“Stand true to your calling to be a man. Real women will always be relieved and grateful when men are willing to be men.” Elisabeth Eliot, The Mark of a Man
“The world cries for men who are strong, strong in conviction, strong to lead, to stand, to suffer.” Ibid
“Jesus never pussyfooted.” Ibid
“The question is simply, ‘Who is your master?’ Once that’s settled, you ask whether any words have been spoken. If it has, you have your orders.” Ibid
David Howard, The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2015, p. A 11
Last week marked the passing of a woman whose missionary work and writings inspired hundreds of thousands of Christians to live lives of faith and obedience to God, and led thousands to bring the gospel to people in countries around the world. Elisabeth Elliotdied June 15 at age 88, but her legacy will continue through the lives transformed by her example. I knew her simply as “Aunt Betty,” as she was my father’s sister.
Elliot first entered the news in January 1956, when her husband, Jim Elliot, and four other missionaries were killed by a group of Auca Indians, today known as Waorani, in the deepest jungles of Ecuador. The five missionaries—three of them, like Elisabeth, were former students at Wheaton College in Illinois—felt called by God to bring the gospel to this fiercest of tribes, one that had no connections to the outside world.
After months of groundwork, the missionaries made friendly contact with three tribal members near the main Waorani village. But two days later, several warriors burst out of the jungle and speared and hacked the men to death. The missionaries were armed, but when the attack came they only fired their weapons into the air, as they had agreed they would in such an event. Why? Because they believed that they were ready to meet their maker, while the Waorani were not. The incident made headlines around the world, including articles in Life, Time and Reader’s Digest magazines.
The story might have ended there, but it didn’t. Less than two years after her husband’s death, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, whose brother had been among those killed, left their homes to live with the tribe that had murdered their loved ones. Elliot also brought her daughter, Valerie, a toddler at the time. For most of us, living with the people who killed your spouse and the parent of your child would be unthinkable. Elliot, who had previously worked in Ecuador as a missionary, saw it as obeying God’s call.
“The fact that Jim loved and died for the Aucas,” she wrote, “intensifies my love for them.” Later she wrote: “My reason for being a missionary was one of the few things I had never doubted. I knew one thing—I must obey God, and I believed this was the thing He meant me to do, just as He meant others to be fishermen . . . draftsmen, housewives. The role seemed incidental. The goal was all-important.”
Elliot lived among the Waorani for two years and discovered that the tribe’s need for God mirrored her own. In her 1961 book “The Savage My Kinsman,” she wrote that “the Aucas are men. Human beings, made in the image of God. . . . We have a common source, common needs, common hopes, a common end.” The “lucid recognition of the Auca as my kinsman was at the same time a new acknowledgment of Jesus Christ, of our common need of Him.” The two American women worked to decipher the tribal language and they shared meals, traditions, and most important, the news of Jesus Christ. The tribe numbers around 2,000 people—up from about 250 in the 1950s when the tribe settled disputes by spearing one another—and about a third have become Christians.
Elliot returned in 1963 to the U.S., where she soon became a sought-after speaker in evangelical churches. She published more than 30 books, whose sales numbered in the millions and were translated into at least nine languages. The first and most famous of these, “Through Gates of Splendor” (1957), told the story of the five missionaries and their dedication to reach the Waorani. Elliot hosted a globally syndicated daily radio program, “Gateway to Joy,” for more than a decade. She married Addison Leitch, a seminary professor, in 1969, but was widowed again in 1973 when he died of cancer. Elliot was married for a third time in 1979, to Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain to whom she remained married until her death last week.
Elliot had her detractors; many did not like her writings on courtship and marriage, made plain in passages such as this: “There is dullness, monotony, sheer boredom in all of life when virginity and purity are no longer protected and prized. By trying to grab fulfillment everywhere, we find it nowhere.”
A few quotations from her writings typify her approach to life and to God: “There is nothing worth living for, unless it is worth dying for.” Or this: “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”
At her funeral this week in Wenham, Mass., one of Elliot’s favorite Bible passages was read, from the book of First Peter: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”
Mr. Howard is a professor of Old Testament at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn.