February 2010 - Vol. 37

. Witnesses in the Jungle

Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, & Fellow Missionaries

by Jeanne Kun 

In January 1956 the world was shocked to hear that a primitive tribe in the rain forest of Ecuador had killed five American missionaries. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian had been working at various jungle mission stations among the Quichua and Jivaro Indians for several years. The men, Protestant missionaries in their twenties and thirties, had been accompanied by their wives. Each couple was eager to share the message of the gospel with those who had never heard it. But, above all, they were dedicated to the Lord himself and sought to be obedient to him in all things.

Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Jim Elliot

Jim Elliot and his friends had hoped and prayed to be able to make contact with an isolated and hostile people known by other tribes as the Aucas (“savages” in Quichua) because of their fierce infighting and hatred for outsiders. With his skill as a pilot for the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, Nate Saint had made it possible for the men to fly over the Auca settlements deep into the jungle and drop such gifts as cloth, axes, and cooking pots to assure them that their intentions were friendly and to win their trust. The Aucas reciprocated, tying native gifts a parrot, a headband of woven feathers, manioc, and bananas onto the plane’s drop-line. 

Nate Saint next to his plane with camping gear

When the mission team landed on the banks of the Curaray River a few miles from the Auca village and set up camp, their hopes were rewarded: Three Aucas came out of the jungle and spent the day at the camp trying to communicate with the men, delightedly taking a ride in the plane, and curiously inspecting the missionaries’ equipment. 

Two days later, on January 8, 1956, as Nate flew over the camp, he saw a group of Aucas headed toward it through the jungle. He landed near the campsite on the river bank, shouted the news “They’re on their way!” to Jim, Roger, Pete, and Ed, and by radio notified Marj Saint at the mission base of the hoped-for meeting. The next designated radio contact with their wives was never made.

widows listen to the report of their husbands fate

The following morning, one of Nate’s co-workers from the Missionary Aviation Fellowship flew over the site in search of the men and located the plane. All of its fabric had been stripped. Later a body was sighted, floating face down in the river, and then another. An armed expedition made up of the missionaries’ colleagues, military personnel, and Quichuas set off on foot, hoping to find the other men still alive somewhere in the rain forest. A few days later, the other bodies, speared and sprawled in the sand and muddy river water, were discovered by helicopter. The ground party recovered four of the bodies and buried them on the banks of the Curaray. The body of the fifth missionary had been identified earlier by an advance party of Quichuas, but was washed away in a storm. 

In the preface of Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, first published in 1958, Elisabeth Elliot wrote:

“Jim’s aim was to know God. His course, obedience the only course that could lead to the fulfillment of his aim. His end was what some would call an extraordinary death, although in facing death he had quietly pointed out that many have died because of obedience to God. He and the other men with whom he died were hailed as heroes, ‘martyrs.’ I do no approve. Nor would they have approved. 

“Is the distinction between living for Christ and dying for him, after all, so great? Is not the second the logical conclusion of the first? Furthermore, to live for God is to die, ‘daily,’ as the apostle Paul put it. It is to lose everything that we may gain Christ. It is in thus laying down our lives that we find them.

“Those who want to know him [Christ] must walk the same path with him. These are the ‘martyrs’ in the scriptural sense of the word, which means simply ‘witnesses.’ In life, as well as in death, we are called to be ‘witnesses’ to ‘bear the stamp of Christ.’

“I believe that Jim Elliot was one of these. His letters and journals are the tangible ground for my belief. They are not mine to withhold. They are a part of the human story, the story of a man in his relations to the Almighty. They are facts.”

Less than three years after the five men’s deaths, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister, made contact with the Aucas who in their own language called themselves Huaorani or “the people” through the help of an Huaorani woman who had earlier fled from her tribe. The Huaorani accepted the two women and Elisabeth’s daughter to live among them because they wondered why the missionaries had let themselves be killed rather than shoot any of their attackers. Then they heard the full story of how the men had come to tell them of Jesus, who “freely allowed his own death to benefit all people. 

