By Rex Butler, NOBTS
On Oct. 28, 1949, Jim Elliot wrote in his journal a statement of faith that has inspired all who have read it in the decades since: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose” (The Journals of Jim Elliot).
Not many years later, this young man and four other missionaries indeed gave their lives in an attempt to share the Gospel with an unreached people group called Aucas in Ecuador.
This indigenous group called themselves “Huaorani,” meaning “people,” but their enemies called them “Aucas” because they were “savages.” They were a tribe of about 600 people known for their violence, not only against their enemies but also among themselves. Any foreigners (cowodi) encroaching upon the Aucas’ territory were killed.
Despite the Aucas’ reputation for violence, five missionary couples felt compassion for them because they had never heard the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. They were Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Nate and Marjorie Saint, Ed and Marilou McCully, Pete and Olive Fleming, and Roger and Barbara Youderian, who, along with their children, moved to Ecuador in order to learn the language and customs of these primitive people and to establish contact with them. Nearby lived Nate’s sister Rachel, who also had a heart for the Aucas.
A breakthrough occurred when an Auca girl, Dayuma, fled from tribal violence and found refuge with Rachel. From Dayuma, the missionaries learned some phrases that they hoped would be helpful in their early contacts. Next, Nate Saint, who was a skilled pilot, discovered the Aucas’ village from the air and, using a megaphone, called out, “We like you. We are your friends.” Nate learned a technique called the “spiral line” by which he circled his plane while lowering a bucket so that he could deliver gifts, such as machetes, axes, pots, and ribbons, to the Aucas. In return, the Aucas began to place into the bucket their own gifts, which included a parrot that became the pet of Nate’s young son, Steve.
Believing that these interactions indicated friendliness, the missionaries decided it was time to make contact.
Nate discovered a sand bar, which he dubbed “Palm Beach,” where he could land and take off. Early in January 1956, the men bid farewell to their apprehensive wives and children, and Nate shuttled them to their camp site at the beach.
After a few days, on Jan. 6, they experienced their first encounter with the Aucas.
Two women and one man appeared on the beach. Unbeknownst to the missionaries, the man was romantically interested in the younger woman, and the older woman had tagged along as a chaperone. Seeing that the man was interested in the airplane, which the Aucas thought was a giant wooden bee, Nate offered the man, whom he nicknamed “George,” a ride.
From the air, George could see his village and waved to his people below. After returning to the beach, George and the younger woman wandered off into the jungle, while the older woman remained behind to talk to the foreigners.
On the next day, a band of Aucas, having seen their tribesman in the airplane, decided to investigate and headed to the beach.
On the way, they encountered George and the young woman unescorted. To divert scandal, they fabricated a story that the foreigners had attacked them.
Even when the older woman arrived and told the truth, the Aucas were so angry and suspicious that they continued to the beach to confront the foreigners.
When the Aucas arrived on January 8, the missionaries expected a positive encounter. About 12:30, Nate communicated by radio to the families back home that the Aucas were coming and that he would report back at 4:30. That call, however, would never be made because, to the men’s horror, the Aucas began to spear each one of them.
Jim, who was the first to be speared, fired warning shots, two of which accidentally grazed two of the attackers. As Pete was speared, he cried out in broken Auca language, “We just came to meet you. We aren’t going to hurt you. Why are you killing us?” The next to die were Nate and Ed. Finally, Roger, trying to get to the radio, was speared as he picked up the microphone.
The Aucas, in their continuing rage, threw the bodies in the river, ripped the fabric from the aircraft, then returned to their village. Expecting retribution, they burned their houses before retreating further into the jungle.
Over the next several days, an extensive search recovered the bodies of all the missionaries, except that of Ed McCully, whose death was later confirmed by Quechua Indians.
Also recovered was Nate’s camera with film and his diary that revealed some information about their last hours. The four bodies were buried in a common grave on Palm Beach.
This story, however, did not end with the deaths of these five. Two years later, Rachel Saint, Elisabeth Elliot, and Elisabeth’s daughter Valerie went to live with the Aucas. They were escorted by Dayuma, who proclaimed to her fellow tribesmen that these women came not for revenge, but to tell them about Wangogi (their word for God).
Wangogi had sent his son, who was speared but did not spear back. Wangogi had left his carvings (the Bible) to mark the trail, and these women wanted to teach them how to follow those carvings to find him and learn his way of life.
The Aucas were willing to receive Rachel and Elisabeth because they believed that they came in peace. They remembered that the men had guns and could have defended themselves, yet did not.
They also had another memory: the day the missionaries died, the Aucas saw a bright canopy of lights in the sky and heard many voices singing above the trees.
As a result of these women’s witness and sharing of their lives, 80 percent of the Aucas have heard the Gospel story and 40 percent have become Christians, including many of those who speared the five missionaries.
Now they are more properly referred to as Huaorani because they no longer are savage like the Aucas were before they found peace with God through the gospel.
Nate’s son Steve lived out his childhood in Quito, Ecuador, but spent his summers with his Aunt Rachel and the Huaorani. At age 14, he was baptized by Mincaye, one of his father’s attackers who became a Christian and elder in the Huaorani church. After Rachel died in 1994, the church elders counseled Steve, by that time a successful businessman with a family, to relocate and live with the Huaorani tribe.
Amazingly, Steve and his family made that transition for more than a year, and Mincaye became the spiritual grandfather to the grandchildren of the man that he had taken part in killing.
Through the next several years, Mincaye accompanied Steve on multiple trips to the United States to tell the story of how the Gospel came to the Huaorani.
The story also has been told in a number of books and films written and produced by those involved with the mission. With every retelling, the story of these five men and their families has inspired generations of Christians to commit their lives sacrificially to missions around the world. These stories are inspiring because, as Steve Saint said later about challenging lessons learned in his life, “God writes the best stories from the hardest beginnings.”
Rex Butler Ph.D. is NOBTS’ Associate Professor of Church History and Patristics.