September 7, 1914

Joseph and Mabel Davis, founders of South America Mission, set sail from New York en route to Argentina. Direct routes to South America from the US had been discontinued because the world had gone to war a month before. All ship liners were sailing to England to mobilize troops. The Davis’ trip to Argentina required a stop and transfer in Liverpool, England.


The Davis’ made their way into the interior of Paraguay after spending a year in Entre Rio, Argentina, adjusting to the culture and learning the language. Mabel’s health began to decline as they endured a harsh climate and heavy demands from mission work and raising a family (Joseph and Mabel had three children by then: Faith, Joan and Sam). The Davis’ first term ended two years into their missionary journey.

They returned to the States in 1916 for a much-needed furlough—to recover, study, and grow their team. Joseph, Mabel, their three children and four additional missionaries returned to Paraguay in late 1916. Shortly before their return, Joseph Davis met a gentleman named John Hay. The two likely crossed paths at Moody Bible Institute where Joseph was studying while on furlough. A Scotsman, John Hay founded the Inland South America Missionary Union (ISAMU), a work serving the indigenous peoples of the Paraguayan Chaco.


The hot, humid, feverish climate of the lowlands where the Davis family lived was grueling to endure, and again, Mabel Davis’ health began to deteriorate. She became severely anemic. The constant demands of a rigorous life and work produced heart problems. She was also in need of major surgery.

Thus in 1919 the Davis’ returned to the United States permanently. Joseph’s meeting John Hay in 1916 proved providential. Upon Mr. Hay’s request, Joseph Davis became the United States Deputation Secretary for ISAMU. The Davis’ team whom they took back to Paraguay with them in 1916 became united under the ISAMU banner.


Mr. James Cunningham was the first missionary recruited by Joseph Davis. Another early missionary recruit was Hazel Chamberlain who eventually married Rev W.J. Anderson. Their son, Robert D. Anderson, would one day become the third General Director of the Mission. John Hay had also recruited new missionaries from North America: Miss Della Whited, Miss Anabel Case, Miss Annie Mason and Miss Christine Cameron.


ISAMU had begun work in Brazil and Bolivia in 1912 and 1922. In 1924, Missionary Arthur Tylee was part of a contact group sent out from Cuiaba, Brazil, along the military telegraph line toward Brazil’s Madeira River. A 1,000 mile journey, Mr. Tylee and his team made contact with three people groups— the Parecis, Bororo, and Nhambiquara. The next year, Arthur along with his wife Ethel established a mission station near Juruena, Brazil, to share the gospel with the Nhambiquara people.


After five years of Great Commission work among the Nhambiquara, Arthur, his infant daughter, nurse Mildred Kautz and three Brazilian workers were martyred by the very people they went to love. Ethel was left for dead, but survived. She returned to the US, a champion for the cause of Christ on the mission field even in the midst of the greatest suffering. God used Ethel’s testimony in the years following her family’s tragedy to draw many unto Him, and to send many out into the world.


ISAMU officially established a US entity in 1922, incorporating in the State of New York with a US Board of Directors. For the ensuing decade, the US entity maintained official ties with ISAMU International under the leadership of John Hay and with its headquarters in Edinburgh. In 1932, primarily because of strategic and emerging missiological differences, the US entity of ISAMU became independent with Joseph Davis as the leader of the organization.


Joseph and Mabel Davis made their home in New York, also the home of ISAMU since 1922 and the place from where the Davis’ embarked on their missionary journey in 1914. Despite their relatively young ages (60 and 50 respectively), Joseph’s painful arthritis and Mabel’s heart condition forced them to consider an environment and climate more suitable for aging.

In 1939 the Davis’ bought a home in Lake Worth, Florida, and moved the headquarters of the Mission to a small bungalow office with a West Palm Beach address. The mission incorporated in Florida that same year, not as ISAMU, but as the South America Indian Mission (SAIM). The new name more precisely reflected the people and place which God had called the Mission to serve—the indigenous peoples of the great continent of South America.


