When news broke in November 2018 that missionary John Allen Chau had been killed while trying to contact the isolated Sentinelese tribe off the coast of India, debates about his methods and motivations erupted across the media landscape. Some critics argued that Chau behaved unethically in trying to contact an isolated people who clearly resisted interaction with the outside world. Some Christians wondered whether Chau had gone about his goals in the best way. But for many evangelicals, Chau’s death called to mind the 1956 deaths of Jim Elliot and four other missionaries after they had tried to bring the gospel to the remote Waorani people in Ecuador. Indeed, Jim Elliot had been one of Chau’s heroes.

Perhaps more than we realize, these reactions emerge from longstanding patterns in Western culture. American evangelicals have often celebrated inspirational stories of missionary sacrifice, while mission critics tend to revert to dark stories of colonialism and cultural imposition. Both narratives have been deeply embedded in American culture for more than two centuries. And both, for different reasons, are incomplete and sometimes misleading.

This is why we need Kathryn Long’s book, God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador. Long, a retired professor of history from Wheaton College, gives us the most thorough account yet written of the aftermath of the deaths of Jim Elliot and the other four missionaries. Mission critics may discover that missionary engagement with the Waorani was not quite what they had imagined. For different reasons, evangelicals may discover the same.

The Defining Missionary Narrative

A fascinating, complex, and thoroughly researched work, God in the Rainforest goes beyond simply tracing the history of missionary activity since pictures of the “Auca martyrs” first appeared in Life magazine. (The Waorani, sometimes called “Huaorani,” were also referred to as “Auca.” This is a Quichua term, meaning “savage,” that carries derogatory baggage). Long describes how oil companies, Ecuadorian government officials, anthropologists, journalists, government officials, adventurers, environmentalists, and even tourists were drawn to the Waorani and their land. More importantly, she directs our attention to the actions and cultural context of the Waorani themselves, who sometimes ended up, ironically, in the background of debates swirling about them.

The Waorani were not a people of significant size or cultural influence. They numbered less than 700 in the 1950s. Out of the more than 28,000 American missionaries working in thousands of places around the world, only about a dozen were attempting to make contact with them. Yet the deaths of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully became, in Long’s words, the “defining missionary narrative for American evangelicals during the second half of the twentieth century.”

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The news of their deaths, which immediately reached American audiences, was dramatic in itself. Fascination only intensified when Elisabeth Elliot (Jim’s widow) and Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) established contact with those who had killed their family members. They moved into a Waorani village, and within a couple of years several Waorani converted to Christianity, pledging to kill no more. The fundamental contours of that story are still remarkable.

Yet this episode accounts for only one of the 20 chapters in God in the Rainforest. Obviously, there was a lot more at work. Media coverage, for instance, plays a key role in Long’s history. The story fascinated evangelical and non-evangelical Americans alike.

Non-Christian media reported the story widely and sympathetically. But it was the evangelical media that fixed the manner in which evangelicals would remember it. Elisabeth Elliot wrote the most famous account, Through Gates of Splendor, barely a year after her husband had been killed. Displaying what Long calls “perfect pitch” for the “nuances of evangelical spirituality,” Elliot wrote the “inspirational book people had been waiting for.” Through Gates of Splendor would be supplemented by many more books, stories, and news reports.

Cam Townsend, the entrepreneurial founder of both Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) and Rachel Saint’s organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), proved especially adept at public relations. Passionate about Bible translation, Townsend, who knew a fundraising bonanza when he saw one, made sure to keep news of the Waorani and the missionaries in front of evangelical audiences in the ensuing years. His efforts made Rachel Saint and her Waorani assistant, Dayomae, the face of SIL and WBT. He brought them to the United States to speak to evangelicals, got them on stage in Billy Graham crusades, and surprised them by booking them on the television show This Is Your Life.

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Townsend was still at it in 1971. He flew Rachel Saint and Guequita, one of the men who had killed her brother, to the US for a 66-event series of “Auca Update Rallies” and a booking on The Today Show. But the same media exposure that spurred generous support for SIL and WBT also attracted anti-mission critics to the Waorani story.

