Elisabeth Elliot, at the center of a tale of devotion and tenacity, dies at 88; after Amazonian natives killed her husband, she returned to live among them

Jun 20, 2015 | 4 comments

Elisabeth Elliot, a missionary who inspired generations of evangelical Christians by returning to Ecuador with her toddler daughter to preach the Gospel to the Indian tribe that had killed her husband, died Monday at her home in Gloucester, Mass. She was 88.

Lars Gren, her third husband, announced the death on her website. She had had dementia for about a decade.

Elisabeth Eliot and her husband Jim shortly before his death.

Elisabeth Eliot and her husband Jim shortly before his death in 1956.

Ms. Elliot wrote two books stemming from her experience in Ecuador, and together they became, for evangelicals, “the definitive inspirational mission stories for the second half of the 20th century,” said Kathryn Long, a history professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

The first, “Through Gates of Splendor,” published in 1957, recounted the ill-fated mission of her husband and four other American men to bring Protestant Christianity to the remote Waorani (also spelled Huaorani) Indians. It ranked No. 9 on Christianity Today’s list of the top 50 books that shaped evangelicals.

She focused on her husband’s work a year later in “Shadow of the Almighty.”

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“Her early adulthood as she told it,” Professor Long said in an email, “was the stuff of inspiration: an intensely spiritual and deeply romantic love story with her first husband; her support for her husband and his friends when they decided to risk their lives to contact a violent and isolated tribal people in the rain forests of eastern Ecuador; her commitment to telling their story as a story of faith and triumph after their deaths; and her insistence that she and her daughter were called by God to live with their husband’s and father’s killers, which they did.”

After Jim Elliot and his colleagues landed by plane on Jan. 2, 1956, he kept rehearsing a message of good will — “Biti miti punimupa,” meaning “I like you, I want to be your friend” — from a Waorani phrase book. Three tribe members made a friendly visit, but then there apparently was a miscommunication or a perceived threat. After the missionaries failed to make radio contact with a base station, searchers found their bodies pierced by wooden spears.

Elisabeth Eliot and her daughter after they returned to Ecuador,

Elisabeth Eliot and her daughter after they returned to Ecuador,

Over the next two years, Ms. Elliot renewed contact with the tribe. In 1958, accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter and the sister of one of the murdered missionaries, she moved in with the Waoranis, known to their neighbors as Aucas, or savages. She ministered to them and remained in their primitive outpost in the foothills of the Andes, subsisting on barbecued monkey limbs and other local fare and living in rain-swept huts.

A Waorani, she wrote in Life magazine in 1961, “has not a reason in the world for thinking us his betters, and he probably has some very valid reasons for thinking us his inferiors.”

They named her the Waorani word for woodpecker, by her account (or crane, by another, because of her height), which was one of many cultural distinctions between the tribe and whites that she did not understand. She did, however, come to understand why her husband was killed.

“The Auca was trying to preserve his own way of life, his own liberty,” she explained in Life. “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.”

She expressed similar thoughts in “Through Gates of Splendor,” writing: “The prayers of the widows themselves are for the Aucas. We look forward to the day when these savages will join us in Christian praise.”

She was born Elisabeth Howard in Brussels on Dec. 21, 1926, the daughter of missionaries, Philip E. Howard Jr. and the former Katherine Gillingham. As a child she moved to Philadelphia, where her father edited The Sunday School Times, and she grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before enrolling in Wheaton College, where she majored in Greek and hoped to become a Bible translator.

After training for missionary work, she and Mr. Elliot, whom she had met at Wheaton, left independently as mission workers in Ecuador, where they married in 1953.

After translating the New Testament into the local language and airdropping gifts for the Indians, Mr. Elliot and his colleagues, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian and Ed McCully, landed on a beach along the Curaray River in Ecuador and established a camp. An initial friendly overture was followed by the missionaries’ massacre.

Ms. Elliot returned several times to the United States temporarily, then finally moved to New Hampshire in 1963. She married Addison H. Leitch, who became a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He died in 1973. Four years later she married Mr. Gren, a hospital chaplain. In addition to him, she is survived by her daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepard.

Ms. Elliot taught at Gordon-Conwell and wrote a score of books, including a biography of the missionary Amy Carmichael; a novel titled “No Graven Image,” which raised anguished questions about the motives of missionaries; and inspirational guides, including “Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under God’s Control.” She also hosted a Christian radio program, “Gateway to Joy.”

After her death, Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition recalled on its website that as a college student Ms. Elliot had dabbled in poetry. He quoted one of her poems, in which she foretold an acceptance of her own death:

Perhaps some future day, Lord,

Thy strong hand will lead me to the place

Where I must stand utterly alone;

Alone, Oh gracious Lover, but for Thee.

Credit: The New York Times, www.nyt.com

 

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