Slessor, Mary (1848–1915)

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Slessor, Mary (1848–1915)

Scottish Presbyterian missionary to West Africa. Name variations: Mary Mitchell Slessor. Born Mary Mitchell Slessor in December 1848 in Gilcomston, near Aberdeen, Scotland; died of swamp fever on January 13, 1915, in Use, the Calabar, Nigeria; daughter of Robert Slessor (a shoemaker) and Mary Slessor (a weaver and textile factory worker); attended public schools until age 14, when she entered the factories of Dundee; never married; children: a number officially and unofficially adopted.

Awards and honors:

named honorary associate of the Hospital Order of St. John of Jerusalem in England.

Moved from Gilcomston to Dundee, Scotland (1859); left school to join her mother in the textile factories, beginning to work a full factory schedule (1862); inspired by the reports of David Livingstone in the Missionary Record, a church publication, began to educate herself (1866); offered her services to the Foreign Missions Board of the Scottish Presbyterian Church (1875), setting sail for the Calabar, West Africa (August 1876); served in the Calabar Mission Field, an area of Nigeria that included Duke Town, Old Town, Creek Town, and Okoyong and far into the interior of Nigeria to Enyong Creek (1876–1915).

Having heard stories of the Scottish Presbyterian Church's mission in Calabar since her childhood, Mary Mitchell Slessor began a process of introspection after hearing the reports of David Livingstone's death in 1874. This culminated with her offering her services to the Foreign Missions Board of the Presbyterian Church in 1875. Sailing for Calabar the following year, she began her mission in Duke Town, Old Town, and Creek Town along the Calabar River in Nigeria. Slessor quickly established relations and soon held an honored, if difficult, role, among the Igbo and Okoyong tribes. In June 1879, she was sent home for health reasons, remaining there for 18 months.

While in Scotland, Slessor became determined to move farther into the forests of the Calabar, insistent that this is where her true work lay. She returned to Duke Town in 1880 and journeyed into the interior, setting up mission outstations in Qua, Akim, and Ikot Ansa. While she worked as a teacher and nurse, primary among her goals was the eventual elimination of the murder of twin children, who were regarded as elements of witchcraft to the area tribes. To this end, she would rescue twins, often bringing them into her home and raising them as her own.

Slessor was again invalided home to Scotland in May 1883, returning to Africa in October 1885. Three years later, the Mission Board assented to her wishes and allowed her to move farther into the interior. She established a station at Ekenge and began work with members of the Okoyong, moving about an extended area while

serving as a nurse, teacher, and arbitrator among the local tribes. In late 1890, she came down from the bush into Duke Town to recover from a serious bout with swamp fever, and became engaged to fellow missionary Charles Morrison. Sent home to Scotland in January 1891 on medical leave, she returned to Africa in February 1892, arriving in Duke Town shortly before Morrison was permanently invalided home. He eventually resigned from the mission and moved to America where he died.

While the mission board supported Slessor's drive to work with tribes in the interior, they were unable to find and support missionary assistance for her. In 1898, worn down and severely ill, she returned to Edinburgh as an invalid, taking with her four of her adopted daughters. Concerned about the safety of her other children and the condition of her missionary area, she returned to Africa in December 1898, while still ill. Leaving her adopted daughter Jean and other pupils behind to run the schools she had already established at Ekenge, Ifako, and other stations, Slessor continued her drive inland, in 1902 moving to Itu to work with the Aro and in 1903 even farther inland along the Enyong Creek. Although successful in establishing schools and drawing the attention of local colonial agents, she was again invalided home in the spring of 1907, taking with her her adopted son Daniel. Returning in October 1907, Slessor began work to establish a longhoped-for project, a women's settlement in the area. In 1908, she succeeded with the establishment of one at Use, where she remained, administering to the women of the area. It was at Use that she died of swamp fever on January 13, 1915.


Buchan, James. The Expendable Mary Slessor. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1980.

Deen, Edith. Great Woman of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1959.

suggested reading:

Syme, Ronald. Nigerian Pioneer: The Story of Mary Slessor. NY: Morrow, 1964.


Some papers relating to Mary Slessor's mission in Calabar are located in the Papers of the United Presbyterian Foreign Missions' Board, Church of Scotland Library, Edinburgh; other personal papers, including letters, are located at the Dundee Central Library and the Edinburgh University Library.

Amanda Carson Banks , Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee