Three hundred seventy-nine days ago, Martin and Gracia Burnham were captured by Muslim terrorists in the Southern Philippines. They were staying at the Dos Palmas resort off the island of Palawan when members of the Abu Sayyaf group (an organization affiliated with the al-Qaeda terrorist network) took them hostage. Gracia had surprised Martin with the trip to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary. For over a year they were held by the terrorists, constantly being shuttled from one hiding place to another. The plight of these brave New Tribes missionaries attracted worldwide attention and generated a tidal wave of prayer from Christians everywhere.

On Friday the Philippine army finally located the guerrilla band in a remote region of Mindanao Island, about 500 miles south of Manila. The firefight lasted twenty minutes. When it was over, Martin Burnham was dead and Gracia had been wounded but survived.  Evidently the guerillas knew that government troops had been closing in on them because they were constantly on the move and the Burnhams had not eaten in nine days. Each night they made the Burnhams sleep in a tent pitched between them and the direction they thought the attack would come from. When it finally happened, they were caught in the crossfire. Gracia was wounded in the thigh while Martin was seriously hit in the chest. He died with his body partially covering her. Gracia witnessed her husband’s death.

Martin Burnham had a premonition that he would not survive their long captivity so he had written letters to each of their three children, Jeffrey, 15, Melinda, 12, and Zachary, 11. He told his wife to make sure that they got the letters if he didn’t get out of the jungle alive. When the soldiers finally rescued Gracia, she begged them to find the letters before they evacuated her to safety. After a search of the battle zone, the letters were recovered.

Martin Burnham grew up in the Philippines, where his parents have been missionaries for more than 32 years. The three children were all born there. Martin and Gracia had served with New Tribes Mission in the Philippines since 1986. As a missionary pilot, he often flew supplied into isolated regions with very primitive airstrips. He was only 42 years old.

Singing His Wife to Sleep

One thing is clear about the Burnhams: During their long captivity, their faith never wavered. Every night Martin sang songs to help Gracia go to sleep. Although desperately hungry and malnourished, they even shared bits of  food with their captors. Francis Ganzon, a Filipino who was released by the guerrillas two weeks after she was captured with the Burnhams, said that when other hostages were praying to be released, Martin was praying, “Thank you, Lord.”

After she was rescued, Gracia told the soldiers, “That is God’s liking. That is probably his destiny,” speaking of her husband’s death. Jeffrey, the oldest son, said, “We know our dad is happy now.”

Martin Burnham is not the first missionary to die in the service of Jesus Christ nor will he be the last. But he is the latest in a long line of heroes that stretches across 2000 years. His death will not stop the missionary movement. There has always been a high price tag attached to the Great Commission. He and Gracia knew the risks when they went to the Philippines. They always knew something like this could happen.