Elisabeth Elliot enters gates of splendor

Obituary | Best-selling author, speaker, and missionary remembered as someone who trusted God with everything
by Daniel James Devine
Posted 6/15/15, 05:53 pm

Elisabeth Elliot, the best-selling Christian author and widow of martyred missionary Jim Elliot, died Monday morning. She was 88.

Elliot’s daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepard, said her mother was asleep when she died in the Gloucester, Mass., home Elliot shared with her third husband, Lars Gren. Elliot had suffered from dementia for about a decade, and recently experienced a series of ministrokes.

Elliot became well-known after publishing, in 1957, Through Gates of Splendor, about her husband Jim Elliot’s attempt to take the gospel to an unreached tribe of Auca Indians (now known as the Waodani or Huaorani) in the jungles of Ecuador. Another of Elliot’s popular works, Passion and Purity, described her five-year courtship with Jim.

In 1956, Auca tribe members speared to death Jim, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian on a riverbank two days after the men made an initial friendly contact. The Elliots had celebrated their two-year anniversary just three months before. Valerie was 10 months old.

Not to be deterred from the mission she had joined her husband to fulfill, Elliot continued working to reach Ecuadorian tribes, eventually moving with her 3-year-old daughter and Nate Saint’s sister to live among the Aucas and decipher their language. Elliot also worked among the Quichua Indians.

Today, Christians from among the Aucas trace a spiritual heritage to the five martyrs and subsequent missionary work of Elliot and others.

After returning to the United States permanently in 1963, Elliot married Addison Leitch. That marriage was also brief: Leitch died from cancer four years later.

“God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good,” Elliot later wrote. “While it is perfectly true that some of my worst fears did, in fact, materialize, I see them now as ‘an abyss and mass of mercies,’ appointed and assigned by a loving and merciful Father who sees the end from the beginning. He asks us to trust him.”

Shepard 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.”

Elliot was born in 1926 to parents who were missionaries to Belgium. She grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where she met Jim Elliot.

She wrote more than 20 books on topics like courtship, womanhood, suffering, loneliness, and trusting and obeying God. Elliot was a popular speaker at conferences, and hosted a 12-minute radio program called Gateway to Joy from 1988 to 2001.

For the radio talks, Elliot wrote her notes on a single 3-by-5 index card.

“She was such a masterful speaker, I rarely had to edit anything she did,” said her first producer, Jan Wismer. “Many men wrote in to say, ‘I don’t listen to women, but I listen to you!’”

Wismer used to stay overnight at Elliot’s home in Gloucester several times a year when they recorded the radio talks. She said Elliot kept a disciplined schedule, exercising daily and rising from bed early enough to spend an hour or two at her desk before breakfast.

Elliot was known for responding faithfully to letters and questions from admiring fans. She sent postcards and letters to Wismer, too: “At least 50. She hacked them out on her typewriter.”

The missionary-turned-writer could be kind but blunt. During visits, Wismer routinely took it upon herself to wash the dishes after Elliot made breakfast, and she recalls one morning when she put just a “dab” of dish soap in the sink, aware that Elliot disliked wastefulness.

Elliot walked over, noticed the lack of suds, and folded her arms. “Now Jan, there’s not enough soap in there, and what’s going to happen is the next time I serve a guest tea in that cup … there’s going to be a layer of grease in that tea.”

“Should I start over?” Wismer sheepishly asked.

“Yes,” Elliot said, without further comment.

“She figured, why hem-haw around?” Wismer said. “I knew if she was correcting me, she loved me.”

Gren, who married Elliot on her birthday in 1977, last year told WORLD Elliot had responded to the onset of her cognitive decline with the same attitude she displayed toward the deaths of her previous husbands: peace.

“She accepted those things, [knowing] they were no surprise to God,” Gren said. “It was something she would rather not have experienced, but she received it.”

Wismer said fans would sometimes ask Elliot, What is it you’re really trying to say? She’d answer, “What I’m really trying to say is, let God be God.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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