Friday, January 8, was the sixtieth anniversary of what is likely the best known missionary sacrifice of the twentieth century. Jim Elliott and his four companions, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCulley, all surrendered their lives to follow Christ. They gave up those lives on a lonely stretch of sand by the Curaray River in Ecuador, South America, trying to reach the as-yet-unreached Auca (Waodoni) Indians. Their story was immortalized in Through Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliott, widowed wife of Jim. Jim and Elizabeth’s only child, Valerie, was not yet one year old when her father met his death. Elizabeth also wrote Shadow of the Almighty, Jim’s spiritual biography. These tragic events were also recounted in Jungle Pilot (the story of Nate Saint) and more recently in The End of the Spear (2005). The men, all 27–32 years of age, were in the prime of life and had seemingly bright futures ahead of them. They were killed by the very people they felt burdened to reach. Life magazine featured a ten-page spread on the story. The report of their deaths was heard around the world.
Commentary on these deaths has ranged widely over the years. Many praised them for their dedication and sacrifice. Others suggested that these five deaths could have been avoided had there been better cross-cultural preparation and deeper consideration of the nature of the work in which they were engaged. The men were undoubtedly aware that the Waodani had a reputation for treating outsiders as enemies and sought to kill all who strayed into their territory. Yet the men were determined to make contact with the tribe for the purpose of making Christ known to a people who had never heard. Their efforts, sadly, met with failure. Or did they?
As I reflect on this now well-rehearsed story of Christian martyrology, I for one am grateful to God to the legacy of five men whose death—ten months before my own birth—would affect me so deeply. As a young student in Bible college, two of the books I read very early in my spiritual pilgrimage were Elizabeth’s two books. To say they had a profound effect on my life hardly expresses the extent of their impact, or the depth of my gratitude. Jim’s oft repeated quote, found in his pocket diary when his body was recovered from the river, is a refrain I have cited many times: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
Whether or not the phrase was original with Jim (he may have modified it from a similar statement found in Philip Henry), that phrase coupled with his life story left a lasting impact on my young Christian life. Thirty-five years ago, I read his story and purposed to follow in the footsteps of men and women like Jim and Elizabeth Elliott who surrendered all to proclaim Christ. I purposed to go to serve the Lord in a place where others were less willing to go. I determined to go to the mission field. The burden of preaching the gospel where Christ had not been named and to not build upon another man’s foundation (Romans 15:20) was a burden that stirred my heart, in part, because of that moving missionary story. Undoubtedly, I am not alone. Only eternity will reveal the influence that their deaths have had on the efforts to raise up laborers to evangelize the world. My wife and I have wondered just how many others were so moved by their story to follow in their footsteps.
It may seem strange that God would rally his saints through the death of his most dedicated servants, but this seems to be the history of world evangelism. In the providence of God, American Puritan Jonathan Edwards edited the Diary of David Brainerd, the young Yale-expelled impertinent student who once expressed his doubt that one of his professors had even the spirituality of a chair. Brainerd’s story stirred an early generation of American Christians to surrender all to follow Christ. About two generations before the death of the Auca five, God used the deaths of John and Betty Stam (d. 1934), Moody Bible Institute graduates who were executed by the Chinese Communists, to rally another generation of fresh recruits for the missionary cause. These deaths remind us now of the oft-repeated slogan by Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240) that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticum). Men and women have laid down their lives to follow Christ, and others who have been witness to these deaths have taken up their crosses and followed Jesus.
Missionary service remains one of the great Christian callings for the church today. Yet few young Christians, it seems, are willing to sacrifice all—family, fame, and fortune—to follow Christ to the ends of the earth. With a global population approaching 7.5 billion, more people than ever before are alive today who need the gospel. China may have upwards of 100 million Christians (depending on the definition of “Christian”), but there are another 1.5 billion there for whom Christ’s death is of no consequence. India, the world’s second most populous country at 1.2 billion, has an estimated Christian population of only 28 million, or about 2.3% percent of the whole. The continent of Africa, with about one billion people, has at least 500 million people who are alienated from God.
The world is a shrinking place. With technology and travel changing at lightning speeds, we can reach the deepest parts of the global darkness with the light of the gospel more than ever before. But the light will not shine in that darkness if we put our lights under a bushel. We are called to carry the gospel into a world of darkness that the light may shine. Perhaps we need more servants like Jim, Pete, Ed, Nate and Roger to die to inspire, to convict, and to encourage us to follow in their footsteps. “Who will go? Who will go? Who will go and tell them? Tell them of the Lamb of God. Tell them of salvation?” If not now, when? If not you, who?
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Ye Dying Sons of Men
James Boden (1757–1841)
Ye dying sons of men,
Immerged in sin and woe,
The gospel’s voice attend,
Which Jesus sends to you:
Ye perishing and guilty, come,
In Jesus’ arms there yet is room.
No longer now delay,
Nor vain excuses frame:
He bids you come today,
Tho’ poor, and blind, and lame:
All things are ready, sinner come,
For every trembling soul there’s room.
Believe the heav’nly Word
His messengers proclaim;
He is a gracious Lord,
And faithful is his name:
Backsliding souls, return and come,
Cast off despair, there yet is room.
Compell’d by bleeding love,
Ye wand’ring sheep draw near,
Christ calls you from above,
His charming accents hear!
Let whosoever will, now come:
In mercy’s breast there still is room.