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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  • Michael Reid

    It’s reassuring to me that so many Christians, even evangelicals who think they have some mandate to spread their mythos, recognize that what this young man attempted was criminally negligent and dangerous, both to the islanders as well as to himself. I’m sorry he paid such a high price for his stupidity, but the Indian government bans travel to North Sentinel Island for a very good reason: to protect the tribe. Chau’s recklessness put them in danger, put the fishermen he paid in legal jeopardy, and cost his family their son. And for what? So he could preach to the islanders in a language they don’t understand, about a religion they have no context to grasp? Such a waste.

  • josenmiami

    thank God for Elizabeth’s honesty; Christian “Idealism” gets people killed. Thank you for a solid historical perspective. I agree with Michael Reid’s comment below.

  • Wes

    I’ve seen a lot of criticism against Chau for his actions. Much of it is warranted. However, I haven’t seen much commentary that addresses the questions I have about the situation: if Chau’s method was wrong (and it certainly was), how do we faithfully fulfill the great commission with respect to North Sentinal? This historical perspective is a good start, but I’d be interested to know your ideas on what Chau should have done differently.

  • What do you think?

  • Wes

    I have no idea, but I’m not the expert in Christian missions. I guess my point is I’d like to see less “here’s what Chua did wrong” and more “here’s what he should have done instead.”

  • Both are part of the discussion. There are a number of missions textbooks out there that would give you an idea of what most missiologists think should happen.

    But we cannot look away from the wrong actions and only look to some ideal. If there is any value to be found it, it is like to be in understanding the wrong methods and strategies that were done here.

  • Patrick

    The Auca tribe has almost 100% converted to Christ. The son of one of the martyrs became the best and closest friend of one of the murderers.

    You who agree with the article’s thrust should read “The Spirit of the Rainforest”. It’s a good picture of what humans lived like in the BC and this tribe in question will be similar almost certainly.

    It’s going to include misogyny beyond your imaginations, gratuitous violence, etc. Gratuitous violence not even with any logic, i.e. hitting an elderly lady on her head with a club for fun and splitting her skull open while everyone laughs.

    This young man was impelled by God to let these poor people know there is better than this and a Christian blog is intent on denigrating his efforts.

    Embarrassing. Of course these people don’t want to hear about Christ, neither did any other pagan before they heard about Christ.

    This tribe will end up being converted to Christ, this man’s martyrdom will be a major motive force.

  • Michelle

    Another aspect I haven’t seen much addressed is the potential impact of Chau’s choice on christians and missionaries in India. I have to imagine it make’s their work much harder – they are already a tiny minority working in a hostile and suspicious environment.

  • Russ Hale

    These questions come immediately to mind when human life is valued above Jesus and the Gospel. we really have to ask these questions because the sacrifice is really made. “Why this sacrifice?” Interestingly, it was the disciples who were indignant.
    The disciples were indignant when they saw this. “What a waste!” they said. “It could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, replied, “Why criticize this woman for doing such a good thing to me? You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me. She has poured this perfume on me to prepare my body for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed.” Matthew 26:8-13

    “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. Luke 9:23-24

  • billmcreynolds

    Perhaps, as Ruth Tucker suggested, we begin with those tribal members who have moved into the larger culture. They could act as liaisons at the intersections of culture and language. That seems to have been the case with the Elliot story.

  • Rafael Galvão

    You know, I’ve been praying to God about this, if Chau was really a martyr or not – on one hand, he died proclaiming the faith, on the other, the way he did…it feels like it could’ve been avoided, I mean, in the sense that his life and resources could’ve better used. It might sound a little materialistic, it’s because I’m an economist, so I can’t stop thinking in these terms, that is why I took these issues to God.

    So, he did things that would be considered mistakes. But I really didn’t know about the things that would be considered mistakes that Jim Eliot and others did. Learning the role that competition (I almost said “what the…” when I read that) and boredom shocked me, because we never learn about this side of the story in church and movies. And I never knew that Elisabeth Eliot also understood the “dark side” to the ordeal, another thing that’s also glossed over.

    Everything is really sad. May the Spirit comfort his family and hopefully mistakes can be avoided.

