The Martyrs of the Ecuador Mission
8 January 1956

In the dense rain-forests of Ecuador, on the Pacific side of the Andes Mountains, lives a tribe of Indians who call themselves the Huaorani ("people" in their language, Huao), but whose neighbors have called them the Aucas ("savages" in Quechua). For many generations they have been completely isolated from the outside world, disposed to kill any stranger on sight, and feared even by their head-hunting neighbors, the Jivaro tribe.

In 1955, four missionaries from the United States who were working with the Quechas, Jivaros, and other Indians of the interior of Ecuador became persuaded that they were being called to preach the Gospel to the Huaorani as well.

Nate Saint was 32 years old (born 1923), and devoted to flying. He had taken flying lessons in high school and served in the Air Force in WWII. After the war, he enrolled in Wheaton College to prepare for foreign mission work but dropped out to join the Missionary Aviation Fellowship. With his wife, Marjorie Farris, he established a base at Shell Mera (an abandoned oil exploration camp in Ecuador) in September 1948, and flew short hops to keep missionaries supplied with medicines, mail, etc. Once his plane crashed, but a few weeks later he returned to work in a cast from his neck to his thighs.

The other three, Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, and Peter Fleming, all Plymouth Brethren, came to Ecuador in 1952 to work for CMML (Christian Missions in Many Lands).

Ed McCully was 28 years old (born 1927). He had been a football and track star at Wheaton College and president of his senior class. After Wheaton, he enrolled at Marquette to study law, but dropped out to go to Ecuador. He and his wife, Marilou Hobolth, worked with the Quechuas at Arajuno, a base near the Huaorani. Half a dozen Quechuas had been killed at the base by Huaorani in the previous year.

Jim Elliot was 28 years old (born 1927) and an honors graduate of Wheaton College, where he had been a debater, public speaker, and champion wrestler. In Ecuador, he married Elisabeth Howard. They did paramedic work, tending broken arms, malaria, snakebite. They taught sanitation, wrote books in Quechua, and taught literacy.

Peter Fleming was 27 years old (born 1928), from the University of Washington, an honor student, and a linguist. With his wife, Olive Ainslie, he ran a literacy program among the Quechuas.

Nate and Ed found a Huaorani settlement from the air in late September 1955. Nate made four more flights on Thursday, 29 September, and found a settlement only fifteen minutes from their station. They told Jim and Pete, and the four planned their strategy.

They would keep the project secret from everyone but their wives, to avoid being joined by adventurers and the press, with the chance that someone not dedicated to the mission would start shooting at the first sign of real or imagined danger, and destroy the project.

They had one language resource, a Huaorani girl, Dayuma, who had fled from her tribe years earlier after her family was killed in a dispute. Dayuma, who spoke both Huao and Quechua, was now living with Nate's sister Rachel. From her the missionaries learned enough of the language to get started.

They would fly over the village every Thursday and drop gifts as a means of making contact and establishing a friendly relationship. Eventually they would try for closer contact. Nate had discovered that, if he lowered a bucket on a line from the plane, and flew in tight circles, the bucket remained almost stationary, and could be used to lower objects to the ground. He had devised a mechanism to release the bucket when it touched down.

On Thursday, 6 October, one week after locating the village, they dropped an aluminum kettle into an apparently deserted village. On the next flight, several Huaorani were waiting, and the missionaries dropped a machete. On the third flight, they dropped another machete to a considerably larger crowd. Beginning with the fourth flight, they used a loudspeaker system to call out friendly messages in Huao.

Soon the Huaorani were responding with gifts of their own tied to the line: a woven headband, carved wooden combs, two live parrots, cooked fish, parcels of peanuts, a piece of smoked monkey tail.... They cleared a space near their village and built platforms to make the exchanges easier.

After three months of air-to-ground contact, during which they made far more progress than they had hoped, the missionaries decided that it was time for ground contact. They feared that they could not keep their activities secret much longer, and that delay risked a hostile encounter between the Huaorani and some third party.

