More Than a Sermon Illustration
By Megan Fowler
Elisabeth Elliot

Lucy S.R. Austen’s admiration for Elisabeth Elliot began in high school when she received a book about Elliot in her Easter basket. 

As an adult working to design homeschool curriculum, S.R. Austen wanted to include Elliot’s novel “No Graven Image” in her literature textbook. But in searching for an introductory biography of Elliot to include, S.R. Austen found that there wasn’t one; at least not one that had been written for adults.

Thus began her study of the author’s life, a project that lasted more than a decade and culminated in “Elisabeth Elliot: A Life,” published in June 2023 by Crossway.

The dearth of biographies on Elliot seems strange given her prominence in evangelicalism throughout the second half of the 20th century. At the time of her death in 2015, Elliot was called “one of the most influential Christian women of the 20th century.” 

Her first book, “Through Gates of Splendor,” about the death of her first husband, Jim, and four other missionaries in the Ecuadorian jungle, inspired a generation of  young people to serve in foreign missions. In a 2016 blog post, Mike Pettengill of Mission to the World called “Through Gates of Splendor” a must-read for missionaries. “This story caused a swell of men and women willing to give their lives to Christ in missions and still influences missionaries into action 60 years later,” he wrote. 

But Elliot’s life didn’t end when Jim’s did. She outlived him by 59 years and went on to become a popular writer and speaker. Even so, throughout her long speaking career, whenever and wherever she spoke, she was asked about Jim’s death. 

Now, since her death, Elliot lives on not just in her writing, but in sermon illustrations that cherry-pick some stirring details from her time in Ecuador to make a point about courage, sacrifice, or forgiveness.

S.R. Austen said Elliot wanted to write Christian literature “that was worthy of both of those [labels].” But what people wanted instead was the “endless rehashing of the Jim Elliot story.” 

In “Elisabeth Elliot: A Life,” S. R. Austen does for Elliot what Elliot tried to do for missionary work: show depth and complexity without shoehorning suffering into a tidy package.

Studying an Evangelical Icon

After decades of public speaking, publishing, and correspondence, Elliot had accumulated a large body of writing, much of which was autobiographical, and now housed at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. S.R. Austen studied Elliot’s writings and illuminates the details of her story with excerpts from letters and journals as well as her published works. She also interviewed those close to Elliot including her third husband, Lars Gren, and some of Elliot’s siblings.

The picture that emerges is sometimes contradictory and deeply human. Even though “Through Gates of Splendor” inspired a generation of missionaries, Elliot felt frustrated that American Christians treated missionaries like superheroes rather than fellow strugglers. Some of Elliot’s later works about her time in Ecuador, such as “The Savage, My Kinsman” and the novel “No Graven Image,” raise questions about the American (and her own) approach to missions.

S.R. Austen said it’s unclear whether Elliot realized how “Through Gates of Splendor” perpetuated the myth she later found so frustrating. “There were several things about her that didn’t fit in one box in my mind,” S.R. Austen said. With enough research, she expected to be able to sort out some of these inconsistencies. “But that’s not what the process looked like,” she said. 

For instance, Elliot spelled out stringent courtship principles, particularly in her book “Passion and Purity.” Yet she also publicly stated that missionaries should not prohibit polygamy among the people groups that practiced it. 

After Jim’s death, Elliot urged the other widows not to remarry; then in 1968 she abruptly announced that she was engaged to Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor Addison Leitch, just weeks after the death of Leitch’s first wife. 

After she married Leitch, Elliot’s views on gender roles became more rigid. Though her teaching and speaking audiences frequently included men, she taught that women were to be submissive to men in everything. She went so far as to argue that Jesus is eternally submissive to God the Father, a teaching disavowed by many complementarians.

“Rather than trying to tidy her up, we have to find a way to live with the complexity. We can’t neaten her up enough to put her in one box or category. Really, probably, that’s true of all of us,” S.R. Austen said. 

A Life in the Public Eye

Elliot was born to missionaries in Belgium and grew up in the U.S. in a home where missionaries frequently visited. She attended Wheaton College and trained to work on the mission field as a linguist among people groups with no written language.

