No Tragedy in Ecuador

The Ecuador Five – January 8, 1956: Sixty years ago today, five missionaries were slaughtered in the jungle of Ecuador. Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian were viciously speared, beaten with clubs, and hacked to death with machetes by a small gang of Waodani (Auca) Indians.

I Dare Not Stay Home!
Jim Elliot learned of the spiritual plight of the Waodani people in the summer of 1950 when a former missionary to Ecuador warned him of the “great challenge of the dread Aucas” [1]. After ten days, largely devoted to prayer, Jim began to set his sights on Ecuador. Well-intentioned friends urged him to reconsider. Perhaps he might be better suited for stateside ministry and the obvious needs that remained there. However, once assured of God’s direction, he would not be dissuaded: “I dare not stay at home while Quichuas perish. What if the well-filled church in the homeland needs stirring? They have the Scriptures, Moses, and the Prophets… Their condemnation is written on their bank books and in the dust on their Bible covers” [2].

Reckless Abandon
As Jim prepared himself for the rigors of pioneering the gospel in the Ecuadorian jungles, a friend and fellow classmate at Wheaton College, Ed McCully, was compelled to join him. Ed wrote a determined letter to Jim explaining his rationale for exchanging his pursuit of a medical career, for one of trail-blazing the gospel in Ecuador: “Jim, I have just one desire now, to live a life of reckless abandon for Christ, and I’m putting all my strength and energy into it – Maybe the Lord will send me some place where the Name of Christ is unknown” [3]. Three years later, in Ecuador, only days before the final flight into Auca territory where they were slaughtered horrifically, Ed scribbled a note in the margin of his journal which simply said, “I’m willing to give my life for a handful of Indians.” A few days later, he did it.

Tragedy or Triumph?
Soon after the search party, led by missionary Frank Drown, discovered the mutilated bodies of the missionaries, newspaper headlines around the world screamed things like: “Tragedy in Ecuador!” “Five Missionaries Slaughtered!” “Five Young Lives Wasted!” Certainly this was a disastrous event in the lives of five families who lost husbands, fathers, and sons. Was this murder a win for the enemy and a set-back for the gospel? Or, instead, was it a meticulous, divine providence, in every detail, designed to accomplish an even greater, global advance of Jesus’ name? With the benefit of sixty years of historical reflection, the following is part of what we know.

Local Impact

• Several of the wives and children of the slain missionaries returned to the Aucas and the gospel was eventually established throughout the Waodani Region, including converts among some of those who did the spearing.

• Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) invested the remaining decades of her life in ministry among the Waodanis and she is buried there.

• Steve Saint (Nate’s son) returned as an adult and responsibly transitioned the Waodani Church (and culture) into the 21st Century, largely free of harmful dependence upon Western manpower and money.

Global Impact

• The violent and highly publicized death of the five men caused a panic among mission agencies. They wondered how the threat of persecution and martyrdom might affect ongoing missionary recruitment for the most difficult and dangerous places. However, by God’s grace, this proved to be an unwarranted concern. Instead of fewer missionaries, mission agencies were inundated with applications for missionary service.

• Only the Lord knows exact numbers. Vast numbers of missionaries throughout the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and even until now, testify that the killing of the Ecuador Five is what God used to compel them into mission. Nearly three generations of missionaries, tens of thousands of them, have been catapulted into the worldwide harvest of nations, because of this one incident.

Where is the tragedy in this? If Jim Elliot could speak today he would be laughing! I really believe that. What incredible wisdom of God that he would use their deaths to actually result in the answer to their best prayers for the Waodanis, that they would come to know Christ!

Victors Not Victims
Missionary martyrdom is not a detriment to the advancement of the Church. Instead, persecution is a divine incentive for even more forceful gospel advance. On the very day that Stephen was stoned to death, a great persecution was unleashed upon the church in Jerusalem which catapulted the gospel throughout Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth [4]. Still today, God’s gospel martyrs suffer, and through their agonies, the gospel is propelled into places where it would not have reached otherwise.

Like the Revelation 6 martyrs, the Ecuador 5 should not be viewed as defeated victims, but rather, as conquering victors with King Jesus [5]. We honor the gospel heroics of these young pioneers today and we give praise to our great God who gives this martyr privilege to some of His followers. As Jim Elliot once wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

[1] Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Carol Stream, IL, 1956), p. 7.
[2] Cf. Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, p. 7-8.
[3] Ed McCully’s complete letter is included in the End Notes of my book, Reckless Abandon (Ambassador International, Greenville, SC, 2011, 2013), p. 234-235.
[4] Acts 8:1 – Acts 28:31 and continues through the church today.
[5] Revelation 6:9-11; Revelation 12:10-12; Revelation 20:4.