“‘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…”
I grew up hearing those words regularly on the radio as they opened Elisabeth Elliot’s “Gateway to Joy” broadcast, a daily program wherein Elliot discussed how to live as a Christian in the contemporary world. Her radio show, like the 21 books she wrote over her career as a writer and speaker, focused on many of the same overlapping topics: marriage, childrearing, obedience, joy, suffering, discipline, and missions. Initially propelled into the public consciousness by the martyrdom of her husband and four other missionaries in South America, Elliot’s first book about her husband’s final days established her as one of the most prominent voices of her generation trying to negotiate an unchanging Gospel in a rapidly changing world. From the deaths in an Ecuadorian jungle to the mundane give-and-take of marriage, Elliot was animated by the idea that we are indeed loved with an everlasting love — and that such love requires nothing less than a total surrender of our desires to God’s will.
Her convictions on this took her to some interesting places, and much of her advice rubs the wrong way now in a post-#MeToo era. Elliot’s emphasis on submission and her broadsides against feminism — not to mention her association with Bill Gothard, whose Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) taught millions of Christians about the value of submission before he himself resigned from the Institute in 2014 over multiple accusations of sexual harassment — feel disquieting and inadequate when her only comments about abuse are brief asides opposing long discourses about hierarchy and authority. Elliot taught at some of Gothard’s seminars, apparently always with her husband present in order to demonstrate her submission to him. Elliot’s book Passion and Purity, with its emphasis on preserving one’s virginity for a future spouse, is not only cited as a fountainhead of shame and legalism related to dating by ex-evangelicals across the internet, but is generally acknowledged as an inspiration for books like Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The courtship-related frenzy kicked off by Harris’ book was apparently so extreme and totalizing that it necessitated a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary film about Harris traveling around the country listening to people explain the mess he made by publishing a book when he was 21.
Reflections on Elliot in evangelical publications (and The New York Times) after her death in 2015 focused far more on her dramatic missionary endeavors at the beginning of her adult life than her writing and speaking thereafter — and were uniformly positive. For those who read her or heard her after she returned to the U.S. (especially through Gothard and IBLP), though, her legacy is more mixed as her teachings about the created order were used to prop up toxic hierarchies. The 21st century has, thankfully, yet to produce a story of missionary martyrdom as dramatic as that of Elliot’s husband Jim — so what can we learn about the most publicized story of the 20th? As Christians wrestle with questions of sexuality, gender, and the Bible even more dramatic than those that Elliot addressed 50 years ago, what is there to be gleaned from a woman who wrote as though feminism is an affront to the created order even as she taught thousands? In an age where submitting to authority often brings heartbreak when that authority is misused, what can we say about Elliot’s insistence on the centrality of submission to the Christian life?
Through Gates of Splendor
Elliot’s first book, Through Gates of Splendor, was perhaps her most influential. Written just a year after Elliot’s first husband Jim was slain along with four of his missionary companion in 1956, the book competed with John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage in terms of sales and became the first book in Harper & Brothers’ missionary biography series (which included several more books by Elliot). The popular press had followed the story of the five missionaries from the time that they had gone missing until the search party that confirmed their deaths was documented by a photographer from Life magazine; Elliot’s book helped to explain to a curious world the story of how and why they now saw the headshot of a good-looking wrestler from the Midwest next to a picture of his body floating facedown in a muddy river. The narrative of sacrifice and surrender for the sake of reaching a remote jungle tribe with the Gospel was compelling even to those who questioned or mocked the faith of the missionaries.
On the evangelical side, response was even more fervent. The book,which came in at #9 on Christianity Today’s “The Top 50 Books That Shaped Evangelicals”, tells in gripping detail the story of “Operation Auca”, a missionary venture to the Huaorani people living in the jungles of Ecuador (the word “Auca”, they later learned, was a pejorative for “savage” used by surrounding people groups). For Christians already in the grip of an enthusiastic postwar missionary and aid movement (World Vision and Compassion International were both founded in the 1950s), the story was a compelling vision of spiritual devotion to the cause of Christ that inflamed missionary sentiment. God called Jim Elliot and his four companions; they submitted and went, even to their deaths. Judging by the letters Elliot received over the years, this vision of obedience and submission hastened countless young people along on their own journeys to the mission field.
