On January 6, 1956, a group of American missionaries made first contact with a local tribe in Ecuador, trying to reach them with the gospel. Two days later, on this date, January 8, 1956, five of those missionaries – Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint and Roger Youderian – were speared to death by the very Auca tribe they spent years preparing to minister to. But their story was not over.
Jim Elliot and others had been ministering to the Quichua people in Ecuador since 1952, with many coming to faith in Jesus. However, the nearby Aucas (now called Waodoni) were known to kill any outsiders that entered their area, including Quichua and also oil workers at a site nearby. Jim “knew the only way to stop the Aucas from killing was to tell them about Jesus” and came up with a plan to reach them. Working with Nate Saint, a missionary supply pilot, they spent months trying to safely build goodwill with the Waodoni by lowering supplies to them from a plane and speaking friendly Waodoni phrases from a loudspeaker.
On January 6th, they talked to a Waodoni called George, thinking they had gained some trust and they set up a later meeting. George, however, lied to them about his intentions, and ten members of the tribe were ready in ambush with spears on January 8th. The unarmed missionaries had no chance.
Seeking vengeance or giving up might have been a reasonable response for the other missionaries, but in a miraculous example of forgiveness, persistent faith, and a heart for the lost, Elisabeth and Valerie Elliot (Jim’s wife and young daughter), and Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) learned the local language and moved into the jungle to live with the Waodoni in 1958. Elisabeth wrote about serving those who killed her husband: “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things I know about God.” Today, the Waodoni are a friendly tribe and many are professing Christians. Missionaries, including members of the Saint family, still live among them today. Elisabeth died in 2015 at the age of 88, after a long career as missionary, author, speaker, and radio host.
Jim’s Apparent Failure is God’s Victory
In life, Jim Elliot was sometimes frustrated by his effort, once writing: “No fruit yet. Why is it that I’m so unproductive? I cannot recall leading more than one or two into the kingdom. Surely this is not the manifestation of the power of the Resurrection. I feel as Rachel, ‘Give me children, or else I die.’” While attending Wheaton College in Illinois in the 1940’s, Jim developed a desire to preach the gospel, including taking the train to Chicago and talking about Jesus with people at the train station, but with little response.
But in death, Jim was used by God to inspire many other missionaries, including his own family, through whom God’s love for the lost went out and bore more eternal fruit than Jim may have ever imagined. His story is a reminder that faithfulness is the Christian’s objective, and God provides the fruit.
Jim wrote what has become a familiar quote to many: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” In Paradise, Jim, those affected by his ministry, and all other believers, will forever praise God for His steadfast love through the centuries. Nothing we do for God now can look foolish from that perspective. We have so much to gain that we cannot lose.
Soli Deo Gloria
This story was dramatized in the 2005 film End of the Spear and in the 2002 documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor. A website dedicated to Elisabeth Elliot’s life (https://elisabethelliot.org/) has more on this amazing history of God’s work.