Book Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot has been one of my heroes for decades. I first discovered her in college when I read Through Gates of Splendor, her book about the ministries and deaths of her husband and four friends. Then I read nearly everything she had written, received her newsletter and a Back to the Bible devotional mailing of her writings for years, and got to hear her speak in person twice.

The Elliots and their friends had wanted to reach out to a seemingly unreachable tribe in Ecuador. Though the beginning seemed promising, all five men were speared to death by the tribe, known then as Aucas (later by their own name for themselves, Waodani). A few years later, Elisabeth and her young daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint, sister to one of the other men, went to live among the Waodani. Some became believers, with a testimony that still stands to this day.

Elisabeth eventually came back to America. She authored 30 books and spoke to women, eventually hosting a radio program, Gateway to Joy, and sending out a monthly newsletter.

She surprised herself by remarrying a college theology professor, Addison Leitch. He succumbed to cancer four years later. She was an adjunct professor for a while. A few years later, she married Lars Gren. She had dementia the last several years of her life, lost the ability to speak, and died at age 88 on June 15, 2015.

Those are the spare details of her life. But they don’t capture her personality, her character. Why did so many women love to read her words and hear her speak and write her letters asking her advice about their problems?

Ellen Vaughn has attempted to answer those questions in her authorized biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. I admit I had mixed emotions when I first heard of this project. Vaughn was well aware that she was going to be up against a number of expectations. She had access to Elisabeth’s multiple journals as well as many friends and relatives.

Of course, Elisabeth didn’t start out as the Elisabeth Elliot of such wisdom and depth. She began life as Betty Howard. Her early journals reflect a normal girlhood and a fair amount of teenage angst over boys and disagreements with her mother. Yet even as young as eleven, she showed a depth of thought and desire to follow and obey God. Betty Stam, who was killed by the Chinese along with her husband, John, had been a guest in the Howard home and made a great impression on young Betty. As a child, Betty Howard wrote and took Betty Stam’s prayer for her own.

Vaughn goes on to follow Betty’s education, meeting of Jim Elliot, and the long wrestling over whether they should marry. Jim had thought God wanted him to be a single missionary. When he became attracted to Betty, he wasn’t sure whether that was a result of God’s leading or his own desires. It took a few years to figure out. Finally he and Elisabeth married and worked among the Quichua Indians in Ecudaor. Then there are the details leading up to the Waodani outreach, the men’s deaths, Elisabeth’s wrenching grief, working with Rachel Saint, and return to the US.

The biography stops there, with a second volume in the works. I hadn’t realized that this was only part one until I started reading it. I wish that had been made more plain, but it wouldn’t have affected my desire to own and read the book.

Elisabeth was a critical thinker and wrestled with the ways of God, pat, churchy answers, what worldliness and being a missionary even meant, and so much more. She was strongly introverted and could come across as distant and aloof (when she first met Jim’s parents, he told her she had “made a universally horrible impression.”) She could seem unemotional, but she poured out her emotions in her journals.

One thing that Elisabeth discovered in her walk of faith was that God’s ways are inscrutable. She was a gifted linguist, and her first mission was an effort to reduce the Colorado language to writing. But the one man who knew both Spanish and Colorado well and who was willing to help her was senselessly murdered. Her careful work and notes were stolen. Her husband died. Her time of living with the Waodani bore some fruit but was fraught with frustrations. She felt all her work to that point was in ashes.

But she knew God was good and trustworthy, and the best thing, the only thing she could do was obey him, even when she didn’t understand. Her experiences and wrestling over issues of faith and practice made her who she was and gave her a depth and realism that struck chords with other women.

I felt overall that the biography did a good job. Ellen didn’t put Elisabeth on a pedestal, nor did she present her as unworthy of esteem. My one criticism is that, perhaps in an effort to show that Elisabeth was an ordinary woman and not a super-saint, some excerpts from her journals were shared that I can’t imagine Elisabeth would have wanted public. I understand why some people destroy their journals and letters before they die. I’m thankful Elisabeth didn’t, and I appreciate the insight they gave into her thinking. Still, some of it was probably not meant for public consumption.

Also, an index would have been helpful.

I’m looking forward to the next volume. I knew much about Elisabeth’s early life from her writings, but I’m not as familiar with the second half. I did learn several new things, however. For instance, I didn’t know (or forgot, if I had known) that Elisabeth was told about and wanted to go to the Waodani long before she and Jim married, and that part of the groups urgency to reach them was “rumors that the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies might well solve the ‘Waodani problem’ by using the military” (p. 139). Also, Through Gates of Splendor was written in a six-week period while she was in a hotel and her folks took care of her daughter. The publishers urgently wanted the story to be available. In her previous writings, I had sensed some tension between her and Rachel. The problems there are detailed here, and understandable. They were two very different personalities with completely different methods and training. I appreciate Elisabeth’s discretion in not dragging all of it out into the public eye.

I appreciate this summation of the Elliots near the end of the book:

Whether you agree or disagree with their choices, whether you resonate or not with their particular personalities, the takeaway from their lives is a reckless abandon for God. A willingness to cast off any illusions of self-protection, in order to burn for Christ. An absolutely liberating, astonishing radical freedom that comes only when you have, in fact, spiritually died to your own wants, ambitions, will, desires, reputation, and everything else (p. 274).

