The life and death of John Chau, the man who tried to convert his killers


One day, as a small child, John Allen Chau was rooting through his father’s study when he found something curious and alluring: an illustrated edition of Robinson Crusoe, the classic story of a sailor shipwrecked on a deserted island.

“After struggling my way to read it with early elementary school English,” he later told a website for outdoors enthusiasts, “I started reading easier kid-friendly books,” like The Sign of the Beaver, “which inspired my brother and I to paint our faces with wild blackberry juice and tramp through our backyard with bows and spears we created from sticks”.

In November, on an obscure island in the Indian Ocean, Chau – a 26-year-old American adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary – was killed by the isolated tribe he was attempting to convert to Christianity.

When Chau’s death became international news, many Christians were keen to disavow his actions; Chau’s father believes the American missionary community is culpable in his son’s death. John was an “innocent child”, his father told me, who died from an “extreme” vision of Christianity taken to its logical conclusion.

All Nations, the evangelical organization that trained Chau, described him as a martyr. The “privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost”, Dr Mary Ho, the organization’s leader, said in a statement. “We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”

Ho also told news organizations that Chau had received 13 immunizations, though Survival International, an indigenous rights group, disputes that these would have prevented infection of the isolated Sentinelese people. The Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Andaman island chain, are considered one of the Earth’s last uncontacted peoples; their entire tribe is believed to number several dozen people.

“John Allen Chau is not a martyr,” responded one Twitter user, capturing the prevailing sentiment on social media. “Just a dumb American who thought the tribals needed ‘Jesus’ when the tribals already lived in harmony with God and nature for years without outside interference.”

In a brief message posted on Chau’s Instagram account, his family pleaded for a more sympathetic understanding of the person they called “a beloved son, brother, uncle, and best friend”, who “loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”.

After talking with people who knew him, and delving into the blogposts, diary writings, photos, and social media he left behind, a complicated picture emerges.

Chau’s decision to contact the Sentinelese, who have made it clear over the years that they prefer to be left alone, was indefensibly reckless. But it was not a spontaneous act of recklessness by a dim-witted thrill-seeker; it was a premeditated act of recklessness by a fairly intelligent and thoughtful thrill-seeker who spent years preparing, understood the risks, including to his own life, and believed his purpose on Earth was to bring Christ to the island he considered “Satan’s last stronghold”.

Chau was born in Alabama but grew up in Vancouver, Washington, near the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. He was raised by a Chinese father, a psychiatrist, and an American mother, an attorney, with two siblings. As a child he was consumed by two passions that became increasingly intertwined: outdoor adventure and Jesus Christ.

“[W]hen I was a little kid,” he recalled in 2015, “my family went camping”; during “that time of my life, I had a habit of eating wild things not meant for humans to eat, like bright red or stark white berries”. Consequently he “destroyed several sleeping bags that night. My family stopped going on camping trips after that.”

He loved survival stories, like Hatchet, Gary Paulsen’s gritty young adult novel about a boy forced to live off the land after crash-landing in the Alaskan wilderness. He came to count as heroes the naturalist John Muir, the explorer-missionary David Livingstone, and Bruce Olson, famous in the missionary community for converting the Bari people of South America.

Chau was raised in a Christian home and his family appear to have been members of the Assemblies of God, an international Pentecostal church whose members sometimes speak in tongues. He attended Vancouver Christian high school, a close-knit school with just 90 students across seven grades.

A natural overachiever, he thrived. He threw himself into clubs, charities and other extracurriculars. In the Royal Rangers, a Pentecostal scouting organization, he achieved a gold medal of achievement, a rank equivalent to Eagle scout; one of the medal’s requirements is reading or listening to the entire Bible.

He loved hiking, camping and travel, and he meticulously documented his exploration on social media. On Facebook, he was fond of quoting Jim Elliot, one of five missionaries killed by a tribe in Ecuador in 1956.

A mission trip to Mexico during high school was particularly formative. When he returned, he gave a short homily on his experiences. “We can’t be lukewarm,” he argued, shifting nervously but speaking with conviction. “We need to know how to defend our faith.”

“When we go out in our world, there are people that’ll just come and oppose us, and they’ll have questions, and they’ll have arguments … We can’t just, like, go out there unprepared. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it.”

It seems inevitable that Chau’s personality – God-fearing, outdoors-loving, and obsessed with pushing himself to extremes – would be attracted to being a missionary. He first read about the Sentinelese during high school, according to the New York Times, on a missionary database called the Joshua Project.

The Joshua Project entry for the Sentinelese describes them as “extremely isolated” and notes that the Indian government bans access to North Sentinel. The website suggests praying for the Indian government to allow Christians “to earn the trust of the Sentinelese people” and “live among them”.

