Elisabeth Elliot: The missionary who lived with the tribe that killed her husband

Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot

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 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 by… 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.

It was at Wheaton where she met Jim Elliot. Before their marriage they both went individually to Ecuador to work with the Quechua Indians; the two married in 1953 in the city of Quito, Ecuador.

Elisabeth Elliot with a Huaorani baby during a later visit to the tribe

Elisabeth Elliot with a Huaorani baby during a later visit to the tribe

Before Elisabeth started her work, she listened to the words of Maruja, a woman of a neighbouring tribe who had been held captive for a year by the Huaorani, sometimes called the Aucas, or ‘savages’. She told Elisabeth that the tribe was fierce and they acted like savages, but that the women were likeable and kind. In 1955, only ten months before Jim was killed, Elisabeth gave birth to a daughter, Valerie.

Elisabeth said that she had a premonition that Jim’s mission might end in his death, explaining, “I often thought I was going to lose my husband.” In fact, just before he left for his fateful mission to the Aucas they had talked about what she would do if Jim should not return.

So as they said what turned out to be their last goodbyes in January 1956, her mind was a filled with thoughts as to whether that would be the last time she saw him alive.

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’s death, Elisabeth, together with Rachel saint, the sister of another of those killed, continued her work among the Quechua at a site which was several days by trail from Auca territory.

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.

Elisabeth with Valerie

Elisabeth with Valerie

Jim Elliot

Jim Elliot

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.

In a later interview she said that, although she appreciated the kind warnings of fellow Christians, she felt that ‘as long as this is what the Lord requires of me, then all else is irrelevant’.

The journey to the Auca village took two-and-a-half days by canoe and trail paths. Ironically, the party arrived on the afternoon of 8 October 1958, Jim’s birthday and the day which would have been the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary.

When the missionaries reached a clearing in the jungle, there stood a welcoming party of three Aucas.

The five missionaries including Jim Elliot set off in their plane

The five missionaries including Jim Elliot set off in their plane

Elisabeth described the reception as ‘friendly… it seemed like the most natural thing in the world’. For the next year the missionaries enjoyed a good relationship with the tribe as they ministered to them. the Aucas gave Elisabeth the tribal name ‘Gikari’, Huao for ‘Woodpecker.’

She later returned to the Quichua and worked with them until 1963, when she and Valerie returned to the USA. Rachel saint continued the work with the Aucas under the auspices of their sponsoring missionary society, the summer Institute of linguistics (sIl).

Over the years some anthropologists have criticised the missionaries’ work, viewing their intervention as the cause for the widely-recognised decline of Huaorani culture. In response Elisabeth Elliot said in an interview that there is absolutely no point in trying to reach tribes like the Huaorani unless you believe the New Testament message that people – however few and remote – are lost without the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Elisabeth and Jim Elliot story is the the October 2016 issue of Heroes of the Faith magazine

Elisabeth and Jim Elliot story is the the October 2016 issue of Heroes of the Faith magazine

And while no-one would claim the missionaries didn’t make mistakes along the way, the gospel they preached resulted in a marked decline in violence among tribe members, together with numerous conversions to Christianity and the growth of the local church.

Indeed, it has been argued by others that the effects of Christianity were very positive, as it served as a way for the Huaorani to escape the cycle of violence in their community, providing them with a motivation to abstain from killing. Ironically it was probably exposure to Western ‘civilisation’ – not the gospel – that had the most detrimental effect on the Huaorani people.

On her return to America, Elisabeth became a noted speaker and writer. Her book, ‘through gates of splendour’ is ranked among the most influential books that have shaped the thinking of evangelicals. The book became a bestseller, as did ‘shadow of the Almighty: the life and testimony of Jim Elliot.’

According to Kathryn long, professor of history at Wheaton college, ‘those books became the definitive inspirational mission stories for the second half of the 20th century. [Elisabeth Elliot] really had a sense of her audience as evangelicals, and she could tell this story in a way that keyed into [their] values.’

Elisabeth went on to write more than a dozen additional books and launched a raddio show, ‘gateway to Joy’, which ran until 2001. She almost always opened the programme with the phrase, “‘You are loved with an everlasting love,’ – that’s what the Bible says – ‘and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ this is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot…”

Two later books on missions, ‘no graven Image’ and ‘the savage my Kingsman’, raise important questions about mission work and reveal Elliot as a extraordinarily perceptive thinker and writer.

In 1969, Elisabeth married Addison Leitch, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell theological seminary in south Hamilton, Massachusetts.

They were together until Leitch’s death in 1973. In 1974, Elliot became an adjunct professor on the faculty of Gordon Conwell theological seminary and for several years taught a popular course entitled ‘christian expression’.

Her third marriage to Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain, took place in 1977.

After their marriage the couple worked and travelled together.

‘Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ’ – Elisabeth Eliott

Elisabeth Elliot died in Magnolia, Massachusetts, on 15 June 2015, at the age of 88. Sadly in her last years she suffered from dementia. Her husband, Lars, said: “She accepted those things, [knowing] they were no surprise to god.

”It was something she would rather not have experienced, but she received it.”

Elisabeth’s only daughter, Valerie, who spent part of her childhood among the Aucas, married a pastor, Walter Shepard, in 1976. Since then Valerie has spent her time being a pastor’s wife, raising eight children, teaching the bible and speaking at conferences.

She described her mother as: “A speaker of the truth, a teacher of obedience, a woman of strength and dignity. She always loved and encouraged me. she was a woman of prayer.”

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.”

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