“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.”
So begins the iconic lines that open Gateway to Joy, the radio program of Elisabeth Elliot.
Elisabeth Elliot was one of the most famous missionaries of the 20th century. The death of her first husband, Jim Elliot in 1956, catapulted him to martyr status within Christian culture and even beyond (Life magazine captured the story in it’s iconic black-and-white images). Then Elisabeth Elliot shocked everyone when she and her toddler daughter ended up living side-by-side with those who did the killing. Her books, talks, and radio influenced many, including myself. I shared in detail the impact of her life on mine in a post I wrote to honor her life and death in 2015.
I was very excited to begin reading Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn, a comprehensive biography detailing the first half of Elisabeth Elliot’s life. Vaughn had access to Elliot’s private letters and journals which gave the book a feeling of being “with her” in the immediacy of what was going on instead of looking back on the events that shaped her life. Vaughn does a fantastic job of not “canonizing” Elliot. She is depicted with all her flaws, both the ones she recognized in herself and those others identified in her. The author herself notes that while she “admired her [Elliot] I found her a little bit intimidating, and I wasn’t sure I liked her very much” in the following interview. Vaughn’s writing brings Elliot to life and fills in the parts of her story we may not be as familiar with.
Interestingly, despite being a famous missionary, Elliot only spent a few years in the mission field. And truthfully, those years could be interpreted as a failure. Elliot herself did not seem them in a glowing light, and writes honestly about that in her book, These Strange Ashes. She spent nine months with the Colorado Indians in San Miguel, Ecuador and during that time her language informant was murdered during a dispute and then all her language notes were mistakenly lost or stolen during travel. Basically, all her work was destroyed and her work was in vain. Then, when she lived among the Waodani (the tribe her husband had been trying to reach when he was killed) her relationship with fellow missionary, Rachel Saint, proved to be unworkable. While the world viewed Elliot as “a brave missionary who took the gospel to an unreached tribe” she viewed herself as a “grieving and lonely widow who was wondering if she did any good while trying to do linguistic work with someone who wanted none of her help.”
But as Vaughn notes, it was “the very ashes of her Ecuador experience [that] somehow became the platform by which the rest of the world looked up to her. The things that Betty saw as failures were, in the public mind, credentials.”
Doubts in the Midst of Faith
One of the things that struck me while reading this biography was how often Elliot doubted herself. She doubted whether she was doing any good whatsoever in her mission work and even questioned the nature of truth when she often found herself at odds with other Christians. She realized she often differed greatly from others, including her father-in-law.
She confided in her journal that, “I am tuned, it seems, to an entirely different wave length. I read Terstugen and MacDonald, and some utterly godless writers, and my hearts says a great YES to every word. I hear Dad [Elliot] preach and expound and I can only say NO. It simply does not appear to me as TRUTH. He has spend his whole life preaching and studying the Word. He comes out with an entirely different orientation than those who speak so clearly to me. My God, what is Truth?” Probably most us who have listened to Gateway to Joy can’t imagine Elisabeth Elliot—who always seemed to have a firm grasp on truth—struggling over it in the context of relationship with other Christians, including those in her own family. But she certainly did.
Elisabeth Elliot was known as being no nonsense. She wasn’t “warm and fuzzy” and yet journals reflect an outpouring of emotional turmoil. While she was famous for her saying “do the next thing” in her early years she often wasn’t sure what that should be. Her journals reflect great grief and longing for her husband, Jim, over the years after his death. She longs to take the gospel to the Waodani, and then once there, wonders what why she’s actually there. While very cerebral and a deep thinker, for which she is well known, she uses her journal as the place to unleash her emotions as well as question herself and even the definition of what truth is. But despite this, she does always come back to Scripture.
Elisabeth has long been known as having a “prickly personality” as I mentioned above. Because she didn’t often feel the need to share her emotions with others she was often criticized for it from an early age. Her mother often found fault with her for not being open enough with her or confiding in her enough for her liking. When her future in-laws first met her they were quite harsh with their opinions. Calling her “uncommunicative” may have been warranted but they also unjustly criticized her spirituality by making note that they “never saw [her] read [her] Bible” and she wasn’t that pretty. Elisabeth always agreed some criticism were just. She tried to work on being more open in meeting new people but recognized this was hard for her.
Once paired with Rachel Saint to go the the Waodani and do linguistic work, problems abounded. This wasn’t just due to Elliot, but Saint also was famously difficult to work with, which continued for years with many other missionaries after Elliot was no longer on the scene. Elliot details her struggle with Saint in her journals. She truly tries to gain understanding and insight when it came to Saint’s personality. But not only were their personalities as odds, their beliefs were too, in some respects.
Elliot was not interested in “westernizing” the Waodani while Saint encouraged clothes. Elliot did not wish to change the culture of the Waodani when it didn’t conflict with Scripture and worried about the tribe coming to depend on supply drops from missionary planes, which might change the tribe’s hunting customs, while Saint wanted to order food regularly. Elliot felt in at least one circumstance one young woman’s “confession of faith” was due to being put on the spot publicly, while Saint saw it as “sign”“ of God’s Spirit at work. In the end, Saint asked Elliot if she even believed in the Resurrection, commenting, “I doubt it.” At that point, Elliot considered their relationship unable to go forward and she ended up leaving missionary life and turning instead to writing and speaking.
Elliot has had her controversial moments. Her book, No Graven Image “issued a firm rebuke through its descriptions of ugly missionizing,” writes David Swartz who goes on to note, “Her critique struck too close to conservative certainties about the missionary enterprise.” She went on to cause more controversy with her firm views of gender roles as she became older. However, whether you agree with everything Elliot believed or not, she was certainly a strong woman who followed the Lord through grief and hardship. Her life is a beautiful model of someone who trusted the Lord in the midst of sadness and when life doesn’t make sense. She didn’t always care what others thought of her, including Christians, or if she did, it didn’t stop her from going forward.
Vaughn ends her biography by quoting Elliot’s contemplation of mission work: “I suppose the general opinion of missionary work says that it is intended to bring [people] to Christ. Only God knowns if anything in my ‘missionary career’ has ever contributed anything at all to this end. But much in that ‘career’ has brought me to Christ.”
I highly recommend adding Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn to your collection of biographies.