Sixty years ago today—January 8, 1956—28-year-old American missionary Jim Elliot was martyred, along with four missionary partners and friends. He was survived by his wife, Elisabeth, and their 10-month-old daughter Valerie.
Phillip James (“Jim”) Elliot was born in Portland, Oregon, on October 8, 1927. He enrolled at Wheaton College in the fall of 1945 and graduated four years later as a Bible major with highest honors.
The fall of 1949 was a heady season for neo-evangelicalism, seeking to differentiate itself from the fundamentalism of the past, revive the church, win the lost, and gain respect from the culture. 30-year-old Billy Graham—who had graduated from Wheaton six years before Jim Elliot—held his very first crusade, as over 6,000 people came to hear him preach at the Civic Auditorium in Grand Rapids, Michigan (September 13-21). After that he was off to Los Angeles for a two-month campaign that would catapult him to national fame. That December, the first gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society convened, as sixty Bible and theology professors met in Cincinnati to hear an address by Carl Henry, who had published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism just two years earlier.
It was during this time—October 28, 1949, to be exact—that Jim Elliot penned a journal entry:
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
Centuries earlier the 17th century English nonconformist preacher Phillip Henry had said, ”He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose.”
In the archives at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center you can view Elliot’s journals (published here.) Below is a picture of the page from his journal. (As the Archives note, the underline and asterisk was likely added later after he died.)
A few months later, in 1950, a former missionary to Ecuador told Elliot about the Huaorani (or “Auca”) Indians, a small and fierce unreached people in the jungle. Elliot sensed a call from the Lord to reach this people for Christ.
If you want to hear from Elliot himself around this time, here is a sermon from 1951 delivered in Illinois (or read the transcript):
In 1952, Jim and his friend Pete Fleming set sail for Guayaquil as missionaries, arriving in February. For six months they stayed in Quito (the capital of Ecuador) in order to learn Spanish, before moving deep into jungle, where they lived at Shandia, a mission station.
On January 29, 1953, Jim Elliot proposed to Elisabeth Howard on her 21st birthday, and they were married on October 8 in a civil ceremony in Quito on Jim’s 26th birthday. Their daughter Valerie was born on February 27, 1955.
In the fall of 1955, the missionaries made initial contact with the Huaorani. Nate Saint was able to maneuver his plane in tight circles while lowering a bucket from a rope containing gifts like buttons and rock salt, with more gifts delivered over the next several weeks. Later the missionaries used a loudspeaker to shout simple Huaorani phrases they had learned from a young Huaorani girl who had left the society and befriended Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel. The Huaorani began to reciprocate with gifts of their own.
Nate Saint identified a sandbar on the Curary River, four and a half miles from the main Huaorani location and determined it could be used as a landing strip and camp, calling it “Palm Beach.” The missionaries arrived there on January 3, 1957, flying over the Huaorani settlement to telling them by loudspeaker to meet them there.
The Wikipedia entry for Operation Auca summaries what happened next:
On January 6, after the Americans had spent several days of waiting and shouting basic Huaorani phrases into the jungle, the first Huaorani visitors arrived. A young man and two women emerged on the opposite river bank around 11:15 a.m., and soon joined the missionaries at their encampment. The younger of the two women had come against the wishes of her family, and the man, named Nankiwi, who was romantically interested in her, followed. The older woman (about thirty years old) acted as a self-appointed chaperone. he men gave them several gifts, including a model plane, and the visitors soon relaxed and began conversing freely, apparently not realizing that the men’s language skills were weak. Nankiwi, whom the missionaries nicknamed “George”, showed interest in their aircraft, so Saint took off with him aboard. They first completed a circuit around the camp, but Nankiwi appeared eager for a second trip, so they flew toward Terminal City. Upon reaching a familiar clearing, Nankiwi recognized his neighbors, and leaning out of the plane, wildly waved and shouted to them. Later that afternoon, the younger woman became restless, and though the missionaries offered their visitors sleeping quarters, Nankiwi and the young woman left the beach with little explanation. The older woman apparently had more interest in conversing with the missionaries, and remained there most of the night.
After seeing Nankiwi in the plane, a small group of Huaorani decided to make the trip to Palm Beach, and left the following morning, January 7. On the way, they encountered Nankiwi and the girl, returning unescorted. The girl’s brother, Nampa, was furious at this, and to defuse the situation and divert attention from himself, Nankiwi claimed that the foreigners had attacked them on the beach, and in their haste to flee, they had been separated from their chaperone. Gikita, a senior member of the group whose experience with outsiders had taught him that they could not be trusted, recommended that they kill the foreigners. The return of the older woman and her account of the friendliness of the missionaries was not enough to dissuade them, and they soon continued toward the beach.
On January 8 the missionaries waited, expecting a larger group of Huaorani to arrive sometime that afternoon, if only to get plane rides. Saint made several trips over Huaorani settlements, and on the following morning he noted a group of Huaorani men traveling toward Palm Beach. He excitedly relayed this information to his wife over the radio at 12:30 p.m., promising to make contact again at 4:30 p.m.
The Huaorani arrived at Palm Beach around 3:00 p.m., and in order to divide the foreigners before attacking them, they sent three women to the other side of the river. One, Dawa, remained hidden in the jungle, but the other two showed themselves. Two of the missionaries waded into the water to greet them, but were attacked from behind by Nampa. Apparently attempting to scare him, Elliot, the first missionary to be speared, drew his pistol and began firing. One of these shots mildly injured Dawa, still hidden, and another grazed the missionary’s attacker after he was grabbed from behind by one of the women. . . .
The other missionary in the river, Fleming, before being speared, desperately reiterated friendly overtures and asked the Huaorani why they were killing them. Meanwhile, the other Huaorani warriors, led by Gikita, attacked the three missionaries still on the beach, spearing Saint first, then McCully as he rushed to stop them. Youderian ran to the airplane to get to the radio, but he was speared as he picked up the microphone to report the attack. The Huaorani then threw the men’s bodies and their belongings in the river, and ripped the fabric from their aircraft. They then returned to their village and, anticipating retribution, burned it to the ground and fled into the jungle.
By January 13, four of the bodies had been identified, and one had washed away.
You can watch the story here of what happened afterward in the providence of God:
For excellent theological reflections on all of this, see this new piece by John Piper: “Slain in the Shadow of the Almighty.”
“They were killed with the sword.
They [were men] of whom the world was not worthy.”