In addition to “basic medical care”, the Sentinelese “need to know that the Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins”.
Like his son, Dr Patrick Chau is a graduate of Oral Roberts, an evangelical university in Oklahoma. I had thought he might want to defend evangelical doctrines against the unsympathetic media coverage sparked by his son’s death. In an email, however, he called religion “the opium of the mass[es]”.

“If you have [anything] positive to say about religion,” he told me, “l wish not to see or hear” it. He said his son’s zeal was a longstanding point of contention and that they’d agreed not to talk about John’s missionary work.

“John is gone because the Western ideology overpowered my [Confucian] influence,” he said. He blamed evangelicals’ “extreme Christianity” for pushing his child to a “not unexpected end”, and he referred with particular bitterness to the Great Commission, Jesus’s injunction that Christians spread the gospel to all peoples.

Like Patrick Chau, Justin Graves, a pastor and a friend of John’s from linguistics school, has blamed evangelical culture for enabling Chau’s death. “John Chau was a good man,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “He was a loving, passionate individual I was blessed to befriend, and the loss of his light on this earth was devastating. But it cannot be left as a mere tragedy. His death brings to light a multitude of issues with Evangelical views” and “hell-based ethics”.

John Middleton Ramsey, a friend of Chau’s and a fellow evangelical, defended his actions. “His motivation was love for the [Sentinelese] people,” he told me. “If you believe in heaven and hell then what he did was the most loving thing anyone could do.”

He added: “A lot of people have said these people obviously want to be left alone, so we should respect their wishes. Well my ancestors were also savages that wanted to be left alone. I’m sure glad missionaries like [Saints] Kilian and Boniface stepped up and were willing to give their lives, and that I don’t live in a society like that any more.”

The United States sends the most Christian missionaries abroad of any country, according to Reuters – almost 130,000 in 2010. Although many denominations send missionaries, the most visible are Mormons – 70,000 per year, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – and evangelical Protestants.

A large and sophisticated apparatus exists to assist Americans interested in proselytizing. The universe includes organizations like WorldVenture, which provides support services, training, and life insurance for missionaries, and Wycliffe, which is working to translate the Bible into every language. Databases such as People Groups and the Joshua Project gather information on what evangelicals call “unreached people groups”.

We can’t just, like, go out there unprepared. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it
John Chau
At Oral Roberts, Chau was more completely immersed in evangelical culture than ever before. The conservative university forbids smoking, drinking, swearing, and any kind of sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage.

Chau traveled frequently. He spent one summer during college at a Christian soccer academy in South Africa. After graduating in 2014, he went on a trip to Kurdistan to do outreach to refugees, as well as a trip to Israel sponsored by Covenant Journey, an organization founded by the rightwing Christian activist Mat Staver.

John Middleton Ramsey met Chau in Israel. He was relaxed and “easy to connect with”, Ramsey recalled, and “preferred one-on-one conversation as opposed to larger groups”. He was “good-looking and received a fair share of female attention, but very humble”.

Chau avoided romantic entanglement, believing it irresponsible given the risks of his mission to North Sentinel, and forwent full-time employment in order to focus on preparing. He did a National Outdoor Leadership School course, trained as an emergency medical technician, and stayed in shape. He spent three summers at Whiskeytown national recreation area in California, working as a ranger and emergency nurse and living alone in a small cabin.

He was a good photographer and never failed to document his love of nature on Instagram. “Met new friends, watched spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and marveled at the the beautiful creation around us that we are all called to care for,” he wrote after one excursion. His adventures began to earn him social media followers. A beef jerky company asked to sponsor him as an influencer.

These outdoor expeditions sometimes got dangerous. Once he almost died – thanks to “a gnarly bite from a rattlesnake and a subsequent platelet count of 10”. On another occasion, he and two friends got lost during a 14-day trek. To get back on course, they were forced to climb down a frozen waterfall.

If you believe in heaven and hell then what he did was the most loving thing anyone could do
John Middleton Ramsey, friend to Chau
In 2015 and 2016 he took four trips to the Andaman islands. He made contacts in the local Christian community but did not visit North Sentinel.

In 2017 he was accepted to a boot camp run by All Nations, a Kansas City organization that works to see Jesus “worshipped by every tongue, tribe and nation”. All Nations urges Christians to inculcate a “wartime mentality” and “make strategic decisions in the battle we’re waging against a real enemy”.

One of the bootcamp’s exercises, the New York Times reported, involved navigating a mock village peopled by missionaries pretending to be hostile natives, with fake spears. All Nations’ leader, Mary Ho, told the Times that Chau was one of the best trainees the program ever had.

