Philip James Elliot was born October 8, 1927, in
Portland, OR, to Fred and Clara L. Elliot, one of three brothers in a
family which included Robert, Herbert, and a sister, Jane. His father
was an itinerant non-sectarian evangelist in the Puget Sound area and
his mother conducted a chiropractic practice. Their home was frequently
visited by missionaries who were an important influence on the family.
By the time he was about eight years old, Jim was aware of his
salvation by Christ.
He attended Benson Polytechnic High School, 1941-1945,
majoring in architectural drawing and participating in sports with the
goal of building his body for the rigors of missionary life. He also
began preaching during these years. In his senior year, he was elected
vice president of his class.
Jim chose to attend Wheaton College because of his
brother Bob's recommendation; he enrolled in the fall of 1945 with the
goal of total commitment to God and the active pursuit of the
disciplines involved. He was granted a scholarship and worked part-time
to support his studies. Elliot joined the wrestling team at Wheaton and
made varsity in his freshman year. He began speaking to youth groups in
the Wheaton area, and in his junior year began a journal as another
means of spiritual discipline. In the summer of that year, 1947, he
stayed six weeks in Mexico with the missionary family of his friend,
Ron Harris. There he learned Spanish and felt his own call directed
toward mission work in Latin America.
In 1948, Elliot and some of his friends narrowly
escaped death in a car-train accident on the tracks in Wheaton. That
year he was president of Foreign Mission Fellowship on campus and part
of a gospel team for the Fellowship during the summer. Elliot chose
Greek as his major, and graduated with highest honors in 1949. He lived
with relatives in Glen Ellyn during his College years and attended
Lombard Gospel Chapel.
For a year following graduation, Elliot returned to the
family home in Portland to concentrate on Bible study. He worked at odd
jobs and learned to preach on street corners, in jails, and at Plymouth
Brethren assemblies. His future wife and former Wheaton College
student, Elisabeth Howard, paid a visit to the Elliots on her return
from summer missionary work in Canada. In June of 1950, Elliot spent
several weeks in Norman, OK, at the Summer Institute of Linguistics,
sponsored by Wycliffe Bible Translators. There he worked with a former
missionary to the Quichua Indians of Ecuador and first heard of the
remote and much-feared Huaorani tribe in that country. [The name
commonly used for the tribe at the time was "Auca" and this was the
name by which they were called in almost all the literature of the time
period.] His response was immediate and, after a ten-day period of
prayer for guidance, Elliot wrote to Dr. Wilfred Tidmarsh in Ecuador
offering to come to that field. A recently abandoned station, Shandia,
established for work with the Quichua Indians, was in need of staff.
Elliot stayed on in Oklahoma City to work with Bible
study groups on the university campus; he applied for a passport on Dr.
Tidmarsh's urging to come as soon as possible. In September of 1950, Ed
McCully, another friend and Wheaton College student, wrote him
indicating that he wanted to leave school and join a mission activity.
The decision to go to Ecuador was postponed a year while Tidmarsh
returned to England because they were unable to arrive in Ecuador
before his necessary departure. During this period, Elliot preached,
studied, and worked with youth in Huntington, IN, and Chester, IL,
where Ed McCully and Bill Cathers joined him in working on a radio
broadcast series, The March of Truth. Pete Fleming of Seattle, WA, also
indicated an interest in going to Ecuador with Elliot. A visit to
Portland from Tidmarsh confirmed the decision to work in Shandia and
passport, visa, and draft board arrangements were made. Elisabeth
Howard had also decided to do mission work in Ecuador, but she and Jim
went as independent missionaries to separate assignments.
Preparations to leave for Ecuador occupied the second
half of 1951; included was an itinerary through the East speaking to
acquaint Plymouth Brethren there with the work and to raise support
from those groups. Elliot and Fleming sailed to Ecuador on the Santa
Juana on February 4, 1952, and Jim made his first journal entry on
February 27 in Quito. Elisabeth Howard arrived in Quito in April, 1952,
to study language, tropical diseases, and medical work.
