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.)

Through Gates of Splendor

Five missionaries working in different outposts in Ecuador in the early to mid-1950s became burdened for a tribe of killers known then as the Aucas. Early encounters with the white man had not gone well when the rubber hunters came to harvest while also “plundering and burning the Indian homes, raping, torturing, and enslaving the people” (p. 14). But the Aucas killed not only white men, but any outsiders and even their own people. “Could Christian love wipe out the memories of past treachery and brutality?” (p. 14). The missionaries hoped so and longed to be a part of reaching this tribe with the love and gospel of Christ. Upheld by the truth that “Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9b), they began to plan and strategize as to how best to reach these hostile people.

Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot is the story of how these five men came to the Lord, came to be called to the mission field, their marriages, and how each was led to become part of “Operation Auca.” It’s no spoiler to say the operation ended in the death of the five, because that fact was known long before the book came to be and was probably a great impetus in it’s writing. But then it is not right, either, to say that is how Operation Auca ended, because God used it in the lives of the Aucas themselves as well as of people all over the world in the decades since. But knowing how the story “ends” lends a poignancy to the men’s lives and words.

The five men were:

Nate Saint, a brilliant pilot whose dreams of flying the big planes was cut short by an illness, but who went on to become a pilot for Missionary Aviation Fellowship, bringing much-needed supplies, human contact, and medical help to missionaries in outpost stations. He had an ingenious engineer’s mind which he used to great effect solving problems and improving life, and a healthy balance between doing everything in his power to ensure success and safety yet trusting God for the outcome.

Jim Elliot, from Portland, OR, intense and passionate, had a burning desire to share Christ with those who had never heard of Him, yet also had a humorous side and felt with George MacDonald that “It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence” (p. 17).

Pete Fleming, from Seattle, WA, quiet, studious, would probably have been a college professor if he had not felt called to the mission field.

Roger Youderian, of Louistown, MT, severely affected by polio as a child, was called to the missionary field while serving in the military.

Ed McCully, from Milwaukee, WI,  was planning to go to law school when a Bible study led him to abandon all to follow Christ wherever he might lead.

Even before Operation Auca was even remotely thought about, most of the men were willing to give themselves even unto death. Jim wrote in his journal:

“‘He makes His ministers a flame of fire.’ Am I ignitible? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this my soul – short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. ‘Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.'” (p. 17).

Nate Saint, likewise, considered himself “expendable,” saying, “Every time I take off, I am ready to deliver up the life I owe to God” (p. 58), and Pete later wrote:

“I am longing now to reach the Aucas if God gives me the honor of proclaiming the Name among them…I would gladly give my life for that tribe if only to see an assembly of those proud, clever, smart people gathering around the table to honor the Son – gladly, gladly, gladly! What more could be given to a life?” (p. 26).

All of the wives, as well, were willing to live in “primitive” conditions and to be used in God’s service in whatever way He saw fit.

But they were not careless. Every step of Operation Auca was steeped in thought, discussion, sometimes disagreement, and prayer for the best outcome for all involved. And every step looked like it was going well.

What then led the Aucas then to kill the five men? When God opened the tribe to visits later, at first they said it was because they thought the men might be cannibals. In a later book I believe someone was told that the photographs the missionaries had scared them: they thought somehow it involved the soul of the person in the photograph. In Steve Saint’s more recent book, End of the Spear, he was told that an argument had broken out among the Auca men involving a woman, and one man wanted to prevent the bloodshed amongst the tribe and turned their anger towards the white men. It is possible that all of these factors played a part, or that as the Aucas (now known by their own name of Waodani [going by Steve’s spelling of it since he has worked with them for years, but I have also seen it as Huaorani or Waorani]) got to know white people and their language better, they may have felt more of a freedom of expression in later years that they did at first.

I first read this book in college, and the lives of these men and their wives and their dedication and love for the Lord touched me greatly. I have read it many times since, and it never fails to speak to me. The version I read this time is the same one I read in college, a brown around the edges 1977 fifth printing: the first printing was in 1956. It was interesting to see what I had underlined in previous readings and what stood out to me this time. It also touched off a lifetime of reading missionary biographies, reading just about everything Elisabeth Elliot has written and reading several other books about Operation Auca and the lives of those involved.

If you’d like to read more about any of these, I recommend the following:

  • The Dayuma Story by Rachel Saint, sister of pilot Nate Saint. Dayuma was the Auca girl who had escaped the tribe years earlier, taught the men Auca phrases, and later went back to share the gospel with her tribe.

I’m sure there are other books and biographies out there (I have one of Nate Saint on my bookshelf that I’ve not read yet). but these are the ones I have read. In addition, Elisabeth Elliot touches on the experiences of her time in the Ecuadorian jungle in several of her other books. One of my favorites is in The Savage My Kinsman when she quotes William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “To a Waterfowl,” and applies it to herself, especially the last line: “He, who, from zone to zone, Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, In the long way that I must tread alone, Will lead my steps aright.”