That year he also attended a program at the Canada Institute of Linguistics, a missionary language school. There he befriended another student, Ben S, who was struck by his “quiet determination” and “confidence”.

“Was it his faith?” Ben wondered in a post remembering his friend. “Was it his years of mountaineering and extensive emergency medical training? Probably all of this factored in” – Chau “was just the kind of person who inspires your confidence and trust”.

One night in the computer lab, Chau told Ben of “his burden” to save the Sentinelese.

“I was impressed immediately that this was something no one but God alone could relieve him of,” Ben writes. “He had already heard all the arguments of why this was a fool’s errand and would jeopardize any mission associated with it, let alone the [lives] of the individuals involved.” This “was a sacred trust for him that no amount of reasoning would wrest from his grasp”.


In October, Chau traveled on a tourist visa to Port Blair, the Andaman islands’ regional capital, and took up residence in what he described as a “safe house”.

There he assembled an “initial contact response kit” – including picture cards for communication, bandages and dental forceps for removing arrows – and gifts for the Sentinelese: tweezers, scissors, cord, safety pins, fish hooks.

He carefully documented his activities in a handwritten diary. The resulting, 13-page testament – written with the earnestness and self-consciousness of someone who had digested many missionary and anthropologist accounts of indigenous contact and knew he might be writing for posterity – recounts his final days in fascinating and tragic detail.

Hoping it would lessen the risk of accidentally infecting the Sentinelese, he entered a self-imposed quarantine. For 11 days he went without direct sunlight. He prayed, exercised, and read The Lives of the Three Mrs Judsons, a 19th-century missionary account.
On the night of 14 November, he and some fishermen – Christians who had agreed to help – set out in darkness for North Sentinel, carefully avoiding coastguard vessels. Their journey was illuminated by glowing plankton, Chau wrote, and around them fish jumped “like darting mermaids”. They reached North Sentinel late at night and anchored nearby.

The next morning, 15 November, he made his first approach. The fishermen refused to go any closer to the island, so he stripped to his underwear – he thought it would make the Sentinelese more at ease, the fishermen later said – and paddled a kayak toward the shore.

He saw a hut and some dugout canoes. As he paddled up to the beach, several Sentinelese, faces painted yellow and speaking a language of “high-pitched sounds”, came rushing out.

“My name is John,” he shouted from his kayak. “I love you, and Jesus loves you.”

When the islanders began stringing their bows, he panicked. He threw toward them some fish he had brought as a gift, then, according to his diary, “turned and paddled like I never have in my life”.

Later that day he made another attempt, this time landing on the island.

He laid out more gifts, then approached the hut he was chased from earlier, staying out of arrow range. About half a dozen Sentinelese emerged and began to “whoop and shout”. He walked closer to try to hear what they were saying. He tried to “parrot their words back to them”, and the Sentinelese burst out laughing. They were probably “saying bad words or insulting me”, he concluded. He sang worship songs and preached from Genesis. For a while the Sentinelese seemed to tolerate his presence.

Then a boy shot an arrow at him. The arrow struck the waterproof Bible he was holding. He pulled it out, gave it back to the boy, and hastily retreated. The Sentinelese had taken his kayak, so he was forced to swim almost a mile to the fishing boat.

“I‘m scared,” he wrote that night in his diary. “Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful.” He was “crying a bit” and “wondering if it’ll be the last sunset I see before being in the place where the sun never sets”.

“You guys might think I’m crazy in all this,” he wrote to his family, “but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.”

Is this “Satan’s last stronghold”, he asked God – a place “where none have heard or even had a chance to hear your name?”

He decided he would make his next attempt without the fishing vessel floating nearby. Appearing alone might make the Sentinelese more comfortable, he thought. And if the approach went “badly”, this would spare the fishermen from having to “bear witness to my death”.

His diary makes it clear that he didn’t want to die, but accepted the possibility. “I think I could be more useful alive,” he wrote, “but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens.” He asked God to forgive “any of the people on this island who try to kill me” – especially “if they succeed”.

Shortly after dawn on 16 November, the last day he was seen alive, John Chau asked the fishermen to drop him off alone. He knew the risks; but the people of North Sentinel were damned, and he was determined to save them.

About the author

Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


Get in touch

Content and images available on this website is supplied by contributors. As such we do not hold or accept liability for the content, views or references used. For any complaints please contact Use of this website signifies your agreement to our terms of use. We do our best to ensure that all information on the Website is accurate. If you find any inaccurate information on the Website please us know by sending an email to and we will correct it, where we agree, as soon as practicable. We do not accept liability for any user-generated or user submitted content – if there are any copyright violations please notify us at – any media used will be removed providing proof of content ownership can be provided. For any DMCA requests under the digital millennium copyright act
Please contact: with the subject DMCA Request.