This article is part of the This Day in History series.
Courage in Death
Elisabeth Elliot had never shied away from the thought of death and had emphasized strongly to her husband Lars that “if I ever came in and found her on the floor not to call 911, but just to wait. Valerie and I had agreed to follow this.”1 So when, in the small hours of the morning on Monday, June 15, 2015, Elliot apparently suffered a major stroke, that is what he did. He consulted an MD friend, who supported their decision not to seek treatment and gave them a sense of what to expect. Lars and the caretakers stayed with her and let her know they were there with gentle touch. Lars got Valerie on the phone and put it on speaker so Elliot could hear her daughter’s voice. At one point Elliot’s namesake, her granddaughter Elisabeth, was on the phone as well. For the next five hours they read to her, sang to her, prayed with her. Her breathing grew shallower and shorter. At 6:15 she opened her eyes, closed them again, smiled, and died. She was eighty-eight years old.
The stone had been thrown, had traced its arc through the air, had slipped quietly beneath the surface of the pond. It was gone, and only gently spreading ripples were left to mark its flight. Eulogies for Elliot appeared in publications from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance-Star and the Washington, Pennsylvania, Observer-Reporter, from Christianity Today to the Biblical Recorder. The funeral took place a week later, at Gordon College, where Elliot had once been writer-in-residence. Lars told the story of his wife’s last hours on earth. Phil and Ginny were unable to attend because of their health, but Dave, Tom, and Jim shared memories of an older sister with a hilarious sense of humor, a curious mind, a formidable work ethic, and an active, giving love for her family and her God. Her body was buried at Hamilton Cemetery, not far from the house where she had lived for thirty years, with an uncut boulder of New England granite for a marker. It was engraved with her name, her birth and death dates, and these words from Isaiah 43 (KJV): “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.” A month later there was a memorial service in the chapel at Wheaton College, where Valerie, Pete DeVries, and several friends spoke of Elliot as a mother, mentor, writer, speaker, and friend who was indomitable, loving, truthful, and firmly anchored by trust in the goodness of God.
Some ripples from Elliot’s life are easily seen. Her 1958 Life magazine article about her time with the Waorani was read by 76 percent of American adults. Over the next half-century, her books (more than twenty-five of them, available in thirteen languages), articles, CDs and DVDs, daily devotionals, radio broadcasts, and newsletters reached countless people around the world. During her quiet decade, bits of her story continued to find their way into pastors’ sermon illustrations, football coaches’ pep talks, family conversations, and youth group breakout sessions. As the Internet became increasingly prominent, references to Elliot blossomed online, everywhere from blogs with only a handful of followers to platforms including First Things and Today’s Christian Woman. Anime bloggers reflected on her decision to live with the Waorani. Hip-hop artist Lecrae wrote a song, “Elisabeth’s Interlude,” thanking her because she “pointed me to Jesus.”2 Through her role in telling the best-known missionary story of the twentieth century, Elliot became one of the best-known Christians of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Other ripples are harder to observe. The very ubiquity and familiarity of the story that made Elliot famous have obscured much of her life. On the Sunday afternoon in January 1956 when her first husband died, Elisabeth Elliot had twenty-nine years of living behind her. She lived sixty years after that, fifty-three of them after leaving Ecuador. In the course of her life she saw the first nonstop transatlantic flight and the first flight to the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the World Trade Center. The personality, heredity, home environment, religious communities, national ethos, and global events that shaped her also shaped the mark she left on the world. Elliot had been developing a practical theology and teaching from it for years prior to publishing her first, best-known, book. In the decades that followed, she continued to revise her theology and to teach it, not only through her extensive published work but through her massive correspondence. Her books are still bought and read; many of her newsletters, speeches, and radio programs are still accessible online. Her influence in the lives of individuals and the life of the church is still unfolding.
And what of the stone itself? Elisabeth Elliot. Elisabeth Gren. Elisabeth Leitch. Betty Elliot. Betty Howard. Bets. Betty. Bet. Elisabeth Howard the Great. For eighty-eight years, five months, and six days, she breathed the air, ate and slept and woke, laughed and cried, worked and played, read and thought and wrote, taught and learned, was mistreated and cared for. She was by turns bold and uncertain, judgmental and understanding, rigid and flexible, ambitious and retiring, foolish and wise, kind and cruel, closedminded and curious, changeable and faithful, misleading and truthful, sentimental and realistic, traditional and unconventional. She was complicated, which is to say, human. The Sermon on the Mount makes clear that in God’s economy, the life and the work, the word and the deed, the intention and the outcome, the public teaching and the private thoughts, are inextricably intertwined, and human beings do not always know what weight to give to any of them. To call your brother a fool can consign you to hell, Jesus says, while a cup of cold water to a child can secure you an eternal reward (see Matt. 5:22; 10:42). Elliot had weaknesses and strengths, she got things right and she got things wrong, and she did not necessarily know which were which. Nor do we. We are too small to see very far.
But there was never any hope for any of us in our ability to reach all the correct doctrinal propositions or to limit ourselves only to the lesser sins. The ripples from our lives matter deeply, but they are not everything. The core of reality lies in the character of God: We are loved with an everlasting love. We are held in the everlasting arms.
In her biography of R. Kenneth Strachan, Elliot wrote:
God alone can answer the question, Who was he? . . . The answer is beyond us. Here are the data we can deal with. There is much more that we do not know—some of it has been forgotten, some of it hidden, some of it lost— but we look at what we know. We grant that it is not a neat and satisfying picture—there are ironies, contradictions, inconsistencies, imponderables. . . . Will Kenneth Strachan have been welcomed home with a “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or will he simply have been welcomed home? The son who delights the father is not first commended for what he has done. He is loved, and Kenneth Strachan was sure of this one thing.3
She was describing the reality of the human condition. She was describing herself. For Elisabeth Elliot, the foundation of life was trust in the love of God. Not trust that she would live, as she told her family all those years ago as she set out for Tewæno, not trust that things would go well, but trust in who God is. If the great hope of her faith is true, then in the end, the rings spreading out across the surface of the pond, the air displaced by the stone as it flew, the stone itself, are all held in the heart of God, where mercy and justice are never in contradiction, and all things in heaven and earth will finally be made whole.
- Lars Gren, letter to contact list, July 6, 2015.
- Lecrae, “Elisabeth’s Interlude,” So It Continues, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/. 2.
- Elisabeth Elliot, Who Shall Ascend: The Life of R. Kenneth Strachan of Costa Rica (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 160–61.
This article is adapted from Elisabeth Elliot: A Life by Lucy S. R. Austen.
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