Review by Vance Christie
This past summer I read Ellen Vaughn’s outstanding biography Becoming Elisabeth Elliot and would like to heartily recommend it.
Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) was one of the most influential Christian women in the second half of the twentieth century. She was well known as the author of Through Gates of Splendor, which chronicled the short ministry careers and martyrdom of five missionaries (including her husband Jim Elliot) at the hands of Waodani Indians in Ecuador early in 1956. After Jim’s death Elisabeth carried out further ministry to the Waodani, wrote a number of other best-selling books, was a popular Christian conference speaker and had a widely-broadcast daily Christian radio program.
Elisabeth was a rather private person who did not share a great deal about much of her own life and ministry. During her lifetime she declined a number of requests to write her autobiography or to have a thorough biography of her life published. As a result, for several decades unnumbered thousands of people who greatly appreciated and admired her significant spiritual insights and ministries were disappointed not to be able to learn more about her.
Happily, the first of a comprehensive, two-volume biography of her life and ministry has now been published in Ellen Vaughn’s book Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. The front dustcover of this first volume promotes it as “The Authorized Biography”of “Elisabeth’s Early Years.” Published by B&H Publishing in 2020, this work relates the first thirty-six years of Elisabeth’s life, beginning with her birth on December 21, 1926, in Brussels, Belgium, where her parents then served as missionaries. It ends with her return to the United States in June 1963, after eleven years of her own missionary service in Ecuador.
Some of the many highlights of this book include: Elisabeth’s formative upbringing in her parents’ consecrated Christian home and at the Christian boarding school she attended as a teen; her years at Wheaton College where she was called of God to serve as a missionary and entered a romantic relationship with her future husband Jim; her four patience-trying years in various ministries after college before she was able to go as a missionary to Ecuador; her ministry trials among the Colorado Indians of Ecuador; her joys and concerns of marriage, motherhood and ministry to Quichua Indians with Jim; a detailed account of the events leading up to and immediately following the martyrdom of the five missionaries by the Waodani; Elisabeth’s seven subsequent years of ministry to the Quichua and Waodani Indians in Ecuador.
Ellen Vaughn has provided an honest and realistic rather than idealized and artificial account of these early decades of Elisabeth’s life. Elisabeth is certainly not portrayed as a perfect saint who had no faults of her own and who never had any doubts or struggles through the various trials and perplexities of her life. Rather, her personal shortcomings, relational struggles, unanswered questions, frustrations, disappointments, misgivings and the like are candidly shared, often in Elisabeth’s own words through citations from her personal journals.
But through the marked challenges, trials and tragedies that Elisabeth experienced, she remained strong and steadfast in her Christian consecration. Her trust in God and His Word in the midst of life’s sometimes-overwhelming problems and perplexities never wavered. Even in the most trying circumstances, her perspectives and conduct were uniformly spiritual, or at least sought to be so.
It seems important to bear in mind that in this book we do not have Elisabeth’s final, fully-matured outlook on all subjects. This volume ends with Elisabeth still processing some extremely challenging issues and experiences. Ellen Vaughn acknowledges this when she reveals (page 232): “Many years later, when Betty [Elisabeth] read journals from her youth, she sometimes cringed. Perhaps the ‘honest inquiry’ of her younger years seemed merely immature, or overly dramatic to the older, seasoned Betty. Perhaps she no longer asked such questions.”
If you have not already done so, I think you would find it enlightening and spiritually beneficial to read Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. And we will look forward to learning much more about the final five decades of Elisabeth’s life (as well as to reading her fully-developed perspectives on various issues) in the second of Ellen Vaughn’s two-volume biography.
Copyright 2022 by Vance E. Christie