Steve Saint continues to visit the tribe regularly

Rachel spent more than thirty years working among the Huaorani. Steve, Nate Saint’s son, often visited his Aunt Rachel and grew up knowing the men who learned to “walk on God’s trail” after they had killed his father. 

In an unbelievable expression of reconciliation, Steve Saint, Nate’s son, was baptized by two of the men who murdered his father, in the very river where his father died. Steve Saint has worked as a missionary in West Africa, Central America and South America. 

At the request of the Waodani elders, he returned to the Amazon in 1995 along with his wife and children to live among the tribe for several months. While working with the Huaorani to build an airstrip in the jungle, Steve Saint spoke with Gikita, the leader of the attack. Then eighty years old, Gikita was eager to “go to heaven and live peacefully with the five men who came to tell him about Wangongi, creator God.”

Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior womens' leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

This article is excerpted from the book, Even Unto Death: Wisdom from Modern Martyrs, edited by Jeanne Kun, The Word Among Us Press, © 2002. All rights reserved. Used with permission. The book can be ordered from WAU Press.

Recommended reading:
Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, by Elisabeth Elliot, 1958
End of the Spear, by Steve Saint, Tyndale House Publishers (15 May 2006) 

Recommended viewing:
Testimony by Steve Saint, End of the Spear, YouTube video
Beyond the Gates of Splendor, story of Jim Elliot and missionary companions, YouTube video

team on the banks of the Curaray River

From Jim Elliot’s journal:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. (1949)

God, I pray Thee, light these sticks of my life and may I burn for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus. (1948)

Father, take my life, yea, my blood if Thou wilt, and consume it with Thine enveloping fire. I would not save it, for it is not mine to save. Have it Lord, have it all. Pour out my life as an oblation for the world. Blood is only of value as it flows before Thine altar. (1948)

Gave myself for Auca work more definitely than ever, asking for spiritual valor, plain and miraculous guidance. . . .” (May 1952)

Jim Elliot in the Curaray River surveys the jungle

A hymn written by Jim Elliot in Quichua, describing what happens when a man dies, using a simile from Ecclesiastes 11:3 which was simple and understandable to the Indians:

“If a man dies, he falls like a tree.
Wherever he falls, there he lies.
If he is not a believer, he goes to the fire-lake.

“But on the other hand, a believer,
If death overtakes him,
Will not fall, rather will rise
That very moment, to God’s house.”

Nate Saint’s description of his work serving pioneering missionaries through aviation:

Their call of God is to the region beyond the ends of civilization’s roads—where there is no other form of transportation. They have probed the frontiers to the limit of physical capacity and prayed for a means of reaching regions beyond—a land of witch doctors and evil spirits—a land where the woman has no soul; she’s just a beast of burden—a land where there’s no word for love in their vocabulary—no word to express the love of a father for his son. In order to reach these people for whom Christ died, pioneer missionaries slug it out on the jungle trails day after day, sometimes for weeks, often in mud up to their knees, while up above them the towering tropical trees push upward in a never-ending struggle for light.

It is our task to lift these missionaries up off those rigorous, life-consuming, and morale-breaking jungle trails—lift them up to where five minutes in a plane equals twenty-four hours on foot. The reason for all this is not a matter of bringing comfort to the missionaries. They don’t go to the steaming, tropical jungles looking for comfort in the first place. It’s a matter of gaining precious time, of redeeming days and weeks, months and even years that can be spent in giving the Word of Life to primitive people.

May the time never come when mankind no longer hears the soft footsteps of the herald angel, or his cheering words that penetrate the soul. Should such a time come all will be lost. Then indeed we shall be living in bankruptcy and hope will die in our hearts.

