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Mary SlessorEverybody's Mother: The Era and Impact of a Victorian Missionary
Wipf & Stock Pub, 2008
382 pp., $41.00
Along Came Mary
You could view it as the opening scene of a movie: Long shot. Night. Deep dark jungle. A growl issues from somewhere in the bush, the screech of a bird. Now a figure in white appears, alone, running swiftly along a narrow path. It's a child, surely. No, it's a woman, a small woman. She is barefoot, we see now, and she is wearing—. Wait a minute! Goodness gracious, what is she wearing? It looks like a petticoat, or a chemise—some Victorian women's undergarment, maybe, whatever it is called. But as she emerges into a spot of moonlight, we note that her hairdo is very un-Victorian: carroty red, cropped short like a boy's. This is no proper lady. In fact, she is shouting, addressing the jungle with a rough Scots burr. Now she seems to be praying, though it sounds more like an order than a plea. Then suddenly she begins to sing, belting out a hymn at the top of her voice, as she runs and runs and runs.
Who is this peculiar person? Mary Mitchell Slessor, of course, Scottish Presbyterian missionary to southeastern Nigeria, and we are not the first to wonder if she has lost her mind.
The scene above is caricatured, but only a little. It represents a reality that has intrigued mission biographers for almost a century, as well as the temptation to hyperbolize that same reality. It is safe to conclude that aside from David Livingstone, no Protestant missionary has been more celebrated, more romanticized, more critiqued and mythologized than Mary Slessor, in print (over three dozen biographies and scholarly studies in a quick count, though there are more), in film, in music, and on stage. With a term of service that began in 1876, she was honored in the British Isles long before her death in 1915, while in the "field" her ministry was sought, even begged for, a privilege few missionaries have enjoyed the world over. In Scotland, her face adorns the ten-pound note, and in a Dundee museum her adventures are pictured in a stained glass window. In Nigeria, where she was trusted ...