The Era and Impact of a Victorian Missionary
Mary Slessor – Everybody’s Mother: The Era and Impact of a Victorian Missionary. Jeanette Hardage. WIPF & Stock, Eugene, Oregon. 331 pages
A small redheaded Presbyterian missionary from the nineteenth century has a great deal to tell this generation of Christians in the midst of their pondering of such terms and ideas as missional, pluralism and cultural imperialism. A new book, written by Jeanette Hardage, about Mary Slessor, a missionary from Scotland to the West Coast of Africa, is encouraging while instructive.
The book, Mary Slessor—Everybody’s Mother: The Era and Impact of a Victorian Missionary had been lying with my stack of books to read for almost a year. It was published in 2008. On a very long train trip I read it in just four days. The author deals with all kinds of problems arising from the great missionary years of the nineteenth century, including how missionaries impacted the cultures they encountered. The book also speaks to the way women missionaries were able to do ministry, including preaching, in settings beyond their national boundaries. But most of all, Mary Slessor—Everybody’s Mother, is simply a very enjoyable book to read.
Mary Slessor began her ministry in Calabar, Africa, moving further inward away from the coast as she established more and more new missions. Slessor was sent by the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. She arrived on the shores of Africa in 1876. Her arrival marked the beginning of years of preaching the gospel, caring for unwanted twins, settling disputes among warring tribes and chiefs, and amazingly officiating as a British magistrate.
Three areas of ministry stand out in the book. One is how Slessor dealt with the problem of culture and Christianity. The second area is her fidelity to her most basic calling, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the third is Slessor’s gracious ability to make friends with those who did not profess faith in Christ.
The first area, culture and Christianity, has several sides. Hardage points out that Slessor still retained some of the feelings many British missionaries had about their own culture. They considered theirs far superior. And yet, Slessor let go of much of what was considered important parts of British civilization. She never wore shoes or the petticoats of the day. Instead she made herself simple dresses, and Hardage quotes an earlier author who wrote that the African women wanted to wear the kind of dresses that Slessor wore.
Slessor also ate the foods of that region and generally lived in typical native housing. But there existed cultural and religious practices that she, thankfully, confronted. One of the great problems of the area was the practice of killing twins and isolating their mothers.
It was believed that if a woman gave birth to twins she had slept with a demon meaning that one child was a demon. Both children were killed. Slessor saved many of these children, raising them as her own children and proving to the people that neither child was harmful to anyone. Many of the children were already dead or close to death when Slessor attempted rescuing them. Hardage writes of Slessor’s care of children:
W.P. Livingstone called Slessor’s house “the refuge of little children.” She kept so many through the years the friends in Scotland couldn’t keep up with who and how many were in her household. Some children were brought to her sick; others were outcasts she rescued. She pampered them, nursed them, and walked the miles to Creek Town when she was out of milk for the babies. “Those who died she dressed and placed among flowers in a box, held a service over them, and buried them in a little cemetery. … She mourned over them as if they had been blood of her blood. Mr. Owens used to say to her, ‘Never mind, lassie, you’ll get “plenty mair”—and indeed there were always plenty”[i] (98)
Two other cultural practices Slessor confronted was the abusive treatment of widows and the way local officials discovered whether a person was guilty or not. In the latter case boiling oil was poured over the person’s hand. Supposedly if the person was not guilty he would not be burnt.
Slessor’s second area of ministry which speaks boldly to the contemporary Church was her strong insistence on the rightful place of the gospel in her ministry. From a notebook of written lessons, Hardage quotes Slessor’s words about the necessity of continuing on with the work of fulfilling the great commission. “Thank God! For such men and women here and everywhere, who in the face of scorn and persecution dare to be singular, dare to stand firmly and fearlessly for their Master. Their commission is today what it was yesterday. ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’”Hardage goes on to point out Slessor’s almost “alter call” ending.
Oh! My friends who are outside the Court of Israel, still without a Guide and Protector, how can you dare to face the dark, unknown future, all alone. Change and decay are written on everything here, and you cannot expect your life circumstances to be an exception. Your treasures may be snatched away from you in a moment, your life may go down in darkness, in the twinkling of an eye. And then, and then! What then?(223)
So the gospel, although written in nineteenth century phrasing, undergirded all of the good work of Slessor. And here the third area of ministry overlaps with the second. Slessor, with integrity, was a good friend to many outside of the kingdom of Christ. But in the midst of her friendships she never forgot her calling.
Charles Partridge is the great example. He was a District Commander for the African area where Slessor ministered. They became very good friends and corresponded with each other over many years. Slessor’s letters to Partridge can be found at the Library in Dundee  . Hardage writes of their relationship:
Charles Partridge, the agnostic, was not exempt from Mary’s prodding. Her usual pages-long letters sometimes included admonishment to follow God. But she mostly spoke of mutual friends and acquaintances—missionaries, Africans and other Europeans—and news of all sorts concerning mission work, personal health or experiences, government actions, and changes or discord among African peoples. (234)
This brings a clear understanding to friendship and Christianity as they intertwine in the relationships Christians experience with non-Christians. And this is what it clearly means to be about the Father’s business whether that includes peoples of a different culture or one’s own. This was a deep friendship in which Slessor kept her integrity by staying always who she was. In her letters she was honest about her health, her wishes, and her care for the Africans, Partridge and her Lord.
Hardage writes of Slessor regarding this, “It is difficult to separate the question of faith from a life so imbued with it. Still, a study of Mary’s belief system and lifestyle offers useful insights and reveals much about her character. There can be no doubt that Mary Slessor’s faith was deep and genuine.” And I might add that Slessor’s life as seen in Hardage’s book gives the readers insight into contemporary mission.
When do we choose to infuse another culture with the gospel without bending the norms of that culture? When do we choose to use the gospel of Jesus Christ to tear away the destructive areas of culture from the people who are suffering damage? How do we change, or allow the Holy Spirit to change us, so that the gospel can be heard in other cultures? How do we become so “imbued” with the Christian faith that every corner of our lives is flavored by the abundant grace of Jesus Christ?
I recommend Mary Slessor—Everybody’s Mother: The Era and Impact of a Victorian Missionary as a means of meditating on these questions. And as I have also stated it “is simply a very enjoyable book to read.”
[i] Hardage is here quoting from W.P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor, 138.