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Missionary Massacre

Land of the Incas: Peru and Ecuador

In the 16th century the gold-seeking Spaniards baptized the mountain Indians, then robbed their Inca rulers of precious treasures at sword point. But the conquistadors stopped short of the forbidding jungle east of the Andes. Only a few intrepid traders and priests dared to cross the rugged mountains and search for the mysterious brown denizens of the forest. Many never returned.

The first evangelical missionaries ventured into the vast Amazonian forests early in the 20th century. First in Peru were the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The Nazarenes began work among the headhunting Aguarunas; a tribe that had massacred an entire settlement of white farmers around 1900. First in Ecuador was the Gospel Missionary Union (GMU), which established a station among the feared Jivaro headhunters on an upper Amazon tributary.

The pioneer missionaries faced unimaginable hardship in the rain forests of Peru and Ecuador. Some walked overland for two to three weeks, then canoed down swift, often flooded rivers to reach their stations in uncharted tribal territories, ruled by powerful chiefs. It seems a miracle that none were killed by Indians who knew whites only as enemies. However, tropical diseases left many missionaries with broken health and shortened life expectancies.

Jungle Base Saves Lives

In 1946 only a half dozen tribes in Peru and Ecuador had been entered. Reaching the remainder appeared impossible until the Wycliffe Bible Translators developed a central jungle base in Peru. It was the idea of Wycliffe's founder, Cameron Townsend, to have a dispensary, commissary, radio communication center and an airline at the hub of operations in an area larger than Texas. Missionaries in trouble could get help fast. Under Townsend's direction, Wycliffe also established ties with the Peruvian government, bringing the umbrella of national protection over Bible translators at their far-flung posts.

Wycliffe began work in Peru in 1946 and today has workers in 44 tribes. Not one translator has been killed by Indians, although there have been some close calls.

Two single women, Lorrie Anderson and Doris Cox, entered Shapra territory when it was ruled by Chief Tariri, the most feared headhunter in Peru. Tariri later told Cam Townsend, "Had you sent two men, we would have killed them. Had you sent a man and wife, we would have killed the man and kept the woman for a wife. You sent two young women, calling me 'brother.' I had to protect them." Since his dramatic conversion, Tariri has been a sensation in Peru and a celebrity to Christians in Europe and the United States.

Chief Tariri: From Savage to Citizen - - Chief Tariri Transformed

The Mayorunas were feared more than the Shapras. By 1969 they had killed hundreds of Peruvians and kidnapped many white women for wives in raids on government outposts. A peaceful entry was made that year by 17-year-old Ronald Snell, who had grown up in another tribe, and translator Harriet Fields. Miss Fields and her partner Harriet Kneeland live among the Mayorunas today.

No missions have lost missionaries to tribal violence in Peru.

Ecuador--Missionary Story of the Century

In Ecuador occurred the most publicized missionary massacre of the 20th century, when five young stalwarts representing three mission societies, were killed by Auca Indians in January, 1956.

Jim Elliot was from Portland, Oregon. At Wheaton College he was president of the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship. A perceptive thinker and writer, he wrote in college: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." He was married to Elizabeth Howard, from a prominent Christian publishing family in Philadelphia. The Elliots had an infant daughter.

Pete Fleming was from Seattle, and at 27 was a year younger than his friend Jim Elliot. Pete had recently received his M.A. in literature. He was married to his childhood sweetheart, Olive, and they had three young children.

Ed McCully, the oldest son of a Milwaukee bakery executive, attended Wheaton and starred on the football team. He had won the National Hearst Oratorical Contest in San Francisco in 1949 and studied at Marquette University Law School. He and his wife Marilou had an eight-month-old son.

Roger Youderian was raised on a Montana ranch. He attended Northwestern School in Minneapolis where he met his wife, Barbara. They joined the Gospel Missionary Union, and were working with Mr. and Mrs. Frank Drown among the headhunting Jivaros when the Elliots, Flemings, and McCullys arrived.

Nate Saint, the most animated of the lot, had been flying missionaries in and out of stations in the Ecuadorian jungle since 1948 for Missionary Aviation Fellowship. Builder, inventor, and skilled pilot, Nate had devised an alternate fuel system for single-engine planes and an ingenious method of lowering a bucket by using a spiraling line to the ground. "During the last war, we had to be willing to be expendable," he wrote. "A missionary constantly faces expendability." Nate was married to a nurse, Marj, whom he had met in the service. They had three children.

The Challenge of the Aucas

None of the five came to Ecuador anticipating the Auca project. Once in Ecuador they kept hearing about these feared Indians who had never been tamed by soldiers or missionaries. The first Jesuit priest to enter Aucaland, Pedro Suarez, had been murdered in 1667. After the Jesuits gave up, they were left alone for over 200 years. Then the rubber hunters came, burning Indian homes, raping, torturing, killing, enslaving, and later the oil companies, searching for black gold.

