Operation Auca (January 8, 1956) – Sixty Years Later

Written by Larry Dinkins on .

guest post by Larry Dinkins

Map of the area where Operation Auca took place, in EcuadorThis week, 60 years ago, five missionaries made contact with the Auca (literally “savage”) tribal group in the Ecuadorian jungle. Previously, no one had ever engaged this tribe without being killed. The previous year, gifts had been exchanged paving the way for this encounter. On January 3rd, the five married men, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Peter Fleming, Nate Saint (oldest at 32), and Ed McCully established a camp at “Palm Beach” along the Curaray River and waited. On January 6, two naked women and a man emerged from the jungle and made friendly contact, even agreeing to take a ride in the yellow Piper. By January 8, the anxious wives got word that all five of the missionaries had been slaughtered on that lonely beach. The coverage of the event by Life Magazine and its photo essay broadcast the news around the world culminating in what has become one of the most inspirational missionary stories of the 20th century. 

Two years later,  Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister) and Elisabeth Elliot with her 3-year-old daughter went to live among the Auca for a period of three years. Eventually most of the village, including six in the murder party, turned to Christ.  Elisabeth returned to the states as a writer and speaker, producing a total of 28 books over the next fifty years, including Through Gates of Splendor, Shadow of the Almighty and The Savage, My Kinsmen.

In 1969 Elisabeth married Addison Leitch, a professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary. He died of cancer in 1973. After his death, she married yet again in 1977 to a hospital chaplain named Lars Glen, a former lodger at the rented room at her home. That marriage lasted until her death at 88 in June, 2015.

Jim and Elisabeth Elliot have stepped “Through Gates of Splendor” into their reward, yet their words and influence remain six decades later. Elisabeth is a particular inspiration to me, especially how she handled suffering at multiple points in her life, first through the high risks of ministry in Ecuador and the wrenching experience of seeing cancer take her second spouse within only four years. Her last decade was a constant battle with dementia, a condition that she endured with godly acceptance as she had previously done with the passing of her husbands.


Over the years, I have benefited from many of her books, articles, spin-off films and radio broadcasts. Two articles in Christianity Today have been especially impactive to me:  Prayer of the Five Widows and When Death Takes Away a Loved One.  A lesser known novel also caught my eye called, No Graven Image. I was struck by its honesty and willingness to reveal the blind spots of often idolized missionaries. It was based on an idealistic and sheltered young missionary woman who was shocked by her humanity. The classic passage in the book is where the heroine, Margaret Sparhawk, utters a swear word:

 “But then there was still my lack of spirituality, of which, God knew, I had plenty of evidence every day. Why, the very evening of the day I had first visited Rosa I had come home elated, praising God for progress, and as I turned the key in the lock a fingernail snapped.  Damn it all!  was my immediate response, followed by shock in thinking how shocked everyone would be to know that such a word was even a part of my vocabulary. Of course I had not said it aloud-the word was forbidden at home, was not so much admitted to thought-but I had thought it, and I thought it again when, a minute later, as I was searching for a nail file to repair the damage, the bureau drawer stuck first on one side, then on the other, and suddenly jerked out and dropped to the floor with a bang.”

This novel, written in 1966, was the first missionary novel to portray a missionary swearing-albeit as a thought only.  Elliot goes on to unpack the “humanness” of Margaret in the rest of the book, showing that missionaries are indeed vulnerable to the passions and temptations of the rest of mankind.

This transparent persona of Elisabeth can also be seen in the following selection of quotes:

“…the deepest spiritual lessons are not learned by his letting us have our way in the end, but by his making us wait, bearing with us in love and patience until we are able to honestly pray what he taught his disciples to pray: Thy will be done.”

“God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good. God's refusals are always merciful -- "severe mercies" at times but mercies all the same. God never denies us our hearts desire except to give us something better.”

 “A man must at times be hard as nails: willing to face up to the truth about himself, and about the woman he loves, refusing compromise when compromise is wrong. But he must also be tender. No weapon will breach the armor of a woman's resentment like tenderness.”