They decided that the expedition needed a fifth man, so they brought in Roger Youderian, a 31-year-old (born 1924) former paratrooper who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge (a major German offensive in Belgium in the last stages of WWII) and had been in General Eisenhower's honor guard. Roger and his wife, Barbara Orton, were working with the Jivaros, and Roger was thoroughly at home in the jungle, accustomed to living like the Jivaros and blessed with acute survival instincts.

They located a beach that would serve as a landing strip, about four miles from the village, and decided to go in on Tuesday, 3 January 1956. After some discussion, they decided to carry guns, having heard that the Huaorani never attacked anyone who was carrying a gun, and having resolved that they would, as a last resort, fire the guns into the air to ward off an attack, but would shoot no one, even to save their own lives.

On Tuesday they flew in and made camp, then flew over the village to invite the Huaorani to visit them. The first visitors showed up on Friday: a man, a woman, and a teen-aged girl. They stayed for several hours in apparent friendliness, then left abruptly. On Saturday, no one showed, and when the plane flew over the village, the Huaorani seemed frightened at first, but lost their fright when presents were dropped. On Sunday afternoon, 8 January 1956, at about 3 PM, all five missionaries were speared to death at their camp. A search party the next day found no signs of a struggle, and the lookout who was to be stationed in a tree-house overlooking the camp at ground level had come down, so it appeared that the meeting had originally seemed friendly, and that the attack had been a surprise. Ed McCully's body was seen and identified, but was swept away by the river and not recovered. The other four, at the request of their wives, were buried at the site of the camp where they had died. Besides their wives, they left behind a total of nine children.

The effort to reach the Huaorani was not abandoned but rather intensified. Within three weeks, Johnny Keenan, another pilot of the Ecuador Mission, was continuing the flights over the Huaorani village. More than twenty fliers from the United States promptly applied to take Nate's place. More than 1000 college students volunteered for foreign missions in direct response to the story of the Five Martyrs. In Ecuador, Indian attendance at mission schools and church services reached record levels, and the number of conversions skyrocketed. A Jivaro undertook to go at once to another Jivaro tribe that had been at war with his own tribe for years, bearing the Christian message, and his visit brought peace between the two tribes. Truly, as Tertullian said 1800 years ago, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

In less than three years, Rachel Saint (sister of Nate Saint) and Elisabeth Elliot (widow of Jim Elliot) had not only renewed contact but had established permanent residence in a Huaorani settlement, where they practiced basic medicine and began the process of developing a written form of the language.

Nine years after the murder of the five missionaries, two of those who had killed Nate Saint and his companions baptized two of Nate's children, Kathy and Stephen Saint. In June 1995, at the request of the Huaorani, Nate's son Stephen moved to the settlement with his wife, Ginny, and their four children, to assist the Huaorani in developing greater internal leadership for a church committed to meeting the medical, economic, and social needs of their own people as a means of showing them God's love and his desire to provide for their eternal needs as well.

Why did the Huaorani suddenly turn hostile? Much later, one of the Huaorani who had helped to kill the five martyrs explained that the tribe, who had had almost no contact with outsiders that did not involve killing or attempted killing on one side or another, wondered why the whites wanted to make contact with them; and while they wanted to believe that their visitors were friendly, they feared a trap. After the killings, they realized their mistake. When they were attacked, one of the missionaries fired two shots as warnings, and one shot grazed a Huaorani who was hiding in the brush, unknown to the missionaries. It was therefore clear that the visitors had weapons, were capable of killing, and had chosen not to do so. Thus, the Huaorani realized that the visitors were indeed their friends, willing to die for them if necessary. When in subsequent months they heard the message that the Son of God had come down from heaven to reconcile men with God, and to die in order to bring about that reconciliation, they recognized that the message of the missionaries was the basis of what they had seen enacted in the lives of the missionaries. They believed the Gospel preached because they had seen the Gospel lived.

Prayers (traditional language):

Prayers (contemporary language):