Through Gates of Splendor begins with biographical sketches of each of the five men who went together to meet the Huaorani, focusing in particular on Jim and his journey to the jungles of Ecuador. All seem to have led otherwise unremarkable midcentury American lives, playing team sports and participating in different social organizations in high school and college. Most felt called to missions while in school; Ed McCully abandoned law school to join Jim Elliot and Pete Fleming on the field after he and Elliot had been friends at Wheaton College. Nate Saint saw a medical condition that disqualified him from flying in the Air Force as God’s providential working for missions, while Roger Youderian was a paratrooper decorated in the Battle of the Bulge who felt called after he returned home. As Elliot tells it, they all grew up in homes of constant devotion to faith and felt that they must be obedient to whatever leading God might place on their hearts — and each received that call towards the Huaorani in his own time. But despite their missionary heroism, one gets the impression that had they lived 60 years later, they would have cracked wise on Twitter with the rest of us — but not a moment before they finished their morning Bible reading.
Kathryn Long, a historian of religion at Wheaton College, asserts that the book answered “a popular yearning for the technologically sophisticated yet theologically simple and unambiguous faith exemplified in the book’s portrayal of the five young men and their wives”. The story of Nate Saint in particular emphasizes his technological ingenuity and persevering spirit in the effort to reach the Huaorani. Saint is credited with inventing the “bucket drop”, a technique wherein a bucket or basket is let out of the moving plane on a long line while the plane spirals around above, keeping the bucket in a fixed position a few feet off the ground. He first used this method to deliver supplies to missionaries at remote jungle stations, but after discovering a Huaorani village the missionaries prayerfully decided to start reaching out to the hitherto uncontacted tribe by delivering gifts like clothes and machetes in the basket. This method allowed them to make contact with the Huaorani in a relatively safe manner.
A lone Huaorani refugee who was employed at one of the mission stations, Dayuma, provided their only opportunity to learn the language (which, unfortunately, required much greater contextual understanding for phrases like “I am your friend” that the missionaries shouted out of the plane.) Their excitement when the villagers on the ground start sending back their own gifts of headdresses, beads, and even a live parrot is contagious to the reader, as is their trepidation when they finally decide to make face-to-face contact. Elliot is keen to fill in known historical details about the Huaorani and is frank about the abuses of colonialism that led to prior contact between them and the outside ending only in bloodshed. (Her use of the word word “savage”, while decidedly imprudent nowadays, merely reflects other tribes’ own perception of the Huaorani and their reputation for violence.) Even knowing the ending, the story is gripping as it builds to a crescendo with the five young men landing on a nearby beach, setting up a little camp, and making contact with several Huaorani.
Thanks to radio contact, photos, and diary entries retrieved from the beach, all but the last moments of their life are well-documented; the two parties had several peaceful face-to-face conversations in the days prior to the murders. Through Gates of Splendor, written before Elliot went back to the Huaorani and eventually helped many tribespeople in their journey to worshiping Jesus as her husband longed for, only contains speculation about why the missionaries were killed. Later accounts from the men who did the killing and later converted to Christianity have not provided definitive answers. The missionaries carried guns and planned to fire into the air as a last resort to save their lives, and it is not clear whether the one member of the tribe who was struck by a bullet was intentionally targeted or hit by a stray round in the struggle.
Various retellings and dramatizations of the story in books and movies have chosen to focus on one narrative or another, but none are necessary for the impact of Through Gates of Splendor; what matters to Elliot as she recounts her husband’s death is that he was obedient and faithful. In an epilogue written in 1996, she actively disparages the idea of a tidy conclusion to the story, even the providential one that seems obvious to the mind trained by missionary biography and predestination. She bites her lip when asking if the blood of five men opened the doors to evangelize the tribe: “I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice.” She alludes to many difficulties over the years with later missionary work to the tribe (including Nate Saint’s sister Rachel being asked to leave the field by her mission board) and chastens her fellow Christians for avoiding the difficult realities that accompanied missionary contact like the tribe’s exposure to polio. For Elliot, God gives us what we need to know to be obedient and we ought to be satisfied with the answer, like Job and the whirlwind.