The world was at war again. The United States’ entry into World War II right on the heels of the Great Depression presented challenges for the missionary enterprise—there was another mobilization effort taking place and financial resources were being diminished. Despite this, 12 new SAIM missionaries went to the fields between June of 1940 and ‘41. The missionary candidate class of 1941 comprised seven of whom only three ever made it to South America, included among them G. Hunter Norwood, Jr., and his fiancee, Edith Blackburn. Mr. Norwood would eventually become the second General Director of SAIM.

Meanwhile, SAIM was sending missionaries to four countries of South America: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. During the decades of the 30’s and 40’s, Mr. Davis began to emphasize a mission strategy of training leaders for the indigenous church. Over the years, this emphasis developed into a true mission ethos: “Building Leaders to Build Churches” would decades later become the official slogan that framed the Mission’s Great Commission participation.

By the end of the war in 1945, SAIM missionary “allowances” as set by the Board of Directors were $600 per year, or $50 per month. This was an increase from $500 per year, taking into consideration that transportation costs to South America were rising. Traveling by air from Miami to South America had become convenient, albeit more costly.


Joseph Davis made his last visit to South America in 1948, at the age of 69. SAIM was 70 missionaries strong. Joseph and Mabel continued to lead the Mission for another ten years. On March 4, 1958, the founder and first director passed away in Long Island, New York. Joseph and Mabel had gone to New York in the autumn of ‘47 to visit their son, Sam, who was rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Long Island. Mabel lived another 13 years, until October 19, 1971.

During the 50’s, the number of missionaries serving with SAIM surged past 100. The Guajira of Northern Colombia and The Amazon Valley, from the eastern jungles of Peru across the windswept lowlands of Bolivia to the plains and Amazon forests of central Brazil, set the geographical landscape for the mission. Missionaries were planting churches and identifying leaders among the Guajiro and Aruac of Colombia; the Shipibo, Conibo and Campa of Peru; the Ayoré and Chiquitano of Bolivia; and the Chavante, Bacaeri, Nhambiquara and Terena of Brazil. SAIM’s work, however, was expanding in scope. SAIM missionaries were reaching the mestizo populations in burgeoning locales like Riohacha (Colombia) and Cuiaba (Brazil), and in province towns like San Ignacio and Santiago (Bolivia).

On May 2, 1958, Mr. Hunter Norwood, who embarked from the Port of New Orleans en route to Colombia in 1942 with his wife Edith, became the second General Director of South America Indian Mission after Mr. Davis’ passing.


As the world was enjoying the so-called Golden Age of flying in the 1960’s, things were “taking flight” for SAIM as well—both literally and figuratively—in the early years under Hunter Norwood’s leadership. Missionaries were exclusively flying (gone were the days of setting sail) to South America out of Miami. And within SAIM’s fields, airplanes were beginning to be used to transport missionaries to hard-to-reach places. In 1962, Don Gahagen founded Jungle Air in Peru, which would eventually be grafted into the mission as SAMAIR.

Meanwhile, the Gospel continued to take root in indigenous communities across the continent. More and more churches were forming and indigenous leaders for the local churches were emerging as SAIM’s emphasis on Bible training centers continued. Missionaries developed new training centers in places like Tipishca, Peru, and Aquidauana, Brazil. SAIM missionaries continued to reach new indigenous groups as well. In Bolivia, Bill Pencille made successful contact with the Guiday Gosode tribe of the Ayoré on July 9, 1960, a story retold in the book Defeat of the Bird God by Peter Wagner. In Brazil, progress was being made reaching the Xicao people. Bob and Ruth Ann Moyer went to the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia in 1965 to work with the Kogi.

Two new realities began to take shape for SAIM in this decade of “take off”. First, as ministry grew, the SAIM missionary corps grew and matured as well. Growing missionary families precipitated the need to assess the requirements for more formally educating missionary children. In 1966, the mission’s first dedicated MK school, the SAIM Academy, opened in Pucallpa, Peru. Second, the landscape of South America was changing; cities were on the rise.


Isaiah 54:2 inspired Mr Norwood’s vision for the 70’s: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.” This expanded view of ministry to pursue—revealed in part through ministry innovations like radio and aviation, but moreover through the changing demographic landscape of South America—gave impetus to a name change for SAIM. In September of 1970, the mission completed its evolution from ISAMU to SAIM to SAM, the South America Mission.

