Elisabeth Elliot was one of the most extraordinary and controversial evangelicals of the post–World War II era. Anyone even marginally affiliated with the American missionary community knows the stirring and tragic story of Elisabeth and her first husband, Jim Elliot, who was killed in Ecuador by Waorani tribesmen in 1956.
Perhaps even more remarkably, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint (whose brother Nate also died in the attack) went to live among the Waorani in 1958. Before returning to the US, Elliot had become one of the best-known evangelicals in America, with coverage of Jim Elliot’s death and of her endurance on the mission field appearing in major national outlets like Life magazine.
Lucy S. R. Austen’s Elisabeth Elliot: A Life is a biography worthy of its subject, diving deep into Elliot’s vast body of correspondence and other writings to present an exceptionally detailed and sometimes conflicted portrait. About three-quarters of the book covers Elliot’s story up to 1963, when she returned to the US from South America. By that time, Elliot was a bestselling author whose now-classic books Through Gates of Splendor (1957) and Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (1958) were fast becoming standard reading among evangelicals.
Biographers of figures like Elliot always grapple with finding the right tone. Some Christian authors choose a hagiographical approach, presenting their subjects in a holy, inspirational light. In recent years, growing numbers of iconoclastic authors—especially academics—have gone to the other extreme, reviling once-revered evangelical figures and judging them irredeemable due to their complicity in various sins.
Austen happily inhabits the judicious middle in this spectrum. Hers is a stance of critical sympathy. At times she clearly finds her subject frustrating. Austen is especially unsparing with Jim Elliot, who comes off both as a courageous missionary and a vacillating (at best) suitor in his ludicrously protracted courtship of Elisabeth. The core of their problem, to Austen, was the way that postwar evangelical culture gave young people a naïve view of discerning God’s will.
Much of the book recounts how Elliot, through repeated and largely inexplicable instances of suffering, grew in wisdom about what it means to truly follow the Lord. We cling to God for his character and for what he accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection, not for worldly peace or prosperity.
Seen in this light, Elliot’s life refutes common Christian assurances that if we obey, all will go well. To the contrary, Elliot concluded that God “has never promised to solve our problems. He has not promised to answer our questions.” And yet, Elliot would remind us, God has the words of eternal life. Where else shall we go?
Elisabeth (Howard) Elliot was born in 1926 to an American missionary family serving in Belgium. For their part, Jim Elliot and his family were dyed-in-the-wool members of the Plymouth Brethren church. The Brethren, a primitivist Protestant movement dating to the 1820s in Ireland and England, left a deep imprint on the piety of both Elisabeth and Jim.
The church manifested a special combination of holiness, lay initiative, missionary zeal, and apocalypticism. One of the Brethren’s founders was John Nelson Darby, a key early exponent of the prophetic timetables of dispensational premillennialism. The Brethren also produced the massively influential orphan-care and “faith mission” pioneer George Müller, who argued that missionaries should never solicit financial support, instead trusting God to provide meticulously for all needs.
Elisabeth Howard seemed destined for a missionary career, even before meeting Jim Elliot at Wheaton College. Their romantic relationship was intense and often perplexing, in ways that may seem familiar to graduates of Christian colleges. It proceeded into levels of ever-deeper emotional intimacy and physical affection, but Jim remained adamant for years that he had not received God’s go-ahead to propose marriage. Austen seems to regard this type of piety as exasperating and hyperindividualistic.
During their courtship, Elisabeth’s and especially Jim’s decision-making appeared governed mostly by feelings and proof texts. In a typical passage, Elisabeth wrote that no one could tell “another what God wants him to do.” In discerning God’s will, God would cause “circumstances, the witness of the Word, and your own peace of mind to coincide.” Jim masked his indecision about Elisabeth in pious sentiments about waiting on the Lord. Sometimes he burst into self-condemning talk about his excessive emotionalism. In one telling exclamation, he wrote that he didn’t understand what it was about “loving her that makes me such a damned woman.” Men, as he saw it, weren’t supposed to be tossed about by romantic feelings.
