Elisabeth Elliott – The Missionary who lived with the Tribe that killed her husband...
Elisabeth Elliot was one of the most influential Christian women of the twentieth century. Her books were considered staples in many evangelical homes. One book, Through Gates of Splendour, ranked number nine on Christianity Today’s list of the Top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals. That and another one of her books, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, were bestselling accounts of her missionary career. She was a woman who remained faithful despite many trials and tribulations. Her faithfulness inspired and touched the lives of many around the world.
She was born Elisabeth Howard in 1926 – one of six children – to missionary parents in Brussels, Belgium. Her parents moved to Philadelphia, USA, a few months after Elisabeth was born. She later described them as devout, disciplined Christians who built their family life around the Bible.
‘We grew up with the understanding that the scriptures were top priority... we had bible reading and prayer at the end of dinner every night as we sat around the table, and up until the age of, I suppose, seven or eight, each of us children was put to bed by one of our parents and prayed with, and sometimes we had the bible read to us again. So we heard the bible read aloud at least twice a day, sometimes three times a day.
‘And the other very powerful influence in our lives, I'm sure was the fact that my father got up himself between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning in order to have time alone with the Lord.
And when we came to breakfast, we knew that we had been prayed for... meaning my father was in his study for those hours before breakfast with his prayer lists and his notebooks and his bible and down on his knees praying for us.’
Elisabeth reckoned she herself came to faith at around the age of five. This was followed by a definite commitment to Christ when she was twelve: “I think I realised that if Jesus was my saviour, he also had to be my Lord, so I then committed my life and said, ‘Lord, I want you to do anything you want with me.’”
We can surmise from this that even at this tender age Elisabeth realised she had a calling to the mission field. She studied classical Greek at Wheaton college, Illinois, believing that it was the best tool to help her with her desire to translate the New Testament into a yet-unreached language.
Elisabeth attended Wheaton College and studied Greek because she wanted to translate the Bible for remote peoples of the world. While at Wheaton, she met Jim Elliot and both of them went to Ecuador after graduation. They served in different parts of Ecuador the first year, but he joined her in Quito a year later where he eventually proposed to her. Elisabeth accepted his marriage proposal under one condition: they had to learn the Ecuadorian Quichua language before they got married. They married in Quito, Ecuador, in 1953 and later had a daughter, Valerie.
Jim felt a call to mission work among the unreached. This led him to the Aucas, a people that no outsider had encountered and survived. Jim and four other Christian missionaries Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed Mccully and Peter Fleming – were speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador. Their killers were Huaorani Indians, the same group that Elisabeth had been warned about earlier. After Jim died, Elisabeth and her daughter Valerie, along with Rachel Saint—the sister of Nate Saint, one of the slain missionaries—lived among the Quichua tribe. Because of her tall height, the Aucas gave Elisabeth the tribal name Gikari, meaning “Woodpecker.”
Despite what had happened to their men, Elisabeth and Rachel were still determined to reach the killers with the gospel. At the time, their only link with Auca culture came when they met Dayuma, a young woman who had fled the tribe some years before to live with white missionaries. Dayuma, who was by then a believing Christian, helped them with the Auca language.
In November 1957 came a breakthrough. Elisabeth heard that two more Auca women had left their tribe. She hurried to the neighbouring settlement where the women – Mintaka and Minkamu – were, and spent the next ten months with them, seeking to learn more of the Auca language and culture.
Eventually the two Auca women – together with Dayuma – decided to return to their native tribe, leaving Elisabeth and Rachel wondering what the fate of the three women might be when they arrived home.
However, after three weeks the women returned to the mission compound bringing along seven other Aucas, plus a invitation to the missionaries to visit the tribe!
'As long as this is what the Lord requires of me, then all else is irrelevant' Elisabeth Elliot
Elisabeth and Rachel lost no time in taking up this unprecedented offer. However, Elisabeth admitted that taking her three-year-old daughter, Valerie, along strapped to her back was ‘the biggest test of faith ever’.
As well as the usual dangers found in jungle terrain, she had to face the possibility that the Aucas might choose to kill her and carry off the youngster.
While living among the tribe, Elisabeth learned why Jim had been killed. The tribesmen were afraid that outsiders would come into their home and take away their freedom. With this new knowledge, Elisabeth said, “The Auca was trying to preserve his own way of life, his own liberty. He believed the foreigners were a threat to that liberty, so he feels he had every right to kill them. In America, we decorate a man for defending his country.” Eventually, Elisabeth and Rachel were able to see many in the tribe come to faith in Christ.
After spending two years with the Auca tribe, Elisabeth moved to New Hampshire in 1963 and began a career as a speaker and a writer. She wrote twenty-four books that included themes on suffering, loneliness, singleness, biblical manhood, biblical womanhood, and family. She also hosted a twelve-minute radio program for thirteen years called Gateway to Joy that was aimed at women, where she emphasized, “You are loved with an everlasting love. And underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Elisabeth was a contributor to the New International Version of the Bible and taught at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. In her class, Christian Expression, she encouraged generations of Christians to embrace a biblical view of God’s love, seeing it through the lens of the cross as this passage from her book Passion and Purity beautifully conveys, “Our vision is so limited; we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering. The love of God is of a different nature altogether. It does not hate tragedy. It never denies reality. It stands in the very teeth of suffering. The love of God did not protect his own Son. That was the proof of his love—that he gave that Son, that he let him go to Calvary’s cross, though “legions of angels” might have rescued him.”
She was married three times, widowed twice, and suffered from dementia for ten years before her death at the age of eighty-eight. Her legacy continues today through her writings and the wisdom gained from a close walk with Jesus. As a missionary, and later as a Christian leader, Elisabeth Elliot shines as an example of a life well-lived for Christ, pointing others to Jesus and the life promised through the gospel.
Perhaps Elisabeth Elliot’s whole philosophy of life and ministry can be summed up in the words she once wrote: “We have proved beyond any doubt that he [God] means what he says - his grace is sufficient - nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We pray that if any, anywhere, are fearing that the cost of discipleship is too great, they may be given a glimpse of that treasure in heaven promised to all who forsake.”