Early this morning Elisabeth Elliot, the beloved Christian pioneer and missionary, passed away. She lived 88 years in powerful service of Jesus Christ.
After her years as a foreign missionary, Elisabeth Elliot became an inspirational author and speaker whose books, courageous faith and words of wisdom have influenced generations around the world. She inspired many to serve God with reckless abandon.
This article was originally published September 30, 2013. Today we remember and honor her life of bravery and faith.
Born to Serve
Elisabeth was born to missionary parents in Brussels, Belgium. Her parents moved soon after her birth to Pennsylvania and then eventually to New Jersey where she saw as a child what a life serving others could mean. Her parents daily modeled their faith for her one day at a time resulting in her sensing a call to missionary service at an early age.
As a young woman, Elisabeth fondly remembers the mentor God provided for her when she was a student at Prairie Bible Institute. “Many were the afternoons when Mrs. Cunningham poured tea for me and I poured my soul out to her,” Elisabeth recalls. This tea cup mentor prayed and stayed in contact with Elisabeth until she passed on. “Above all, “Elisabeth ponders, “She herself was the message.”
After graduating from Wheaton College, Elisabeth surrendered to missionary service in Ecuador. In 1953, she married a former Wheaton College classmate, Jim Elliot, and together they worked on translating the Bible into the language of the Quichua Indians.
In 1956, ten months after the birth of their daughter, Valerie, Jim and his comrades were speared by the Auca Indians while attempting to make contact to share the gospel with them.
Seasoned and Mature in her Faith
Although Elisabeth was a mere 28 years old when her faith was put to the test, she was well grounded in her faith. All the influences in her life had paid off in her moment of need. Imagine being a young mother and wife living in a primitive culture and your husband and part of your mission family are brutally speared!
The normal reaction is to cower in fear and retreat to safety. But Elisabeth persisted in her obedience to God’s call on her life and continued to serve the Quichuas. She later reflected on her feelings at that time saying, “We just felt that God was in the whole thing, and there wasn’t anything that had happened that was not in the Providence of God.”
She later took her daughter Valerie and joined Rachel Saint to work among the Aucas. Yes, Elisabeth would raise her daughter in the jungle while serving the very tribe that speared her husband and his friends. She was a radical in her day.
Elisabeth understood that God uses every circumstance for His purpose for those who love Him. Her days at Wheaton College and Prairie Bible Institute, her strong Christian upbringing, her time alone with God and studying the Bible, and mentors like Mrs. Cunningham were all the resources God used to make her into one of His choicest servants. And then she began to pour herself into others. Her life became “Her Message” to millions.
Pouring by Writing
Through the Gates of Splendor was Elisabeth’s first pouring of herself into others. Written while she served as a missionary and before peaceful contact was made with the Auca Tribe (also known as Huaorani), it is her best-selling book. It shares the story of Operation Auca, an attempt by five missionary men (including her husband) to reach this tribe with the Gospel.
As the book continues to sell and is reprinted, updates about the families of the five men and the miraculous work to the Auca tribe continue to be added.
Elisabeth believes, “If we want real life, our hearts must be set on glory.” She set her goals on living for eternity and that has carried her through many trials in life. In 1956, Life Magazine documented this tragedy as it unfolded and later in another story credited their “Mission to Forgive” with propelling the evangelistic missionary movement in the late 1950’s.
The title of the book is derived from the fourth stanza of the hymn, “We Rest on Thee.” The wives of the martyred missionaries sang this hymn at the memorial service that was also sung by their husbands before they entered the Auca territory. The lines to the song read:
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
The book was later released as a documentary in 1958 called Through the Gates of Splendor with Elisabeth herself narrating the film. The movie also included information from her later book , The Savage My Kinsman, which includes many pictures of Elisabeth and Valerie and their primitive life in the jungle.
The following year she wrote Shadow of the Almighty. It is the life and testament of her husband, Jim Elliot. Heralded as a classic, well-known author, Eugenia Price called it, “Proof that Jesus Christ can bring bright creativity out of any shadow which ought fall across any life and any love.”
In 2006, the movie End of the Spear used information from this book, but tells the story from the perspective of Steve Saint (the son of Nate Saint, one of the slain missionaries), and Mincaye, one of the tribesmen who killed the missionaries. The two eventually formed a bond that continues to this day.
Produced by Kevin McAfee and Every Tribe Entertainment, it became one of the few independently released Christian movies in its day to draw attention at movie theaters and in DVD rentals and sales. The movie portrays the moving story of the plan God had from the beginning to reach this savage tribe.
