Missionary Stories

Jim and Elisabeth Elliot: Undivided Devotion to God and the Unreached

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Written by McKenna

Jim and Elisabeth Elliot are two of the most influential people in the history of missions. Their lives reflect total devotion to Christ and to the message of the gospel. Their stories of perseverance, suffering, and even death have inspired many to go reach unreached peoples.

Who are Jim and Elisabeth Elliot? Jim and Elisabeth Elliot were missionaries to the Auca Indians in Ecuador. Jim was martyred alongside four other missionaries during Operation Auca on January 8, 1956. After her husband’s death, Elisabeth went to go live among the tribe that killed her husband with her three-year-old daughter, Valarie and share the truth of the gospel with them. Elisabeth Elliot has written several books that have inspired thousands of people in their walk with God. She recently passed away in 2015. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot’s story continues to impact countless Christians all over the globe to this day and have sparked a passion in people to go to the unreached.

This is the ninth blog in the series of 10 Christian Missionaries Every Christian Should Know.

Jim’s Early Calling to the Mission Field

Philip James Elliot was born on October 8, 1927, in Portland, Oregon. He actually went by the name of Jim and grew up with three other siblings in a firm Christian family. As a child, he was encouraged by his parents to be adventurous and to live for Christ.

At the age of six, Jim knew Christ from an early age and was never afraid to speak about Him to his friends. Once Jim told his mother,

“Now, mama, the Lord Jesus can come whenever He wants. He could take our whole family because I’m saved now, and Jane is too young to know Him yet.”

At a young age, missions began to stir Jim’s heart, and he dreamt of reaching people who had never even heard of Jesus before. His heart was on fire for God to be known and he was inspired by several missionaries such as David Brainerd, William Carey, and Amy Carmichael. His desire to see the lost come to know Christ was unlike anyone in his age group. He longed to bring the hope and light of Christ to the unreachable peoples who felt dark, cold, and alone.

In 1941, Jim studied architectural drawing in high school. He always carried his small Bible with him and was an excellent speaker, often sharing about Christ. Jim was also talented with oratorical skills and was often praised for his speech capabilities. A classmate once recalled how Jim quote the Bible to the president of the student body as he explained why he would not go to a school party. He also once prepared and delivered a speech to honor President Franklin D. Roosevelt only hours after his death. However, he was almost kicked out of the speech club when he refused to give a political speech since he himself believed that Christians should not involve themselves in politics.

Jim participated in the school newspaper, the wrestling team, school dramas, and a public speaking club. He was so good at acting that some of the teachers suggested that he pursue a career as an actor. However, Jim knew that he was called to be a missionary.

In 1945, Jim applied and got accepted to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. His goal for attending college was to pursue his goal of being in full-time ministry overseas.

He would start each morning with prayer and Bible study, and studied both Greek and Hebrew. During that time, he became more and more passionate about the unreached and was baffled that no one was doing much about them. In 1947, he went to Mexico on a short-term mission trip. This trip partially influenced his decision to go to Central America as a missionary after college.

However, his plan of being a single missionary for the rest of his life was somewhat interrupted by someone he met on his college campus.

When Two Lives Met

Jim Elliot met Elisabeth Howard during his third year at Wheaton College in 1948.

Elisabeth Howard was born on December 21, 1926, in Brussels, Belgium. She grew up in a large family with five siblings. Her faith started at a young age and she desired for others to know and love God. Her first years in college are reflected in her journal entries as she writes about her desire to be closer to God, praying that she would be humble so that He could work in her.

Jim Elliot was roommates with Elisabeth’s brother, and her brother always spoke highly about Jim. While Jim definitely had an interest in girls, he did not think that he needed to be concerned with worldly things so that he could completely devote himself to God. Elisabeth was also dedicated to God and could not see herself in a relationship just yet, although she liked Jim. Jim often sat next to her in their class for studying Greek, making her heart jump, and would ask:

“Well, where are we today?”

Elisabeth said that she always admired how he loved God. She also thought that he was quite handsome and his passion for the salvation of souls is what drew her to him.

Both were involved in evangelism in downtown Chicago and would ride on the train together with other students. Elisabeth did not think that Jim liked her, however, when Jim did ask her out for a date, she accepted, but then later canceled because she was afraid. As they came to know each other, they acknowledged that they were attracted to each other. However, Jim still felt that he was to remain single as a missionary for at least five years. Elisabeth was disappointed but trusted that God would bring them together if that was His will. After seeking God’s will for their lives for five years, they were married in 1953.

Years later, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot’s daughter Valarie wrote:

“My mother gave me my father’s letters many years before I got to read them. I was most amazed by his writing ability and poetic imagery, my mother’s brilliant logic and clarity, and the delightful sense of humor they both had. I also didn’t know how they struggled with not being sure of whether God wanted them to marry, and why and how long it took for my father to know when he had “the green light”!”

