From Jim Elliot to John Allen Chau: The Missionary-Martyr Dilemma

by Lucy S. R. Austen

Until recently, few in the US had heard of North Sentinel Island, where young American John Allen Chau was killed with arrows by members of an isolated tribal group.

But as the story spread—first the tale of a 26-year-old adventurer and world traveler, then of a Christian missionary willing to risk his life—people around the globe responded with swift and sometimes scathing reactions.

Many considered Chau a fool, or worse, criticizing him for breaking Indian law and endangering the isolated Sentinelese, who have no immunity to many common diseases. Others called Chau an inspiration, even a martyr. Some immediately drew parallels to late missionary Jim Elliot.

Sometime between Friday, November 16, when Chau wrote his last journal entry, and Saturday, November 17, when the fisherman who had brought him to his destination saw his body on the beach, Chau was killed by the people he had sought to reach for Christ. One of a handful of uncontacted tribes remaining, the Sentinelese have no peaceful contact with outsiders. We don’t even know their real name; they are called “Sentinelese” because the British named their land North Sentinel Island.

Though many are fascinated by the idea of a “stone age” tribe, Chau’s goal was not “tribal tourism.” He wanted to live with the Sentinelese, share the story of Jesus, and translate the Bible into their language, as his journal entries and statements from All Nations, Chau’s sending mission organization, make clear. [All Nations shared more details on CT’s Quick to Listen podcast.]

The similarities between his death and Elliot’s are hard to miss. Sometime during the afternoon of Sunday, January 8, 1956, Jim Elliot and four friends—Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian—were killed with spears by members of an isolated tribal group then known to outsiders as “Aucas,” or “savages.” (We now know that the people call themselves the Waorani.)

The five men wanted to establish a relationship and tell the story of Jesus. The news of their death spread like wildfire. Americans, less than two years away from the launch of Sputnik, were fascinated by the idea of a “primitive” tribe still engaged in spear warfare.

But like the recent response to Chau’s quest to evangelize the Sentinelese, the public reaction was polarized. Some saw the men as martyrs, dying for the cause of Christ and the salvation of the Waorani. Others saw them as fools, who deserved whatever they got after intruding where it was clear they weren’t wanted.

Two Northwestern Adventurers

Jim Elliot has become the most widely known of the five because his widow, Elisabeth Elliot, went on to write his biography, publish his edited journals, and forge a career as a writer and speaker, often retelling aspects of his story.

Elliot and Chau shared more than a desire to reach remote tribes with the gospel. Both were young when they died. Elliot had just turned 28; Chau was about to turn 27. Both men were natives of the Pacific Northwest. Elliot grew up in Portland, Oregon, and Chau just across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.

Both loved the outdoors and were exhilarated by risk-taking. Elliot was an avid mountain climber who climbed Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, and a number of other Cascade peaks. Chau described climbing down slippery “dry” waterfalls in the Cascades, hiking Washington’s Table Mountain, and exploring forests around British Columbia’s Chilliwack River.

Both grew up in missions-soaked environments. Elliot’s father encouraged him toward missions from an early age, and he started volunteering for short missions trips in high school. He read, among other missionary stories, the journals of David Brainerd, the biographies of Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone, and the writings of Amy Carmichael. He was heavily involved with Foreign Missions Fellowship while attending Wheaton College.

Chau had apparently been going on short-term missions trips since high school as well, and had attended Oral Roberts University, which emphasizes foreign missions. He cited David Livingstone and Bruce Olson as inspirations and was reading a book about the wives of Adoniram Judson shortly before his death.

Chau’s writing does not directly mention Elliot, but everyone who pays attention to missionary stories has heard the story of Jim Elliot. He is particularly known for pithy quotations about his willingness to “burn out” for God:

Psalms 104:4: “He makes his ministers a flame of fire.” Am I ignitible? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of “other things.” Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul, short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him, and He has promised baptism with the Spirit and with fire. “Make me Thy fuel, flame of God.”

Elliot also said, “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you Lord Jesus.” Even the cover of his published journals stresses this idea: “At 21, he began an adventure that would require the ultimate sacrifice.” Martyrdom as peak adventure: whether we mean to or not, this is often the tale we end up telling.

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Source: Christianity Today