Nate Saint’s description of the first gift drop made to the Aucas:

We continued circling until the gift was drifting in a small lazy circle below us, ribbons fluttering nicely. Finally the gift appeared to be pretty close to the trees below. Once I believe the ribbons dragged across a tree and hung up momentarily. We held our breath while the kettle lowered toward the earth. It hit about two or three feet from the water directly in line with the path to the house. Finally the line was free and there was our messenger of good will, love and faith two thousand feet below on the sandbar. In a sense we had delivered the first gospel message by sign language to a people who are a quarter of a mile away vertically . . . fifty miles away horizontally . . . and continents and wide seas away psychologically.

From Jim Elliot’s last letter to his parents, written on December 28, 1955:

By the time this reaches you, Ed [McCully] and Pete [Fleming] and I and another fellow [Roger Youderian] will have attempted with Nate a contact with the Aucas. We have prayed for this and prepared for several months, keeping the whole thing secret (not even our nearby missionary friends know of it yet). Some time ago on survey flights Nate located two groups of their houses, and ever since that time we have made weekly friendship flights, dropping gifts and shouting phrases from a loud speaker in their language, which we got from a woman in Ila. Nate has used his drop-cord system to land things right at their doorstep and we have received several gifts back from them, pets and food and things they make tied onto this cord. Our plan is to go downriver and land on a beach we have surveyed not far from their place, build a tree house which I have prefabricated with our power-saw here, then invite them over by calling to them from the plane. The contact is planned for Friday or Saturday, January 6 or 7. We may have to wait longer. I don’t have to remind you that these are completely naked savages (I saw the first sign of clothes last week—a G-string), who have never had any contact with white men other than killing. They do not have fire except what they make from rubbing sticks together on moss. They use bark cloth for carrying their babies, sleep in hammocks, steal machetes and axes when they kill our Indians. They have no word for God in their language, only for devils and spirits. I know you will pray. Our orders are “the gospel to every creature.” 

 —Your loving son and brother, Jim

From a letter written by Elisabeth Elliot to her parents on January 11, 1956, while the five wives were waiting for news of the fate of their husbands:

I want you to know that your prayers are being answered moment by moment as regards me—I am ever so conscious of the everlasting arms. As yet we know only that two bodies have been sighted from the air but not identified.

Jim was confident, as was I, of God’s leading. There are no regrets.

Nothing was more burning in his heart than that Christ should be named among the Aucas. By life or death, oh, may God get glory to himself.

Pray that whatever the outcome I may learn the lessons needful. I want to serve the Lord in the future, so pray for his continued grace and guidance. I have no idea what I will do if Jim is dead, but the Lord knows and I am at rest.
We hope for final word tomorrow and trust our loving Father who never wastes anything. All my love,


Selection of quotes from 
Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, by Elizabeth Elliot. Copyright 1985 by Elizabeth Elliot (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.)

Jungle Pilot: The Life and Witness of Nate Saint, by Russel T. Hitt. Copyright 1959 by The Fields, Inc. (HarperCollins Publishers Inc)

Photo credits:
  1. Photo of airplane and team members on the bank of the Curaray River,  photo of Jim Elliot in the Curaray River,  photo of “Nate Saint next to his plane with camping gear” – “photos developed from film found in Nate's camera at the bottom of the river and a diary fished out of his pocket gave the only record of their last days” – source:  http://sharonscrapbook.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/jim-elliott.html
  2. photo of Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Jim Elliot together, courtesy of Elizabeth Elliot.
  3. Five head shots composite photo  source  found on  Google at http://www.imgrum.net/media/638657448887514598_1006856596
  4. photo with caption “widows listen to report of their husbands’ fate”  for  Life Magazine 1956 (photo by Cornell Capa?)
  5. photo of Steve Saint with tribesmen from the back book cover, End of the Spear, © 2005 by Steve Saint [http://www.imgrum.net/tag/natesaint]
  6. Elizabeth Elliot kept a number of photos of Jim and his missionary mates. Some are posted in her books, Shadow of the Almighty, The Savage My Kinsman, and Through Gates of Splendor.

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