Missionary Moment: Jim Elliot

Jim Elliot – Missionary to the Waodani Indians of Ecuador (1927-1956)

To the casual observer at the midpoint of the twentieth century, Jim Elliot might have seemed like an ordinary, bright, clean-cut, all-American boy.  He had good looks, knew how to work hard, got good grades…and could easily have achieved “the American dream” of a successful career and family.  But Jim Elliot was anything but ordinary.[i]

In 1945, Jim Elliot left his home in Portland in order to attend Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.  It was at Wheaton that Jim met and fell in love with Elisabeth Howard, the woman that would one day become his wife.  But Jim wanted to wait to be sure that it was God’s plan for his life, especially in light of his undeniable calling.  Since he had given his life to Christ, he wanted to serve God with his whole heart and life.  Now he was sure, though, that God wanted him to become a foreign missionary.  After he graduated college, he prayed and waited patiently to discern exactly where God was leading him.  Finally, he knew that God wanted him to join a team of missionaries in Ecuador, (in South America) where he would sacrifice his time and talents to help translate the Scriptures for the primitive Quichua people.  Little did he know at the time, though, about the kind of sacrifice that he would ultimately give.  Years earlier, Jim had written these words that would one day come to define him:  “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”[ii]

When the time came for him to set sail for Ecuador in 1952, he remembered the boyhood wish  to one day sail the seas.  He realized that even in this eighteen day journey God was fulfilling one of his grandest wishes.  By the time he arrived at his destination, he felt confident that he was where the Lord had called him to be.  He was eager to settle in and begin his work because he felt that God had special plans for him in Ecuador. 

The next year, Elisabeth joined him and became his wife.  She shared her husband’s passion to live and work among the Quichua people in order to bring the gospel message to those who did not yet know Christ and His redeeming love.  Together, they plunged into their translating and teaching assignments with joy.  They were blessed to be among other young missionary couples, located throughout their region, who had common goals and interests.  God had providentially brought together Pete and Olive Fleming, Ed and Marilou McCulley, Roger and Barbara Youderian, and the Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot Nate Saint with his wife Marjorie to team up with Jim and Elisabeth Elliot for an important mission.  They had no idea then, but their names would soon be forever linked together in the pages of missionary history.

While working among the Quichua people, Jim and some of the other missionaries learned about a savage tribe of stone-age warriors just miles to the East who lived completely unaffected by modern progress.  They were so fierce that they were known by the Ecuadorian people as the “Aucas,” which means “killers” in their language.  Years later, missionaries came to know them as the Waodani tribe.  The Waodanis’ reputation had come from centuries of native accounts from those rare few who had escaped their jungles or who had tried to make contact before.  They were extremely hostile to outside invaders.  However, Jim Elliot and his missionary friends would not let these stories keep them from their secret mission to reach the Waodani people for Jesus Christ.

One day Jim was introduced to a native girl named Dayuma who had escaped from the Waodani tribe just years before.  Before long, Jim was quizzing her regularly for information about her people, along with words that they would use to communicate to one another.  Dayuma was afraid of Jim’s interest in speaking the Waodani language and tried to warn him not to attempt making contact with them.  According to her, they were brutal warriors who would instinctively kill.  But all the missionaries agreed that this was a risk that they were willing to take.  When discussing the imminent danger with his wife, Jim replied, “I’m ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”[iii] (as they called them at the time)

“Operation Auca” officially began in October of 1955.  Nate Saint had flown some of the missionaries over the Waodani region several times in his conspicuous yellow plane in order to scout the territory.  Eventually they began to notice some inhabited villages and even made some close encounters with the Waodanis themselves.  They were careful to take things slowly, dropping gifts and pictures of each of the men, in an effort to show goodwill and make a more favorable impression.  Nate had devised a bucket dropping system that would lower items down to the ground on a rope as he circled the plane overhead.  The Waodanis had also sent their own gifts back to them in the bucket, including an Indian headdress and even a live parrot. 

After three months of flights, they found a clearing along the river that they called “Palm Beach.”  The missionaries decided it was time to make their first face-to-face contact.  So they planned everything out and made several trips with supplies to build themselves a small tree fort by the river to shelter them from weather and wild animals.  Then they waited for the Waodanis to come to them.

On January 6, 1956, the missionaries’ hopes were realized.  Three Waodani natives, a young man and two young women, stepped out of the jungle and into the clearing.  During the next several hours, the five missionaries communicated the best they could, trying to arrange a meeting with the village leaders.  They gave their guests insect repellant, treated them to their first ever hamburgers, and even took the young man (who they named “George”) on a ride in the plane. 

At the end of the day, Nate took Pete back to the missionary headquarters to gather up some more necessary supplies.  They shared the wonderful news of their successful contact with the Waodanis and were looking forward to more positive events in the days to come.  When they left the next day, they asked the wives to pray because they hoped that a bigger meeting was soon to happen.  On the day after that, they spotted a delegation of men heading to their camp.  They radioed the wives that this was going to be the big day, and that they would radio them back at 4:30 p.m.

But they were never heard from again.  The next day a search party was sent to the missionaries’ camp at Palm Beach.  There, they discovered the five bodies of the slain missionaries, killed at the hands of the Waodanis.  At that moment, it must have seemed to everyone that Jim Elliot and the other missionaries had failed in their mission.  As the newspapers reported the story around the world, some said it was a waste of lives.  Some might have felt as if God had failed to protect them.  Maybe some would have even questioned whether God always wins.  Perhaps some doubted if He existed at all.  But God was in control, and He used the experience to bring the entire tribe to Christ just a few years later.  This was God’s plan all along.  God always wins, even when it appears he’s losing! 

[i] Jackson, Dave and Jackson, Neta, Hero Tales: A Family Treasury of True Stories From the Lives of Christian Heroes, vol. II (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), p. 45.

[ii] Elliot, Elisabeth, Through Gates of Splendor (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957), p. 172.

[iii] Ibid.

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