John Allen Chau: A Missionary Historian’s Perspective

John Allen Chau: A Missionary Historian’s Perspective November 28, 2018

By Ruth Tucker

Multiple Choice Question: A) Martyr. B) Adventurer C) Publicity-seeker D) All of the above.

This morning I turned on ABC news to get the weather. What I got was the story of the very recently speared (and killed) American missionary John Allen Chau, 26. We all heard the story last week as the news trickled in. My first thought was of Jim Elliot and four other missionaries who were speared to death by the Huaorani (Auca) natives more than six decades ago.

Back when I taught history of mission courses at seminaries and accepted lecture engagements as far away as Europe and Asia, the most contentious and often angry interaction arose out of the Auca headliner of the 1950s. Indeed, this story is the most controversial section of my 526-page missions text,From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Students are often furious that I don’t offer a more spiritual reflection on the tragedy rather than turning it into a hard-headed example of wrong-headed mission strategy and practice from which lessons can be learned—a lesson not learned by the Auca five:

The most stunning aspect of this incredible story was that it was a virtual repeat of a tragedy that had occurred a decade earlier in Bolivia when Cecil Dye, his brother Bob, and their three companions, all with New Tribes Mission, entered the jungle in an effort to open the way for mission work among the bárbaro. . . . It was not until 1949 that the wives learned conclusively that their husbands had been killed.

Because of the drawn-out time frame, this story did not excite public interest and a media frenzy. But like those who repeated the action a decade later, they believed God was calling them to the “hardest tribe” first. Like the later Auca missionaries, they had no knowledge of the language and they did not heed the warnings of how very dangerous such a venture would be. And like them, their hastily drawn plan was formulated “by faith,” in dependence on God for direction.

The five New Tribes missionaries had at least notified the mission of their intentions. Not so the Auca five, who were from three different mission agencies. They knew full well that none of their sponsoring societies would give the go-ahead. Thus the secrecy and communication in code, using telling words and phrases: “CONFIDENTIAL,” “guard your talk,” “tell no one.”

Why the rush? They knew the risk of a conspiracy like this, fearing that “if word got out, a horde of journalists, adventurers, and curiosity seekers would make contact impossible.” And why not ask for assistance from Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister, who lived close by and was making progress in language learning with the help of Dayuma an Auca woman? She would have gladly gone with Dayuma to pave the way for the five men. The women would not pose a serious threat to fearsome tribal warriors. But Rachel was sponsored by Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the missionaries feared competition—that Wycliffe then would be first to reach the tribe and get all the credit.

So competition played a role. But boredom was probably a much greater factor. Indeed, mission work among peaceful jungle tribes is often very tedious, and that was essentially what the men were assigned to do—except for pilot Nate Saint. Language learning is painfully difficult for untrained linguists. Not to mention that tribal peoples have better things to do than attempt to teach communication skills to outsiders, ones they perceive to be incredibly stupid. “The excitement of being involved in what was hoped to be one of the great missionary breakthroughs in modern history,” I write, “brought new life into [their] missionary work.” Operation Auca truly offered excitement. In the words of Nate Saint, “high adventure, as unreal as any successful novel.”

Perhaps the most stunning fact about this missionary quintet is that they pored over the details of the New Tribes tragedy, vowing not to fall into the same traps themselves. By the time Nate had flown them into this forbidden tribal territory, however, they had made all the prior mistakes and more. The result was tragic. All five men were killed. There have been a number of efforts to recast the tragedy. Steve Saint (son of Auca pilot Nate Saint), for example, has posited the theory that there was some sort of love triangle going on in the tribe which supposedly led to the deaths of the five who would have otherwise been welcomed. But such speculation simply doesn’t ring true.

The men were fully aware of the danger, but they were convinced that no risk was too great to take for God. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” was Jim Elliot’s motto; and he solemnly vowed that he was “ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”

This was essentially the vow that John Allen Chau made as he illegally ventured onto North Sentinal island in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of India, an island he regarded as “Satan’s last stronghold.” Chau, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, leaves behind grieving friends and family, and a half dozen fishermen who broke the law to ferry him to the island—now seriously in trouble.

His story, however, has certainly gotten traction. I googled the island, and at the time of this writing noted upwards of forty million results. By the time I entered “john a” his name popped up and there were more than seventy million results.

I am truly sorry about John Chau’s untimely death, and I certainly do not know his motives—whether any of my multiple-choice motives factored in. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language? Even if he could have, he would have been seriously endangering the people. If the population of the island had died due to his bringing pathogens against which they have no immunity, wouldn’t that have been far worse?

Some will insist that Chau has potentially rallied a new generation of missionaries. Perhaps. It is indeed true that Operation Auca inspired many to become missionaries, but at what cost and at what neglect of sensible mission outreach?

In the end, missionaries evangelized both tribal groups that had defended themselves by killing the men they perceived to be enemies. In the first instance gifts were left at the perimeter of the tribal territory, allowing the people to make contact on their own terms. In the second instance, three women and a little girl visited the native people: Dayuma, leading the way, Bible translator Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and their young daughter.

“For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story,” Elisabeth later wrote, “the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all ‘feel good’ about our faith.” But that is not what actually happened. “The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. There were negative effects of the missionaries’ entrance into Auca territory. There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer.”


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