When I was a child, my mother passed along to me a deep appreciation for the life story and writings of Elisabeth Elliot. As a teenager I read her book Passion and Purity, convinced that my own Jim Elliot was right around the corner. In my twenties I often read from Keep A Quiet Heart as I wrestled with both depression and singleness. In my thirties I clung to Elisabeth’s mantra, “Do the next thing” as chronic illness made a home in my body and altered my life ambitions. And I spent the summer I was 42—recovering from chemotherapy and major surgery—savoring every last word of Suffering is Never for Nothing.
When Elisabeth passed in 2015, I dug up an old picture I’d taken with her at a speaking engagement 20 years before. Although there had been seasons when I’d tired of her crisp-and-conventional style (after all, she was from my grandparents’ generation, not mine)—and I’d let her books collect dust on my shelves—I looked at the picture with a heart full of love and gratitude, feeling that I’d known her well.
Little did I know how little I knew her.
Last month I picked up a copy of Ellen Vaughn’s new authorized biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot—a captivating look at the woman behind the best-selling books, the lauded story, and the global speaking engagements…. as well as the criticisms. (My friend A.K. is not the only one who spent time with Elisabeth and left with the impression that she was rude and aloof.)
Thanks to Vaughn’s writing prowess, laborious legwork, and extensive use of Elisabeth’s personal journals, I felt as if I were shadowing Elisabeth from her birth to her early thirties (Vaughn is writing a second volume to tell the story of Elisabeth’s later years). I vividly saw, smelled, heard, even tasted Elisabeth’s world—from her scrupulous East Coast childhood home to the perilous jungles of her twenties. I felt her agonies and ecstasies, her terrific triumphs and heart-wrenching failures. I wept through words that painted Elisabeth so human—so like me. She too wrestled with depression, a flawed personality, broken relationships, and weariness. Elisabeth wrote,
“It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God’s and the call is God’s and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, our bravery and cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses.”
Not only was Elisabeth well acquainted with Weakness, she was also on a first-name basis with Mystery. Vaughn shows how the cumulative loss and death and “unfruitfulness” of Elisabeth’s twenties transformed her from the once “dutiful, devout . . . high-achieving new missionary” into a seasoned woman of tenacious faith who didn’t mind asking the tough questions. Her unresolved sufferings—and the God she came to know intimately in the midst of them—laid the bedrock of her lifelong message that captivated millions around the world. She wrote,
“Obviously, God has chosen to leave certain questions unanswered and certain problems without any solution in this life, in order that in our very struggle to answer and solve we may be shoved back, and back, and eternally back to the contemplation of Himself, and to complete trust in Who He is. I’m glad He’s my Father.”
While Elisabeth is best known for her husband’s martyrdom and her consequent decision to live with the tribal people who murdered him—and although she did write a number of best-sellers and travel the world speaking to thousands—Vaughn beautifully demonstrates that the most celebrated parts of Elisabeth’s life were “just part of her story. For Elisabeth, as for all of us, the most dramatic chapters may well be less significant than the daily faithfulness that traces the brave trajectory of a human life radically submitted to Christ.” Elisabeth had boring jobs and monotonous days that threatened to suck the life out of her; she endured appalling living conditions in both New York City and Ecuador; she faced long, hard years isolated from dear friends and family; she waited half a decade for the man-of-her-dreams to decide whether or not he was going to marry her. And then after that man finally married her, he was killed 27 months later, leaving her with a toddler and the formidable task of running a jungle station.
As I devoured page after page of Vaughn’s biography, I began to realize that while I’d known the indomitable Elisabeth through her testimony, her books, and her messages, I’d not known the flesh-and-bone “Betty” I was discovering through Vaughn’s careful unveiling of her life. Vaughn doesn’t force any preconceived ideas of Elisabeth—in her own words, she wanted “to lay bare the facts of Elisabeth Elliot’s case” by using Elisabeth’s own words, and the words of “so many who knew her well.”
Vaughn does this masterfully.
As a result, this biography will appeal to a broad audience—not only to those who grew up with Elisabeth Elliot as a household name, but also to a young new generation who asks, “Elisabeth who?”
This article also appears on ERLC.com.