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God in the Rainforest: A tale of martyrdom and redemption in Amazonian Ecuador, by Kathryn T. Long

28 February 2020

Duncan Dormor reads an account of murder, forgiveness, and more

IN 1956, five American Evangelical missionaries died at the hands of the most feared Amazonian indigenous group, the Waorani of Ecuador. Their deaths received extensive coverage in the mainstream media and in Evangelical circles generated the clear expectation that what was quickly understood to be martyrdom would not be in vain.

In this truly excellent book, Kathryn Long provides a comprehensive multi-faceted account of the next half-century of this, the most widely publicised and controversial of missionary-indigenous encounters in the history of American Evangelicalism.

Long maps the many twists and turns over the subsequent decades as the Waorani are drawn into the “outside world”. That story begins with the first peaceful encounters between the female relatives of the missionaries (a sister, Rachel Saint, and one of the widows, Elizabeth Elliot) and Dayomæ, a Waorani woman — and the men responsible for the murders.

Redemption appears to come swiftly with the two key pioneering women, able to forgive and welcome with open arms the killers of their brother and husband, a story played out to a range of audiences through publications and even a tour of the United States. The latter raised substantial funds for their employer, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, ironically not a mission agency per se, but an organisation dedicated to the much more technical activity of Bible translation.

And, indeed, the “redemption” story obscures the reality that the translation work really begins only in 1979, yielding the Bible in Wao Tededo in 1992.

The missionaries (who are, inevitably, accused of ethnocide) are not, of course, the only ones “saving” or, indeed, exploiting the Waorani. Long is highly judicious in mapping not just the tropes, hagiography, and, indeed, audiences for this iconic missionary success, but also the self-serving narratives of a wide range of other agents — including oil workers, anthropologists, environmentalists, indigenous rights activists, adventurers, and charlatans.

archives of the billy graham center, wheaton, illinoisRachel Saint with Quemo (left) and Come, in Berlin, to attend the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism. Saint was determined that these two men would challenge the image of the Waorani as “savages”. From the book

Throughout, Long carefully and compassionately documents the complexity of the relationships between individual personalities and with outside agents. Saint and Elliot were capable of forgiving those who had speared their close relatives, but found it almost impossible to extend their Christian love to living closely together.

One of the real strengths of the book is that Long manages to capture a powerful sense of the agency of the Waorani themselves, as highly individualistic, egalitarian, intensely curious, and pragmatic, defying all the stereotypes, good intentions, and projections of others.

Accessible, fair, and excellent value — as a model of good history-writing, this book sets the bar very high indeed, in one of the most highly contested arenas of human encounter. It deserves to be widely read.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of the USPG.

God in the Rainforest: A tale of martyrdom and redemption in Amazonian Ecuador
Kathryn T. Long
OUP £22.99

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