This is the true story of a real Victorian lady, who left the comforts of her Scottish home
Mary Slessor, 1848-1915
The reason was this: Her mother took a great interest in all she heard on Sundays about the dark lands beyond the seas where millions of people had never heard of Jesus. The church to which she belonged, the United Presbyterian Church, had sent out many brave men and women to various parts of the world to preach the gospel of Christ, and a new Mission had just begun among heathen in a wild country called Calabar in West Africa.
Every one in Scotland was talking about it and the perils and hardships of the missionaries. Mrs. Slessor used to come home with all the news about the work, and the children wouldgather about her knees and listen to stories of the strange cruel customs of the natives, and how they killed the twin-babies, until their eyes grew big and round, and their hearts raced with fear, and they snuggled close to her side.
Mary was very sorry for these helpless bush-children, and often thought about them, and that was why she made them her play-scholars. She dreamed, too, of going out some day to that terrible land and saving the lives of the twinnies, and sometimes she would look up and say: "Mother, I want to be a missionary and go out and teach the black boys and girls real ways."
Then Robert would retort in the tone that boys often use to their sisters: "But you're only a girl, and girls can't be missionaries. I'm going to be one and you can come out with me, and if you're good I may let you up into my pulpit beside me."
Mrs. Slessor was amused at their talk, and well pleased too, for she had a longing that her boy should work abroad in the service of Jesus when he became a man. But that was not to be, for soon afterwards Robert fell ill and died, so Mary became the eldest.
A dark shadow, darker than death, gathered over the home. Mr. Slessor learned the habit of taking strong drink and became a slave to it, and he began to spend a large part of his money in the public-house, and his wife and children had not the comfort they ought to have had.
Matters became so bad that something had to be done. It was thought that if Mr. Slessor could be got away from the bad companions who led him astray, he might do better. So the home was broken up, and the family journeyed to Dundee, the busy smoky town on the River Tay, where there were many large mills and factories, and here, for a time, they lived in a little house with a bit of garden in front.
That garden was at first a delight to Mary Slessor, but afterwards she lost her pleasure in it. She was now old enough to look after the younger children, and very well she did it. Often she took them long walks, climbing the steep streets to see the green fields, or going down to feel the fresh smell of the sea.
Sometimes her mother gave her a sixpence, and they went and had a ride on the merry-go-round. It was the custom then for girls and boys to go bare-footed in the summer, and Mary liked it so much that she never afterwards cared to wear shoes and stockings. On Sundays they all trotted away to church, clean and sweet, each with a peppermint to suck during the sermon, and afterwards they went to Sunday School.
As a rule Mary was good and obedient, though, like most girls, she sometimes got into trouble. Her hair was reddish then, and her brothers would tease her and call her "Carrots," and she did not like that. She loved a prank too, and was sometimes naughty. Once or twice she played truant from the Sunday School. She was always very vexed afterwards, for she could not bear to see her mother's face when she heard of her wrong-doing; it was so white and sad.
The quiet little mother did not punish her: she would draw her instead into a room and kneel down and pray for her. "Oh, mother!" Mary would say, "I would rather you whip me!" But all that soon passed away, for she had been dreaming another dream, a very sweet one, which always set her heart a-longing and a-thrilling, and it now came true and changed her life. It was the biggest thing and the happiest that ever happened to her. She gave her heart to Jesus.
Very shyly onenight she crept up to her mother, nestled close to her, and laid her head on her knee, and then whispered the wonderful news. "I'll try, mother," she said, "to be a good girl and a comfort to you." Her mother was filled with joy, and both went about for long afterwards singing in their hearts. If only the shadow would lift!
Tears might steal into her eyes when she felt faint and hungry, but it was always a bright and smiling face that welcomed the tired mother home at night. Gloomier grew the shadow. More money was needed to keep the home, and Mary, a slim girl of eleven, was the next to go out and become a bread-winner.
One morning she went into a big factory and stood in the midst of machines and wheels and whirling belts, and at first was bewildered and a little afraid. But she was only allowed to stay for half a day: the other half she had to go to a school in the works where the girls were taught to read and write and count. She was fond of the reading, but did not like doing the sums: the figures on the board danced before her eyes, and she could not follow the working out of the problems, and sometimes the teacher punished her by making her stand until the lesson was finished.
By the time she was fourteen Mary Slessor was working a large machine and being paid a good wage. But she had to toil very hard for it. She rose at five o'clock in the morning, when the factory whistle blew, and was in the works by six, and, except for two hours off for meals, she was busy at her task until six in the evening.
