A Tale of Two Brothers

by Colin Phelps  

There can be few people who know anything about missions in the 20th Century who have not heard the story of the five young men who died, January 8th, 1956, in their attempt to reach the Woarani [1] Indians of Ecuador. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian were cut down in the prime of their lives as they waited on a sand bar in the Ecuadorian jungle; waited for further contact with a people unreached with the Gospel and hostile to anyone from the outside world. The Christian world, particularly in the West reeled as it tried to make sense of this incredible tragedy. “Why would God allow such potential to be destroyed?” Even the secular press couldn’t ignore this tale. LIFE magazine ran a 10 page article featuring journal entries from the men themselves. Their headline? … “‘Go Ye and Preach the Gospel’ – Five Do and Die.”

Thanks to the writing skills of Elisabeth Elliot, Jim Elliot’s widow, the world has heard of and been amazed at the commitment and dedication of these young men. In her book Shadow of the Almighty, in a chapter entitled “Mission Accomplished”, she writes of Jim’s last days and poignantly and simply concludes with the words: “…the men for whom Jim Elliot prayed for six years killed him and his four companions.”

At the recent Amsterdam 2000 conference, in front of 10,000 delegates from around the world, nearly fifty years after the incident, Steve Saint, son of Nate Saint, the martyred pilot, shared the platform with two Woarani believers. When delegates were asked to stand to indicate who had been influenced by the death of the five, a reporter wrote, “It was impossible to gauge the extent of the response because everyone around us stood enthusiastically.”

Jim Elliot and his friends will be remembered as committed young people prepared to die for their Lord. An inspiration, and rightly so. 

It was with amazed delight that I recently came across another dimension to the story of Jim Elliot. Older by three years, Jim’s brother, Bert, also followed God’s call to South America, to the mountains of Peru. In a recent article it was revealed that Bert and his wife, Colleen, now in their seventies, had just completed 50 years in missionary service. They went to Peru in 1949, and have been ministering together for the Kingdom of God, planting at least 40 churches. In a world where attention spans are shaped by 30 second TV commercials, and the ever changing landscape of technology, the thought of a 50 year ministry seems unreal. What a picture of commitment and endurance. 

The vastly different ministries of these two brothers highlight some truths about the Christian life. I’m not going to unpack them in detail but throw them out for your consideration and meditation.

  1. Fame or reputation is a poor indicator of an individual’s value in God’s economy. While Jim Elliot’s fame and reputation are widespread, Bert Elliot is, for the most part, an unknown. Yet both have contributed significantly to God’s kingdom. 
  2. What your life, as a “living sacrifice” to God, looks like will differ dramatically from other believers. Both Jim and Bert gave their lives unconditionally to the Lordship of Christ. For one it meant an early martyrdom, for the other, a long lifetime of service in a foreign land. 
  3. Much has been said, both critically and defensively, about today’s generation of young adults who are often unwilling to enter into long-term commitments to organisations or projects. I want to suggest that, whether we believe this represents a lack of commitment, or a changed focus, God’s standard has not changed. He demands absolute commitment to himself, and he’ll make the decisions as to how long, or short, your time in any one place will be. 

I started this article with Jim Elliot’s famous quote, which I’ve always seen as being prophetic and applicable to the sacrifice that he and his friends made. I now see that it applies equally and just as appropriately to his brother, Bert, and the long-term church planting service that he has offered his Lord.

May I be so bold as to add to Jim Elliot’s original words: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, by dying young or living a lengthy life of obedient service, to gain what he cannot lose.” 

Colin is the missions lecturer at BTC Southern Africa.

[1]  Better known as the Auca. Auca is the derogatory word meaning “savage” which outsiders of the tribe used to describe them. The word “Woarani” is the word the tribe uses to refer to themselves. It means “the people”.

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