At times, the Elliots seem like museum pieces from postwar evangelical culture. Yet God used these callow youths to do extraordinary things in Ecuador. Their exceptional courage and zeal turned them into perhaps the most inspiring missionary exemplars of the 20th century.
Our discomfort with warts-and-all Christian biographies, I suspect, has to do with our over-exalted view of the people God uses in ministry. In Austen’s rendering, the Elliots were just everyday Christian folks, marred by fickleness, cultural arrogance, and outright sin. But she suggests that if God is behind all good that comes out of missions and ministry, then we should not be shocked to discover obvious shortcomings in our heroes of the faith. Maybe they are more like you and me than we imagine. If God can use them, perhaps he can use us too.
Elliot herself became increasingly chagrined by American evangelicals’ stereotypical expectations for missionaries. When she returned from South America, she hit the speaking circuit, a vocation (along with writing) that took up most of her time. All audiences knew that the deaths of Jim and the “Auca martyrs” were tragic, but many seemed to expect that Elisabeth would tie her experience up in a “just-so” story of God working all things together for good. They wanted to hear that her profound loss made sense and that it smoothly fit into God’s grand design.
This expectation was perhaps predictable. But Elliot’s audiences didn’t have to deal with her loneliness; her harrowing, recurring dreams of Jim’s return; or a young daughter who slowly lost her memories of a dead father. How could Elliot explain to American audiences that she struggled to accept Jim’s death? Likewise, how could she explain that she stopped working with the Waorani partly because of irreconcilable differences with Rachel Saint? As Austen notes, she and Saint were two of the most “prayed-for missionaries in history.” And yet they simply could not get along.
Elliot’s perspective on missions and the normal Christian life turned more complex after she returned to the US. Her experience of loss became even more searing with the lingering death of her second husband, Addison Leitch, from cancer. Friends and family prayed for Leitch’s healing, or at least peace. She wrote candidly that they got neither. He died in agony four years after they got married.
Around this time, Elliot (who retained Jim’s surname) began writing and speaking about gender roles in marriage and the church. She became an advocate of complementarianism (the idea that God has assigned men and women different but complementary roles).
Modern complementarianism crystallized in opposition to the emerging Christian feminism of the 1960s and ’70s. Austen doesn’t offer much background on why Elliot became a prominent complementarian, other than perhaps her denominational background and her reading of C. S. Lewis, whom she sometimes quoted on the matter. Elliot’s unsentimental realism also fueled a hard critique of anything she viewed as Christian worldliness. To her, feminism meant compromise with the world’s values, and she painted it as faithless and foolish.
Her stances on women’s submission in marriage, male leadership in churches, and sexual purity before marriage made Elliot a reviled figure in progressive Christian circles. Most controversially, Elliot regularly spoke at events sponsored by Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, which was popular among complementarians and Christian homeschoolers. When Elliot began her affiliation with Gothard in the mid-1990s, there were already long-standing public charges about Gothard’s abuse of power and serial sexual harassment of female employees. (Gothard’s board confirmed many of these allegations in 2014.)
Elliot, like many prominent conservative women, also manifested certain contradictions amid her complementarian advocacy. Though she insisted that only qualified men could serve as pastors, she taught church audiences that typically included adult men. Along with her second husband, she joined the Episcopal Church, one of the denominations most adamant about ordaining female pastors. Elliot also grounded her argument for women’s submission in the doctrine of “eternal functional subordination,” or the idea that the Son of God exists eternally in a subordinate relationship to the Father, a position even many complementarian theologians reject as unorthodox.
In the end, Austen portrays Elliot as a complex and flawed person, but one used powerfully by God, especially in the cause of missions. “For Elisabeth Elliot,” Austen concludes, “the foundation of life was trust in the love of God.” This was no pious truism. It was a gritty conviction born out of repeated Job-like experiences of suffering. We may hope that her story will continue inspiring radical discipleship and missionary service, all while fostering confidence that, in Austen’s words, “all things in heaven and earth will finally be made whole.”
Thomas S. Kidd is research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh.
This article has been amended since its posting. An earlier version claimed that, before her marriage, Elisabeth Elliot and her family were members of the Plymouth Brethren church, when in fact this was only true of Jim Elliot and his family.
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