Nate Saint: The Life of a Missionary Martyr
I just finished the book Jungle Pilot, it is the story of Nate Saint, pilot, mechanic, and infamous missionary martyr. The most intriguing thing about this book is that the majority of the text is composed of Saint’s personal letters to loved ones. In every page it is extremely evident that Saint loved pioneering missions; he once wrote of this work as the “call of God to the regions beyond the ends of civilization’s roads- where there is no other form of transportation…(probing) the frontiers to the limit of physical capacity” with prayer “for a means of reaching the regions beyond.” The grounding for such a passion in reaching the lost was formed at a young age. The Saint family was devout when it came to the Christian disciplines; one of Nate’s siblings described their parents as ruling the house with a good mix of Old Testament law and New Testament grace. Lawrence and Katherine Saint carefully taught their children the ways of the Lord, in the end three became missionaries and one a preacher. His brother Dan vividly recalls memories of a young Nate during family devotions continually praying that the Lord would ‘show the right way’. This prayer seemed to mark his life and mission.
Nate always had a strong urge to fly. This began when his older brother Sam took him up in an airplane at a young age. Nate’s love for flying lead him to join the armed services and pursued Air Corps training, but Saint never lost his spiritual grounding. He once wrote to his mother “pray that the Lord will have his way in this flying business. Seems as though his stamp of approval is 100 percent ‘go ahead’, but I’m not calling personal interest the Lord’s will.” The road of military service took Saint all over the United States and globe often leaving him longing for something more. At times he became impatient writing, “I know the Lord is still running things, but sometimes I am shortsighted, I am the Army’s lock, stock, and barrel-but I’m the Lord’s own-heart, soul, and spirit.” While in the service Saint was dismissed from his dreams of being a military pilot because of an incessant battle with an infection in one leg. It was during these hard moments of his life that God started to reveal his plans for Saint, to be a full-time missionary. Nate wrote, “I’ve always believed that if the Lord wants a guy in full-time service on the mission field, he would make him unbearably miserable in the pursuit of any other end.” This God did, through different affairs that Saint pursued God continued to clarify this vision. It was in a short stint of plane repair in Mexico that Saint demonstrated to others ‘his unique mechanical ability in making repairs to planes in difficult to impossible circumstances’. Hard flying circumstances were not far off.
Eventually God had pressed Ecuador on the heart of Saint and his wife Marj, he later wrote of Marj that “the Lord surely knew that in this kind of work I would need a partner with a brain like a filing cabinet and one incapable of saying ‘can’t’.” As they began their lives in Ecuador, the purpose of the mission became clear, and was twofold: to provide adequate supply line for the present work and make possible deeper penetration into the jungle for further work. Saint quickly realized that there were only two types of landing areas in these areas, at the top of a jungle, or in the raging waters of a river. In fact one of Nate’s associates reflected that whoever decided to take up the work of missions in that area could not be short in flying or mechanics, if it be flying “he must be an absolute expert in mechanics.” But this is what God had been preparing for Nate Saint, in a letter to his mother he wrote “Mine is a one track mine…It’s airplane-Indian-Christ”. The Indian is the motive. The airplane is my job; unless the airplane fly’s the Indian does not hear the good news of Christ. Unless the Indian gets Christ, he’s eternally lost.
In December of 1948 Saint was pressed through his first test, a plane crash in Quito, Ecuador after visiting Marji in the capital city, who was awaiting the birth of their first child. After the crash, in which no one was killed, Saint gathered his thoughts in a letter to his parents. “This I believe, is the result of the deep assurance we have in our hearts that Satan himself cannot stop us, nor sign our death certificate, without the permission of Almighty God.” These powerful words were a deep reminder of Nate Saint’s resolve that his life would be expendable, “The Lord tells us He that Loveth his life- we might say that he that is selfish with his life- shall loose it.”
Nate’s ‘inventor spirit’ pioneered missions in this hard to reach area. He was able to invent the famous ‘bucket dropping system’ that allowed transport of medicines, staple foods, and gifts from airplanes hundreds of feet in the air. But all these gadgets had one purpose, Saint was sold out, “everytime I take off, I am ready to deliver up the life I owe to God.” The tool of an airplane was uniquely important to missions in this area. The ground Nate was able to cover by plane would have required forty days of land travel. Frank Drown, a missionary to the Jivaro head shrinkers of Ecuador, said of Nate, “He was always conscientious and serious. He was more than just a pilot; he was an inspiration to us. We were impressed with his fervency, honesty, and dependability, and complete devotion to Christ.” Drown eventually became the connection that brought Roger Youderian to the ‘Operation Auca’ team. Three Plymouth Brethren missionaries by the names of Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully joined soon after. All knowing the dangers involved.
This particular tribe of Indians had refused contact with outsiders for hundreds of years, they were known for their killing patterns in that area. Auca hunters would slip quietly from the jungle and attack their unsuspecting victims in ambush, but this did not stop the five. Operation Auca was well underway, in prayer and preparation. Over the next period of weeks these men lowered thirteen gifts to these un-reached people as an attempt at friendly contact. Despite their worries, these five men were consumed with a passion to reach the Auca killers with the Gospel. Nate wrote “more important than any precaution we might take we are anxious to operate within the will and providence of God.” Their mission was set, to get the Gospel of Jesus Christ to these ‘stone-age’ pagans known as Auca.
Well aware that attempting contact with this primitive group of Indians could cost them their lives, they felt confident that the Lord was blessing their efforts and they moved forward one step at a time. On the morning of January 3rd the mission began, and three days later they made their initial contact with three Auca Indians. During this time Nate would fly back and forth from ‘Palm Beach’ (in Auca territory) to the home base for supplies and fear of rain water destabilizing the planes landing area. On Saturday morning, January 8th, Nate left for ‘Palm Beach’ one final time leaving behind the last prayer request for the missionary wives, “Pray for us…today is the day things will happen.” Later that day, in a moment of confusion, all five missionaries were speared to death. Beyond making initial contacts that would eventually lead to the evangelization of an ‘unknown’ people group, these men’s lives brought to surface the need of frontier missions to the international stage. Saint’s story is a powerful depiction of God’s providence in the small details and interests of ordinary men to accomplish extraordinary tasks. Saint’s life is marked as one sold out for Christ, doing only what God can do.
You can obtain a free copy of this book from the Mission Aviation Fellowship