Missionaries often talked about how the Aucas might be reached. Nate Saint had flown all around their territory and longed and prayed for the day when they might know of his Savior.

Nate's older sister, Rachel, a Wycliffe member, learned of a young Auca girl named Dayuma, who had fled to the outside after her father had been killed by the tribe. In 1955 Rachel began studying the language with her at a hacienda.

"We Decided It Was the Lord's Time"

While Rachel was learning the Auca language, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully and Nate Saint studied maps and talked about how entry might be made. One evening they pored over the maps for several hours before adjourning for midnight cocoa. "We decided it was the Lord's time," Nate wrote on October 2.

Pete Fleming joined up. Nate then thought of Roger Youderian, not knowing that Roger was discouraged over his work among the Jivaros. When Nate asked if he would help with the Auca project, he volunteered. Roger made five.

All knew the danger. Jim Elliot had told his wife Betty: "If that's the way God wants it to be, I'm ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas."

They made careful plans. Their main base would be at Shell Mera where the World Radio Missionary Fellowship, sponsors of the missionary radio station HCJB in Quito, had a hospital. For an advance base, they cleared off an old air strip at Arajuno, a camp abandoned by Shell on the very edge of Auca territory. From here they would fly out and look for an Auca clearing to make gift drops. If the Indians responded favorably, a ground contact would be attempted.

The Operation Gets Underway

After flying over the area for several days, Nate located a large thatch house in a clearing. Using Nate's invention, they let down a gift machete, wrapped in canvas and decorated with colored streamers. When they flew back over, the gift was gone. The next time Nate passed over "Terminal City" Ed McCully spotted three Aucas through binoculars. They dropped more gifts. On succeeding passes, Nate flew lower, calling through a loudspeaker Auca phrases learned from Dayuma: "We like you! We like you! We have come to visit you." Each time they dropped a bucket of gifts, with Nate circling to keep the drop spiraling down towards the drop zone. The people on the ground smiled and waved, and one day they put a live parrot in the bucket as a reciprocal gift. Another day, December 23, they put in squirrels, another parrot, and a smoked monkey tail.

The next step was to find a landing place as close to the clearing as possible. The Curaray River was nearby, and they went looking for a sand bar. They christened the site selected "Palm Beach."


Tuesday, January 3. They huddled at Arajuno for a final prayer meeting, then sang a favorite hymn:

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender, Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise, When passing through the gates of pearly splendor, Victors, we rest with Thee through endless days.

Johnny Keenan, another MAF pilot, flew in. He would stand by to see if the first landing turned out okay.

About 8:00 a.m. Nate began ferrying in the men and supplies to Palm Beach. After the last landing he buzzed Terminal City calling to the Aucas, "Come tomorrow to the river!" The Indians looked puzzled.

He flew back to Arajuno, leaving the others to sleep on the beach, and returned the next morning. He and Pete checked out Terminal City again. Some of the Indians seen the day before were missing. They must be on their way to the river, the two decided.

When Nate and Pete got back, the others had a tree house up and were walking along the beach holding up gifts and shouting welcomes across the river. Nate got on the radio to Shell Mera and brought Marj up to date.

The "neighbors" did not show on Wednesday. The five spent a second night in the tree house. The next morning Nate and Pete went up for reconnaissance. They saw only women, children, and an old man at Terminal City. While they were gone Jim and Roger hiked downstream and found Auca footprints. They judged them to be at least a week old. Nate and Pete took another look at Terminal City. This time they saw an Auca kneel and point in the direction of Palm Beach. They flew back to the sand bar rejoicing.


Nothing else happened until 11:15 a.m. Friday when three naked Aucas suddenly appeared on the far bank of the river--a young man, a woman about thirty, and a girl around sixteen. Jim waded across, seized the hands of the man and woman, and led them back to the spot where the plane was parked. The girl splashed across on her own.

The missionaries used all the phrases they could remember. The Aucas jabbered and smiled. The men took pictures and displayed a copy of "Time."

The Auca man, "George," kept touching the plane. Nate opened the passenger door and with little urging George jumped in. Nate took off and flew over Terminal City with George shouting gleefully all the way. When they landed back on the beach, the Auca leaped out clapping his hands in delight.

At 4:15 p.m. Nate radioed Marj reporting their favorable progress.

The girl, "Delilah," and George left. The woman stayed by the beach fire. When the missionaries came down from the tree house the next morning, she was gone. But the fire was still warm.

Saturday, no neighbors came to visit. Nate and Pete flew low over Terminal City. The people they saw looked afraid. The women and children ran to hide. "Come, come, come to the river," Nate invited. Pete tossed some gifts. A man looked up and smiled. It was George.

"Pray for Us. This Is the Day!"

Sunday morning, Nate went up alone and spotted a group of Auca men walking towards the camp. He flew back to the beach with the good news and radioed Marj. "A commission of ten is coming. Pray for us. This is the day!" He set the next scheduled transmission at 4:30 p.m. and signed off.

