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[Above: The Silva family, from a photo provided to us by David Holden who received it from Kathy Earle]

IN THE MISTS of Christian history many shapes are vaguely discerned. Writers cite books that now are lost. Churches exist but no one remembers who first brought the gospel to them. People of the kingdom suffer in jails or pass along jungle trails unrecognized on earth, although recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Others are remembered by just a few details that whet our interest. One of these was a Venezuelan, Bautista Silva.

Silva was the first Protestant convert in one of the Piaroa villages of Venezuela. Before the coming of Christ, the Piaroa were a people bound by fear of spirits. Shamans sought to placate the malevolent spirits through rituals and all-night chants. It was against that background that Silva, the son of a chief, came to know the liberating gospel of Christ.

The Piaroa live in jungles and along rivers, such as the mighty Orinoco River, or on tributaries that feed the even mightier Amazon. They were early noted for trading high quality curare poison for goods provided by neighboring tribes. Traditionally a hunter-gatherer and fishing society that made frequent migrations, they became a more stationary society after the coming of the Spanish and today depend heavily on gardens and even on purchased goods. Among the unusual foods they consume are tarantalla spiders! After his conversion, Silva moved among these people, seeking to win them to Christ. He traveled on foot from village to village, preaching the gospel. He would sit up all night to speak of Jesus. 

Some anthropologists have touted the alleged non-violence of the Piaroa people, but further study has shown that the Piaroa do practice sorcery against perceived enemies and have warred for resources and to defend themselves against slavers. Silva benefited from their largely pacific behavior, which made it safer to share the gospel among them than it had proven to be among other South American tribes such as the violent Ayore or Woadani.

Before the conquest by Spain, the Piaroa did not have reading and writing. Their culture produced pottery, religious masks, and other forms of art, but recorded language was not one of their accomplishments. Missionaries taught them reading and writing and translated the New Testament into their “heart language.” Bautista Silva had a hand in that translation. By the time of his death, fifty local Christian assemblies flourished among the wide-scattered tribe.

Bautista Silva died in his sixties. He left behind several children and grandchildren. On this day, 19 August 1992, a day or two after his death, Christians in Tama Tama, Venezuela, honored his life and labors with a memorial service.

Dan Graves

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For more on South American Christianity, consult Christian History #130, Latin American Christianity: Colorful, complex, conflicted

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