A Tenacious Woman of Christ

Mary Clare A, Columnist

In 1956, one news story changed a savage Ecuadorian tribe and inspired Christians as well as  people with varying beliefs, shocking the world. Five young men – Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, Nate Saint, and Ed McCully – had ventured deep into the Ecuadorian jungle, planning to make physical contact with the violent Auca tribe. In a village stationed nearby, their young wives – Elisabeth Elliot, Olive Fleming, Barbara Youderian, Marj Saint, and Marilou McCully – and children sat anxiously beside a radio receiver, awaiting the knowledge of the historic event that would shock the world and change their lives forever. 

According to Caroline Vandenbree of Inspirational Christians, Elisabeth Elliot was born on December 27, 1926 in Brussels, Belgium, where her parents served as missionaries. She had five siblings, and she and her large family maintained a strong Christian faith throughout their lifetimes. Elisabeth Elliot was educated at Wheaton College, Illinois where she studied Greek, hoping to be able to translate the Bible in remote countries of the world as a missionary. At Wheaton College, she met Jim Elliot, whom she would later marry. 

When Elisabeth was out of college, she traveled to Ecuador on a mission trip with other students from Wheaton, including Jim Elliot. In her first year on the mission field, she and Jim worked in different areas of Ecuador. In 1953, Jim and Elisabeth were married in Ecuador and continued their work, this time together, ministering to the Quichua Indian tribe. Soon, Elisabeth became pregnant and bore Valerie Elliot.

Over time, Nate and Marj Saint, Ed and Marilou McCully, Roger and Barbara Youderian, and Pete and Olive Fleming, all fellow Wheaton graduates, joined the ministry mission in Ecuador. The five couples became close colleagues and friends, dwelling near one another with their children. 

In her book Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot explains that the couples had heard about the Auca tribe, who had been terrorizing neighboring tribes for centuries. The Aucas were a stone-age people—they wore no clothes and were incredibly violent due to evil they had received from white oil-hunters in previous years. The Aucas brutally killed anyone who neared their settlement. The five couples longed to bring the Word of God to these people who had never encountered the knowledge of any God but their own before.

The group became acquainted with the tribe’s language and culture with the help of one Auca woman, and soon Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming landed on a beach just outside of Auca terrain in the month of January 1956 with one goal in mind: making friendly contact with the savage Aucas. After a few days of suspenseful waiting, three Aucas appeared out of the woods: two women and one man, dressed in the usual Auca attire—no clothes but huge wooden earrings. Though they could not understand one another’s languages fluently, the men and Aucas got along well. Once the Aucas had left, the men prayed, praising and thanking God for this successful interaction.

The next day, Nate Saint was flying over the Auca territory and saw a band of the natives heading towards the beach. He rushed back, yearning to tell the other men of the expected arrival of the Aucas. Later that day when the workers at the mission base attempted to speak with the men through radio, there was no sound or response. The wives and children of the men grew anxious, and a search party was sent out into the Auca territory. A few days later, five dead bodies were found with Auca spears driven gruesomely into the flesh. 

Elisabeth and her daughter, Valerie, who was only ten months old at the time, were devastated. However, in her book telling of the Auca mission, Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth wrote, “The prayers of the widows are themselves for the Aucas. We look forward to the day when these savages will join us in Christian praise.” 

Soon after the tragedy struck, two Auca women were found and taken in by the missionaries. Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, sister of Nate Saint, worked together studying the language of the Aucas. In 1958, Elisabeth, toddler Valerie, Rachel Saint, and the Auca women went back to the savage tribe in hope of reforming the old Auca tradition of violence. They were invited to live with the tribe, and the missionaries stayed for two years. Their mission was successful; many of Aucas repented and were baptized, sealing their loyalty to Christianity. In fact, the very men who murdered Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully became faithful Christians and close friends with the widows and their children. 

In The New York Times, Professor Long of Wheaton College states, “…[Elisabeth Elliot’s] early adulthood as she told it…was the stuff of inspiration: an intensely spiritual and deeply romantic love story with her first husband; her support for her husband and his friends when they decided to risk their lives to contact a violent and isolated tribal people in the rain forests of eastern Ecuador; her commitment to telling their story as a story of faith and triumph after their deaths; and her insistence that she and her daughter were called by God to live with their husband’s and father’s killers, which they did.”

Although Elisabeth lost her second husband to cancer, her faith never faltered. Elisabeth Elliot wrote many books about her experience as a missionary in Ecuador, such as Through Gates of Splendor and The Savage My Kinsmen. She also wrote Shadow of the Almighty, Passion and Purity, Let Me Be a Woman, Suffering is Never for Nothing, and more. 

Elisabeth’s suffering and experience in Ecuador helped her to become stronger in the Christian faith and a bold writer and advocate for Christians around the globe. However confusing her life was at times, she always looked to God as her guide. In her epilogue for Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth writes, “We are not always sure where the horizon is. We would not know which end is up were it no for the shimmering pathway of light falling on the white sea. The One who laid earth’s foundations and settled its dimensions knows where the lines are drawn. He gives all the light we need for trust and for obedience.” 

“Elisabeth Elliot…was a missionary and a critically acclaimed author and speaker. For over half a century, her life of obedience, timeless teachings, and best-selling books have influenced both believers and seekers of the Christian faith,” the Elisabeth Elliot Foundation claims. Although Elisabeth died in 2015, her stories and legacy live on around the world, influencing and inspiring Christians to be brave and loyal to their faith. 


“About Elisabeth Elliot.” Elisabeth Elliot, The Elisabeth Elliot Foundation, n.d., elisabethelliot.org/about/. 

Elliot, Elisabeth. Through Gates of Splendor. Tyndale Momentum, 1996. 

Roberts, Sam. “Elisabeth Elliot, Tenacious Missionary in Face of Tragedy, Dies at 88.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 June 2015, nytimes.com/2015/06/18/us/elisabeth-elliot-tenacious-missionary-to-ecuador-dies-at-88.html. 

Vandenbree, Caroline. “Elisabeth Elliot Biography.” Inspirational Christians, Inspirational Christians, 7 March 2017, inspirationalchristians.org/evangelists/elisabeth-elliot-biography/.

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