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