Why we honor the name of Mary Mitchell
When Mary heard of the missionary David Livingstone’s death in 1873, she immediately volunteered to serve in Nigeria. She began her ministry in the port city of Duke Town, learning the local language and customs, and teaching in a school. Mary lived frugally, sending half her salary home to care for her ill family members. But all the while, she longed to move inland where there were no missionaries.
When the last of Mary’s family died, she wrote, “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will be anxious about me if I go up-country.” For the rest of her life, Mary moved further inland into areas thought impenetrable by British authorities. She lived and worked among people she described as, “brave, almost fierce, war-loving, and as reckless of their own lives as they are of others.”
Mary Mitchell was an unconventional and controversial missionary. Despite the missionary customs of the day, Mary insisted on living in an African hut, eating the local food, and wearing clothes practical for the environment. Without family to support, she used her money to start free schools. In addition, she advocated the rights of women and fought to end local practices of slavery and human sacrifice.
Mary became renowned for her bravery and leadership. When the British government decided to expand its influence inland, they quickly realized local tribes had no interest in accepting a British governor. But they also realized Mary was trusted by everyone. As the British High Commissioner wrote, “Miss Slessor can go where no white man can go. She can sway the people when we cannot sway them.” As a result, in 1905, Mary was named the first female magistrate in the history of the British Empire. She accepted the commission—believing that God is honored through good systems of justice—but never accepted a government salary; she considered herself a servant of God, not of Britain.
Mary found it difficult to quantify her work to those who like to count the successes of missionaries. At one point, she simply wrote:
We do not attempt to give in numbers those who are nominally Christian. Women, lads, girls, and a few men profess to have placed themselves in God's hands. All the children within reach are sent to the school without stipulation. One lady of free birth and good position has borne persecution for Christ's sake. We speak with diffidence; for as no ordained minister has ever been resident or available for more than a short visit, no observance of the ordinances of Baptism or Lord's Supper have been held and we have not had the usual definite offers of persons as candidates for Church membership. We have just kept on sowing the seed of the Word, believing that when God's time comes to gather them into the visible church there will be some among us ready to participate in the privilege and honour.Mary Mitchell Slessor lived dedicated to the glory of God, and she invested her life to shine the light of God into the Dark Continent. That is why we have chosen the name of Mary Mitchell for our new daughter. It is our hope that Mary Mitchell Sabin will be as committed to God, courageous in His name, and concerned for his people, as Mary Mitchell Slessor. May the name our daughter bears always point her toward the name Slessor proclaimed. And may we, as her parents, teach her that there is no greater mission in life than to know God and enjoy Him forever.
Bruce & Jennifer Sabin