Recently I met over a span of eight weeks with a group of friends to discuss Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn, the recently published authorized biography of Elisabeth Elliot. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this book when we started. I knew about the story of the five martyred missionaries and their faithful wives, but my knowledge was largely at the level of a missionary myth. This book plunged us into an intimate behind the scenes experience of living through the reality of suffering, conflict, and submission to God’s sovereignty on the deepest level.
Much of the book is derived from detailed journals that Elisabeth maintained over the years. Very few of us, I think, would want our innermost thoughts published for general view. But the picture that the author is able to draw through journal entries, letters, and remembered conversations is marked over and over with the signature of the Holy Spirit: We see Elisabeth struggling to know God’s will, to hear his voice, and to say yes to moments of intense suffering. It is an example that cannot help but create in the reader a desire to do the same.
As we read through the book I was led to explore more of her writing. Following the sequence of her life, I first read These Strange Ashes, where she describes her first year of missionary service among the Colorado Indians before she and Jim were married (Chapters 15-16). This was a year of dying to many of her expectations. Next I read her most famous book Through Gates of Splendor, which documented in detail the events leading up to the actual death of her husband and his four comrades on a beach in the Ecuador jungle (Chapters 21-24).
Finally I read her novel No Graven Image, which though not autobiographical, certainly reflects many of the lessons she learned through her years as a missionary (and is her only book that was banned from some Christian bookstores!). Ellen Vaughn characterized Elisabeth as being ahead of her time in her understanding of mission strategy, and this is clearly demonstrated in this novel, which directs a critical eye at the many platitudes that often accompany Christian work.
Becoming Elisabeth Elliot focuses on Elisabeth’s internal life but also reveals the mundane and painful human misunderstandings that can arise among teammates who should be sharing common goals. Her attempt to work with Rachel Saint while living with the Waodani was a challenging aspect of her story that has recently been more thoroughly explored in the book God in the Rainforest by Kathryn Long, which demonstrates some of the ways that good intentions can go wrong.
Elisabeth Elliot’s life and testimony is a great antidote to our American gospel of prosperity and entitlement. As she wrote:
To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the cross. And the cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade this stark fact.
I highly recommend Becoming Elisabeth Elliot as a thoughtful, inspiring, and challenging read. If you are interested in reading it in a group, I am posting the discussion questions we used to facilitate group interaction. I’m also listing here some some additional resources that we shared among ourselves related to different events and topics in the book.
Note: This book covers the first half of Elisabeth’s life. Volume 2 should be available in Fall of 2022.
Time Magazine’s coverage of the five missionary martyrs
This is Your Life with Rachel Sainte and Dayuma on Youtube (somewhat cringeworthy)
Review of God in the Rainforest that summarizes some of the issues Kathryn Long explores.
Elizabeth found great comfort in this anonymous poem, and “do the next thing” guided her in dark days.
Elisabeth found a kindred spirit in her friend Eleanor Vandervort who was forced out of a long-term ministry in Sudan. The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox provides a review of her book about Sudan titled A Leopard Tamed.
Recent testimony of Valerie Elliot Shepherd, Elisabeth’s daughter, about growing up in the jungle and her mother’s love.