Twice in the book, she refers to the preaching of the Gospel as a “categorical imperative”. The fact that she uses this phrase both in the original text and in the 1996 epilogue speaks to the fact that whatever else changed in the intervening years, she believed that Christians had to preach the Gospel to those who had not heard it no matter the cost or sacrifice. This requirement doesn’t obviate good preparation; half of the book is dedicated to the years of language learning and careful strategizing undertaken to reach that small sandbar where the five men met the Savior they wanted the Huaorani to know. Through Gates of Splendor (and the later biography of Jim, Shadow of the Almighty) remains powerful and worthwhile reading because Elliot never rubs her husband’s death in the reader’s face and says, “Why can’t you be more like Jim?”, but rather she gives us Jim’s words: “Hasten, hasten, Glory of Heaven, take Thy crown, subdue Thy Kingdom, enthrall Thy creatures.” For Elliot, delighting in who God is leads us to want to share that goodness with those who have never had the opportunity to taste that delight — and to obey God when he calls us to lay down our lives.
Let Me Be A Woman
Elliot’s unwavering insistence that God in his Providence will do right and we simply need to obey him carries over from the life-and-death questions of lost peoples’ eternal destiny into the mundane questions of changing diapers and accepting dates — though the transition is hardly seamless. In her book The Mark of a Man, she asks “Ever stop to wonder if the physiology means anything?” Both in that book and in Let Me Be A Woman (written to her daughter Valerie on the occasion of her daughter’s engagement), Elliot seeks to discuss just what that physiology means and how we physiological creatures ought to go about submitting to the design of our Creator.
Compared to later discussions of “Biblical masculinity and femininity”, Elliot is downright coy about the implications of masculinity and femininity. Her own life (including years as a single missionary before and after her first marriage as well as widowhood twice over) undermines any simplistic ideas about the necessity of marriage for a Christian’s fulfillment, and her time spent with the Huaorani leads her to strongly resist attaching any importance to the superficial and culturally bound markers of masculinity or femininity. For her, rather, the emphasis is on what God has created men and women for, and how the directives of the Bible support these teleological ends. She is primarily interested in defending the theological implications of biological realities that (to her) are as immovable as the laws of gravity.
Intriguingly enough for a 20th-century Protestant, her ideal woman is the Virgin Mary: “Womanhood is a call. It is a vocation to which we respond under God, […] the unconditional response exemplified for all time in Mary the virgin, and the willingness to enter into suffering, to receive, to carry, to give life, to nurture and to care for others.” Pregnancy and childbearing are the ultimate demonstrations of this nurturing nature, but even this, she recognizes, is a gift not given to all and that a more abstract sense of motherhood is available to all women who are submissive to God. Even more, she finds that this aspect of femininity is universal; in a chapter entitled “The Soul is Feminine”, she writes: “Mary is the archetype of human self giving. […] Her ‘Be it unto me’ ought to be the response of every man or woman to [God’s] will, and it is in this sense that the soul and the Church have been seen throughout Christianity history as female before God, but it is the nature of the woman to submit.”
Thus, the Church and all its members submit to God as they live out the feminine nature that God could not have created mankind without. Elliot draws a straight line downwards from this God-man hierarchy to the hierarchy of husband and wife, just as she draws a straight line upwards from animal instincts observable in nature to the nature of femininity to be receiving and nurturing. Unfortunately, this move is more fraught, and her constant fallback on the simple necessity of conforming our minds to the will of God feels shallow. She clearly reads feminist scholars like Rosemary Radford Ruether, but she always compares their weakest points of feminist criticism to evangelical complementarianism at its strongest. The result doesn’t feel convincing, particularly when she disavows the use of hierarchy for abuse but never addresses what ought to be done in actual cases of abuse where the hierarchy fails to protect the vulnerable.