  • Tucker

    Keep in mind, Patrick, that 3 women and a little girl were those who actually entered the tribe peacefully (as perceived by the native people). Their strategy is the right way to do mission work—not five men flying in with no language skills and a gun—and end up getting killed, making the warriors murderers, as many refer to them. And Elisabeth Elliot’s account clearly is not so positive as some accounts. Missionaries are not super saints, and we all put a positive spin on our work or ministry except for her in some of her books. Her memoir, “These Strange Ashes,” and her novel, “No Graven Image,” are fantastic accounts of mission life as it really is. “Through Gates of Splendor,” was the most influential book I ever read—–can’t imagine having written “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” without first having read that—and then some 20 more books after that. The late Elisabeth Elliot had incredible and enviable writing skills. Likewise the film, “Through Gates. . .” is probably the best missionary film I’ve ever watched (ideally in black & white), narrated mostly by Elisabeth herself.

  • The word “martyr” literally means “witness” in the New Testament Greek. Later the term acquired the meaning of believers who endure death as a result of their witness. I’m not sure in what way Chau qualifies as a martyr on either count. He was a not witness of Christ – given the fact that the islanders never heard him declare Christ in any way that they could understand. He may have said the words, but he didn’t bear witness either by his words or actions because there is not way the islanders could possibly infer from his words or actions any kind of redemptive message. And he didn’t die because of his profession of faith. He died because he was an outsider. He would have been speared no matter what he said.

  • Michael Reid

    Or maybe just leave the Sentinelese alone. They’ve made it abundantly clear that they are aware that there are other people in the world, but that they *do not want* to have any contact with them. They’re *not interested* in you or your religion. If you really feel you must spread your faith, there are plenty of other nonChristians in the world you can preach to without risking their lives.

  • All true. But I must say in the discussion so far I have seen very little real heartfelt passion and heart cry towards what are we actually doing right now to reach these people? Does anyone care? Or do we love the criticism and condemnations more. To fail to talk about that in the name of dissecting his wrongs I find woefully lacking the heart of God.

  • Mark

    Carve and paint large wooden rafts with pictogram stories, developed in cooperation with people from a similar background as the target audience. Release it into the ocean where you know the tide will cause it to wash up on shore in the desired location. Everyone loves a good story, and people were communicating via pictographs for thousands of years before we invented alphabets. If the stories are well thought out and understandable by anyone of any language, and the wooden structures practical for use in building or improving shelter… your stories will get to them without risking anyone’s life.

  • Michael Reid

    I’ve made two replies to this response, but each one has been deleted; apparently, comments that derive from a humanistic, secular ethos are not acceptable. So let me try to answer this as if I still were the Christian I once was – was it an act of mercy or charity to endanger the islanders’ lives, just to say words meaningless to them? Suppose they had welcomed him with open arms – how exactly would Chau have shared the Gospel with them? The only way they would have had to judge his intentions were his actions; and from the islanders’ point of view, those were of an invader who chose to trespass despite being unmistakably shown that he was not welcome. Had he managed to survive, how receptive do you think the islanders would have been? How did he imitate Christ in his actions?

    And I stress again that while Chau had the right to risk his own life in the service of his faith, he had no right to risk the lives of others.

  • Michael Reid

    They’ve made it abundantly clear that they don’t want to be reached. The Indian government has placed their island in an exclusion zone, for their protection – perhaps the best thing we can do is respect their autonomy.

  • bill wald

    Writing as the “Devil’s Advocate,” we don’t know who or what Impelled Mr. Chau..


    The Advocatus Diaboli (Latin for Devil’s Advocate) was an official position within the Catholic Church: one who “argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence favoring canonization”.[1]

    In common parlance, the term devil’s advocate describes someone who, given a certain point of view, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further. Despite being ancient, this idiomatic expression is one of the most popular present-day English idioms used to express the concept of arguing against something without actually being committed to the contrary view.[2]

  • บุญยืน สุขเสน่ห์

    It’s pretty hard to try to cipher out Chau’s motivations at this point. Did he have long term goals? It’s hard to believe that he expected to sow, water and reap in a matter of days.

    My limited experience of evangelizing very small, isolated and suspicious ethnic groups leads me to think that he was probably NOT expecting to preach to them in a language that they didn’t understand. It would take years, probably, to learn their language and give them a biblical context in which they could understand the Good News of Jesus Christ.

