By the time of her death this past summer, Elisabeth Elliot—wife, mother, missionary and writer— had become one of the leading Evangelicals of her time.
Born Elisabeth Howard in Belgium in 1926, she was the daughter of missionaries, and one of six children. Her family eventually moved back to America, a story affectionately recalled in her book, The Shaping of a Christian Family: How My Parents Nurtured My Faith. In it, she described the Biblical faith and moral values she had been taught, and extolled “the importance of obedience, prayer and forgiveness”—lessons she would draw upon for the rest of her life.
When she was seventeen, Elisabeth enrolled in Wheaton College, one of America’s top Evangelicals schools, and majored in Greek, hoping to become a Bible translator. It was here that she met a fellow student, Jim Elliot, who was pursuing similar goals.
As Elisabeth later recounted, Jim was the kind of man whose talent and charisma made him a “big man on campus.” She was attracted to him, but never dreamed he would take notice of her quiet demeanor. Not only did Jim Elliot take notice of Elisabeth—he fell in love with her.
Their five-year courtship is recounted movingly in Elisabeth’s Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control, now considered a classic on Christian dating and marriage. Using letters and anecdotes involving her and Jim, Elisabeth discusses whether or not a given individual is called to marriage; how to discern whom to marry; how to remain chaste until marriage; the complementary nature of marriage; and above all, placing God’s desires ahead of one’s personal wants.
After graduating, Elisabeth and Jim traveled to Latin America to spread the Gospel in Ecuador’s remote jungles: Jim in the East, and Elisabeth in the West. After a year of independently serving numerous tribes, they agreed to finally bring their lives and ministries together, and married in 1953. Two years later, Elisabeth, gave birth to daughter Valerie, and the events that followed are what forged the Elliots’ legacy.
Up until then, the Elliots had ministered to natives who were essentially peaceful, and open to Christ. But Jim and his closest friends wanted to do more. It had always been their dream to bring the Gospel to forgotten tribes, whom no missionaries had ever reached. The Waoranis of Ecuador—also known as the Aucas, or “savages” to their neighbors—fell into that category. They were a remote, isolated, and much-feared tribe, known for their extreme violence, both against their own people and outsiders. No foreigners who had met them were known to have survived. Determined to break that pattern, Jim and four companions—Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian—set out to bring Christ to the Aucas. Their wives were fully supportive, but knew what such a mission could mean. As Elisabeth later wrote:
The other wives and I talked together one night about the possibility of becoming widows. What would we do? God gave us peace of heart, and confidence that whatever might happen, His Word would hold. We knew that ‘when He putteth forth His sheep, He goeth before them.’ God’s leading was unmistakable up to this point. Each of us knew when we married our husbands that there would never be any question about who came first—God and His work held first place in each life. It was the condition of true discipleship; it became devastatingly meaningful now.
“Operation Auca,” as the mission became known, began in late 1955, when the five started making regular flights over Waorani territory, dropping gifts and speaking to the natives in their own language, over a loudspeaker, in hopes of winning their friendship. At first, the strategy appeared to be working, especially when some of the Aucas reciprocated with gifts and messages they tied to the planes attachments. But as soon as meetings took place on the ground, the encounter turned tragic.
On January 8, 1956, the missionaries waited patiently for what they thought would be a fruitful meeting with the tribe’s elders. Upon seeing some of the Aucas approach across a river, Jim Elliot and Nate Fleming waded into the water to offer them their good will, but were suddenly ambushed from behind. Jim was the first to be speared, and an attack on Nate quickly followed. A second band of Aucas then speared the three missionaries on the beach, before they could protect themselves, or radio for help. Within a flash, all five missionaries had been killed. Their bodies were then thrown into the river, and their aircraft burned to the ground; the authorities found their remains a few days later.
After a period of mourning, these men’s wives responded the only way they knew how: with faith and fortitude. Elisabeth, who remained close to the widows throughout, wrote a searing book about the missionaries, Through Gates of Splendor, and an inspiring biography of her husband, Shadow of the Almighty. Both had a profound effect on Evangelical missionaries, and remain influential to this day.
