Phillip James “Jim” Elliot (1927-1956), evangelical missionary martyr, was born in Portland, Oregon, one of four children born to a Plymouth Brethren evangelist and his wife, a chiropractor. A pious and forthright Christian from his grade school days onward, he enrolled at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1945. A leader in the school’s missionary league, he met and courted Elisabeth Howard, the daughter of missionaries to Belgium with family ties to the long-running Protestant periodical, The Sunday School Times. Putting their plans for Christian service ahead of their romance, Jim and Elisabeth separately attended Wycliffe Bible Translators’ School for Summer Linguistics and Jim began working among the Quichua Indians of Ecuador under the twin auspices of a Brethren and an independent mission board.
In 1953 Jim and Elisabeth married and continued his work in Ecuador. In September 1955 a missionary friend from Missionary Aviation Fellowship spotted a tiny Huaoroni (“Auca”) Indian settlement in the jungle. The Huaoroni, a heretofore “unreached” people known for their reclusiveness and ferocity proved an enticing challenge to Elliot and he and four other missionaries began to establish friendly contact with the tribe. After a three-month campaign, they finally established face-to-face contact in early January, 1956. While the initial meetings were friendly something went wrong in a meeting on January 8th and all five of the missionaries were speared to death.
The subsequent search for, and news of their murder, were a sensation in the United States, receiving major broadcast and newspaper coverage as well as a major photo spread about the missionaries and their widows and children in Life magazine. Elisabeth quickly wrote two books, Through Gates of Splendor and Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (the latter drawing extensively on eight years’ worth of Jim’s journal entries and eventually released in 1978 as The Journals of Jim Elliot) which quickly became best-sellers and established the five “Auca Martyrs”–and particularly her husband–as models of Christian piety and service that inspired a generation of American evangelicals. For her part, Elisabeth remained in Ecuador and eventually with Rachel Saint (sister of Nate Saint, one of the murdered missionaries) established peaceful contact with the Huoarani, lived in their midst for two years and began to convert a few of the tribe to Christianity. Due largely to differences with Saint, Elisabeth and her young daughter left Ecuador in 1963 and returned to the United States where she became an important figure within the evangelical subculture as missionary heroine, author, and speaker.
For further reading see Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (Harper, 1958).