    Questions of “leaving the people alone” are somewhat complicated by policies that effectively deny them any opportunity to make alternative choices. Paternalism is not the sole purview of one side in this discussion.

  • Michael you miss my point entirely. But since you are not a Christ follower, my point is not something you would be interested in anyway. But it is something believers should keep in mind in analyzing this situation.

  • Lark62

    Risk your own life if you want.

    But you have no right to bring harm to other people or trample on consent. Nobody is obligated to listen to you, no matter what your book says.

    Don’t go where you’re not wanted. And don’t put the lives of people in danger with your ignorance.

  • Lark62

    Look at history. Becoming christian does not make anyone a better person.

  • Lark62

    Chau brought scissors and safety pins to a culture with no fabric or paper.

    Think about that.

    When shouting at them in English didn’t work, he shouted a few words from a
    modern African language. Because obviously dark skinned people isolated for 30,000 years will understand the language of 21st century dark skinned people living 5000 miles away on a different continent.

    The only question is whether Chau’s arrogance or his willful ignorance were more amazing.

  • Tucker

    Keep in mind, Paul was a Roman citizen who preached in the Roman Empire. His language skills and cultural understandings were superb. I would never place him and Mr. Chau in the same league as missionaries.

  • Lark62

    Here’s what Chau should have done instead:

    1. Obeyed the law
    2. Told the truth
    3. Respected the autonomy of other human beings. Figured out their lives and their culture are of value and were not his play things.
    4. Read a book on stalkers, and learn that obsession is not love and that no one owed him acknowledgement or affirmation no matter how obsessed he was.

  • yters

    Wasn’t their missionary work so effective because the tribe could not understand why the wives would come back to them after their husbands had been killed?

  • yters

    What advice would you have given to Jesus?

  • Waverly

    Let’s not kid ourselves, this was mostly about going there to shout out the sinner’s prayer. Something that became part of American religious culture through people like Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and various different televangelists who turned the prayer into a licence to print money and created the American Protestant evangelical industrial complex. This approach and the prayer itself , are not Biblical. The approach by Chau , if successful it would have been used as click bait to raise cash for the home base in the U.S.. The sinners prayer approach is flawed, in that excludes everyone from salvation, who were born before the prayer was created and relies on being born at the right time in history. Salvation is not governed by American evangelicals. The Holy Spirit does not need their permission and works unilaterally in the hearts of all humans, and already is with the Sentinelese.

  • Tucker

    Well, I would never use the term “so effective” for their work, as the last quote from Elisabeth Elliot (in my post) so clearly states. I do not think that any progress that has been made among the people can in any way be credited to the tragedy.

  • TinnyWhistler

    This is an interesting idea, but you’d have to make sure that the thing would either 1) take about as long as normal ocean debris would to reach them so that any new germs would have died or 2) be very careful to sanitize it properly before letting it go.

  • aCultureWarrior

    The Sentinelese Tribe are lightweights compared to the torture and death that Jesus Christ and later the Apostle Paul went through at the hands of the Jews and Romans (so much for Paul’s “language skills and cultural understandings”). And yes, those church sponsored missionaries who are set up by their church in friendly environments to share the Word of God are bush league compared to someone like John Allen Chau.

  • aCultureWarrior

    I’m not sure what your first statement means. If you want to talk about babies, we could talk about the 60 million murdered in the womb in the past 45 years.
    Hitler wasn’t a Christian, he was a pagan that murdered Christians, Jews and anyone else that didn’t fit into his God-less ideology.

    And yes, humans are capable and good and bad things, that’s why we need the moral guidance that the Holy Bible offers us, because without it, we’ll do unspeakably bad things.

  • aCultureWarrior

    “Risk your own life if you want.”
    That’s what John Allen Chau did exactly, thanks for giving him and others like him your blessings.

  • yters

    I’ve heard otherwise, but it seems you are pretty committed to your perspective on the matter.

  • yters

    What if Christianity is good for them? For instance, the stone age tribes in Papau New Guinea were cannibals committed to life of constant war. Sure, the warriors may have liked their life, but what about all the people they killed and oppressed? Or, read “Spirit of the Rainforest” and see a tribal member rape and then kill a woman who rejected him and feel fully justified in doing so. I’m sure the woman he killed would have preferred if he had adopted pro-women Christianity instead of his paganism.