When American culture shifted in the 1960s, anti-mission critiques gained more publicity. The issues were complicated, but most criticism boiled down to the allegation that the missionaries were destroying Wao culture. This charge played a key role in the Ecuadorian government’s 1981 decision to cancel the contract it had made with SIL, compelling the organization to pull its operations out of Wao territory. SIL and WBT dealt with similar public criticism, off and on, for many years thereafter.

Messy Details

To its credit, God in the Rainforest addresses messy details that went unnoticed by evangelicals in America. For instance, while Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot exhibited determination and self-reliance that propelled them through a range of difficulties, these same qualities caused tension between them. Elliot quietly moved to a different mission station in 1961. Saint and Dayomae, convinced they were squarely within God’s will, resisted suggestions from agency leaders for adjustments to their ministry.

Missionary work, of course, involves far more than just the conversions and dramatic stories that many evangelicals love. Long reminds us of this. The Waorani missionaries needed years of daily conversations before gaining mastery of the language, Wao Tededo. Jim Yost, an anthropologist brought in by SIL in 1974, spent more than a decade on analytical research that required ordinary day-to-day conversations and observations. Despite Townsend’s idealized depictions, Bible translation tied missionaries and Wao assistants to a long, arduous, and unglamorous process lasting several decades. Missionaries also had to negotiate a range of complicated cultural issues, such as how to deal with relocation patterns, oil companies, food shortages, Waorani eagerness for Western goods, and questions of dependence.

God in the Rainforest also shows that Protestants weren’t the only missionary game in town. Well beyond the radar of many evangelicals, Roman Catholic mission efforts, under the Capuchin order, established contact with the Waorani in the 1960s and ’70s. Similar to evangelical missionaries, the Capuchins faced the challenges of dealing with oil companies, negotiating with Ecuador’s government for protection of the Waorani, and handling negative publicity from critics. Notably, the Catholic prefect Alejandro Labaca Ugarte and Sister Inés Arango were killed in 1987 when they attempted to establish contact with a branch of Waorani that had resisted outside contact. The Capuchins now consider them martyrs.

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Catholic and evangelical conceptions of missionary activity were inevitably shaped by a long tradition of Christian missionary narratives. Long begins her history in the 1950s, but not before briefly referencing a book published in 1749 by Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd. This book, still in print today, told of Brainerd’s missionary efforts among Native Americans in colonial America. Arguably, Through Gates of Splendor replaced The Life of David Brainerd—which was read widely by missionaries and their supporters in the 19th century, as the primary evangelical missionary devotional. Both books portray missionary work as a task of spirituality and self-sacrifice, but they give minimal attention to indigenous peoples or cross-cultural challenges.

This was not just a missionary habit. Anti-mission critiques were also shaped by longstanding narratives in Western culture, though Long mentions these roots only in passing. Some critics of Waorani outreach efforts drew from the Black Legend, a narrative that exaggerated and stereotyped Spanish Catholic abuses of Native Americans in the colonial era. (Ironically, Protestants had created that narrative when they battled Catholics in the wake of the Reformation.) Some critics depicted the Waorani as living in an idyllic paradise, like “noble savages” (an idea promoted by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762). Academic criticisms drew from theories of cultural relativism that had been rising within the social sciences since the beginning of the 20th century.

Secular anthropologists tended to see ethics and morals as systems invented by separate cultures over time, rather than a set of transcendent principles that humans saw through their cultural lenses. Long shows how clashes with missionaries emerged when some anthropologists, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, turned in the direction of political activism. In 1971, a small group of anthropologists called upon missionaries to suspend their activities among indigenous people of the Americas, casting missionary activity as cultural imposition and destruction.

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Evaluating the Critiques

Importantly, God in the Rainforest shows that many of the anti-mission critics were rightly concerned with injustices faced by the Waorani and other indigenous groups. Their critiques extended beyond missionaries to government policies, corporate activity, and population encroachment.

But a passion for justice does not guarantee that one always sees matters clearly. Long judiciously digs through the historical evidence to sort out which critiques were justified, which were off the mark, and which were complicated enough to defy easy answers.