Training for the Mission Field

In 1950, Elisabeth continued her studies at college while Jim Elliot spent a summer at Camp Wycliffe, where he learned and practiced the important skill of writing down a language for the first time. He worked with a former missionary that had served among the Quechua people in Ecuador. This missionary informed him of the Auca tribe, which was a group of natives that were considered violent and dangerous. They often killed anyone without any ground for reason, including members of their own tribe.

Jim felt a tug on his heart when he heard about the Auca Indians. He knew he was called to be a missionary, but he was unsure whether to go to Ecuador or India, such as Amy Carmichael, who was his hero. However, the choice was soon made clear, as the missionary from Ecuador soon wrote to him that he and his wife had been in a plane accident and needed help at the mission. His parents and friends suggested that Jim Elliot might be more effective in youth ministry in the United States, but he considered the Western church to be ‘well-fed’ and that international missions among the unreached much be a top priority among Christians.

After completing his linguistic studies, Jim applied for a passport and prepared to leave for Ecuador with his friend, Bill Cathers. Yet, two months later, Bill told Jim that he was getting married and that he could not accompany him on his trip. Although Jim was a little disappointed, he spent the next several months working with his friend, Ed McCully, running a radio program in Illinois. He tried to get Ed to join him as a missionary, but Ed had his heart set on becoming a lawyer. During this time, Jim also began preaching in prisons, holding evangelistic rallies, and teaching Sunday school while keeping in contact with Elisabeth, whom he called Betty, through letters.

Ed married later that summer, and Jim was forced to look elsewhere for a single man to join him as a missionary in Ecuador. On August 9, 1950, Jim Elliot wrote in his journal:

“God just now gave me faith to ask for another young man to go, perhaps not this fall, but soon, to join the ranks in the lowlands of eastern Ecuador. There we must learn: 1) Spanish and Quichua, 2) each other, 3) the jungle and independence, and 4) God and God’s way of approach to the highland Quichua. From thence, by His great hand, we must move to the Ecuadorian highlands with several young Indians each, and begin work among the 800,000 highlanders. If God tarries, the natives must be taught to spread southward with the message of the reigning Christ, establishing New Testament groups as they go. Thence the Word must go south into Peru and Bolivia. The Quichuas must be reached for God! Enough for policy. Now for prayer and practice.”

Soon after, Jim found Pete Fleming, a young single man who had a degree in philosophy. They kept in contact through letters for several months until Pete was convinced of his calling to Ecuador. That year they began to prepare to leave the country.

Missionary to Ecuador

Jim Elliot and Pete Fleming arrived in Quinto, Ecuador in February 1952. In May, Elisabeth had completed her studied at Wheaton College and moved to Quinto. Jim and Elisabeth began a courtship, although they weren’t engaged until January 1953.

Jim left Elisabeth in Quinto and traveled with Pete to Shell Mera, where the Mission Aviation Fellowship headquarters were. Here Jim met Nate Saint, a pilot, and learned more about the Auca Indians.

After visiting Shell Mera, Jim Elliot and Pete Fleming moved to Shandia, where Jim felt very strongly that the Lord wanted him to work. At the same time, Elisabeth was working with the Colorado Indians near Santa Domingo and was enjoying the challenges of missionary life.

On October 8, 1953, Jim and Elisabeth got married in Quinto. Two years later, on February 27, 1955, their only child Valerie was born. The happy couple moved to the Shandia mission base and worked together as a team serving among the Quichua Indians. Jim kept wanting to reach the Auca’s, but they lived deep in the jungle and no one knew exactly where their village was.

Not willing to give up on the savage tribe, Jim pulled together a team of four other men, including Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian. They called it Operation Auca. Nate flew all over the jungle looking for thatched roofs and one day they spotted a small Indian village along the Curaray River–only a few minutes from their base. The team was excited that God had answered their prayers in finding the Aucas and began to make trips with the plane to drop down gifts into the village.

Nate also found a strip of sand along the Curaray River and the five missionaries began to prepare supplies to build a treehouse and set up camp so that they could be within reach of the Auca’s. For three months, they would take turns being flown in and say welcoming phrases the language that the Auca’s spoke across the river.

Elisabeth Elliot once said,

“They went simply because they knew they belonged to God, because He was their Creator and their Redeemer. They had no choice but to willingly obey Him, and that meant obeying His command to take the good news to every nation.”

Auca Encounter

One day, on January 6, 1956, while the five missionaries were yelling out welcoming phrases across the river, three Indians–two girls and one man–emerged from the jungle. They were Auca’s. The men welcomed them to their camp and showed them the airplane, yo-yos, and different kinds of food that they had brought.

The Auca man, whom the missionaries called George, whose real name was actually Naenkiwi, was interested in the plane and Nate Saint gave him a ride over his village. After the Indians left, the missionaries praised God for their first encounter with the Indians and were encouraged to begin making plans to visit the entire tribe. Little did they know that when Naenkiwi and the two women returned to the village, they lied about the missionaries intentions. The missionaries all went back the missions base for the night and continued to pray for the gospel to be made known among the Auca Indians.