  • Michael Reid

    No, I think I understand. The Great Commission, right? The Biblical command to bring the Gospel to all nations under the sun, that they may be redeemed from the bondage of sin? Let’s accept for the moment that that is a laudable goal, how do you accomplish that?

    Given the Sentinelese’s unique isolation, both immunological and linguistic, you simply *cannot* preach to them with words; you must use actions. Their minds are inaccessible to you, though presumably not to God (again, I’m writing this as if I still were a Christian). So all you can do is minister to their bodies.

    Which is what the Indian Navy does, by enforcing the exclusion zone. I presume they periodically check on the islanders’ health as best they can remotely; I know they overflew the island after the Indian Ocean tsunami, just to make sure the islanders were okay.

    As far as what you, Randy, can do to share the Gospel with them? Pray, and trust in your god.

  • Michael Reid

    He also risked the islanders’ lives. That was his crime.

  • Hi Michael,

    I’m sorry you have let go of your faith. I’m an engineer and I love logic and proof and in my 45 years as a Christian immersed in both study and interactions with people and our world, I have only had my faith affirmed and strengthened. But that is not the topic of this blog. For another time and place.

    As to reaching them, you’re certainly right that prayer and trust in God go first, but there is much more that can be done. Things that would be wiser than what Chau did.

  • Michael Reid

    Do you see anything in the stories about Chau that suggests he was planning or prepared for a long, immersive stay with the Sentinelese? If so, it hasn’t been reported. So far as I can tell, it looks like he simply expected them to welcome him just because he showed them a Bible, and shouted Jesus’ name as if it were a magic spell. Surely even evangelizers would call that a naive and simplistic understanding of his faith?

    As to your other point, yes, it would be criminal to deny the Sentinelese the benefits of modern civilization, such as medicine, just to “preserve their culture”, if they’d ever indicated that they wanted contact. But they don’t – they’ve made that crystal clear. Pointedly, you might even say.

  • Lark62

    No. He risked the lives of every person living on that island.

    What he did was selfish and repugnant.

  • Michael Reid

    Sure. I’m not making any Rousseauian claims that the Sentinelese are “noble savages”. Clearly, they are aggressive and hostile. They’re humans, and I expect they are like every other humans: a mixture of good and evil.

    But what sets them apart from the New Guniean highlanders or the Amazonian tribes is their immunological and linguistic isolation; right now, there is simply no way to evangelize these people without risking genocide.

  • Michael Reid

    What a wonderfully charitable and rational response. Oddly enough, attitudes like yours are not why I left Christianity. But they did make it easier.

  • Michael Reid

    Randy –

    You’re right that the question of theism is outside the scope of this article. I invite you to come over to Patheos’ Nonreligious channel, if you’re interested in discussing it. You’ll find lots of intelligent and articulate atheists, pagans, and nonbelievers who blog and comment over there. And a few total nutcases, as well. 🙂

    What else do you think could be done to evangelize the Sentinelese? Safely? (Assuming that’s something worth doing, which I obviously don’t.)

  • Michael Reid

    “Don’t trust that Judas guy.”

    Okay, serious answer: the situations aren’t comparable. Jesus was a Palestinian preaching to other Palestinians, in a common language, about ideas that they had a cultural context to share.

  • yters

    The point about immunological isolation is interesting. I wonder how true that is. Seems many other missionaries have gone into very isolated environments without bringing on the genocide you mention. Perhaps this tribe is somehow different.

    Linguistic isolation is also true, and I don’t know what Chau’s language chops were. However, every people group is linguistically isolated until someone learns their language.

    I think the general point about Chau’s ignorance and lack of preparation is well taken. But it is also paired with a dismissal of the sacrifice of his life, and that of Jim Elliots. That seems less well founded. I know we don’t want to encourage people to just throw away their lives, but my understanding is this sort of sacrifice does make a big impression on unreached people. I’ve read accounts of ISIS members remarking on the love expressed by Christians even as they are subjected to horrific torture and death. This seems to be a common theme in many accounts of martyrs throughout history.

  • Robin Warchol

    thank-you for this honest analysis. I was never too taken in by the Jin Elliot story or it’s glorification. This guy is the same thing again.

  • scotmcknight

    There is a new article on this missionary by Ed Stetzer at WaPo if you want to discuss this there.