Fifty years ago this month the world learned of five men who gave their lives to take God’s message of love to one of the most savage tribes in the South American jungle. While the price that they paid was unusually high, their commitment was not unusual when compared to the hundreds of thousands of other young men and women who have attended InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Convention and given up their own ambitions to serve God’s purpose in the world.
For one of those five men, Jim Elliot, the Urbana convention nurtured and encouraged his dream of becoming a missionary. He and his Wheaton College roommate, David Howard, attended InterVarsity’s first missions convention in Toronto in 1946 and returned in 1948 when the convention moved to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
By Urbana 48 Jim was president of the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship at Wheaton. He had written a drama which he presented to Urbana delegates to challenge them with information about the areas of the world still unreached with the gospel. “It gave a strong appeal to students to consider what God wanted them to do,” David recalled.
Jim missed Urbana 51; he was already on the mission field in Ecuador. David had been working on staff with InterVarsity; he became assistant director of Urbana 51. But soon he too was on the mission field in Costa Rica. After Jim married David’s sister Elisabeth, the honeymooners visited David and his wife in Costa Rica. “So the last time I saw Jim Elliot was on his honeymoon at our home in Costa Rica,” David said.
Pete Fleming, another of the five missionaries, was a leader of the InterVarsity chapter at the University of Washington as an under-graduate. Inspired by the chapter adviser to consider an academic career, he entered graduate school and taught a student Bible study. Even after he had joined his friend Jim Elliot on the mission field in Ecuador, he was considering ways of ministering to university students in Quito.
At the first Urbana convention following their deaths, Urbana 57, surprisingly little was said about the five martyred missionaries, at least according to the recorded remarks of the plenary speakers and David’s recollection.
“The book that my sister Elisabeth wrote to tell that story, Through Gates of Splendor, was not out yet. And [neither was] the next book, The Shadow of the Almighty, which was the biography of Jim Elliot. Those books—and Jim Elliot’s journals—began to have a tremendous influence.”
Subsequent Urbana conventions did nourish the legacy of the five martyred missionaries. Elisabeth Elliot spoke at Urbanas 73, 76, 79 and 96. Both of her books telling the story have been featured as Books of the Day at Urbana. David Howard returned from the mission field to become director of Urbana 73 and Urbana 76. “I’ve been in probably 80 countries,” David Howard said, “and almost everywhere I go I invariably run into people who tell me they’re serving today on the mission field because God used Urbana to call them into the field.”
But God is also using Urbana to call men and women to more than traditional missions activities. David attended the 2004 convention of the Evangelical Theological Society because his son David Jr., a professor and dean at Bethel Seminary, was president that year. “I was amazed at how many theologians and professors of theology, and other members of that society, came to me to thank me because Urbana 73 or 76 was a major factor in leading them into God’s service. Not to the mission field,” he pointed out, “but serving God as professors of biblical studies, theology and so on.”
One of David’s best Urbana stories involves his niece, Valerie—the daughter of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot—and Valerie’s husband Walt. “They’ve gone this past year to Congo, as missionaries,” he said. “In a prayer letter that she just sent out, she indicates that at Urbana 76 she and her husband felt called of God into missions. But God led them elsewhere for 29 years–in pastoral ministry–before the way finally opened for them. So now they’re on the field, in Africa.”
The complete David Howard interview is an InterVarsity podcast; you can listen to it here.
The story of Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully is dramatized in the movie The End of the Spear, which begins showing nationwide on January 20th.