Passion and Purity, similarly, has its weaknesses primarily in what it doesn’t say about when legalism creates an environment where Christians feel ashamed to talk about when they have been wronged by others. The order form on Elliot’s old website bills the book as “illustrating principles by which to preserve ‘the gift you give once’: virginity.”, which undersells the book’s qualities as an exhortation to faithfulness far more than a manual for virginity-preservation. Elliot would undoubtedly be even grouchier about kids these days than she was about the kids in her day, but her advice, on the whole, is still worthwhile because it is primarily focused on surrendering oneself to God’s will and letting one’s behavior in relationships be determined by such. Elliot is quite frank that such surrender might entail long times of singleness, and there is not a hint of a suggestion that this is somehow inferior to marriage. The book ends with a heartening reminder of the grace available to all of us in Christ that animates us to do good and covers us when we do wrong.
Elliot finds the word “equality” particularly troublesome, and her question about what “the physiology” might mean is still quite relevant today even if her answers are stuck in the debates about first-wave feminism. For “equal treatment” of men and women in the workforce is not equitable when it does not acknowledge the physiologic needs of women who need to care for their children, whether it is in childbearing or breastfeeding, and as our nation debates the question of paid family leave, we have to ask ourselves whether or not our labor policies are either allowing mothers who want to stay home with their children to do so or those who are working with children (as Elliot did for many years as a widow) to have the flexible schedule they need in order to meet the needs of their family. Overall, though, Elliot’s writings about sex and gender (aside from Passion and Purity) lack the nuance or grounding in philosophical inquiry to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with her.
Elisabeth Elliot’s life and work might be summarized in the title of a later book she wrote, Discipline: The Glad Surrender. For Elliot, the joy in Christ was worth surrendering everything — her own life, the life of her husband, and anything else she might have held dear. Her applications of this principle — disciplining herself for the sake of pleasing God — is evident in all that she writes and for Christians who find themselves discouraged and feeling like holiness might not be possible. She speaks with experience and gravity about the accessibility of obedience, how we can choose to embrace the habits of a life drawn to the love of God and thus disciplined for his service.
In her work, Elliot returned again and again to the nature and necessity of submission and surrender in the Christian life, emphasizing how the mysterious nature of God’s providence frees us from the need to find a reason for our suffering or a good outcome that made something terrible worth it. Her rejection of a half-assed theodicy for her husband’s death should make us Christian writers and thinkers looking for evidence of God’s work in the world pause before we speak presumptuously. Avoiding presumptuousness with regards to the will of God also requires that we apply ourselves to his work for us with the same diligence that Nate Saint and his companions applied to the physics of flight, relentlessly testing ourselves and our motivations to ensure that we are submitting to God purposefully and handling his Word with care.
Unfortunately, Elliot’s attempts to make the same arguments about submission and surrender with less straightforward moral responsibilities fall flat. The Great Commission is clearly the will of God and we ought to obey it, but the evidence for feminism as opposition to the will of God is thin, at best. The mystery of God’s providence cannot be an excuse for failing to do our due diligence and working out the practicalities of issues like abuse in human authority. The deep inquiry and modern insight that were applied by the five martyrs in their mission work before they risked their lives are worth also applying to questions of gender roles and headship, working out how we will deal with the inevitable problems of abuse.
While her thoughts on gender may be of limited applicability decades later, her passion for the Gospel will be timely until the Second Coming. Immense progress has been made since Elliot worked with the Huaorani, but there are still many people who have not yet heard the Good News and people wondering what God might have for their lives could do much worse than to read and contemplate whether their vocation might involve carrying the Gospel to the unreached. Through Gates of Splendor and Elliot’s other missionary works are well worth revisiting for their invigorating glimpse into challenges and struggles of 20th-century missionary life — as well as the encouragement for those who might be called similarly to lay down their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Elliot’s books are suffused with an appreciation for the savage, unrelenting, all-consuming love of God, and those who read them will find a similar appreciation kindled in their hearts.
Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who teaches and practices in Baltimore and East Africa. He tweets @matthew_loftus and is a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy. He currently trains health professionals in Kenya; you can read more about his work and writing at MatthewAndMaggie.org