To the amazement of the world—though not those who knew her best—Elisabeth then made a decision that revealed the depths of her faith. With forgiveness in her heart, and accompanied by Valerie, Elisabeth returned to Ecuador, to minister to the very tribe that had killed her husband, the Aucas.
It was not an impetuous decision. Elisabeth prayed long and hard about it, and took every precaution she could to ensure the success of her mission. Still, there were a few voices, wondering whether it was wise for Elisabeth and her young daughter to return to such a dangerous and (still) God-forsaken land.
But Elisabeth’s family and friends never saw it that way. “We were 100 percent behind her,” Dr. Thomas Howard, Elisabeth’s brother (and noted Christian author himself) told me recently. “We knew the possible dangers, but Elisabeth felt strongly that God was calling her to do that, and the whole family was convinced it was what Jim Eliot would have wanted. So we entrusted Elisabeth and Valerie to the Lord, and accepted that it was the right decision.”
With the help of Dayuma, a young Waorani woman who had run away from her tribe and who became the first Auca convert to Christianity, and Rachel Saint, Nate Saint’s sister, who shared Elisabeth’s faith and determination, a way was opened for Elisabeth to make contact with the Aucas. This time, however, there was no tragedy involved, but only the liberating power of the Gospel: many of the Aucas—including those who had killed Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries—accepted Christianity, and their tribe saw a dramatic drop in its homicide rates, and a remarkable improvement in the quality of their lives. Jim Elliot’s dream of saving a forsaken people had finally come to fruition, thanks to the courage and perseverance of his wife. That experience produced another of Elisabeth’s unforgettable books, The Savage, My Kinsmen.
After spending almost a decade in Latin America, Elisabeth and Valerie returned to the United States, where Elisabeth now turned her attention to an increasingly secularized America. She taught and lectured eloquently against the sexual revolution, consumerism, New Age philosophies and especially radical feminism, which she believed robbed women of their God-given dignity and femininity, and confused and discouraged men to act like real men. Her book, Let Me be a Woman, is a shining defense of womanhood, which she gave to Valerie as a present on her wedding day.
As her influence grew, Elisabeth encouraged Americans not to take their cues from the reigning culture, but to commit their lives completely to Jesus Christ, explaining why God’s enduring Word could enrich and heal people’s lives. Her dozens of bestselling books testify to the respect and admiration she was paid.
Among her gifts, said Dr. Howard, was her ability to draw half-hearted or lapsed Christians back to the Lord. “She had a unique capacity to speak of Christianity faithfully, and Biblically, and yet win a hearing from people on the liberal banks of Christianity, or those who weren’t Christians at all.”
God also blessed Elisabeth with a wonderful speaking voice—at once gentle and commanding—which she used to great effect in talks like “Who is Your Master?” and “The Remade Mind,” and especially on her popular radio program, Gateway to Joy.
In 1969, Elisabeth married theologian Addison Leitch, who sadly died just a few years after their wedding. Widowed twice, Elisabeth wrote frequently about loneliness, but was also blessed to see her daughter, Valerie, marry a Pastor and have eight children—making Elisabeth a delighted, and very busy, grandmother. She married for the final time, in 1977, after meeting Lars Gren, who had given up a career as a salesman to enter the seminary, and become a hospital chaplain. Lars worked closely with Elisabeth on her writings and speaking engagements, and took great care of her, with the support of her entire family, when Elisabeth became ill during the final years of her life.
For someone who endured great loss and suffering in her personal life, Elisabeth never allowed herself to subside into gloom or depression. She saw everything through the light of eternity, maintaining a Christian confidence and serenity, no matter what the challenge. “She had a glorious sense of humor,” said Dr. Howard, “she loved to engage in witty conversation, and conveyed a tremendous sense of God’s joy in everything she did.”
Her embrace of life and people was symbolized by her signature opening to every episode of Gateway to Joy: “You are loved with an everlasting love—that’s what the Bible says—and underneath are the everlasting arms. This is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot.”
As difficult as the world situation became for faithful Christians, Elisabeth never despaired—and urged Christians never to despair-—because she knew that world history ultimately ends in the universal triumph of Christ.
“Of one thing I’m perfectly sure,” she often said, “God’s story never ends in ashes.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.
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