In 1953 she married fellow Wheaton graduate Jim Elliot after a five-year courtship (for years Jim insisted God had called him to the mission field as a single man). Jim and Elisabeth shared a burden for unreached people groups, and Jim became interested in making contact with a violent tribe in Ecuador known as the “Aucas” (anthropologists later learned that the tribe called themselves Waoroni).

S.R. Austen’s biography shows a woman who neither has all the answers, nor pretends that she does. She takes God at His word and trusts His purposes.

In January 1956, Jim and four other missionaries made peaceful contact with three members of the Waoroni tribe. Two days later a group of Waoroni killed all five missionaries. In 1957, around the first anniversary of the attack, Elliot published their story in her first book. 

“Through Gates of Splendor” became a bestseller, launching Elliot’s writing career while immortalizing the story of the five martyrs. The book ranked No. 9 on Christianity Today’s list of the Top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals. 

Her next book, “Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot,” was also a bestseller. She went on to publish more than 20 books in addition to magazine and newspaper articles and columns. 

In 1958 some Waoroni members invited Elliot, her daughter, and Rachel Saint to live among them. Elliot lived with them off and on for five years, though her efforts to learn their language and translate Scripture were hampered by tension with Saint, sister of Nate Saint who had died alongside Jim Elliot. 

Elliot moved back to the U.S. in 1963 and was a popular speaker, author, and columnist. For 13 years she hosted the “Gateway to Joy” radio program. She began each program with the same greeting: “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.”

In 1969 she married Leitch and they were married four years before Leitch died from cancer. Later she married Lars Gren, and the two were married for 37 years. Elliot retired from public speaking in 2004 as the effects of dementia made public appearances too difficult. 

At 531 pages, “Elisabeth Elliot: A Life” is comprehensive, but also accessible. Though the bulk of the book focuses on the nearly nine years Elliot spent in Ecuador, S.R. Austen’s writing places Elliot within her theological and cultural context, helping readers understand the streams in which Elliot swam. Elliot’s views were sometimes controversial, and sometimes — like her thinking about discerning God’s will — shifted during her lifetime. 

The biographer neither deifies Elliot nor excoriates her. Instead, she lets Elliot’s words speak for themselves, even when they’re sometimes contradictory. 

Since Elliot’s death, others have also revisited the legacy of Jim Elliot and his fellow martyrs. In 2021 Wheaton College took down and revised a plaque given in 1957 by the class of 1949 in memory of their classmates Jim Elliot and Ed McCully. The updated plaque removes the word “savages” in describing the Waoroni and highlights the lasting gospel impact in ways the Wheaton class of 1949 could not have imagined when they donated the plaque.

Presbyterian readers will notice that Elliot grew up in the Plymouth Brethren tradition and as an adult joined the Episcopal Church. Still, her teaching had a profound impact on many within the PCA. Elliot served as an adjunct faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and her students included Tim and Kathy Keller. According to the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, Elliot significantly influenced Tim and Kathy’s thinking on the roles of men and women in marriage and the church. Elliot’s book “Let Me Be a Woman” includes an excerpt from one of Kathy’s class papers. 

S.R. Austen’s biography shows a woman who neither has all the answers, nor pretends that she does. Elliot offers no definitive answers for suffering — her own or that of the countless people who wrote to her for advice. Instead she takes God at His word and trusts His purposes. 

“Wherever the conversation about her goes from here, I think it’s important to have the whole picture to continue the conversation in a meaningful way,” S.R. Austen said.

When all Christians know about Elisabeth Elliot is what they hear from a pastor using her story as an illustration or seeing a quote attributed to her in an inspirational meme, they can come away thinking she was superhuman or an incontrovertible expert. 

S.R. Austen hopes readers will come away understanding that Elisabeth Elliot was not a superhuman nor an oracle whose opinions should settle debates. “She was a child and then an adult shaped by her culture and her time in history,” said S.R. Austen. “She was caught at an early age by the idea of a relationship with God, and she spent the rest of her life determinedly and fumblingly trying to get to know God in the circumstances of her life.” 

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