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Died: ‘The Hiding Place’ and ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ Coauthor Elizabeth Sherrill

“She knew how to tell a story with power.”
Died: ‘The Hiding Place’ and ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ Coauthor Elizabeth Sherrill
Image: Elizabeth Sherrill / edits by Rick Szuecs

Few evangelicals know Elizabeth Sherrill’s name. But because of her, they know David Wilkerson, Brother Andrew, Corrie ten Boom, and dozens of other modern men and women who overcame by faith. Working closely with her husband John, she reported, wrote, and edited some of the most compelling, popular, and widely influential accounts of contemporary Christians on bookshelves today.

Sherrill had “an uncanny knack for always touching the heart strings,” according to the late Pentecostal leader Jack W. Hayford. She wrote more than 2,000 articles for Guideposts and coauthored more than 30 nonfiction titles. She founded Chosen Books with her husband and edited and published numerous Christian bestsellers, including Chuck Colson’s Born Again, Don Basham’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Bilquis Sheikh’s I Dared to Call Him Father.

Sherrill died in Massachusetts on May 20. She was 95.

“I marveled at the way the books she touched … inspired readers toward belief,” Jeff Crosby, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, told Publishers Weekly. “Elizabeth’s gifts as a manuscript stylist, editor, and publisher were enormous. She knew how to tell a story with power.”

Sherrill “found a perfect calling,” according to Rick Hamlin, former executive editor of Guideposts, “in coaxing stories out of others and then helping them share their highly personal accounts of God at work in their lives.”

She was born Elizabeth Schindler in Los Angeles, California, on February 14, 1928. She was raised in Scarsdale, New York, in what she recalled was a cold, nonreligious home with parents who got upset when she had any emotions. Her father, a private investigator, thought she should just be happy with what he had provided. Her mother believed “emotions were private affairs and nice people said only nice things.”

“I yearned for heart-to-heart talks,” Sherrill later wrote. “I wanted Mother to ask me not what had happened at school, but how I felt about it. … A gulf of mutual disapproval opened between us.”

Sherrill left home at 19, sailing to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth to attend school at the University of Geneva. During the crossing, a World War II veteran who was five years older than her and had served in the Italian campaign caught her eye. He called her “Tibs” or “Tibby.” Four months later, she and John Sherrill were married in Switzerland.

The couple returned to the United States in 1950—with Elizabeth pregnant and John determined to become a writer.

After struggling for a year as a freelancer, John found a job with a new religious magazine launched by the popular preacher Norman Vincent Peale. Guideposts was an eight-page publication dedicated to stories about the power of faith. Peale, who was writing the Power of Positive Thinking at the time, didn’t really care which faith, as long as it was positive, transformative, and a great story. Neither did John Sherrill. As he confessed to Peale during his interview, his father was a theologian but he himself was not religious. Peale decided that was perfect and hired him to work alongside editors Leonard and Catherine Marshall LeSourd.

John brought his work home and Elizabeth started to edit it. She had a gift for clear prose and clean structure that made his stories better. Within a few months, John convinced Guideposts to hire Elizabeth too, and from that point on they were inseparable collaborators who wrote with one voice.

Sherrill ghostwrote many of her early pieces, telling famous people’s stories of faith under their names, in their personas, but in her distinct style. In one piece as Alfred Hitchcock, for example, Sherrill wrote about “a day of judgement” in the famed director’s early career, before Rear Window, Psycho, or The Birds. “It was almost as if God deliberately delayed success to show me that my efforts at controlling the future were not in His scheme of things,” she wrote as Hitchcock. “I thank Heaven daily that tomorrow does not belong to any man. It belongs to God.”

Sherrill and her husband did not personally have that kind of faith, though. As she described it later, they loved good stories, but had “mountains of intellectual objections” to the idea that Jesus could be Lord and Savior.

Things changed when John was diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery and seemed to be recovering, but then it came back. Catherine LeSourd, his fellow editor at Guideposts, used that opportunity to ask him a question: “Do you believe that Jesus was God?”

Driving home, he stopped at a stop sign and turned to Sherrill.

“I believe that Jesus is God,” he said. “Why do they call it a leap of faith? Alright, I’m going to make that leap.”

The second surgery was successful, and while he was in the hospital recovering, John had a mystical experience of Christ as a glowing light in his room.

Sherrill affirmed her husband’s newfound faith and the incredible impact it had on his life. But she didn’t feel it herself. She was struggling with a clinical depression that completely immobilized her in her mid-20s.

She had always had what she thought of as “attacks,” when she would take a “sudden plunge for no reason into a bottomless sadness.” In 1955, she was overcome with the feeling and went up to a small room in their partially finished attic and locked herself inside.

“And there I lay,” she later wrote, “curled on a cot, the door locked on the world, while a succession of babysitters covered the hours that John was at work.”

Sherrill felt a paralyzing sense of failure. And then when she reminded herself that she was a successful writer, happily married, with two lovely children and another much-wanted baby on the way, she would start to berate herself for being ungrateful, neurotic, and not feeling like she was supposed to feel.