Nine years after the tragedy, the Gospel of Mark was translated in the Auca language. More astonishing, one of the killers, Mincaye, would eventually give his life to Christ and became the pastor who baptized the children of slain missionary Nate Saint.
A Role Model of Wisdom
Her other favorite titles include Passion and Purity, Let Me Be a Woman, God’s Guidance, and The Shaping of a Christian family. During her life, Elisabeth has poured her God-given wisdom into more than 30 books and her thirteen year radio program, Gateway to Joy. As Elisabeth always said, “Anything, if offered to God, can and will become your gateway to joy.”
She is revered today as a woman who’s lived through every season of life and uses her experiences to reach out to those who endure the same. Her name is actually Elisabeth Howard Elliot Leitch Gren. In 1969, she married Addison Leitch, a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. After his death in 1973, she began teaching the next year as an adjunct professor at that same seminary. In 1977, she married Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain who has traveled with her and helped to manage her ministry. They currently live outside of Boston.
Here is Elisabeth’s advice to her about-to-be-married daughter from her book, Let Me Be A Woman:
Who is it you marry? You marry a sinner. There’s nobody else to marry. That ought to be obvious enough, but when you love a man as you love yours, it’s easy to forget. You forget it for a while and then when something happens that ought to remind you, you find yourself wondering what’s the matter, how could this happen, where did things go wrong? . . . Acceptance includes acceptance of his being a sinner. He is a fallen creature, in need of the same kind of redemption all the rest of us are in need of.
The Jungle Child Continues the Legacy
When Elisabeth’s daughter Valerie turned eight, she moved her back to the US for an American education. After graduating from her mother’s alma mater, Wheaton College, Valerie married Walter Shepard, a pastor whose family served as missionaries in the Congo. Their marriage has produced eight wonderful children who were home-schooled by Valerie and Walter and also four grandchildren. They are now in the empty-nester stage which leaves Valerie more time to pour herself into others through speaking and writing.
In 2010 she wrote a children’s memoir about her jungle experiences which tells this same amazing story through her eyes called Pilipinto’s Happiness: The Jungle Childhood of Valerie Elliot. Pilipinto is the name the Quicha tribe gave to Valerie which means “butterfly.”
Before going to the Congo to serve as missionaries, Walt pastored for 30 years in the states. After serving as missionaries in the Congo, Valerie and her husband are currently planting a church in Southport, NC. It’s clear this jungle child did not fall far from the tree.
Aging with Grace
Elisabeth now spends quieter days with her husband, Lars Gren, near the coast in Massachusetts. At almost eighty-seven, she no longer writes books or speaks in public. But her words of wisdom continue to inspire many as she awaits her journey home. As Billy Graham said, “All my life I was taught how to die as a Christian, but no one ever taught me how I ought to live in the years before I die. . . It’s not easy.”
Aging is a struggle in life—another season. And with the help of her devoted husband and some assistance, she is now weathering this one final storm.
Tea with Elisabeth and Lars
Several years ago I was invited to have tea with Elisabeth and Lars. Since we are separated by one thousand miles, it’s taken me until now to accept the invitation. As my husband Alton and I drove towards the Gren home, I marveled at the opportunity to meet this courageous woman who has humbly modeled the beatitudes that Jesus taught to the world.
While sipping tea served by her husband, I noticed Pilipinto’s Happiness on her coffee table. The view from her living room window was breathtaking and she was comfortably seated where she could gaze at the ocean waves as they crashed upon the rocks. As I perused the pictures on her wall, they told the story of her life from living with the Quicha and Auca Indians in the jungle to those family members that mean the most—her husband, Lars, her daughter, Valerie, her son-in-law, Walt and her eight grandchildren.
Elisabeth’s life continues to pour into the lives of others through her words of wisdom and the message of her life. When accolades were given, she always pointed heavenward giving praise to God and referring to herself as, “A very small fish in a very big pond.” For a small fish, she has undoubtedly created a lot of ripples which caused others to look heavenward and desire to follow in her footsteps.
Her cup of life is so rich and overflowing—a life that modeled obedience, trust, and setting our desires on eternity. Her actions speak louder than her words. Her life continues to resonate with many today as a sweet aroma for God and will continue even after she graduates to glory.
For more information about Elisabeth and her ministry and books, go to www.elisabethelliot.org
All pictures of Elisabeth and/or Valerie are used by Valerie’s permission and are not to be copied or used without permission.