On a recent Sunday afternoon, my doorstep became a veritable pulpit. A gentleman had arrived, unannounced, inviting me to worship at a local Baptist church. I listened intently as he sought to enlighten me. He spoke at length. He gestured with zeal. He handed me a detailed pamphlet. And he asked me if I was sure I’d be going to heaven one day.
I was born to Muslim and Palestinian parents, who enriched my life with exposure to both Islam and Christianity. Their religious tolerance emanated from lived experiences of unity in the Holy Land. (My name even means “sign of God’s existence” in Arabic.) To this day, I remain spiritual — and intensely interested in how people come to faith.
Religious conversion forms the basis of Five Wives, a fictionalized account of a true story, by Joan Thomas. The women — Marjorie Saint, Elisabeth Elliot, Olive Fleming, Marilou McCully, and Barbara Youderian — were bereaved when their husbands perished during an American evangelical mission in 1956. The men were attempting to convert the Waorani, an Indigenous people living in the Amazon basin, to Christianity.
The Waorani are notoriously insular, subsisting in a remote section of the rainforest between the Napo and Curaray Rivers, in Ecuador. The wives and their husbands know little about them. The most they have to go on is that, according to American and Ecuadorian insiders, their isolated society is devoid of civilization and in desperate need of redemption. And they have a reputation for barbarism.
Carlos Sevilla, a Spaniard who owned a plantation in the heart of Waorani territory until the tribe murdered all of his workers — and who himself nurses lance wounds on his thighs and shoulder — puts it bluntly: “They live to kill.”
Nate Saint, a pilot, initiates the operation. As he flies over Ecuador’s Napo River, light streams through a gap that appears in the clouds, in the shape of a keyhole. And when he glances down, he sees the Waorani, in the nude, looking up at him. The allegorical experience is inspiring: “I saw God reach down and open the clouds with a finger. Look, Our Lord was saying. These are lost souls, whom I love and gave my Son to save.”
The story proves sufficiently poignant to motivate Nate’s fellow missionaries, too, and the men begin planning a ground mission on Waorani territory. But the wives, while expected to proffer their blessings, are not welcome to voice their opinions. As Nate lays out the details of the ambitious plan, his wife, Marj, acknowledges the women’s implicit subservience: “This is not a meeting to discuss the risks and vote yes or no; this is a meeting to brief the girls.”
The couples obtain visas under the guise of ushering the Indigenous peoples into modernity through their work as pilots, linguists, and teachers. They dub their mission “Operation Auca,” after the pejorative word for “savage” in the local language. The Ecuadorian government explicitly forbids them from proselytizing and setting up churches. That doesn’t stop them from trying.
Their plan is cunning. For several months, Nate performs daily reconnaissance over Waorani territory, familiarizing himself with the land. At the same time, he conducts gift drops, grooming the tribe with luxuries like aluminum kettles and bags of salt. This effectively gains their trust. The men then infiltrate the tribe’s territory in the middle of the night, at full moon; they feel they’ll be less vulnerable beneath an illuminated sky. They bring weapons, though they are loath to “shoot an Auca, and send an unsaved soul to eternal perdition.”
But the plan goes awry. When Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian finally enter Waorani territory, the area known as the “intangible zone,” they are bludgeoned to death.
Thomas isn’t the first writer to cover this story. Elisabeth Elliot, one of the five wives — whom the author calls Betty — penned Through Gates of Splendor and The Savage My Kinsman, about her experiences. End of the Spear, a 2005 film, is also based on the mission. Thomas’s book is different. In its epilogue, she explains that, in treatments of the story up to this point, “‘God’s leading’ [has explained] almost every impulse. I set out to peer behind that, to explore in human terms actions that astonished me.”
To that end, Thomas tackles religious dogmatism, which can arguably constitute “extremism.” Her narrative examines the implications of the term: blind obedience, interpretation, martyrdom. But she doesn’t allow easy answers. The men’s valiant efforts can be attributed partly to an intense devotion to their faith, but there are sociocultural factors at play, too: gender norms and a collective masculine desire to demonstrate virility. Apart from Peter’s occasional dithering, the men refuse to acknowledge the fatal implications of their operation despite the concerns of their largely devout spouses. Ultimately, that neglect leads to their downfall.
While the women all feel degrees of uncertainty, Marj is the most vocal with her concerns. She laments the wives’ marginalized status in a searing indictment:
This is men. This is all men, God included. Men in their gangs. Men doing what they want to do. Jim, Ed, Nate — remember the day they roofed the house? Goading each other on, vying to be the biggest fool on the ridgepole. Operation Auca. It is all about men.
Thomas’s novel also shows the aftermath of the tragedy. The devastated wives seek to rebuild their shattered lives by raising their children, renewing their faith, and spreading the gospel to honour their husbands’ memories. For the wives, maintaining a connection with God, even in the aftermath of the disaster, brings solace. And it inspires them to never give up. The book ends with Betty and Rachel, Nate’s older sister, venturing into Waorani territory to continue their families’ legacy of evangelizing.
The narrative is interspersed with biblical passages and Spanish phrases. The foreign expressions offer cultural flair, yet it’s not clear why some were translated and others not. Ultimately, Thomas’s blend of fact and fiction is effective, and her vivid descriptions evoke a distant past, giving readers a glimpse into a bygone era and the patriarchal structures at play. (Last year’s eerily similar example of John Allen Chau, who was killed while trying to spread the gospel to the hunter-gatherer Sentinelese on an island in the Indian Ocean, shows it may not be so distant after all.)
In her epilogue, Thomas mentions the enduring legacy of Operation Auca in evangelical churches: “Hundreds (possibly thousands) of young people were recruited ‘to take the place of the five martyrs.’” Today, the Waorani population sits at around 2,000. Their remaining lands have been impacted by industries like oil extraction and logging. Many continue to shun contact with the outside world, moving deeper into what’s left of their territory.
Despite this, efforts to convert them continue. And it doesn’t look as if they’ll stop any time soon. After all, devotion inspires persistence. Whether at a doorstep or in a rainforest, pulpits can be built anywhere.
Ayah Victoria McKhail has contributed to the Globe and Mail, Now Magazine, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.