“That’s the terror of depression, the dark mystery that distinguishes it from sorrow,” Sherrill wrote. “Depression can throw its gray pall over us when the sun is brightest.”

John took her to a psychiatrist, who put on her on some medication that helped her achieve a “shaky equilibrium.” The doctor also helped her start talking about her childhood, and how her parents had dealt with her emotions. He told her she had internalized her parents’ rejection.

In an effort to deal with these deep psychic wounds, she turned to religion.

“For the first time in my life I began to read the Bible,” she said. “A new world opened before me! A loving God, visions of strength and joy beyond my wildest hopes. … I can accept myself—delight in myself—because, the Bible tells me, God made me for himself, and can use all the particulars of my history for good. The very things I like least about myself, indeed, may be those he values most.”

Sherrill joined her husband as a member of an Episcopal church. She never stopped suffering attacks of depression, but they grew less frequent and more bearable in time.

When she was doing well, Sherrill loved chasing stories. One time she and John were visiting friends in Boston, for example, and they saw a headline in the newspaper that said, “Man Buried Alive.” The story included the man’s name and the hospital where he’d been taken, and the Sherrills abandoned their vacation, rushed over, and convinced him to let them write his story.

The Sherrills similarly found David Wilkerson through a thirdhand rumor about a Pentecostal preacher who was successfully evangelizing violent gang members in New York City. They produced several pieces about him for Guideposts before deciding they had enough for a book and wrote The Cross and the Switchblade. It was published by a secular press in 1963 and sold 11 million copies in the first 10 years.

The Sherrills’ follow-up book, about a Dutch Christian taking Bibles to Christians in Communist-controlled countries, was also a smash hit. God’s Smuggler sold 10 million copies.

If two bestsellers seemed like a fluke, the couple then wrote a third: The Hiding Place. Sherrill heard Corrie ten Boom talk about losing her family in the Nazi concentration camps, and even though she didn’t understand Dutch, she found the way ten Boom talked incredibly compelling. Here was the next story, an account not only of fighting the Nazis and surviving but also forgiving. It was a story of how faith could overcome even the Holocaust.

Sherrill’s writing relationship with ten Boom was sometimes difficult, though. When they sat down, Sherrill kept asking for detailed descriptions of places and people and ten Boom could only talk in abstractions.

It was, Sherrill would later recall, “like trying to get a blind man to describe the colors of a garden he'd once walked in.”

‘Corrie,’ I would say, ‘describe Mr. Koornstra who got you those extra ration cards.’

‘He was a very brave man.’

‘I know. But what did he look like? Was he tall? Short? Thin—fat? Bald? Did he have a beard?’

‘And with that tone of finality that only Dutch-accented English can convey: ‘He was a man.’

Sherrill found additional sources who could fill in the details, and the book came out in 1971. At the last minute, the Sherrills decided to pull out of their publishing contract and produce the book themselves. They founded Chosen Books and released The Hiding Place as their first title. It sold more than 50 million copies. The book’s most recent appearance on the evangelical bestsellers list was in early May 2023.

When Christianity Today collected a list of the top 50 books that shaped evangelicals in the 20th century, the Sherrills were named more frequently than C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, J. I. Packer, Phillip Yancey, Tim LaHaye, John Piper, or James Dobson. They occupied three spots on the list and were the editors behind a fourth.

“John and Elizabeth Sherrill may be the most influential Christian authors you know nothing about,” CT reported. “Their specialty: testimonials to the power of God’s Spirit. And, it seems, bestsellers.”

The couple’s most personal testimony of the power of the Holy Spirit came with the publication of They Speak with Other Tongues. The book started as a journalistic investigation of the charismatic movement, but became something different when John started speaking in tongues, which he understood to be a supernatural gift from God.

“It was the floodgate opened,” John later said. “The syllables were all there, ready-formed for my use, more abundant than my earthly lips and tongue could give shape to.”

Sherrill had the same experience later, receiving “a spontaneous outpouring of a heavenly tongue” and speaking in a “fluent and beautiful prayer language.”

The wrote the book together under John’s name and from his first-person perspective. It played a major role in popularizing the charismatic movement and the idea of speaking in tongues among evangelicals.

“Is epochal too strong a word?” asked Ben Kinchlow, cohost with Pat Robertson of The 700 Club. “I think not.”

The couple continued to write, edit, and travel together until John died in 2017. They were planning a trip for their 70th anniversary when he passed. Sherrill received the Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association the following year. She accepted it for both of them.

Sherrill is survived by her three children, John Scott Sherrill, Donn Hardwick Sherrill, and Elizabeth Flint, along with eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service was held on June 3 at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Hingam, Massachusetts.

“We know she is alive in God’s hands,” the priest, Sarah D. Máto, told the friends and family gathered to mourn. “She was very sure of this. She is living in the very place that God prepared just for Tib. Maybe [with] a gold typewriter, who knows?”

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