational school, the Hope Waddell Training Institute.  In 1888 Slessor relocated her base of operations to the village of Oloyong, where locals had killed the previous male missionaries.  Our saint survived and won respect, however.  She became the “White Queen of Oloyong,” settling disputes among people there.

Toward the end of her life Slessor became so weak due to malaria-related fever that she ceased to be able to walk on her own.  She died on January 13, 1915, aged 66 years.

Slessor did not invent culturally friendly mission work, but she did bring much attention to it.  She did, however, pioneer addressing practical needs as a technique in foreign missions.  This has become a common strategy.  I recall a story I heard more than a decade ago.  A team of missionaries in an area where wells were scarce ordered the usual religious supplies, such as Bibles.  They also ordered equipment for digging wells.  After all, the people with whom they worked needed both wells and eternal life.  The legacy of Mary Slessor has been flourishing for a long time.






For Further Reading:






God of grace and glory, we praise you for your servant Mary Slessor,

who made the good news known in West Africa.

Raise up, we pray, in every country, heralds of the gospel,

so that the world may know the immeasurable riches of your love,

and be drawn to worship you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Isaiah 62:1-7

Psalm 48

Romans 10:11-17

Luke 24:44-53

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 59



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