During the holiday period we are repeating some of my favourite Midweek Hymns. I think this is the most moving story I have told so far. I could not get it out of my mind. This article was originally published on March 6, 2019.
In the autumn of 1955, five men working as Christian missionaries in South America decided they would try to spread the word to a hitherto uncontacted tribe in Ecuador.
Known colloquially as the Aucas, meaning savages, the tribe members were widely feared for routinely killing members of other tribes, even members of other families within their tribe, and any strangers they came upon.
Throughout the next few months the missionaries flew regular sorties in a light plane over the tribe’s jungle lands from their base camp among the friendly Quichua people. They devised a way of letting down from the plane a rope to which gifts were attached – tools, machetes, clothing and foodstuffs (including salt, which was unobtainable for the tribe). After a while the Aucas started attaching gifts in return. One was a feathered headdress, another a tame parrot in a basket wrapped in sacking, complete with a half-nibbled banana.
The missionaries – Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming and Jim Elliot, all married and four of them with small children – selected a beach beside a river within reach of the Aucas’ homes where they could land and establish a camp of a tree house and various supplies. They called it Palm Beach. The plan was then to use their extremely rudimentary Auca words to invite ‘the neighbours’ to visit. The date of January 3, 1956, was chosen as their D-Day.
The morning dawned bright and clear. The men breakfasted and prayed together. Jim Elliot’s wife wrote later:
‘At the close of their prayers the five men sang one of their favourite hymns, We Rest on Thee to the stirring tune of Finlandia. Jim and Ed had sung this hymn since college days and knew the verses by heart.’
Here it is sung unaccompanied by a male choir.
The men then started making the many trips to Palm Beach that were necessary to take all their goods and supplies, the plane piloted by Nate Saint returning nightly to base camp to pick up more.
On Friday January 6, to the men’s delight, three Auca people came out of the jungle: a young man, a girl of about 16 and a woman of about 30. The young man was particularly interested in the plane so Saint took him for a ride. Above his home he waved and yelled at his no doubt bemused fellow villagers. In the evening he and the girl disappeared while the woman sat most of the night chatting with Youderian, apparently unaware that he could not understand her. She, too, had disappeared by morning.
On Sunday January 8 Nate Saint was ecstatic to spot from the air a party of ten or so Auca men heading for the Americans’ camp. As he touched down he shouted to the others: ‘This is it, guys! They’re on the way!’
He radioed his wife Marj: ‘Pray for us. This is the day! Will contact you next at four-thirty.’
No call came at four-thirty.
Over the next few days searchers found four bodies in the river. All had been speared to death. The fifth was on the beach, but it was washed away before it could be retrieved. The four were buried in a communal grave under their tree house as a tropical storm raged overhead.
The tragedy and publicity about it encouraged the missionary movement to press on with their efforts, and replacement air crews continued to drop gifts. Jim Elliot’s widow Elisabeth and Nate Saint’s sister Rachel stayed in Ecuador. Nearly two years later two Auca women came to the base camp, one of them the older woman who had visited Palm Beach. Seven other Aucas came later. In October 1958 Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint went by invitation to live among the Auca, now known by their own name Huaorani. This eventually led to the conversion of many, including some of those involved in the killings. They revealed that the attack had happened after the young man and the girl who had visited Palm Beach were encountered returning to their village unescorted. In an attempt to ward off anger, they claimed the foreigners had attacked them and that they had become separated from their chaperone. The return of the older woman and her account of the friendliness of the missionaries was not enough to dissuade them from revenge.
The words of We Rest on Thee were written by Edith Gilling Cherry, who was born in Plymouth in 1872. At the age of sixteen months she contracted polio, or infantile paralysis as it was then known. She used crutches for the rest of her life. When she was six her much-loved younger sister died. At 12 she suffered a stroke, which seemed to unlock a spring of creativity and she started to write poetry and hymns. Many of her best poems were written before she was 15.
In 1895, when she was 23, she wrote We Rest on Thee, based on 2 Chronicles 14, v11: ‘Help us, O Lord our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this multitude’.
Two years later she had another stroke. She told her mother: ‘I think I am going, Mother, and I am so glad. I’ve been hungry to go for some while.’ A few hours later, speaking of the past, she said: ‘It all seems so small, all I have tried to do — so small to Him’. Her mother replied, ‘But there are your songs, dear, they will carry on your work.’ Edith said: ‘Ah, but they were not mine at all, they were just given to me all ready, and all I had to do was to write them down.’ Her last words were: ‘I’m all right, mama, I’m trusting in God, and He will undertake for me.’ She was 25 years old.
I haven’t been able to find out how Edith Cherry’s words were paired with Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia Hymn. This was originally a section of Finlandia, itself part of a suite composed for an event called the Press Celebrations of 1899, effectively a nationalistic call for Russia to keep its hands off Finland. Sibelius later reworked the section into a stand-alone piece. This hymn, with words written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, is today regarded Finland’s unofficial national anthem and is often sung during the full-length Finlandia. Here it is performed in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their Finnish chief conductor, Sakari Oramo.
Another hymn often sung to the melody is Be still, my soul written in German in 1752 by Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schegel (1697–1768) and translated into English in 1855 by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813–1897).
Here it is performed by the choir of King’s College Cambridge, and you can find the words here.