In the warm summer days she did not go home, but carried her dinner with her and ate it sitting beside the loom; and sometimes she went away by herself and walked in the park. Saturday afternoons and Sundays were her own, but they were usually spent in helping her mother.
Her dress was coarse and plain, and she wore no pretty ornaments, though she liked them as much as her companions did, for she was learning to put aside all the things she did not really need. By and by she came not to miss them, and found pleasure instead in making others happy. Mary Slessor would have been quite content if only her father had been saved.
But there was no hope now of a better time. The shadow became so dark that it was like night when there are no stars in the sky. Mrs. Mary Slessor and her mother had a big burden to bear and a grim battle to fight. In their distress they clung to one another, and prayed to Jesus for help and strength, for by themselves they could do little.
On Saturday nights Mr. Slessor came home late, and treated them unkindly, so that Mary was often forced to go out into the cold streets and wait until he had gone to sleep. As she wandered about she felt very lonely and miserable, and sometimes sobbed as if her heart would break.
When she passed the bright windows of the places where drink was sold, she wondered why people were allowed to ruin men and women in such a way, and she clenched her hands and resolved that when she grew up she would war against this terrible thing which destroyed the peace and happiness of homes.
But at last the trouble came to an end. One tragic day Mary stood and looked down with a great awe upon the face of her father lying white and still in death. What she went through in these days made her often sad and downcast, for she had a loving heart, and suffered sorely when any one was rough to her or ill-treated her. But good came out of it too. She was like a white starry flower which grows on the walls and verandahs of houses in the tropics.
The hot sunshine is not able to draw perfume from it, but as soon as darkness falls its fragrance fills the air, wafting through the open windows and doors. So it was with Mary. She grew sweeter in the midst of trouble. In the shadows of life she learned to be patient and brave and unselfish.
We must not think less, but more, of Mary Slessor because she came from a poor family. It is not always the girls and boys who are highly favored that grow up to do the best and biggest things in life. Some of the men and women to whom the world owes most had a hard time when they were young. The home life of President Lincoln, who freed millions of slaves in America, was like Mary's, yet his name has become one of the most famous in history.
No girl or boy should despair because they are poor or lonely or crushed down in any way. Trust God, learn everything you can learn, make as many friends as you can. As you grow to be adults, things will get better. You will discover great opportunities and have great adventures for God. Happier times will come to you.
Mrs. Slessor now left the factory, and for a time kept a little shop, in which Mary used to help, especially on Saturday afternoons and weekday evenings, when trade was busiest. Mary Slessor was still dreaming about the wonderful days that lay before her, but, unlike many others who do the same, she did her best to make her dreams come true. She wanted to learn and she found that books opened doors of adventure and knowledge for her, and so she began to educate herself.
The more she read the more she wanted to know. So eager was she that when she left home for her job in the mill, she carried a book and read it as she walked to work. She did not know then about Dr. David Livingstone, the African missionary and traveler, but she did exactly what he had done when he was a boy.
She propped a book on a corner of the loom in the factory, and read whenever she had a moment to spare. Her companions tell how they used to see her take out a little note-book, put it on the weaver's beam, and jot down her thoughts—she was always writing, they say. Sometimes it was poetry, sometimes an essay, sometimes a letter to a friend.
Yet she never neglected her work. How different her lot was from that of most girls of today! They have leisure for their lessons, and they learn music and history and computers. Mary Slessor had only a few precious minutes but she made the most of them. The books she read were not novels. Instead she read bookslike Milton's Paradise Lost and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, and so deep did she become in them at night that sometimes she forgot everything, and read on and on through the quiet hours until it was time to go to work again.
She was fond of all good books, but the one Mary Slessor liked most and knew better than any was the Bible. She read it so often that she remembered much of it by heart. In the Bible Class she was so quick and ready to answer questions that Mr. Baxter, her minister, used to say, "Now, Mary Slessor, don't answer any more questions till I ask you."
When everyone else failed he would turn to her with "Now,Mary," and she always had her reply ready. She was never tired of the story of Jesus, especially as it is told in the Gospel of St. John, for there He appeared to her so kind and winsome and lovable.
When she thought of all Jesus did, how He came from His own beautiful heaven to save the world, and how He suffered and died for our sins, how He resurrected the third day, Mary Slessor's heart overflowed. The teaching of Jesus has brought peace and safety and sunshine into the lives of millions of women and girls and Mary felt she must do something for Him to show her love and thankfulness and devotion.