Martyred for Christ

On January 8, 1956, the missionaries decided to go and see if the Auca’s would invite them to their village. It was Sunday, and they were going to hold a worship service on the beach. Suddenly they saw movement in the bushes and birds fly out of the trees. One of the men radioed their wives back at the mission base and said that a large group looked to be on their way and to be praying for a welcoming party. He promised to radio at 4:30 pm to let them know how it went.

The radio was silent for hours. No message came. The wives back at the base tried not to worry, but eventually, a search and rescue party was sent out on foot to see if anything had happened to the missionaries. Upon arriving on the beach, they found that the plane had been stripped of all its fabric, and the wings were completely destroyed.

Soon, they found one, two, three, four bodies lying in the water with spears embedded in their backs. The fifth body was found later, which was Ed McCully. The five missionaries had been killed in their attempts to reach the indigenous tribe in Ecuador.

The world mourned for the loss of these five missionaries, while others criticized their work. The wives grieved for their husbands, though they were thankful that they had been obedient to the call of the Lord. Many of the wives and their families stayed in ministry.

Reaching the Unreached with Unforgiveness

After Jim Elliot’s death, Elisabeth decided to continue working among the Quechua for two more years. Two Auca women lived among them, including a woman named Dayuma, who had run away from her tribe when her family was killed. She taught the Huao language to Mrs. Elliot and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel. During the next two years, Elisabeth prepared to go to the people that had killed her husband and share the gospel with them.

In October 1958, Elisabeth Elliot, her three-year-old daughter Valerie, and Rachel Saint went to go live with the tribe that killed their husband, father, and brother. Dayuma was able to create an opening for them to be welcomed into the tribe. Elisabeth was with the Auca’s for only two years, while Rachel stayed until she passed away on November 11, 1994.

After moving to the village, Elisabeth began to teach the Auca Indians from the Bible. Her forgiveness and acceptance of the tribe are what led them to accept Jesus Christ. She taught them to forgive fearlessly and love tremendously, which forever transformed their way of life. One of the first men to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior, was Mincaye, the man who speared Nate Saint and Ed McCully.

After receiving Christ, the tribe renamed itself ‘Waorani’, turning from their Auca roots–which meant ‘savage’–to display a powerful message of transformation.

A Legacy for Christ

Elisabeth Elliot passed peacefully on June 15, 2015. She was married a few years after Jim’s death, and when her second husband passed away, she married again. Valarie was her only child. She was a great woman of faith and has inspired many in their personal relationship with the Lord through her published books and while speaking at conferences.

Today, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot’s legacy still lives on in our hearts. During his life, Jim Elliot longed for more people to become missionaries. In his death, however, he probably inspired more people to go to other countries to share the love of Jesus than he ever could have in his life. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youdarion’s story of sacrifice and devotion to God still strikes at the heart and inspires other people to risk their lives for the gospel.

Jim Elliot was not a fool for going to Ecuador and knew the risks of going to this tribal group. Yet both Jim and Elisabeth Elliot counted the cost and knew the risk of not going was even greater. Today, a large majority of the Waorani are Christians.
Years later, Steve Saint, who is Nate Saint’s son, visited the tribe when he was young, and when he was in his teenage years, he was baptized by Mincaye–the very man who killed his father.

Eventually, the tribe asked Nate Saint’s son, Steve, to come and live with them. He moved his family to the village of the Waorani’s, but in 1996, he realized that he did not want the tribe to become dependent on him. He went back to the states and began I-TEC, the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center. His dream was to empower indigenous churches to overcome the technological and educational hurdles that stand in the way of their independence.

The impact that these five missionaries made is insurmountable. Their deaths brought life to a tribe that seemed to be utterly lost without any hope.

“The Waorani people today are around 20% Christ followers. We don’t have any information on how that breaks down on age, though most of the older generation–over 50 years old–are Christ followers. Their churches are very different from ours in many ways. While most of their communities have some Christ followers–the Church–they typically do not have organized times of worship. When they have a ‘service,’ there may be 10-20 ‘preachers,’ depending on who wants to talk. At the same time, they talk about following God’s trail on a daily basis. The Waorani themselves do not count anyone as a Christ follower unless they have trusted Christ as Savior, been baptized, and the fruit of their lives shows that they are following Christ.”

– Jaime Saint, Steve Saint’s Son

Doing God’s work doesn’t mean that you’re promised complete safety or guaranteed you’ll see immediate results. But when you are following the Lord God Almighty whose plans are far greater than anything you could imagine, you can rest in the immense assurance that He will not leave you to the hands of anyone on earth until His work in and through you is done. That is the kind of faith that Jim and Elisabeth Elliot had.

I will end with one of Jim Elliot’s quotes from his journal, which reflects both the hearts of him and his wife in their mission to reach the unreached with the gospel:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

May we live in the sanctity of the relaxed grasp and trust that we can lose nothing when we give it all to Jesus.

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