Mary Slessor’s childhood was marred by a drinking father. Every Saturday his paycheck turned into alcohol, leaving the family destitute for another week. By age 11 Mary was putting in 12-hour shifts in the mills, six in the morning till six at night. She hid her earnings from her father, incurring his wrath but keeping the family fed. In her spare time, Mary taught herself to read and found she could prop books on her loom and read while working. There Mary learned of Calabar (Nigeria), an “unhealthy, mysterious, terrible land ruled by witchcraft and secret societies.” She was convinced she should go there as a missionary.

For several years Mary worked in mission halls near her home in the slums of Dundee, Scotland. She learned to face down gangs, to pray down blessings, and to break down hardened hearts. Her work finally led to her being appointed missionary to Calabar, and on August 5, 1876, she sailed for West Africa aboard the S.S. Ethiopia. She was dismayed to find the ship loaded with hundreds of barrels of whiskey. Remembering how alcohol had ruined her own family, she frowned. “Scores of barrels of whisky,” she muttered, “and only one missionary.”

But what a missionary! In the years that followed, she single-handedly tamed and transformed three pagan areas by preaching the gospel, teaching the children, defending the abused, and rescuing the mistreated. She was feisty. She didn’t mind living in mud huts and sleeping amid sweating bodies. She was a combination circuit preacher, village teacher, nurse, nanny, and negotiator. She diverted tribal wars and rescued women and children by the hundreds. Often babies filled her home by the dozens. (Mary learned to tie a string to each little hammock, lie in bed at night, and pull the strings as each baby needed soothing.)

She so won the respect of Europe and Africa that she became the first woman vice consul of Britain, using her position to further her missions. For 40 years she pioneered the gospel in areas that had proved the graveyard of other missionaries.

How can they hear, unless someone tells them? And how can anyone tell them without being sent by the Lord? The Scriptures say it is a beautiful sight to see even the feet of someone coming to preach the good news. (Romans 10:14b,15)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). August 5.

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