Jim Elliot: One Great Purpose

Chapter 1
A Day to Remember

For the sixth day, Jim Elliot climbed down thirty-five feet to the ground from the tree house where he had spent a restless night. Wisps of fog hung above the river and snaked among the trees. High above, puffy clouds had massed on the eastern horizon, glowing red and gold as the morning sun crept up behind them to signal the start of another day in the Amazon jungle. A fresh set of paw prints crisscrossed the white sand beach, evidence that a puma had been skulking around the campsite during the night.

Ed McCully and Roger Youderian climbed down from the tree house behind Jim. The three men worked together to get a fire started and a pot of coffee brewing. After a breakfast of coffee, papaya, and bread, the three young missionaries opened their Bibles and read a psalm together. They talked about how it applied to them and their situation deep in the jungle of eastern Ecuador. Then they bowed their heads and spent time praying together.

By the time the men had completed their early-morning routine, the sun had climbed high into the sky and burned off the morning fog. The billowing clouds that had hung over the horizon were now gone. An unusually bright, clear day—at least for this time of year—had settled across the jungle. The three men spent the rest of the morning writing letters to their wives and strolling along the river’s edge as they waited for their two companions to arrive.

Around lunchtime, they heard the familiar buzz reverberating above the jungle. Soon the yellow Piper Cruiser was circling over them. The men watched as the plane lined up on the river’s edge over the narrow strip of sand they had affectionately nicknamed Palm Beach. The high-pitched whirring of the engine slowed to a medium hum, and then the plane’s wheels thumped onto the sand. The Piper pulled to a halt at the far end of the beach, near the tree house. As soon as the engine was cut, Nate Saint, the pilot, and Pete Fleming, his passenger, climbed from the cockpit. Nate was carrying a large picnic hamper, the sight of which cheered Jim, Ed, and Roger. Each day, Ed’s wife Marilou sent along with Nate and Pete a delicious treat for the men. This time it was blueberry muffins wrapped in a dishtowel and still hot from the oven. Also tucked into the hamper was a quart of vanilla ice cream that Marilou had made. As the men devoured the muffins and ice cream, Nate and Pete delivered some great news.

While flying from the mission station at Arajuno, Nate and Pete had taken a detour over the Auca Indian settlement, where they had seen only a handful of women and children. About halfway to Palm Beach, they had spotted more Auca Indians—about ten men in a group, walking determinedly toward the missionaries’ location. The five men were about to have Auca visitors at Palm Beach. They whooped and hollered with delight as they finished their homemade treat.

Jim Elliot could hardly wait for the visitors to arrive. Today he was going to meet a group of Auca Indians face-to-face; his hope was to share the gospel message with these infamous people. It was the culmination of a dream he’d had for years, a dream that had taken months of careful planning. Sunday, January 8, 1956, was going to be a day to remember, Jim told himself. Since arriving in Ecuador as a missionary in 1952, not a day had gone by that had meant as much to him as today did.

Chapter 2
Full Speed Ahead

It was 2:06 p.m., Saturday, February 2, 1952, the moment that twenty-five-year-old Jim Elliot had been waiting for. Jim watched from the deck of the Santa Juana as the stern line that held the freighter snugly against the Outer Harbor Dock in San Pedro, California, was released. Behind him he could hear the groan of a tugboat as the ship edged away from its mooring.

Trying to suppress a huge grin, Jim leaned against the rail and waved to his parents. He could see his mother dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, and every minute or so his father rubbed a hand over his cheeks. Jim felt a little guilty about being so happy while they were so miserable. His parents were saying good-bye to their youngest son, who was on his way to be a missionary among the Quichua Indians in the jungles of eastern Ecuador, an area shrouded in mystery and superstition. Ever since his first year at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he had graduated with honors, Jim was aware of a strong desire deep inside him to become a missionary. Now, with the throbbing engines of the Santa Juana vibrating the deck on which he stood, Jim was finally on his way to living out his dream.

Jim waved again to his parents. His father wore a navy blue suit. His mother had on her best apricot-colored dress and floral hat. Ever since Jim’s mother had learned about Jim’s desire to be a missionary, she had pointed out that there was plenty of Christian work to do in the United States. Despite his mother’s misgivings about his chosen course in life, Jim remembered all the ways his parents had prepared him for what lay ahead.

Fred and Clara Elliot had taught all four of their children the value of independence. From an early age, Jim, his older brothers Bert and Bob, and his younger sister Jane had been given more freedom than most children their age. Jim and his friends loved to go camping and fishing for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. They would collect enough equipment and supplies at the local thrift store and then head into the wilderness around Portland, Oregon, where Jim was born and raised. Jim’s parents trusted the boys not to get into trouble and maintained that the trips were a good way for the children to learn responsibility.

Jim’s parents also believed that children should work for what they had. There were no free handouts in the Elliot household. There wasn’t a lot of money to go around anyway. Jim’s father was an evangelist for the Plymouth Brethren Church, and his mother was a chiropractor who worked out of the family home. To make extra money, Jim’s older brother Bert had begun recycling long before it became commonplace to do so. Every Saturday, Bert would drive his old truck to the city dump, where he, Jim, and Jim’s friend Dick Fisher would rummage through the trash looking for anything that could be resold. The trio would collect bottles and cans and anything else that might have value. They also found items they kept for themselves, such as bricks to build a backyard barbecue with, an old but useful couch, even a bearskin with the head still attached. Jim found a set of strange tools that someone at school told him were used for taxidermy. He was so fascinated by the tools that he took lessons in how to stuff animals. The first thing he stuffed was one of the pesky seagulls that dive-bombed him at the dump.

