Question: "Who was Jim Elliot?"

Answer: Phillip James Elliot (1927—1956) was an evangelist and Christian missionary who died pursuing his life’s ambition of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to unreached people. On January 8, 1956, he and four American missionary companions were speared to death on a remote beach by ten men of the primitive Auca/Waorani tribe—the tribe he had felt called to evangelize. Jim Elliot’s life story is documented by his widow, Elisabeth Elliot, in the Christian classics Through Gates of Splendor (1957) and Shadow of the Almighty (1958).

Born on October 8, 1927, Jim Elliot grew up in Portland, Oregon. His parents, Fred and Clara Elliot, instilled solid Christian values in Jim and his three siblings, reading the Bible to them and teaching them to pray and live for Christ’s glory. By age six, Jim had made a decisive profession of faith. As a youth, he was inspired by missionaries like William Carey and Amy Carmichael. Sensing a call to foreign missions, Jim Elliot attended Wheaton College, majoring in Greek studies.

Elliot was energetic, highly disciplined, intelligent, and gifted in various interests, including music, literature, art, stage performance, public speaking, and poetry. He excelled in his studies and became an outstanding wrestler in college, believing the sport would condition his body and benefit his training as a soldier of the Lord.

Growing ever more single-minded in purpose and devotion to Christ, Elliot began keeping a spiritual journal in college to document his deepening faith. He would continue the practice until his death, filling up four notebooks with more than 800 entries. On October 28, 1949, he penned this oft-quoted entry: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Only a few months later, Elliot heard the story of a small but fierce tribe in the Ecuadorian rain forest—an unreached people group known pejoratively as the Auca Indians (Waorani or Huaorani is what they call themselves). At the time, the tribe was considered a hostile indigenous group that had thus far killed every outsider who had ever ventured into their territory. Jim Elliot felt his course delineating; he wanted to reach these people with the message of Jesus Christ’s love.

Jim Elliot also met his future wife, Elizabeth Howard, in college, although they would not marry until years later. After graduating with high honors in 1949, Jim experienced a time of testing and preparation before beginning foreign missionary work in 1952 with the Quechua Indians at the Shandia mission station in Ecuador.

On October 8, 1953, Jim (age 26) and Elizabeth (age 21) were married in Quito, Ecuador. Valerie, their only child, was born on February 27, 1955.

Once married, the couple joined forces with friends and fellow missionaries Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian to embark on Operation Auca—a carefully planned mission to reach the Waorani. They began with attempts to show the tribe that their intentions were friendly. They flew in supplies and gifts for three months, dropping them in buckets to the people below. They used loudspeakers to transmit hospitable Waorani messages from the plane and through the forest. In time, the Waorani reciprocated with presents of their own.

Eventually, the team of five felt it was time to make contact. On January 3, 1956, the five men landed on a sandbar of the Curaray River, a few miles from the main Waorani village. At first, the missionaries were excited and encouraged by positive encounters with three of the Waorani. But a few days later, ten Waorani men armed with spears returned to the beach camp, fatally wounding all five missionaries. The news traveled around the globe, with the story of their deaths appearing in a photo essay of the January 30, 1956, issue of LIFE magazine.

Less than three years later, the work of reaching the Waorani resumed. Jim’s wife and daughter, along with Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, and three other wives of the murdered missionaries, moved to the Waorani village to live among the people who had killed their husbands, fathers, and brothers. According to Elisabeth Elliot’s account in The Savage My Kinsman (1961), many Waorani came to faith in Jesus Christ and now live in peace as a friendly tribe.

The martyrdom of Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries in Ecuador served as a catalyst for renewed efforts in foreign missionary work. Elliot’s legacy of single-mindedness and sacrifice has inspired thousands of others to commit their lives to the service of Christ.

Here are a few quotes from The Journals of Jim Elliot (1978) to inspire, challenge, and encourage your faith:

“Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

“I seek not a long life but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.”

“Forgive me for being so ordinary while claiming to know so extraordinary a God.”

“God always gives his best to those who leave the choice with him.”

“Lord, make my way prosperous not that I achieve high station, but that my life be an exhibit to the value of knowing God.”