Missionary Wife, Mother and Author
Born into a missionary family, a missionary herself and also widow of a missionary martyr, Elisabeth Elliot over her lifetime lived and wrote about the faith that inspired her. In short, while she ministered to many on the mission field, she also did so to the readers of her many books.
Born in Belgium in December 1926, to American missionary parents, Elisabeth was one of five children. When she was just a few-months-old when her family returned to the U.S. and settled in a community near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She later attended Wheaton College near Chicago where she studied Greek so she could work as a Bible translator. Also studying linguistics at Wheaton was fellow student Jim Elliot who shared her interest in future missionary work. Inspired from an early age by stories of historic missionaries, Jim was anxious to dedicate his life, to international evangelism and mission work. Meanwhile, to prepare for her future, Elisabeth enrolled in a post graduate course of specialized studies at Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada.
Elisabeth and Jim then traveled separately to Ecuador to work with the Quichua people, and then they were married in 1953 in Quito. They became what one source calls “partners in ministry following the call of the Lord,” and their daughter Valerie was born in 1955. Valerie was ten-months-old when everything changed.
In January, 1956 Jim and four associates, as part of a missionary outreach, attempted to make contact with a remote and culturally distant Auca tribe (also called the Waodani and later the Huaorani). And though the missionaries’ intentions were loving, the natives responded with violence killing all five men. Tragic to be sure but perhaps a reflection of Jim’s earlier journal entry: ”He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
As a new widow, Elisabeth did not abandon her new life but continued to work with the Quechua for two more years, as she studied the Huaorani language. Eventually one of her language tutors created an opening to the Huaorani tribe. So Elisabeth, another missionary and three-year-old Valerie went to live with and minister, to the tribe that had killed Jim and the others. After working for several years with the Huaorani people and other tribes in Ecuador, Mrs. Elliot and Valerie returned to the U.S. in 1963.
Settling in Franconia, New Hampshire, Elisabeth married Addison Leitch, a professor of theology at a Massachusetts school. Then a year after his death in 1973 Mrs. Elliot became an adjunct professor at a seminary. In 1977 she married Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain and they were married till Elisabeth’s death in 2015.
About this time Elisabeth also served as a stylistic consultant on the committee compiling the New International Version of the Bible. Then in 1981 she was named writer-in-residence at a Massachusetts college.
From 1988 till 2001, Elisabeth was heard on a daily radio program titled Gateway to Joy. She opened each program by telling her listeners: “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.” Repeats of the program are still heard nationally.
Sadly, Elisabeth’s last years were spent with dementia, and she died in Massachusetts, in 2015 at the age of 88. If the death of Jim Elliot and the other missionaries in South America in 1956 was tragic—as indeed it was —for Elisabeth it began a lifelong ministry of writing. Her first book, published in 1957, Through Gates of Splendor became perhaps her best known work. Her account of the death of her husband and the others, then her ministering to her husband’s killers for several years proved to be a touching story to many readers.
The title of the book was derived from the fourth verse of the hymn “We Rest on Thee” that was sung by Jim Elliot and the others before they left for the mission field. That verse reads:
“We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.”
Elisabeth actually wrote the book, while she was working with tribes in Ecuador, and did so under the encouragement and request of the families of the men who had been killed. They provided her with letters, individual accounts, and other sources so she could include many moving quotes. The book proved a best seller when it was published in 1956, a year before successful peaceful contact with the Huaorani people was made. Subsequent reissues of the book provided updates on the tribe as well as the families of the slain missionaries. Another account of her experiences in South America came in Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, and 1961’s The Savage my Kinsman. Eventually Elisabeth Elliot published nearly 25 books.
Indeed, that initial tragedy of her husband’s death, and the subsequent spiritual and emotional struggling did allow Mrs. Elliot to share what she had learned. According to her website (elisbethelliot.org) she wrote: “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things I know about God.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.