"He says we must do as He did and preach the gospel, and so I must do my best to take the gospel to those who have never heard of Jesus and His love." She did not say, "I am only a girl, what can I do?" She knew that when a General wanted an army to fight a strong enemy he did not call for officers only, but for soldiers, many of them, and especially for those who were young.
"I can be a soldier," Mary said humbly. "Dear Lord, I will do what I can. Here are my heart and head and hands and feet. Use me for anything that I can do." The first thing that she did was take a class of little girls in Sunday School, and thus she began to teach others before she was well-educated herself.
The heart of Mary Slessor was so full of deep true love for Jesus that it caused her face to shine and her eyes to smile and her lips to speak kind words, and that is the sort of learning that wins others to Him.
Wishart Church, to which she went, was built over shops, and looked down upon the old Port Gate and upon streets and lanes which were filled at night with big boys and girls who seemed to have no other place to go to, and nothing to do but lounge and swear and fight. Mary felt she would like to do something for them.
By and by when a Mission was begun in a little house in Queen Street; there is a brass inscription on the wall, now, telling about Mary, she went to the superintendent and said, "Will you take me as a teacher?" "Gladly," he said, but she looked so small and frail that he was afraid the work would be too rough for her.
But there were others with sullen eyes and clenched fists who would not give in, and they did their best to make her life miserable. One night a band of the most violent lay in wait for her, and she found herself suddenly in their midst. They hustled and threatened her.
"We'll do for you if you don't leave us alone," they cried. She was quaking with fear, but she did not show it. She just breathed a prayer for help, and looked at them with her quiet eyes. "I will not give up," she replied. "You can do what you like.""All right," shouted the leader, a big hulking lad. "Here goes." Out of his pocket he took a lump of lead to which was tied a bit of cord, and began to swing it round her head.
The rest of the gang looked on breathless, wondering at the courage of the girl. The lead came nearer and swished past her brow. Pale, calm, unflinching, she stood waiting for the blow that would fell her to the ground. Suddenly the lad jerked away the weapon and let it fall with a crash.
"We can't force her, boys," he cried, "she's game." And, like beaten foes, they followed her, and went to the meeting and into her class, and after that there was no more trouble. The boys fell under her spell, grew fond of her, and in their shy way did all they could to help her. On Saturday afternoons she would take them into the country away from the temptations of the streets, and sought to make them gentle and kind and generous.
Some of the most wayward amongst them gave their hearts to Jesus, and afterwards grew to be good and useful men. What was it that gave her such an influence over these rude and unruly boys? They did not know. She was not what is called a pretty girl. She was plain and quiet and simple, and she was poorly clad. But she was somehow different from most teachers. Perhaps it was because she loved them so much, for the love that is real and pure and unselfish is the greatest power in the world.
Through the hearts of the boys Mary found her way to their homes in the slums, and paid visits to their mothers and sisters, and saw that life to them was often very hard and wretched. The other Mission workers used to go two and two, but she often went alone.
Once she was a long time away, and when she came back she said laughingly: "I've been dining with the Macdonalds in Quarry Pend." "Indeed," said some one, "and did you get a clean plate and spoon?" "Oh, never mind that," replied Mary. "I've got into their house and been asked to come back, and that's all I care about."
She always went in the same spirit in which Jesus would have gone. Sometimes she would sit by the fire with the baby on her knees; sometimes she would take tea with the family, drinking out of a broken cup; sometimes she would help the mother to finish a bit of work. And always she cheered up tired and anxious hearts, and left sunshine and peace where there had been only the darkness of despair.
No one could be long in Mary Slessor's company without feeling better, and not a few of her friends came, through her, to know and love and work for Jesus. "Three weeks after I knew her," says one of her old factory mates, "I became a different girl." How eager and earnest she was! "Oh!" she said to a companion, "I wonder what we would do or dare for Jesus? Would we be burned at the stake? Would we give our lives for His sake?" "She did work hard," says another, "and whatever she did, she did with heart and soul."
When the Mission was removed to the rooms under the church, the superintendent said: "We shall need a charwoman to give the place a thorough cleaning." "Nonsense," said Mary; "we will clean it ourselves." "You ladies clean such a dirty hall?"
