Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot“For the Auca to have no love for the white man was understandable. Could Christian love wipe out the memories of past treachery and brutality? This was a challenge to Jim and Pete as they hoped to bring the message of God’s love and salvation to these primitive people.”
A few years ago I read Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot (who passed away recently in June 2015), in which she shares the life and writings of her husband Jim Elliott, one of five missionaries who were murdered in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956. I was familiar with the incident, but after reading about the life and heart of Elliot, I really wanted to learn more about how God had moved in the lives of these men, bringing them together in that place. I was interested to learn what kind of men these were who were willing to risk their very lives for a people they didn’t know and had a very good reason to fear. I was curious how their plans came about and what actually transpired on that fateful day. Elisabeth Elliot relates this story in first person in her first book Through Gates of Splendor, which was published the year following the five missionaries’ deaths.
Just as God divinely elects and draws the hearts of lost men to Himself and grants faith and repentance by which they are saved, I tend to believe that He also divinely calls certain men and women in a unique way to serve Him full-time as ministers or missionaries. Every believer is called to testify of Christ to those they know, but it takes a special calling by the Holy Spirit that moves a person to commit his or her life to leave everything that is familiar, comfortable, and safe behind in order to evangelize the lost in a foreign culture. Men like the Apostle Paul, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and Don Richardson experienced this calling, and it was evident that Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries did as well.
Besides experiencing the events firsthand, Elisabeth Elliot used the letters, diaries, and other writings of the men and their wives to relate her story. She begins her account, of course, by introducing her husband Jim and his early desires to serve as a missionary. (She goes into more detail about Jim’s early life, his college years, and their courtship in Shadow of the Almighty.) She also introduces the other men – Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian – giving their backgrounds and how they came to serve on the mission field of Ecuador. While she describes some of the living conditions, her focus is on the people they went there to meet and minister to. This included, among others, the Quichua Indians and the head-shrinking Jivaro in the Andes, and eventually the murderous Auca, who were isolated and remained unreached. Nate Saint had written, “For a number of years the Aucas have constituted a hazard to explorers, an embarrassment to the Republic of Ecuador, and a challenge to missionaries of the Gospel.” And this was the very group of people that Saint, Elliot, and their companions were determined to reach.
It goes without saying that these couples faced many challenges and difficulties as they had to adjust to living without modern conveniences, under harsh living and difficult travel conditions, an unwritten language to learn, and surrounded by primitive, mistrusting and threatening tribes. In spite of the set-backs, risks, and warnings of others, they continued to remain focused and worked together to do what they confidently believed God had brought them there to do. The following comments written by Pete Fleming in his diary represent the attitude of each of these brave men:
It is a grave and solemn problem: an unreachable people who murder and kill with extreme hatred. It comes to me strongly that God is leading me to do something about it, and a strong idea and impression comes into my mind that I ought to devote the majority of my time to collecting linguistic data on the tribe and making some intensive air surveys to look for Auca houses… I know that this may be the most important decision of my life, but I have a quiet peace about it.
And this indeed became the united focus of their efforts, beginning with the search for the Aucas, followed by making contact, overcoming the language barrier, and gaining their trust. This mission became known as “Operation Auca.” Gradually the missionaries succeeded in making steps towards friendly contact with the Aucas, and with each step they believed that God was preparing the way for them to bring the Gospel to them. Excitement and anticipation built when during one flight they discovered the first clearing of Auca dwellings, followed a couple of weeks later by another sighting. Nate Saint recorded, “As we reflected, it seemed providential that we had investigated that tiny spot that turned into the first Auca clearing we had ever laid eyes on…It seemed to mean that now was the Lord’s time to do something about them. Again we agreed to pray about the matter and compare notes further.”
Once Auca dwellings were discovered, weekly flights were made over them, and gifts were lowered in baskets by a rope in order to communicate friendship and gain trust. When the Aucas returned their gifts with a gift of their own, they saw this as an answer to prayer, “another sign to proceed, an encouragement that friendly relations are possible and that they will hear the Gospel!” After one fly-over and gift-drop, Jim Elliot wrote, “I saw a thing that thrilled me: it seemed an old man who stood beside the house waved with both his arms as if to signal us to come down! Aucas, waving to me to come! God send me soon to the Aucas!”
As they developed a plan for approaching the Auca people, thought had to be put into what they would wear, bring, and say. In preparing for one trip, Ed McCully wrote, “For myself, I am definitely ready to go in and feel that it would be reasonably safe…God being with us—and up to this point we have every confidence that He is—I think this [plan] would put us in. The whole project is moving faster than we had originally dared to hope, and while I’m not for getting ahead of God, I feel that we shouldn’t lag.”