Some claims were simply false. For instance, the missionaries did not promote forced sterilization, as a 1975 Ecuadorian documentary declared. Others claims were based on limited or incomplete assessments of missionary activity. The missionaries, who ate grilled monkey meat with the Waorani, did not find Wao food objectionable, as an anthropologist in the 1990s assumed. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, Rachel Saint, SIL staffers, and missionaries from other organizations wanted to preserve as much Wao culture as they thought they could.

Concepts of missionary imperialism influenced journalists like Joe Kane, who published a book and two widely read New Yorker articles about the Waorani in the 1990s. Kane glorified Moi, a Wao man, as the symbol of a people determined to preserve their homeland. He contrasted Moi with Aencaedi, a Wao raised with the radio, volleyball, and the Christian God. But Long shows that Kane, operating from a “noble savage” framework, misread a number of missionary dynamics.

God in the Rainforest explores a host of problems that were difficult to untangle. Should the missionaries encourage strategic relocation to avoid oil companies that moved onto Wao lands? How were missionaries to deal with Waorani who were deeply interested in material goods like the Western clothes, shotguns, and medicines they discovered in the outside world? (The deeply pragmatic Wao culture did not value tradition highly, so many Waorani were actually eager to assimilate.) And how would Waorani deliberation help resolve any of these issues, since Wao culture held no mechanisms for collective decision-making? To complicate matters, the Wao were divided among different kinship groups.

Long brings the Waorani themselves back to the center of the story, where they belong. She shows how they negotiated complicated cultural transitions and moved in several different directions. Some, like the group that killed the Capuchin missionaries, kept resisting outside contact for several decades. Others seemed eager to leave Waorani life behind for Western delights. Still others moved back and forth between oil towns and their traditional villages, exchanging their blowguns and spears for Western medicine—or advocating politically for Waorani protection.

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By the 1990s, the missionaries had become just one voice among many non-Waorani contacts. Some Waorani held to a form of Christianity, encouraged by Dayomae and Saint, built on the principle that God had forbidden them to fight with spears. Some adopted Western cultural elements and resisted Christianity. Others ranged in an uncertain state in between.

Gifts and Flaws

God in the Rainforest does not explicitly dive into missiology, but much of this book echoes themes that missiologists and historians have brought out in recent years. Indigenous Christians, with all their gifts and flaws, play critically important roles alongside missionaries, with all their gifts and flaws. Bible translation has always been a slow, meticulous process that requires missionaries and indigenous Christians to work together. And evangelicals should not really be surprised when internal missionary conflicts arise. In fact, the very first dispute of this kind probably occurred in Acts 15, when Paul and Barnabas fell into “sharp dispute and debate” with Christians from Judea over the question of circumcision for Gentile believers (v. 2).

Complexities like these don’t pack the same emotional punch as clear stories of missionary heroism. They do, however, give us a fuller understanding of how the world works. In her epilogue, Long points out a key theme in Elisabeth Elliot’s 1966 missionary novel, No Graven Image. Her young, idealistic heroine discovers that there is much more to missionary work than audiences at home realize.

That audience ought to include anti-mission critics. A range of excellent academic work in the last couple of decades has demonstrated that the missionary enterprise is more complicated than scholars have assumed. God in the Rainforest is an excellent addition to this body of work. As Long points out, mission critics ought to at least accept that missionaries helped the Waorani end cycles of revenge killing. It is not clear, however, how many academics today have loosened their grip on the old habit of seeing missionaries primarily as cultural imperialists.

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Nor is it clear how many American evangelicals today see that non-Westerners are more than “the supporting cast for missionary heroism,” as Long phrases it. Still, most long-term evangelical missionaries and their agencies understand that cross-cultural ministry is not simple and straightforward. From its founding, SIL has emphasized that missionaries need rigorous linguistic and anthropological education, not just enthusiasm and inspiration.

The church and its missionaries profit from solid historical work. God in the Rainforest helps us understand the experiences, insights, and flaws of those who have gone before us. As such, it should draw us to greater humility, one that recognizes both our limitations and a wider sweep of God’s grace.

Jay Riley Case teaches history at Malone University. He is the author of An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity, 1812–1920 (Oxford University Press).

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God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador
God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador
Oxford University Press
480 pp., 25.29
Buy God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador from Amazon