The widow of missionary Jim Elliot, who was killed by Auca Indians in 1956, has died at 88 after a battle with dementia. Yet her story of mission and perseverance will live on.
If one thinks of Christian women of influence, Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of missionary martyr Jim Elliot, certainly comes to mind. Her books, speaking tours and godly example have encouraged and taught hundreds of thousands all over the globe.
Inspired by her faith and obedience in the face of suffering, many have obeyed the Great Commission and sought to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Elisabeth was born to missionary parents, Phillip and Katherine Howard, in Brussels, Belgium, on 21 December 1926. They were part of the Belgian Gospel Mission, but moved back to the US when she was just a few months old.
As she grew up in her godly home, she knew she wanted to be a missionary and set goals to work on the mission field after college. After attending a Christian boarding school, she entered university at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1944. Her goal was to become a Bible translator. She was heavily involved on campus as an editorial writer for the school paper, a member of the debating team, a member of the debate fraternity Phi Kappa Delta, and a student of classical Greek.
Not one for social life, Elisabeth studied hard but had no aspiration for dating — until her brother became best friends and roommate with one of her classmates, Jim Elliot. Jim Elliot was also interested in missions, and after some months of getting to know him, Elisabeth really liked him. Jim liked her as well, but thought that the Lord was calling him to a single life, perhaps for a short time, on the mission field.
This was hard for both of them and, after graduating, they parted ways; Jim to his home in Oregon, while Elisabeth attended a Bible college in Alberta, Canada. They waited five long years, during which they wrote and met up occasionally. Then, by God’s providence, Elisabeth joined Jim on the mission field in Ecuador.
They were married on 8 October 1953 and it was the happiest time of their lives. Shortly after, their daughter Valerie was born in 1955.
While they were working with the Quechuas, Jim felt a call to share the gospel with the hostile Waorani or Auca Indians. Along with Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian and Pete Fleming, Jim began to make contact with the Aucas in 1955—6 through a loudspeaker and gifts handed down with a basket from an aeroplane.
Encouraged by their first contact with the tribe, the men made their last trip to ‘Palm beach’ on the Curaray River on 8 January 1956, when they were martyred by ten Auca warriors.
Heartbroken but continuing to trust God’s will, Elisabeth continued to work with the Quechuas in Ecuador. In 1957 she wrote Through the gates of splendor, which told the story of Operation Auca and the reason why her husband and the other men risked their lives for the advance of the gospel. She also wrote Shadow of the Almighty, a biography of her husband.
Just one year after Through the gates of splendor was published, Elisabeth and Valerie Elliot, Rachel Saint, and Dayuma (a refugee Auca) arrived once more among the Auca Indians and lived among them, teaching the gospel and translating the Scriptures into their language.
Many of the tribe, including those who killed Jim Elliot and the other men, were converted during those years. When asked later why she returned to minister to those who killed her husband, Elisabeth wrote: ‘The fact that Jesus Christ died for all makes me interested in the salvation of all, but the fact that Jim loved and died for the Aucas intensifies my love for them’.
She wrote The savage my kinsman (1961), No graven image (1966), and These strange ashes (1975) about her missionary experience among that people. She returned to the Quechua mission in 1961 to continue translation work, and moved back to the US in 1963.
When she returned, she spent her time writing and speaking all around the country. She married Addison H. Leitch in 1969, a professor of philosophy and religion at Tarkio College, Missouri. He would later become a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, until his death in 1973.
Shortly after his death, Elisabeth became an adjunct professor at the seminary and eventually became their Writer in Residence. In 1977 she married Lars Gren and they worked and travelled together. Even after her marriage to Rev. Gren, Elisabeth continued to use her first married surname as her public moniker.
As her life progressed into the 1980s and 1990s, she became busy with teaching, speaking and writing. She wrote more than 20 books and even hosted her own radio programme, Gateway to joy. She began each episode with the phrase,‘You are loved with an everlasting love’.
Her writings and speeches focused on obedience to God’s will, God’s love toward us and global missions. Within the last ten years of her life, Elisabeth suffered from dementia, and went to be with her Lord and Saviour on 15 June.
Her favourite verses, 1 Peter 4:12-13, were read at her funeral: ‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed’.
Elisabeth Elliot’s desire had been to become a Bible translator and serve overseas. Her work in studying Greek and attending the Summer Institute of Linguistics paid off and she, along with Jim, were influential in the translation of the Bible into three Indian languages.
Yet her influence as a writer far outweighed her direct influence on the mission field. Kathryn Long, a professor of history at Wheaton College, told CBN TV, ‘She had a sense of her audience as evangelicals, and she could tell this story in a way that keyed into [their] values’.
Dr Long also remarked how gifted and perceptive Elisabeth Elliot was as a writer. Her writings varied from biographical accounts of her husband’s life and ministry, practical theology concerning courtship, marriage and missions, to finding joy in our various ‘ordinary’ callings.
She certainly set the example of what it means to trust and obey. To the present day, her writings have had a huge effect on Christian women. Yet, despite her fame, Elisabeth Elliot remained humble to the end.
On the Facebook page of his not-for-profit organisation, the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center, Steve Saint, the son of martyr Nate Saint, wrote: ‘I think Elisabeth would be happy just being remembered as not much of a woman, whom God used greatly.
‘To the rest of us she was an incredibly talented and gifted woman, who trusted God in life’s greatest calamities, even the loss of her mind to dementia, and who allowed God to use her’.
Though we mourn the loss of this woman of God, we rejoice to know she is forever with the Lord.