One True Love:
In Memory of Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot is a well-known and influential thinker. She wrote more than twenty books and countless magazine articles, published a widely read newsletter for thirty-one years, had a radio program for almost thirteen, and traveled extensively as a public speaker. She is known for her teaching on suffering, for her stand on the roles of Christian men and women, for pithy one-­liners like, “Don’t carry a Bible if you haven’t swept under the bed” and “Don’t dig up in doubt what you planted in faith.”

She is perhaps best known for the 1956 death of her first husband, Jim Elliot—killed with spears by members of the Waodani people group[1]—and subsequently for the first time she lived with the Waodani as she worked to create a written form for their language. In 2012, Christianity Today profiled her as one of fifty Christian women who “are most profoundly shaping the evangelical church and North American society.” When she died, on June 15, 2015, people like Franklin Graham and John Piper eulogized her.

There is, of course, a good deal of disagreement over many of the things for which Elisabeth Elliot is known. For example, not everyone considers an endorsement by Graham or Piper as a positive thing; or understands the roles of the sexes the way Elliot did; or agrees with her on the importance of housecleaning. And so perhaps less well known, and harder to see through the gloss of familiarity or controversy, are other important aspects of Elliot’s life and thought.

In the documentary-style film Through Gates of Splendor, Elliot describes how she asked God, after Jim was killed, to send someone else to take the message Jim had wanted to give the Waodani. She summed up her understanding of that message in one line: “that the God who made them actually cared about them, and that he was worth trusting.” This idea about the character of God was the heart of the matter, the central thing, the belief she wanted to share as a missionary.

In The Savage My Kinsman, an account of her brief time with the Waodani, Elliot writes of her realization that, because of the immensity of the language barrier, she was unable to share that message with the people, or indeed, to be a missionary in any commonly understood sense of the word. She could not preach or teach, translate the Bible, baptize, or give medical care. She was unable even to be of help in the daily needs of the tribe, as she could not make waterproof thatch, weave hammocks, form clay pots, hunt, grow manioc, or even gather firewood with any degree of skill. (Given her inabilities, the Waodani could only conclude that she was intellectually disabled.[2])

What, then, was she doing there? As she searched for an answer to this question, Elliot found that the Bible does not talk about “missionaries,” but about “witnesses.” Then the words of the prophet Isaiah took on a new weight: “‘You are my witnesses,’ says the Lord, ‘. . . that you may know, and believe me, and understand that I myself am.’”[3]

Elliot wrote of her new understanding, “to be a witness to God is, above all, to know, believe, and understand Him. All that He asks us to do is but means to this end.”

And later, “To be a witness was to know God. This was what I wanted to do—know Him.”[4]

This appears to have been a fundamental and lasting shift in her thinking. One whose task is to know God, rather than to reach a standard of personal excellence or to do some work for God, can get on with that work in any location, under any circumstances, while engaged in any task.

Elliot left the jungles of Ecuador, and her identity as a missionary, in 1963. She moved to New Hampshire, where her family had vacationed in her childhood, and settled in to raise her daughter and write for a living. The next fifty years were unsensational, filled with friendship and loneliness, busyness and rest, kindness and offense, reading, thinking, writing, teaching, public speaking, hosting supper parties and Sunday dinners, caring for her second husband, Addison, as he died from cancer, loving her little dogs, hanging out the laundry, planning surprises for Valerie, taking walks along the shore, attending family reunions, sitting on the porch for afternoon coffee breaks with her third husband, Lars, spending time with her beloved grandchildren, and all the myriad host of comforts and irritants, the mundane and the breathtaking, that make up a human life.

One night long after the fact, standing at a sink of soapy dishwater, Elliot told a friend the story of her experience in the jungle ­­lying in her hammock by the low fire, asking God why she was even there, and seeing that passage from Isaiah come to life. That night in her friend’s kitchen, she was no longer a missionary, but the call to the witness she had heard in the jungle ­­“that you may know me” ­­was still on her mind.

She said to her friend, “I need to know the character, and the ways of my God. . . .”[5]

When Elliot died, many of those who wrote and spoke about her going rejoiced that she was finally reunited with Jim. He was her first love, but she also loved Addison, who went on ahead of her, and Lars, who she left behind after thirty-seven years of marriage. It strikes me that at her death, if the great hope of her Christian faith is true, Elisabeth Elliot is united at last with the true love of her life, the one she was looking for all along: Jesus.

Author’s Bio: Lucy S. R. Austen is a freelance writer, editor, and homeschooling mother who loves cats, long walks, a good cup of tea, and sharing her enjoyment of reading, writing, and thinking. She has worked for Hewitt as a high­ school English evaluator, and as the editor of Spring Hill Review, a journal of Pacific Northwest culture. She is currently at work on a full-length biography of Elisabeth Elliot. You can connect with Lucy at facebook.com/lucysrausten.writer, or through her website at lucysrausten.com.


[1] When Elliot first had contact with the tribe in the 1950s, the only term anyone knew to use in speaking about them was “Auca,” which means “Savages” in the language of the neighboring Kichwa people. As westerners made progress in learning Wao Tededo, the Waodani language, it became apparent that they called themselves “Waodani,” “The People.” There are three primary spelling variations for the name: Huaorani is the Spanish spelling, and Waorani and Waodani are both used more commonly by the people themselves. Sille Stidsen makes the case in The Indigenous World 2007 that Waodani is the most current spelling.

[2] Elisabeth Elliot, “No Better than Pots,” speech to the Midwest Convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, 1982, Billy Graham Center Archives, Collection 309, Tape 259.

[3] Isaiah 43:10, Douay-­Rheims translation

[4] Elisabeth Elliot, narrator, Through Gates of Splendor the film.

[5] Arlita Winston, speaking at Elisabeth Elliot’s memorial service, Wheaton, Illinois, July 26, 2015.

 

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