A couple of my friends reviewed this book as well:

Michele: A Life of Reckless Abandon for God
Ann: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

(Sharing with Tell His Story, InstaEncouragements, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

(I’m counting this book for the Biography category of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.)

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

  1. dear Barbara, thank you for sharing this book and Eliot’s work 🙂 I have to be honest, I didn’t know her but your post gave me motivation to discover more about this interesting woman 🙂 stay safe and greetings from Portugal, PedroL

  2. Barbara, you made a most interesting observation about journals and what should be shared. It’s one I have often thought about myself. Not everything is meant to be shared with everyone and may we all pray for wisdom and discernment in what we share. I have not read this book so it is an overall opinion not one specific to this book. I have read some of her books and always have found her writing to be thought provoking.

    • It’s probably hard for a biographer to discern what should be shared and what should be private. Elisabeth used her husband’s journals to write his biography, so I don’t think she would’ve minded the use of hers. But I would think there were parts she would have wanted kept private. In her earliest days, she was unknown and would have had no idea that the public would one day be reading her private words. So she wouldn’t have filtered them. Nothing bad was shared–but who of us wants our throes of forgotten teenage infatuation and such shared?

  3. How interesting; I too love EE and didn’t know about this book. I kind of wish it were one volume, although maybe the length would be too long? I love the cover photo and will plan to read this for sure based on your review. Totally understand the idea that some things shared might not be things EE would have wanted — that’s a shame.

    • I was dismayed at first when I saw that this book was part one. But then I consoled myself with the thought that another whole book would share that much more information. It would be hard to say whether one big book or two average-sized ones would be best. I’d prefer the one myself, but I wonder if they did market studies to decide that. Or maybe the publisher made an educated decision.

      I look forward to hearing what you think about the book.

    • She did–I don’t think she saw herself as extraordinary at all. I read most of her books but didn’t hear her often on the radio–the station I listened to didn’t carry her program. Back to the Bible used to have the transcripts on their site but, sadly, took them down a while back. The revamped web site has many of her radio broadcasts on now.

  4. Barbara, Once again you have presented a book review that urged me to read the book. Biographies are my favorite literature, and I have been disappointed more times than not.
    I, like you, have admired Eilsabeth throughout my adulthood. I look forward to reading “Becoming Elisabeth Elliott.”
    Barb Paton

  5. Barbara, I have always had a high regard for Elisabeth Elliott. The first book I read of hers was Passion and Purity, when I was a young twenty-something craving a husband. Her book so informed my thoughts about singleness and waiting for God’s best in my life. I hadn’t heard of this particular book, but I’m adding it to my TBR pile. Thanks for sharing this review!

    • A lot of her writing shaped my thinking about Christian womanhood, especially Let Me Be a Woman. I was already married by the time I read Passion and Purity, but I thought it was very good.

  6. i have always admired Elisabeth Elliot as well! (in fact, my oldest daughter Courtney bears her middle name and that was also my mother’s middle name). At our church (Grace Fellowship/Latham) several years ago, we had Elliot’s son (or maybe it was Saint’s son) plus THE Waodoni man who actualy thrust the spear into Jim. HIs testimony was so powerful and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. That was a very special church service!!

    I really appreciate this book review. I may look for this book.

    • That was probably Steve Saint and Mincaye (the Elliots just had one daughter, Valerie). Steve was the son of one of the five men, the pilot. Mincaye was one of the killers who later became a Christian and Steve’s adopted father. Their story is wonderfully told in The End of the Spear by Steve. I’ve seen videos of them speaking together. How neat it must have been to see them in person. Mincaye just passed away a few months ago.

  7. Thank you, Barbara, for this honest review. As you know, Elisabeth has been one whom the Lord has used in my life over and over again. The thing that I loved the most about her is her straight-forwardness. If God said to do it, then that is what we need to do. How blessed you’ve been to actually hear her speak twice!

  8. Excellent, Barbara! I just happen to be reading this book myself right now and have been marking some passages for review on my blog, but now I can just point readers to your review :–))) I do differ from you in one respect, though: I LOVED reading about EE’s teenage thoughts on boys and her differences with her mother. My goodness, if a girl can emerge from that state and become a faithful, sold-out servant of Christ’s, then there’s hope for us all — even those of us who were once boy crazy ourselves.

    • Oh, I’d love to read your review! It’s always interesting to see what things stood out to different people. I had many more passages marked than I could share–you probably will, too.

      I agree, that’s one thought I had when reading about EE’s younger years. Often young people are a mixture of depth and shallowness, depth and immaturity. Well, we all are, really. But it’s an encouragement that the spiritual seeds took root and developed. And it was funny in one place where the author said EE had scribbled a note in her journal in her later years that she had forgotten she had dated that much. She remembered herself in some of her books as not being interested in anyone and no one being interested in her until Jim.

      Probably all the people she knew then are gone. But I know I wouldn’t want my teenage crushes discussed in public now–I wouldn’t want them to know. And especially the place where the author shared that EE “peed herself” when meeting the head of her boarding school–that didn’t really need to be shared, in my opinion.

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