Elisabeth Elliott describes the strategies that were discussed and the plans that were developed and executed. Little did they know at the time that only a few months later, the five men would be brutally martyred, but that their efforts would not be in vain as their widows would remain to continue the work, and Christ’s love would eventually break through and bring salvation to the Auca people.
Although their backgrounds, personalities, and skill sets differed, the one thing these men had in common which comes through in the book was their unswerving determination and dedication to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a people who have never heard it before, no matter the cost. To illustrate this, consider the following quotes by these five men, as well as their wives.
“I have just returned to Quito, after spending twelve days in the jungles with Jim Elliot and Pete Fleming among the lowland Quichua Indians…I praise God for bringing us to this land to work with these people. I pray that we might be faithful to our calling and that God will use us to bring many of these Indians to Himself.” (McCully)
“I only hope that He will let me preach to those who have never heard that name Jesus. What else is worthwhile in this life? I have heard of nothing better. ‘Lord, send me!’” (Elliot)
“Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” (Elliot)
“I think a ‘call’ to the mission field is no different from any other means of guidance. A call is nothing more nor less than obedience to the will of God, as God presses it home to the soul by whatever means He chooses.” (Fleming)
“I’m concerned about safety, but I don’t let it keep me from getting on with God’s business. Every time I take off, I am ready to deliver up the life I owe to God. I feel we should be quick to take advantage of every possible improvement in carrying out the job before us.” (Saint)
“Roj (Youderian) is one of the few missionaries I know who display a real sense of urgency in the task of winning souls.” (Saint)
“May God continue to put His good hand on the project and may we drop it when not fully assured of His direction. At present we feel unanimously that God is in it. May the praise be His, and may it be that some Auca, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, will be with us as we lift our voices in praise before His throne.” (Saint)
“I will die to self. I will begin to ask God to put me in a service of constant circumstances where to live Christ I must die to self. I will be alive unto God. That I may learn to love Him with my heart, mind, soul and body.” (Youderian)
“As we weigh the future and seek the will of God, does it seem right that we should hazard our lives for just a few savages? As we ask ourselves this question, we realize that it is not the call of the needy thousands, rather it is the simple intimation of the prophetic Word that there shall be some from every tribe in His presence in the last day, and in our hearts we feel that it is pleasing to Him that we should interest ourselves in making an opening into the Auca prison for Christ.” (Saint)
And the wives were of the same mind with their husbands, as Elisabeth Elliot relates,
The other wives and I talked together one night about the possibility of becoming widows. What would we do? God gave us peace of heart, and confidence that whatever might happen, His Word would hold…God’s leading was unmistakable up to this point. Each of us knew when we married our husbands that there would never be a question about who came first –God and His work held first place in each life. It was the condition of true discipleship; it became devastatingly meaningful now. It was a time for soul-searching, a time for counting the possible cost…The point of decision had been reached. God’s command, “Go ye, and preach the gospel to every creature,” was the categorical imperative. The question of personal safety was wholly irrelevant.
Just three days before the five men would lose their lives at the hands of the Aucas in a surprise attack, Nate Saint ironically wrote in his detailed journal, “We find we have a friendlier feeling for these fellows all the time. We must not let that lead us to carelessness. It is no small thing to try to bridge between twentieth century and the stone age. God help us to take care…My little blank revolver is a welcome companion on such a venture. But safety is of the Lord. May we see ‘them’ soon.”
This book’s title comes from the lyrics of one of the missionaries’ favorite hymns, “We Rest on Thee.” The words of the last verse are,
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.
Through Gates of Splendor is indeed a compelling account of the faithfulness of God’s servants and His faithfulness to them in using them to save the lost in a dark world. For, as Jim Elliot is famous for saying, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.”
This story is just one of many accounts of how God is continuing to expand His kingdom on earth, drawing men and women of every tongue, kindred, tribe, and nation to Himself. It’s one of those missionary stories that I believe every Christian should be familiar with.
Five men with widely differing personalities had come to Ecuador from the eastern United States, the West Coast, and the Midwestern states. Representing three different “faith-missions,” these men and their wives were one in their common belief in the Bible as the literal and supernatural and perfect word from God to man. Christ said, “Go ye”; their answer was, “Lord, send me.”
What missionary’s story have you read and found to be inspiring?
Related Articles & Sites
- Elisabeth Elliot’s website (www.elisabethelliot.org)
- Go Ye and Preach the Gospel – original article in 1956 LIFE magazine (books.google.com)
- The Heart of a Martyr (imallbooked.com)
- Operation Auca: Four Years after Martyrdom (www.christianitytoday.com)
- Remembering Five Missionary Martyrs (intervarsity.org)
- End of the Spear – Film based on this account (www.imdb.com)
- 31 Days of Missionary Stories (barbarah.wordpress.com)