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Jim Elliot (1927-1956)

On January 6, 1956, a group of American missionaries led by Jim Elliot (1927-1956) welcomed three members of the isolated Huaorani ethnic group in their camp in the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle. The meeting, which was preceded by several gifts from the American missionaries, began on a positive note. 

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Jim Elliot and fellow missionaries believed that the friendly meeting would be the start of the evangelization among the previously uncontacted Huaorani. What was supposed to be another friendly meeting with the tribe ended in tragedy with the murder of Elliot and his friends two days later.

However, the death of Jim Elliot and his friends is not the end of the story. Jim Elliot’s ill-fated mission was only the start of this story of God’s redemptive power even in the face of atrocity.  

Early Years

Jim Elliot was passionate about reaching the Huaorani people with the gospel of Christ.

Jim Elliot was born on October 8, 1927, in Portland, Oregon. He was born to a fiercely devout Christian family. His father, Fred Elliot, served as an itinerant preacher with the Plymouth Brethren, and it was during his travels that he met his would-be wife, Clara. Jim’s older brothers Robert and Herbert, and their younger sister, Jane, regularly attended church. Regular Bible-reading was also a must in the Elliot household. Jim committed his life to Christ early on in his childhood. He was a model student, an eloquent student, and steadfast in his Christian beliefs.

The Bumpy Road to Ecuador

Jim studied linguistics at Camp Wycliffe as preparation for a life of missionary work. His meeting with a former missionary to Ecuador during his stay at the camp in 1950 changed the course of his life. The missionary, who used to minister to the Quechua people, told him of a group the Quechua called Huaorani. The Quechua also called this ethnic group “Auca” (“savages”) because of their violence against other tribes. The young Jim Elliot’s interest was piqued, and it was not long before he made plans to leave the United States to work as a missionary among the uncontacted Huaorani. 

The road to Ecuador was not an easy one. His friend, Bill Cathers, was supposed to accompany him to the country, but the plan was postponed when Cathers announced his decision to get married. In the meantime, Jim worked with a friend named Ed McCully in Illinois. McCully agreed to accompany Jim to Ecuador, but the former’s decision to marry Marilou Hobolth ultimately disrupted their plans.  

Jim became friends with Pete Fleming, a philosophy major who graduated from the University of Washington. He succeeded in convincing Fleming to come with him to Ecuador and establish a mission among the Huaorani people. To his delight, Pete agreed. 

Fleming and Elliot arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador on February 21, 1952, and continued north to Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Fellow Wheaton alumna and fiancée Elisabeth Howard later traveled to Ecuador to join Elliot and Fleming. From Quito, the trio moved to the Shandia mission station to work with and learn the language of the Quechua people.

They were later joined by Jim’s friend Ed McCully, his wife Marilou, and the couple’s infant son Stevie in 1953. In the same year, Jim Elliot and Elisabeth Howard got married. Valerie, the couple’s daughter was born on the 27th of February, 1955.

Jim Elliot’s team of missionaries grew. He met and befriended a former Army pilot named Nate Saint, who also worked as a transporter of supplies to different missionaries stationed all over the Ecuadorian jungle. Saint agreed to become the official pilot of Operation Auca.

The last member of the team was missionary Roger Youderian. He and his family had been in Ecuador in 1953, but he was dissatisfied with his work with the Shuar people. Nevertheless, he agreed to join Elliot’s Operation Auca.

The Ill-Fated Operation Auca

Operation Auca officially began in 1955. The plan was to search for the uncontacted Huaorani people via plane and drop off some gifts to them to try to win them over. Some of the gifts they offered the Huaorani included pots, salt, kettle, trinkets, machetes, and clothing. 

These gifts were tied to a rope and lowered to curious Huaorani tribesmen who had come to investigate these curious-looking objects given by strange-looking men from a strange flying machine. The missionaries made several calculated drop-offs until it was clear their strategy worked. The Huaorani reciprocated by tying gifts to the rope, and the missionaries saw this as a sign that it must be safe to go ahead and meet the Huaorani on the ground.

The group, which consisted of Elliot, Fleming, McCully, Youderian, and Saint, landed on a camp along a sandy beach on the Curaray River on the 3rd and 4th of January, 1956. After dropping off the missionaries and some supplies, Nate Saint used a loudspeaker to invite the Huaoranis living nearby to come and visit the camp.

It was not until two days later that the first group of Huaoranis accepted the missionaries’ invitation. This group of curious Huaoranis consisted of a young woman, a young man named Nankiwi (most likely the young woman’s suitor), and an older woman (the duo’s de facto chaperone). The missionaries’ fluency with the Huaorani language was limited, but it seemed to them that their efforts were a success thanks to the friendliness shown by the three natives.

After receiving several gifts from the missionaries and spending several hours with them, the two Huaorani youths suddenly decided to leave the camp and return to their village. On the way back to the village, the Nankiwi and the Huaorani girl came across Nampa (the girl’s brother) and a group of Huaorani men and women who also wanted to meet the foreign missionaries. 

Nampa was enraged when he saw his sister with Nankiwi but without a female chaperone. In his fear of Nampa, Nankiwi concocted a story of them being attacked by Jim Elliot and his group. According to Nankiwi, they were separated from the older woman when they fled. Nampa and the Huaorani were furious. They decided to exact revenge by killing Jim Elliot’s group.

The attack happened on the afternoon of January 8, 1956. Jim Elliot, despite having a pistol and using it to protect himself, died after he was speared by the enraged Huaorani. The group also attacked and killed Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian.

The men’s bodies and their supplies were dumped into the river by the Huaorani after they had been killed. Believing that the companions of the foreign men would exact revenge, the Huaorani burned their village in the aftermath of the attack and retreated deeper into the rainforest.

The missionaries’ wives began to worry when they did not receive any word from their husbands during the afternoon of January 8, 1956. Johnny Keenan, one of the missionaries who accompanied the men during the initial contact with the Huaorani, flew to the missionaries camp to see if something was amiss. He saw no signs of Elliot and his companions, so the missionaries wives’ were forced to seek help from the United States military stationed in Central America to help them look for their husbands.

A search party made up of America servicemen and missionaries combed the Ecuadorian jungle for signs of Jim Elliot and his companions. It was not until January 11 that the first two bodies were found. Ed McCully’s body was found the following day, and the last two remains were found on the 13th of January, 1956. The remains of Jim Elliot and his companions were buried at their camp (which they called Palm Beach) on the 14th of January, 1956.

This was not the end of Jim Elliot’s story. His life ended in tragedy, but his legacy was continued and amplified by his wife, Elisabeth. Elisabeth, along with Nate Saint’s sister Rachel, returned to the area and lived with the Huaorani. The women were largely successful in their missionary work, and many Huaorani (including some of the individuals who attacked and killed the men) converted to Christianity.


Photo: Fair use, Link

Miller, Susan Martins. Jim Elliot. Barbour and Co., 1998.

White, Kathleen. Jim Elliot. Bethany House Publishers, 1990.

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