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Red-Headed Courage (An Essay on Mary Slessor)

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Today I would like to share with you an essay I wrote last month using this prompt: "What does it mean to be courageous? Describe someone who is or was courageous. Finish by sharing how you have grown from either your experience or the example of the person you described." I chose to write about the missionary Mary Slessor who gave her all to reach the Calabar region of Africa for the gospel's sake. I pray you will be inspired by her story just as I was.

Mary Slessor quote

Red-Headed Courage

Street gangs, malaria, wild animals, witchcraft, cannibals — the Scottish missionary Mary Slessor faced all of these things and much more. Courage is defined as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear” ( Without a doubt, Mary Slessor was courageous, and the “spirit” that enabled her to face so much danger without fear was the Holy Spirit. Mary Slessor once said, “Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of kings.” For thirty-nine years Mary lived out this royal mission in the untamed jungles of Calabar.

Even as a young girl Mary was passionate about getting the gospel to lost souls, no matter how dangerous it might be. When she was about fifteen years old, she volunteered to teach Sunday school in one of the worst slums in Dundee, Scotland: the Pends. She courageously shared the gospel with dozens of children week after week. Once a gang of street boys caught Mary alone on her way to prepare for class. One of the teenagers threatened Mary by swinging a piece of sharp lead attached to a string closer and closer to her face. He told her that unless she promised to stop teaching the children, he would hit her with it. Determined to continue reaching out to the slum children, Mary stood her ground. The lead swung closer until it finally sliced across her forehead. Still Mary did not cower. Surprised, the boy dropped the lead. Mary then invited gang to her class, and to her delight, they came. In fact, by the end of the day, Mary’s persecutor had become a Christian himself. Mary’s courage was truly making a difference for Christ in the Pends, but she had even bigger dreams.

As she grew up, Mary had often been fascinated by the accounts of foreign missionaries. She particularly had been enraptured by the stories in the Missionary Record about the mission in Calabar, Africa. After hearing that her hero, missionary David Livingstone, had died, she chose to apply to the Foreign Missions Board. Imagine her excitement when she was offered a teaching position in none other than Calabar. After a time of studying and training, Mary set sail for Africa in August of 1886. Many people had warned her of the dangers of the African mission field. Only one in every five missionaries survived their first four years there. In spite of this Mary would not be deterred. When she arrived, she found a violent, superstitious people in desperate need of God’s hope. She threw herself into learning the language and customs of the Africans as she lived at the mission station. However, she soon became restless. Previous missionaries had only ventured about thirty-five miles inland. Fully aware of, yet not discouraged by, the fact that the tribes would often kill foreigners on sight, Mary made it her goal to press further inland.

For the remainder of her life Mary Slessor would continue to blaze trails into the heart of Calabar. It seemed that she was never content to stay in one village when she knew that one with greater need lay ahead. One of the superstitions Mary faced was that of twin-killings. The Calabar natives believed that twins were a curse, and would leave them in the jungle to die. Mary saved hundreds of twins during her lifetime, eventually stopping the practice altogether. Other practices Mary worked to end included cannibalism, witchcraft, and the practice of blaming and killing others upon a death. Mary taught these violent natives how to resolve their issues with their words instead of their spears. In fact, Mary was so respected among the Africans that the British government eventually made her the vice-consul of the native court. Mary was constantly courageously rushing into dangerous situations in order to save the innocent and share the gospel.

Mary Slessor inspires me to act courageously for the sake of the gospel and of others. She never let her own fears or needs get in the way of helping someone else. Through studying the life of this fiery Scotswoman, I have grown in my confidence that when there is a true need, God will give me the courage to face difficulty, danger, or pain, if necessary, in order to meet it. I want to live a courageous life like she did, always seeking to do more, to reach more people, and to grow in my faith. Mary Slessor once said “When you think of the woman's power, you forget the power of the woman's God. I shall go on.” I call that God-fearing, red-headed courage.

Thank you for reading,


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