"Ladies!" cried Mary; "we are no ladies, we are just ordinary working folk." Next night Mary and another teacher were found, with sleeves turned up and aprons on, busy with pails of water and brushes scrubbing out the rooms. Like other young people, she had her troubles, big and little, and these she met bravely. Evil-minded persons, jealous of her goodness, sometimes said unkind things about her, but she never paid any heed to them.
She always did what she thought was right, and went her own way. On Saturdays she used to put her hair in curl-papers, and her companions teased her a lot about it, and tried to laugh her out of the habit, but she just laughed back. When she and two or three friends met during the meal hour and held a little prayer meeting opposite the factory, the other girls would come and peep in, and one of her companions would be vexed and scold them.
"Dinna bother, Janet," she would say quietly, "we needn't mind what they do." She was not always serious, but could enjoy fun and frolic with the wildest. Once while walking in the country with a girl she knocked playfully at some cottage doors and ran away. "Oh, Mary," said her friend, "I'm shocked at you!"
Mary only laughed, and said, "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." From one old friend we get a picture of her at this time. "Her face was always shining and happy. With her fresh skin, her short ringlets, and her firm mouth she somehow always made me think of a farmer's daughter coming to market with butter and eggs!"
Her life during these years was a training for what she had to do in the future. She must have had an inkling of it, for her dreams now were all of service in the far lands beyond the seas. Through the gloom of the smoky streets she was always seeing visions of tropical rivers and tangled jungle and heathen huts amongst palm trees, and above the noise of the factory she was hearing the cries of the little bush-children.
Mary Slessor longed to leave busy Dundee with its churches and Sunday Schools and go to the mission field to help where help was most needed. She did not say anything, for she knew it was her brother John that her mother was anxious to make a missionary. He was a big lad, but very delicate, and there came a time when the doctor said he must leave the cold climate of Scotland or die. He sailed to New Zealand, but it was too late, and he passed away there.
His mother grieved again over her lost hopes, and Mary, who was very fond of him, wept bitterly. As she went about her work she repeated the hymn, "Lead, kindly Light," to herself, finding comfort in the last two lines:
And with the morn those angel faces smile Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
And then she came back to her dazzling day-dream. Could she not, after all, be the missionary? But shewas not educated, and she was the chief breadwinner of the family, and her mother depended on her so much. How could she manage it? She thought it all out, and at last said, "I can do it. I will do it."
She was one of the cleverest weavers in the factory, and she began to do extra work, thus earning a bigger wage and saving more money. She studied very hard. She practiced speaking at meetings until she learned how to put her thoughts into clear and simple words.
In one of her poems Mrs. Browning tells us what it was like: how the revolving wheels seemed to make everything turn too, the heads and hearts of the girls, the walls, the sky seen out of the high windows, even the black flies on the ceiling.
All day, the iron wheels are droning, And sometimes we could pray, "O ye wheels," (breaking out in a mad moaning) "Stop! be silent for to-day!"
But they never did stop, and the girls had only their hopes and dreams to make them patient and brave. One day there flashed through the land a telegram which caused much excitement and sorrow. Africa was then an unknown country, vast and mysterious, and haunted by all the horrors of slavery and heathenism.
For a long time there had been tramping through it a Scotsman, David Livingstone, hero of heroes, who had been gradually exploring the secrets of its lakes and rivers and peoples. Sometimes he was lost for years. The telegram which came told of his lonely death in a hut in the heart of the jungle.
Every one asked, What is to be done now? who is to take up the work of the great pioneer and help to save the natives from misery and death? Among those whose hearts leaped at the call was Mary Slessor. She went to her mother.
"Mother," she said, "I am going to offer myself as a missionary but do not fret. I will be able to give you part of my salary, and that, with the earnings of Susan and Janie, will keep the home in comfort." "My lassie," was the reply, "I'll willingly let you go. You'll make a fine missionary, and I'm sure God will be with you."
Some of her friends wondered at her. They knew she was not specially brave; indeed, was not her timidity a joke among them? "Why," they said, "she is even afraid of dogs. When she sees one coming down the street she goes into a passage until it is past!" This was true, but they forgot that love can cast out all fear.
Anxiously she waited for the answer to her letter to the Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh. When it arrived she rushed to her mother. "I'm accepted! I'm going to Calabar as a teacher." And then, strange to say, she burst into tears. So she who had waited so long and so patiently, working within the walls of a factory, weaving thewarp and woof in the loom, was now going to one of the wildest parts of Africa to weave there the lives of the people into new and beautiful patterns.