At 4:30 p.m. Marj switched on the radio at Shell Mera. Nothing. She kept trying. The radio must be out, she thought. The wives prayed and tossed and turned that night.

Monday, January 9. Johnny Keenan took off for Palm Beach. A few minutes later he radioed that the plane had been stripped of fabric. There was no sign of the men. Obviously, something was wrong.

Bodies are Sighted

Wycliffe pilot Larry Montgomery, an American reserve officer, was at Shell Mera. He contacted Lt. General William K. Harrison, commander in chief of the Caribbean Command in Panama, to report the five missing. Radio station HCJB broadcast the news and asked for prayers. Newspapers headlined around the world: FIVE MISSIONARIES MISSING IN ECUADOR.

A search party led by missionary Frank Drown, started overland. Johnny Keenan made his fourth flight over Palm Beach and saw a body he could not identify. Johnny made another pass and sighted a second body in the river.

The big United States Air Force planes roared in. They could not land at Palm Beach. Wednesday night, rain fell in torrents. Thursday, two Navy fliers went in with a chopper. They found four bodies in the river. All had been speared to death.

Major Nurnberg, one of the chopper pilots, flew to Shell Mera and described the clothing to the wives. Pete, Roger, Jim, and Nate were identified. The Major speculated that the first body seen by Johnny was Ed, and it had been washed away by the rain.

The overland search party arrived Friday and buried the four. "Life" magazine photographer, Carnell Capa, landed in a chopper in a heavy downpour, just as the last body was being dropped into the grave. His photos and the accompanying story in "Life" made the Auca massacre the missionary story of the century.

The next day the United States Air Force flew the five widows over to see the common grave. Peering down at the scar of white sand, Olive Fleming thought of II Corinthians 5:1: "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."

Why had the Indians attacked after the initial friendly encounter? Frank Drown noted that Indians are naturally curious about something new and will accept it. But after thinking about it, they may feel threatened and attack in fear.

Life had to go on for the wives. Barbara Youderian returned to work among the Jivaros. Betty Elliot helped with Quechua ministries, and then wrote the first book about the martyred five, "Through Gates of Splendor" (Harper and Row). Marj Saint took a new missionary job in Quito. Marilou McCully went home to have her second child, then returned to work with Marj. Olive Fleming's plans were undecided.

Why Did God Let It Happen!

Response from the civilized world came swiftly. Some church leaders thought the men had died needlessly. Others felt God had allowed the men to die for a great purpose.

Part of that purpose seemed evident immediately. An American naval officer was shipwrecked shortly after reading the story. As he floated alone on a raft he recalled a sentence from Jim Elliot which a reporter had quoted: "When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die." He prayed for salvation, spiritual and physical. Both prayers were answered. From Iowa, an 18-year-old boy wrote that he had turned his life "over completely to the Lord." He wanted to take the place of one of the five. Indeed, in succeeding months, missions were deluged with offers to "take the place" of the Auca martyrs.

The work with the Aucas was only beginning. The Auca girl Dayuma, now a Christian, went back to her people. Her family greeted her with joyful amazement. They thought she had been eaten by a foreign cannibal. She said the missionaries had come in friendship to tell them about a Savior. "Just as you killed the foreigners on the beach, Jesus was killed for you," she told them.

Matchless Love

One month later Rachel Saint and Betty and little Valerie Elliot hung their hammocks with the Aucas. Valerie played with the children of her father's killers.

Rachel and Betty gradually learned the reason for the murders and the identity of the six killers. "We thought foreigners would kill and eat us," one Auca said. Another confessed that he had cried after the killings.

An older man, "Uncle Gikita," admitted that he had advanced on Nate Saint as the pilot held his hands high, pleading for mercy. "I speared him," he said. When the others shot in the air, the other Auca men had run. The old man called them back, and they killed Ed, Pete, Roger, and Jim.

Gikita accepted Christ, then Kimo, another of the killers. "Jesus' blood has washed my heart clean," Kimo told Rachel. "My heart is healed." The other four killers--Nimonga, Dyuwi, Minkayi and Tona--soon believed also.

Betty Elliot returned to the States. Wycliffe's Dr. Catherine Peeke came to help Rachel with the tedious language analysis and translation of the New Testament into Auca. Nine years after the killings, the first published copies of the Gospel of Mark in Auca were dedicated at "God's Speaking House." Kimo, now the Auca pastor, prayed, "Father God, You are alive. This is Your day, and all of us have come to worship You. They brought us copies of Your Carving, enough for everybody. We accept it, saying, 'This is the truth.' We want all of your carving."

Special guests for the dedication were Wycliffe's Ecuador Director, Don Johnson, his wife, Helen, and Steve and Phil Saint. Steve, 14, had visited his Aunt Rachel several times and was a beloved friend to the Aucas. He read a verse in Auca during the service.

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