In June, the first aerial search of the Oriente
territory where the Shandia station and the Quichua and Huaorani tribes
were located was made from the Mission Aviation Fellowship station at
Shell Mera. Huaoranis had recently killed five persons in that area.
Shell Mera had been abandoned by Shell Oil Company as too dangerous a
location because of the Huaoranis' hostility and the killing of Shell
personnel. Elliot and Fleming moved to Shandia in September 1952.
In February 1953, both Elliot and Elisabeth Howard came
into Quito from their separate stations and agreed to marry. A flood
had destroyed part of the Shandia station and the need to rebuild
confirmed their decision. They were married on October 8, 1953, Jim's
26th birthday, in a civil ceremony in Quito. Their first home was a
tent set up at a river junction called Puyupungu. There they set up a
school for a family of Indian children. A new location for the airstrip
at Shandia was selected, and a home completed. Elliots' daughter,
Valerie, was born February 27, 1955, and in that month the Flemings,
Elliots, and McCullys were together in Shandia for a conference for the
With the assistance of MAF pilot, Nathanael "Nate"
Saint, Elliot and McCully located the first Huaorani huts in the jungle
near Arajuno in September that year. The Huaoranis had recently killed
a mother and two children in this area. This sighting firmed
determination of the men to attempt contact, and weekly "drops" of
gifts to the Huaoranis from the plane were begun in October. As plans
developed, Roger Youderian, a missionary working in Jivaria, was asked
to join the men. Pete Fleming was the fifth man of the group hoping to
make contact with the tribe.
Using a battery-operated speaker, the men made thirteen
trips over the area, broadcasting words of friendship in the Huaorani
language and dropping such gifts as buttons, a kettle, a machete, and
tinted photographs of each man. The Huaoranis responded by sending back
a parrot and feathered head-dresses in the drop bucket. Encouraged by
these responses, the men decided to find a suitable landing strip for
the plane. They selected a sandy beach, which they named "Palm Beach",
on the Curaray River and made a successful landing on January 2, 1956.
After four trips to bring in a radio and other supplies, they built a
tree shelter and began shouting Huaorani phrases into the jungle. Four
days later, two Huaorani women and a young Huaorani man came out of the
jungle. They appeared friendly, and "George" was given a brief ride in
the airplane. The following day was spent quietly and without contacts.
On Sunday, January 8, after songs, prayers, and a
service, the men radioed their wives at 12:30 p.m. that contacts were
expected by mid-afternoon and they would radio again at 4:30 p.m. When
there was no radio message at that hour, a search and rescue operation
began. Flight over the area showed a damaged plane, and a ground search
party left for the area. Planes and a helicopter from the Ecuadorian
Air Force and the U. S. Army, Air Force, and Navy flew in for aerial
search. The ground and air groups met on January 13 at Curaray Beach.
Jim Elliot's body was found downstream with three
others. They had been killed by wooden lances and machetes, and the
plane's fabric was ripped off and body damaged. Nate Saint's watch had
stopped at 3:12 p.m. Because of the danger of another Huaorani attack,
the burial service lasted only three minutes. The Army party came out
by canoe or helicopter over a two-day period, spending one day trekking
through Huaorani territory.
The deaths of the five men--Jim Elliot, Ed McCully,
Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian-were reported world-wide,
and they were regarded by many as twentieth-century martyrs. Elisabeth
Elliot returned to Shandia and resumed the work of her husband. She
subsequently wrote three books about the mission work and its
consequences: Through Gates of Splendor, a biography of her husband,
Shadow of The Almighty, and The Savage My Kinsman. She also edited The
Journals of Jim Elliot. Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint went to live
with the Huaorani group in 1959. One of the Huaorani tribe members
later explained to the missionaries that "George" had told them that
the white men planned to eat them, and that they would not otherwise
have killed the men.
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