Sheer folly or an inspiring tale of martyrdom?

The Waorani people of Ecuador (Getty)

God in the Rainforest
By Kathryn T Long
OUP, 446pp, £22.99/$34.95

In the mid-1950s, no fewer than 23,000 North American Protestants were whizzing – sometimes trudging – around the world’s mission fields. An isolated spot, inhabited by people who had probably never seen a Westerner, and who spoke a particularly tricky language, was regarded by many as a plum assignment.

Five young men of Evangelical tastes – Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian – were therefore delighted to be headed to a remote corner of Ecuador, home to the Waorani people, up to this point followers of animistic faith. As Kathryn Long explains in her impressively even-handed and well-researched book, the dream quickly became a nightmare. Just a few days after making first contact in January 1956, the five men’s bodies lay on a beach, killed in 10 minutes flat by Wao spears.

Misunderstandings rather than random brutality were to blame; but US Evangelical Protestantism was eager to turn the Ecuador tragedy into a tale of martyrdom. Some voices of dissent were raised, especially by liberal-leaning media. Hadn’t the five men been reckless, wandering into strange lands as part of what they called a “faith mission”? The notion of God’s will always guiding those who cared to discern it was all well and good, but perhaps, Christian Century opined, these men had “died needlessly”, and sending “hundreds of poorly trained young missionaries to the ends of the earth” was not the smartest strategy.

This revealed a significant fault line within American Protestantism. In 1957, Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, produced a book, Through Gates of Splendor, that did a fine job of making the positive, providentialist case. Rachel Saint, sister of the slain Nate, also entered the fray and the two women worked hard to sustain interest in Ecuadorian evangelism. They received support from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Christian translation organisation with a fondness for South American missions. Elliot and Saint were joined in their efforts by a young Wao woman, Dayomae, who went on to broker a meeting between Elliot, Saint and her own kinship group. Ahead of this, back in the US, Dayomae decided that she wanted to be baptised, which was every bit as handy as her mastery of the Waorani language.

So it was that Elliot and Saint made contact with the Waorani on October 8, 1958, at a clearing on the Tewaeno River. The encounter went swimmingly and the two women felt accepted into the kinship group. Rachel Saint developed a somewhat muddled approach to her work. She routinely criticised any Waorani behaviour of which she disapproved, but believed in preserving aspects of their lifestyle that did not clash with the Gospel. At bottom, she saw the Ecuador mission as part of a cosmic battle between good and evil. The dust jacket of one of her books described the Waorani as “the world’s most murderous tribe”, but Saint saw them as benighted people who just needed to be lifted out of spiritual darkness.

Elliot, too, in her book The Savage My Kinsman, was not slow to criticise parts of Wao culture, but she did not exhibit the sense of superiority that made others feel they were entitled to sit in judgment. Her book lacked the “missionary triumphalism” that pervaded Saint’s writing.

In the end, the women could not work well together, so Elliot packed her bags in November 1961. For the next nine years Saint was the only full-time missionary in the area: a staggering achievement given the onslaught of setbacks. Some progress does seem to have been made in “Christianisation”, but this coincided with a rise in anti-missionary sentiment, rivalries with other kinship groups, the ever-present problem of contact diseases, and the incursion of oil men in search of profit.

Internecine tensions also arose when newcomers began to arrive to share Saint’s burden during the 1970s. She looked askance at SIL sending in someone like Jim Yost in 1994. He was a missionary, but also an anthropologist who was not shy about pointing out the mission’s shortcomings.

Yost worked hard on health, literacy and education projects and even had the audacity to suggest that the Waorani might learn from the Christian practices of other indigenous groups. By the end of the 1970s, the mission was not the happiest of workplaces but, by then, it didn’t much matter. The Ecuadorian government sought more influence and, in 1981, announced that the SIL must hand over leadership of their operations to locals or quit the scene within a year.

Subsequently, new missionaries continued to pop by and old debates rumbled on. For Long, this encapsulates an continuing interpretative gulf. Either you produce a romanticised, heroic narrative of mission or you argue that it always becomes an intrusive force that shatters indigenous cultures. Long wants us to ditch the reductionism and adopt a case-by-case approach. Now wouldn’t that be grand?