Review of Lucy S. R. Austen, Elisabeth Elliot: A Life, Wheaton: Crossway, 2023

Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) is amongst the best-known American Christians of the past century. By the early 1990s she was receiving twenty-eight thousand letters a year from listeners to her radio program Gateway to Joy (p.499).

The book, Elisabeth Elliot: a life, by Lucy S. R. Austen is 624 pages, dividing Elliot’s life into three broad sections: her early life; her life in Ecuador; and the more than fifty years that she lived back in the United States. Elliot kept personal journals for most of her life, and although not all of them were made available to the author of this biography, they were obviously a valuable resource for understanding Elliot. Perhaps that is an encouragement to the older saints of today to keep a journal – even for a year – with the hope that younger saints who follow in their footsteps will be strengthened. In saying that, much of the book is challenging to read – and raw.

Elliot was married three times, her first marriage being to Jim Elliot who was killed in January 1956 in Ecuador. She was a mother, missionary, author and advisor to many. Up until at least the final decade of her life, her mind and body were active and sharp, but she was then crippled by dementia.

In writing this review, I have tried to summarise some of the recurring themes from the book:

1. Guidance and the will of God. From age 12, Elliot was praying, “Lord, I want you to do anything you want with me” (p.12). She had a fundamentalist background and was anxious to find the right life path in direct obedience to God. Every decision – small and large – was agonised over and given to the Lord in prayer: “she did not want to pursue any course merely because it seemed easiest or most logical to her or to others. Instead she badly wanted to rely on God, both to provide for her and to give her direction” (p.228). Her “three-part framework” for making decisions was: circumstances, God’s Word and peace of mind. At one point, she read of Israel’s refusal to enter the Promised Land in her morning devotions, and felt that it was God speaking to her and her personal circumstances at that time (p.254). However, her understanding of guidance changed: “Following Him is not like walking a tight-rope,” she wrote (p.347). Instead, more and more she encouraged the “halting, fumbling practice of learning to know the Guide” (p.445). It seems that as she grew in her understanding of God’s sovereignty, so did her sense of peace – “she no longer believed her mistakes could interfere with the sovereignty of God or the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring the best possible good out of the events of her life, whatever they were” (p.501).

2.  Twentieth century American Evangelicalism. Elliot lived most of her life within the broader evangelical church in America. Whilst a student at Wheaton in 1945, she listened to President Truman address the nation at the end of fighting in Europe. Then, “we sang the Doxology, A Mighty Fortress is our God and the national anthem in chapel and most of us just sat there and cried” (p.51). Capitalism, democracy and morality pervaded the air of much of mid-century America (p.328). After the death of her first husband Jim Elliot, and her return to America in 1963, she was sometimes aghast at the shallowness of Christian culture. After one speaking engagement she said, “It was dreadful. Just plain dreadful. The whole hollow mockery, the show, the missionary machine, the Gospel Business… the sheer phoniness of everything about it” (p.384). Elliot detested anything insincere.

3. Conflict. Elliot experienced conflict – with her co-worker, with her mother, and in her marriages. Perhaps, the most significant of these conflicts in terms of changing the course of her life, was with the only other American living with her in the Ecuadorian tribe. They were both professing Christians and her co-worker was the only other person with whom she could communicate within the tribe. Elliot’s diaries show that she often looked at her own behaviour to see if she was the cause of the troubled relationships. Whatever the case, the simmering conflict caused Elliot to leave the work.