The lengthening and strengthening of ministries for SAM in the 70’s meant adapting theological and leadership training models to serve the cyclical agrarian lifestyles for many indigenous living in the jungles and countrysides, and the urban lifestyles for mestizos working days and able to study only at night. SAM expanded its gospel influence in other ways as well: teaching Bible in public schools, opening bookstores as distribution points for Christian literature, reaching the felt needs of those suffering from disabilities, and launching recording and radio ministries.

The 70’s also opened up the era of short-term teams being mobilized through US churches to go and work alongside SAM missionaries. SAM began to receive medical and dental teams, and high school graduates and college students began to go as interns for 6-8 week stints during the US summers.

And one of the greatest displays of SAM setting its stakes deeper in ministry in South America during the 70’s was the establishment of SAM legal entities in South American countries. The creation of these entities provided strategic operational advantages, but also affirmed SAM’s desire, with missiological implications, to be a committed presence in and among the people, societies and cultures of South America.


The first few years of the decade marked the twilight of Hunter Norwood’s career. However, as he approached retirement at the end of 1983, the momentum of the organization he led in no way showed signs of slowing down or pulling back. Donated income to the mission had grown by 37% and SAM’s missionary team by 43% since the early 60’s. Missionaries from Canada had an organizational structure through which to be mobilized as Canadian South America Mission (CANSAM) formed in 1982.

On the ground in South America the church was multiplying. Bill and Lennie Ogden led a team to Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1982 to plant La Esperanza Church. Bob and Ruth Ann Moyer joined the team, having been in Colombia since 1965, planting churches and developing leaders up and down the northern coast and in the Sierra Nevada. Work in Bolivia took off as SAM was planting churches and opening leadership training centers. And new regions of focus emerged in far eastern Bolivia as SAMAIR survey work pointed to areas such as Sandoval with tens of thousands of people, but with no gospel witness.

The spiritual communities among people groups like the Terena of Brazil and the Shipibo of Peru were maturing; the indigenous churches were being shepherded by indigenous leaders, and the believers were beginning to go and make disciples among their own people who had not yet heard. This movement was like a wave beginning as a small swell that accelerated and crested in the 90s and into the new millenium. Indigenous leaders at the CONPLEI Congress in 2012 spoke of three waves of the gospel moving across South America. They referred to this era that encompassed the 80s as the second wave: national, indigenous missionaries continuing the growth and expansion of the faith.

In 1984, upon Mr. Norwood’s retirement, Rev. Robert “Bob” D. Anderson became only the third General Director of SAM. Mr. Anderson’s mother was among the very first missionaries recruited by Joseph Davis in the 1920s. Bob and his wife Mary went to Peru in 1955. The Anderson’s careers were sealed in service, sacrifice and suffering. They lost their infant daughter, Bonnie, to drowning in Peru in the early days of their ministry. Their legacy of commitment even in the worst times reminds us that the suffering of God’s people is sometimes the method God chooses to proclaim the good news and prove His worthiness.


Bob Anderson served as Director for a decade, until 1993. He fully embraced the opportunities for expanded ministry that the urbanization of South America presented. From Santa Marta to Pucallpa, to Cuiaba and Santa Cruz, these urban centers were becoming SAM bases of operations. An additional base of operation was forming for SAM as well, in a new, or at least semi-new, country. For the first time since Joseph Davis’ pioneering days in South America, SAM returned to Paraguay—to Asunción—in 1991.

Rev. Anderson retired in 1993. Bill and Lennie Ogden had gone to Colombia in 1982, before to Peru in 1969. Bill’s 25 years of service with SAM at the time, and experience in and passion for seeing the church multiplied across South America under a strong national leadership, shaped him into an excellent candidate to lead SAM into the 21st century as Executive Director.

Bill coined SAM’s slogan “Building Leaders to Build Churches.” It reflected his ministry passions and missiological hopes. Leadership “development”—with deeper, more holistic import than leadership “training”—became SAM’s focus for ministry engagement. Leadership development within SAM emphasized leading in ways authentic to the spiritual transformation of hearts and minds. This required leaders steeped in high, godly character, as much as in biblical knowledge. The Integrated Theological Studies Center (CIET) in Santa Cruz and Ammi in Chapada dos Guimarães, Brazil, were significant, new initiatives in the 90s with authentic discipleship at the core of their platform.

