“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” ― Jim Elliot
When I was 11 my father became seriously ill and I was parceled out to stay with relatives. I found myself sharing a farm worker’s hut: bare floorboards, a rough iron-framed bed, and certainly no heating to keep out rising winter cold.
My roommate, 18 year-old Geoff, had a small stash of Christian books. In absence of music or radio, I would tuck myself in bed as I set about devouring them. Someone had seen to it that Geoff had a great selection. As I write I recall how two of them, particularly, have left an indelible mark on my spiritual life. First I read Jungle Pilot, the story of Nate Saint. Then followed Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot.
The event behind these books is one of the great missionary stories of the 20th century. In 1956 five young Christian missionaries set out to share the gospel with the Huaorani people of the Ecuador rainforest. The Huaorani were an unreached, isolated tribe, known for their violence against both their own people as well as outsiders.
The missionaries began making regular flights over Huaorani settlements, dropping gifts from the air. Then on 3 January 1956 they set up a camp a few miles from a Huaorani settlement. Five days later their mission came to an abrupt and violent end. All five—Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian—were attacked and speared by Huaorani warriors.
The news made world headlines and Life magazine published a major photo essay about the work of these modern martyrs. It put two fledgling mission organisations– the missionary radio station HCJB (short for Heralding Christ Jesus’ Blessings) and the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) on the map. Wycliffe Bible Translators likewise experienced a surge of interest in its work. Elisabeth Elliot later wrote a biography of her martyred husband Jim, The Shadow of the Almighty.
Tertullian the great early Christian apologist famously said: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ This was illustrated dramatically in Equador in the 1950s. In an unspeakably powerful act of courage and forgiveness, the young widow Elisabeth, her baby daughter and Rachel the sister of the murdered pilot Nate, left their comfort zone and settled among the Huaorani. The tribe came to faith in Christ, revealing they had misunderstood the motives of the missionary party, believing them to be cannibals.
Elisabeth Elliot became one of the most influential evangelical women of the 20th century, Her books became compulsory reading among evangelicals. Elisabeth herself became a prolific author and popular speaker. She went on to write a dozen more books. Her books on missions, No Graven Image and The Savage My Kingsman, raised penetrating questions about missionary work. Later she raised hackles among America’s conservative evangelicals by advocating justice for Palestinians. Her radio show, Gateway to Joy ran until 2001.
She could deliver great soundbites. She wrote in an early issue of the influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today, ‘We have proved beyond any doubt that he 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, that they may be given to glimpse that treasure in heaven promised to all who forsake.’
She became an Episcopalian in later years. My wife Deirdre and I knew her minister who shared stories of how she was a supportive though often challenging parishioner.
Steve Saint—son of Nate Saint, one of the other missionaries killed alongside Elisabeth Elliot’s first husband Jim—posted about ‘Aunt Betty’s’ death on Facebook: ‘I think Elisabeth would be happy just being remembered as not much of a woman that God used greatly. To the rest of us mortals she was an incredibly talented and gifted woman who trusted God in life’s greatest calamities, even the loss of her mind to dementia, and who allowed God to use her.’
Elisabeth Elliot, 88, author, speaker and treasure of the missionary movement died 15 June 2015.