4.  Men and women in marriage and the church. Elliot admired the thousands of “nameless nuns and other anonymous women who have done what God sent them to do – and they’ve done it without the tub-thumping of modern egalitarian movements” (p.456). She was “firmly against all W.L. [Women’s Liberation] tenets except equal pay for equal work” (p.440). On marriage, she would refer to the four elements for success: an acceptance of God’s order; sex; loyalty; and love (p.467-468). Yet, this biography shows that Elliot knew difficulty and loneliness in her marriages. We must never forget that every marriage, however sanctified, consists of two sinners brought together. Regarding a husband’s role in leading his wife, Elliot spoke of servanthood, humility and laying down one’s life, as opposed to a “take-charge man” (p.490). She wrote an open letter to her nephew, encouraging him to look to the Lord Jesus and saying, “we see in His earthly life a whole new way of being with people, of loving and serving them at the expense of Himself… That’s what it takes to be fully a man, Pete. You must share the life of Christ” (p.490-491). Elliot was not always consistent in her view on men and women. She rightly opposed women’s ordination, and yet she attended the ordination of a friend as a female pastor (p.472). Whatever the case, Elliot did hold a distinction between man-woman roles in the home and church, even when others petitioned to have her removed from teaching at Gordon-Conwell due to her opposition to feminism (p.485).

5. Doubt and difficulty. After a friend, Maruja, died suddenly in childbirth Elliot was rattled: “If God had spared Maruja’s life, the whole Quinones tribe might have been delivered from spiritual death. In my heart I could not escape the thought that it was God who had failed… To my inner cries and questionings no answer came… there was nothing there but darkness and silence” (p.161). Not every difficulty was as great, and sometimes small things felt harder to deal with than big things. There can be a relentless weariness to life, and in the author’s assessment of things, Elliot’s description of herself at times showed signs of clinical depression (p.252). Elliot often felt a failure – that whatever she turned her hand to turned to dust and ashes. She felt that she had achieved so little, if anything, for the Lord (p.320). After she returned to America in 1963, her view on the world was again battered – she seemed almost to teeter on the point of liberalism – close to rejecting much Biblical truth. Years later, her brother Dave, remembers a conversation with her where she said that she was not even sure “if there are any absolutes in life,” except perhaps love (p.392). She felt that her view on the world was too simplistic and she chastised herself for not examining her worldview. She blamed her simplistic “Christian-school and Sunday-school background” (p.394). Perhaps we learn from all this that if Satan demanded to sift Peter like wheat, then surely he has sinister plans to ensnare others too. Every Christian must thank God for Christ’s intervention by prayer (Luke 22:32).

6. Grief. Jim’s death in 1956 had threatened to overwhelm her at times. She seems to have had little time between his death and when she was first asked to write about it. Elliot wanted to respond to Jim’s death in the right way – that his death and her grief be used for good and for refining (p.232). A second major grief was the death from cancer of her second husband, Addison Leitch, eighteen years her senior. They were married for only four years (having married six weeks after Leitch’s first wife died of cancer), before he died. In the year between his diagnosis and death, Elliot tried a new diet – removing processed foods – in the hope that it would help him. Elliot’s daughter, Valerie, fasted at lunchtime, confident that God would heal him (p.453). After one check-up, a doctor told them that Leitch appeared to be cured, only to later acknowledge that there had never been a hope of a cure. He was merely hoping that good news would lift their spirits and so have a positive effect upon Leitch (p.451-452). Yet, Leitch died a difficult – and it appears, angry – death (p.452). In the end, Elliot said that she had prayed for healing and for peace. Yet “neither prayer was answered” (p.454). Death brings a constant reminder of absence. Dementia also brought a whole new grief to Elliot’s life of a different kind. One friend called the time between her dementia diagnosis and her failing mind, “the worst year of her life” (p.514). For someone who “had worked so hard to be self-controlled; she must have been anxious about how she would behave as the progression of her disease gradually removed her control” (p.517). In 2015 Elliot died, aged eighty-eight – her husband Lars Gren by her side.  

Austen’s biography is far richer than this review allows, and as someone who has admired and been helped by Elisabeth Elliot’s writings, I was grateful for the opportunity to read it. Whatever flaws Elliot may have had, again and again, throughout her life, God’s Word was her strength: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds (Psalm 71:17).” She was right to say: “Man has one desperate need. It is God… One man, by his own efforts or by whatever we may call progress, is not in any wise capable of making himself less needy of Christ than another man” (p.327).

– Graham Barnes