The New Millennium

At the turn of the millennium, SAM’s missionary presence extended across five countries. Bill Ogden’s emphasis on leadership development and church planting was producing fruit; local expressions of the Church were forming in cities, and still in the jungles, led by strong national leaders. Ammi was attracting indigenous peoples from all across the great country of Brazil.

In the early 2000s, a small group of Ammi students gave impetus to a movement that today is known as CONPLEI. Represented by more than 3,000 people, CONPLEI stands for the National Council of Indigenous Pastors and Lay Leaders of Brazil.

The Wayuu in Colombia, Shipibo and Ashaninka in Peru, and Ayoré in Bolivia were sending leaders to be developed through SAM in order to receive them back into their rural communities to plant churches and shepherd congregations. In Pucallpa, Peru, a team led by Peruvian SAM missionaries planted a church, largely among professionals in the city, called Mil Palmeras. Also in Pucallpa, the Amazon Night Bible Institute, with a similar demographic focus and strategy as CIET in Bolivia, was developing leaders.

The new millenium brought significant change for SAM in Colombia. From 2000 to 2006, SAM called its missionary team back to the States because of danger imposed by Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. These six years of separation, however, between SAM missionary presence and La Esperanza Colombian leadership were ultimately beneficial for the church, as it gained through these years a healthy independence from the SAM team who had been present and intimately involved in spiritual nurturing since 1982.


South America Mission experienced an infusion of missionaries in the 2000s. SAM’s Mobilization Director, Kirk Ogden, who had worked on university campuses with Intervarsity and spent a term as a church-planting missionary in San Ignacio, Bolivia, was leading the successful recruitment efforts.

Upon Bill Ogden’s stepping down from executive leadership in 2008, the Board of Directors asked Kirk to become the next, and only the fifth, Executive Director in the Mission’s 100-year history.

Kirk realized that while a century of God’s faithfulness gives great momentum and hope to the SAM community, great organizations have to guard against inertia and make necessary changes—personally, organizationally, sacrificially—to enable the realization of a beautiful vision. In 2010, SAM launched a dedicated change process called SAM2020. An initial year of listening to God and to each other across the SAM community gave impetus to a sharpening and expansion of mission, but a constant emerged as well: the vision to see the church of Jesus Christ multiplied across South America transforming communities and the world by embodying the Kingdom of God.

Subsequent years of SAM2020 have focused on resourcing and the implemenation of SAM’s expanded mission. The leadership training model of Ammi has given impetus to the designing of a similar project to serve the indigenous peoples of eastern Bolivia. Lima has become the base for a SAM-led church multiplication and leadership development endeavor called the Lima Initiative. In Recife, Brazil, SAM missionaries are reaching communities through the Church in innovative ways, like opening a music school for young people to connect to the reality that their creative spirits are endowed by their Creator God. The long-standing Santa Cruz Christian Learning Center in Bolivia has evolved into less of a school for missionary children and more of a platform to reach Bolivian students and their families with the Gospel of grace.

A thematic verse for the community of South America Mission emerged out of the SAM2020 process under Kirk Ogden’s leadership. The Lord said to the prophet Zechariah, “In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”” (Zechariah 8:23) It’s a reminder of the importance of missionary presence, of living in the world as redeemed children of God, and how the stories of God at work through us as they unfold on the mission fields are the greatest means for transformation, and the greatest testimonies to God’s faithfulness.

SAM’s history is a testimony to God’s faithfulness. The future will tell the same story. The jungles of Brazil and Peru, the desert of Colombia and the dry forests of Bolivia are still home to much of our work, as are the urban centers of Santa Cruz and Lima, Recife, Asunción, Santa Marta and Riohacha. We keep going because the Great Commission and Great Commandment send us into the reality of the world’s brokenness, and brokenness still mars the beauty of God’s image in the people he created and loves. God created and loves 400,000,000 people today across the region where he calls us—it’s far too costly not to keep going. We are South America Mission. 100 years and counting.


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Get to know South America Mission’s doctrinal statement.

SAM: Doctrine