“The world looks for happiness through self-assertion. The Christian knows that joy is found in self-abandonment. 'If a man will let himself be lost for My sake,' Jesus said, 'he will find his true self.' A Christian woman's true freedom lies on the other side of a very small gate---humble obedience---but that gate leads out into a largeness of life undreamed of by the liberators of the world, to a place where the God-given differentiation between the sexes is not obfuscated but celebrated, where our inequalities are seen as essential to the image of God, for it is in male and female, in male as male and female as female, not as two identical and interchangeable halves, that the image is manifested.”

“But the question to precede all others, which finally determines the course of our lives is What do I really want? Did I want what I wanted, or did I want what He wanted, no matter what it might cost?”

 “When our plans are interrupted, his are not. His plans are proceeding exactly as scheduled, moving us always (including those minutes or hours or years which seem most useless or wasted or unendurable).”

 “The disciplined Christian will be very careful what sort of counsel he seeks from others. Counsel that contradicts the written Word is ungodly counsel. Blessed is the man that walketh not in that.”

“Single life may be only a stage of a life’s journey, but even a stage is a gift. God may replace it with another gift, but the receiver accepts His gifts with thanksgiving. This gift for this day. The life of faith is lived one day at a time, and it has to be lived—not always looked forward to as though the “real” living were around the next corner. It is today for which we are responsible. God still owns tomorrow.”

It is helpful to look back and evaluate just what impact Operation Auca and individuals like the Elliots and Nate Saint have had missiologically:

1. Increase in recruiting

Epic missionary tales have always been used to spark an interest in pioneer missions.  I heard of the loss of 12 OMF missionaries in Central Thailand through an auto accident in 1978, which God used to push ahead my application to OMF in 1979 and subsequent ministry in Thailand starting in 1980. Operation Auca came after World War II when there was an increase in evangelical zeal. The timing of this event and the subsequent Life Magazine article was a factor that galvanized an entire generation in regard to missions.

2. The blood of the martyr is seed of the church

Seven of the Auca murder party, their village and subsequently scores of others within the tribe came to Christ over the next few years.

3. Risk takers

Operation Auca was not sanctioned by any mission agency. Strict confidentiality about their plans was held by the team members. They were warned of the dangers of reaching this tribe, but went ahead with their plan. Various criticism arose about this fact after the tragedy, yet mission work has always been a calculated risk based upon the clear directives in the Word of God.

4. Teamwork

A single couple, even with the gifting’s of the Elliot’s, could not have attempted such a beach head with the Auca by themselves.  This was a strong team of not just the five men but also their wives.

5. Language priority

Elisabeth Elliot was a Greek major at Wheaton and ended up becoming a linguist in many languages, a key to her unusual grasp of tribal world views and culture. Her commitment to language can be seen by the fact that one of the conditions for her engagement to Jim Elliot was that he learn the Quichua language.

6. Incarnational Ministry and Power of Forgiveness

Two years after the incident, Elisabeth and three-year-old Valerie along with Rachel Saint went to live with the tribe and continued with them until 1963. One can only imagine the impact that this act had as Elizabeth and Rachel entered the village for the first time and expressed forgiveness to the killers.

7. Locating a person of peace

A tribe member named Dayuma had escaped the Auca tribe, taught Elisabeth the language and joined with her in ministry.

8. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves

When approached by the tribesmen wielding 9 foot spears, the 5 missionaries could have tried to escape or used the pistols they carried. Such an action should be reviewed in our day when believers are encouraged to purchase handguns and a Christian University president tells his students to be prepared to use them by saying, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

9. Innovation and technology

As a pilot, I marveled the first time I heard how Nate Saint had rigged up a “bucket drop” to deliver goods to the Auca that were placed in a bucket at the end of long rope that hung from his Piper.  Nate’s son, Steve, continued his father’s legacy by innovations like the “flying car” he invented. 

10. The messy nature of mission work

Elisabeth Elliot reflected 30 years after the incident, “For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story, the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all “feel good” about our faith. . . . The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. . . . There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer” (excerpted from "Where Gates of Splendor Led" by Ruth Tucker)


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