A scene from Torchlighters: The Mary Slessor Story

A Difficult Childhood Prepared Mary Slessor for Difficult Mission Work

Mary Slessor didn’t let a harsh childhood discourage her or hold her back. She made the best of her trials, and eventually they prepared her for greater challenges ahead.

Born in Scotland in 1848, Mary Slessor was one of the best-known missionaries of the nineteenth century. By eleven-years old she was working in a mill in Dundee, preparing jute and flax for weavers. As she grew older she became a weaver herself, able to manage two large looms at once. Home wasn’t much of a comfort for young Mary. Her father was an alcoholic; often her mother had to send her out into the street so that he couldn’t beat her. On winter nights, Mary had to fend off drunks and thieves.

Wanting to improve her condition, Mary attended evening classes. When she was too tired to follow the arithmetic lecture after a long day of work at the mill, her teacher punished her by making her stand beside her desk.

She Worked for Jesus Where She Was

Mary became a Christian after a woman held her hand near a blazing fire and warned her of the fire of hell. Soon Mary began holding Bible classes for children whose lives were as harsh as her own had been. She took groups into the countryside for picnics and raced with them, raising the eyebrows of “proper” Christians.

Back in town, gangs hindered her Christian work. One gang threw mud at Mary and tried to scare her in other ways. She won their respect when their leader whirled a lead weight on a string closer and closer to her face until it grazed her forehead. Praying for courage, Mary refused to duck or to run. The ringleader was so impressed he made his whole gang attend her meetings. “What is courage, but faith conquering fear?” she asked later. Mary would need plenty of courage in the years to come.

Letters Captured Mary’s Attention

Scotland’s churches read missionary letters from the pulpits. These letters fascinated the Slessor family and got them interested in foreign lands. Mary’s oldest brother made up his mind to become a missionary, but died before he could join the mission. Mary decided to take his place if she could and applied with the mission board. Impressed by her hard work for Jesus in Dundee and Edinburgh the board said yes. And so it came about that she sailed for Africa in 1876. She worked in Nigeria where tribes sacrificed humans to gods of wood and stone.

Lives Have Value

Mary learned Efik, the main language of the region where she lived. Eventually she risked her life again and again to rescue slaves, women, and children from death. The tribes used something called “trial by ordeal” in which they forced an accused person to eat poisonous beans or poured boiling oil on them. If they died or received burns, they were declared guilty. Mary fought against this evil. Women and children were especially vulnerable, as women were often blamed if their husbands died and unwanted children (particularly twins) were abandoned in the bush.  Mary adopted many such children. She also pleaded for an end to butchering dozens of slaves when a chief died. Needless to say, Mary would not stand for cannibalism.

In one instance that shows Mary’s spirit, she overcame men known as the Egbo who dressed in masks and intimidated the rest of their tribe. Mary chased down a group of them and showed how weak they were by ripping off one man’s mask.

Gradually Mary taught the Nigerians in her area that lives have value. Her strength was trust in God. “God and one are always a majority,” she declared.

O God, Release me!

In January 1915, Mary fainted after a church service in Nigeria. A doctor was able to revive her, but she found it almost impossible to talk and was in great pain. Her last words were a prayer in the Efik language: “O Abasi, sana mi yok.” (O God, release me!). She died the next day. She is remembered in Nigeria as the “Mother of All the Peoples.”

Share the amazing story of Mary Slessor with children, teens and adults with the latest episode of the Torchlighters! Stream this 30-minute animated film or purchase the DVD on our storefront. Download our custom four-lesson curriculum and accompanying student pages focused on Mary Slessor’s legacy as a peacemaker here!