There are also several films and film clips of interest:

  • Through Gates of Splendor (it seems to be also on YouTube here), narrated by Elisabeth Elliot, using footage that she, Nate Saint, and Life Magazine had taken.
  • A “This Is Your Life” feature of Rachel Saint, part 1 and 2.
  • End of the Spear” (linked to my thoughts), a feature film.
  • Beyond the Gates of Splendor, a documentary made 50 years after the events. This is one I would recommend above all the others if you only have time for one. It is in four parts on Vimeo (Part 1, 2, 3, and 4), but I found the audio a bit hard to hear.

There are also several videos of Steve Saint speaking with Mincaye, one of the killers who eventually became a surrogate grandfather to Steve’s children. Talk about grace!

I wanted to say just a word, too, to those who criticize missionary efforts and who believe that primitive tribes should be left as they are. By the Waodani’s own admission, the tribe probably would have become extinct now if someone had not come to tell them of a better way of life. Why would anyone want to deny them that? In Spirit of the Rainforest (different people and field, but also a primitive tribe) this rather lengthy quote explains some of their feelings (I started just to link to it, but I feel it is so important that I copied it here):

“The naba wants to know why you want to change the way you live out here in the jungle,” Keleewa said to Hairy after Doesn’t-Miss talked.

Hairy was surprised at the question. “Because we’re miserable out here. We are miserable all the time. The people from Honey [predominantly Christian village] came here and made peace with us many seasons ago and their village keeps getting better. We want that for us. If it means throwing spirits away and getting new ones, we will do it. [This is not something said lightly. Many were under the impression that they would be killed if they tried to get rid of their spirits.] But we need someone to teach us these new ways.”

Hairy didn’t have spirits because he was not a shaman. But he followed everything the spirits told his shaman. I knew my spirits would be very irritated if Hairy quit following the spirits. No one who has killed as often and as long s Hairy could ever stop it…

Doesn’t Miss talked with Keleewa for a while. Keleewa paused and thought how to say what the naba said. Then he told Hairy, “He says there are many people in his land that don’t think that he, or any of us, should be here helping you at all. They say that you’re happy here and that we should leave you alone. He wants to know what an experienced killer like you would say to them.”

Hairy grew even more serious. “I say to you, please don’t listen to the people who say that. We need help so bad. We are so miserable here and out misery never stops. Night and day it goes on. Do those people think we don’t suffer when bugs bite us? If they think this is such a happy place out here in the jungle, why aren’t they moving here to enjoy this beautiful life with us?”

Doesn’t-Miss was quiet. Then he got out of his hammock and walked down the trail…When he was too far away to hear, Hairy said to Keleewa, “Is he stupid? Doesn’t he have eyes? Can’t he see these lean-tos we call houses? Can’t he see us roam the jungle every day, searching for food that isn’t here, so we can starve slower? Can’t he see that our village is almost gone, that this move we are making now is our last hope to stay alive?”

Keleewa was slow to answer. He knew Hairy wouldn’t understand what he was about to say. “Most nabas think just like him,” Keleewa told Hairy, and shook his head because he knew he couldn’t explain why.

“Nobody’s that stupid,” Hairy snapped. “They must hate us. They think we’re animals” (pp. 180-183).

I said in an earlier post:

Why would even any non-Christian want to see a whole people group extinguished due to infighting or disease? Especially these days when we clamor to save the spotted owl and other endangered species? Shouldn’t endangered people be at least equally as important as endangered animals?

Would anyone in their right minds really want such practices as burying a widow along with her husband or killing twins or deformed babies to continue? So many primitive tribes practice these kinds of things.

Why deny these people the choice of hearing that there are other ways? Why not allow them to hear the gospel and let them make their own choice? So many who bask in the multitudes of freedoms we have here in the US would rather keep people like this in darkness in the name of preserving their culture. Most missionaries I know of these days consciously and conscientiously try not to “Americanize” the native churches but rather try to respect their culture and form churches within that culture while introducing healthier ways of living and civil practices. Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Thank you, Carrie, for allowing me to choose this book for  the Reading to Know Book Club in a year of featuring classics. It truly is a Christian and a missionary classic, and I am glad folks are revisiting it or discovering it for the first time.

Reading to Know - Book Club

I’ll leave you with the song the men sang the night before they launched “Operation Auca,” and from which the title of the book is taken (words and thoughts are here.)

Update: I just saw that several “Heroes of the Faith” books are on sale in e-book version for the Kindle for 99 cents for a limited time, and Jim Elliot is one title. I have not read that one in particular, but it might be worth a try for 99 cents. You don’t have to have a Kindle to download Kindle books: you can download a Kindle app and read them on your computer, phone, or tablet.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

And Carol‘s Books You Loved.

Books you loved 4