The Elliot children’s friends had always been welcome in the Elliot home, and with four children, a constant procession of young people marched in and out of the house. Over the years, many missionaries had also visited and stayed with the family. During dinner, Jim would often ask these visitors questions. It was these visits that began to fire his young imagination with the importance and adventure of missionary life.

Jim moved to the aft deck of the Santa Juana. The propeller churned the water to a froth as it pushed the ship out into the Pacific Ocean. Jim’s parents, still standing on the dock, were now specks on the horizon. Jim waved to them one last time. The next time he would see them he would be the missionary coming home to Portland to visit. He would be the one answering the questions for some curious youngster.

Finally, as San Pedro faded from view, Jim placed his camera carefully back into the leather case that hung around his neck. He glanced at his friend and missionary companion, Pete Fleming. “Well, we’re on our way,” he said enthusiastically.

Pete adjusted his glasses and grinned. “Yeah, we’re on our way, partner!”

Jim liked the word partner. Finding a partner to go with him to Ecuador had been hard. He’d thought he’d found the right partner twice before, but both times the arrangement had fallen through. First there had been Bill Cathers, whom Jim first met at Wheaton College. Jim and Bill had renewed their friendship at a Wycliffe Bible Translators Camp they had attended in Oklahoma during the summer of 1950. It was at this camp that Jim had made the final decision to go to Ecuador and had invited Bill Cathers to join him. Bill had agreed, and the two of them had stayed on in Oklahoma for several weeks after the camp was over to see how they would work together as a team. Jim and Bill led Bible studies in a small Plymouth Brethren Church in Oklahoma City. To pay their expenses, they did odd jobs, such as painting houses and fixing fences. Jim and Bill worked well together, and by the end of the six weeks, they were ready to go home, raise the money needed for support on the mission field, and say good-bye to their families and friends.

All along, Jim had been hoping and praying that he and two other men would go to Ecuador together as missionaries. Just as he was about to leave Oklahoma City for Portland, it seemed as though his prayers had been answered. Ed McCully, another friend from Wheaton College, wrote to Jim to tell him that he’d quit law school and was ready to become a missionary.

Jim could hardly believe how well things were falling into place. On his way back to Portland, he stopped off in Milwaukee to visit Ed McCully. Meeting Ed again after a year, Jim was once more struck by his friend’s wonderful speaking ability. It was no accident that Ed had won a national oratory award. And while Jim knew that Ed would have made a great lawyer, he was even more excited about what a great missionary his friend would be.

Within weeks of getting back to Portland, however, Jim’s plans began to fall apart. First, Bill Cathers wrote saying that he and his girlfriend had decided to get married, and although he still felt he’d be going to Ecuador as a missionary, he wasn’t sure a wife would fit into such a primitive setting as living among the Quichua Indians. As a result, he didn’t think he should go with Jim.

Jim was even more discouraged when Ed McCully announced plans to marry his girlfriend Marilou. Jim wondered why everything seemed to be going wrong. He was certain God wanted him to go to Ecuador, but now the two partners he had recruited were both getting married. Would he ever find a missionary partner?

Finally, Jim decided that if he could not find someone to go with him, he’d go alone. He began to visit Brethren churches in the United States to raise the financial support he would need to be a missionary. Seattle, Washington, was one of his first stops. There, his old friend Pete Fleming had arranged for him to speak at his local Brethren church, or assembly, as it was called. (The Elliot and Fleming families had been friends long before Jim and Pete were born, and from earliest memory, the two boys had played together.)

Jim preached a stirring message at the church in Seattle about missions. In fact, his message was so stirring that it changed the direction of Pete Fleming’s life. Until that night, Pete had been planning to go to seminary and then marry his girlfriend Olive. But as he listened to his old friend speak, he became convinced he should go with Jim to Ecuador.

Finally, once he’d given up looking, Jim had the missionary partner he had been praying for. Together, he and Pete set off across the United States. They spoke in churches and Bible studies all the way to the East Coast and back. As they traveled, they became convinced that God wanted to send them out as partners, just as Jesus had sent the disciples out two by two. And now, here they were together aboard ship en route to Ecuador.

As the Santa Juana turned south and steamed full speed ahead parallel to the coastline, Jim and Pete made their way down to the cabin they were sharing. Jim arranged some items on the shelf beside his bunk—a photo of his family taken at his brother Bob’s wedding, another of his friend Betty, his Bible, and the small, black, leather-bound notebook he’d carried with him everywhere since college. He hardly had to open the notebook; he had read it, preached from it, and quoted from it so many times that he knew its contents by heart. He had begun the notebook when he was a freshman at Wheaton College. In its pages, he had recorded interesting and challenging facts about the mission field. During his second year at Wheaton, he had been asked to speak at some intercollegiate gatherings of the Student Foreign Mission Fellowship. At first he wondered what to speak about, but as he thought about his notebook, he decided to challenge the students with the facts he’d gathered.