Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Dannah Gresh: In the 1940s and ‘50s, Jim Elliot and Elisabeth Howard documented their relationship in a series of letters. Years later, their daughter Valerie saw something very special in them. 

Valerie Elliot Shepard: Because they were well-read in Scripture, they knew the theme that “death brings life,” and so they often wrote about their own dying to their feelings.

Dannah: And by that, they meant dying to their feelings for each other! Today, Valerie shares some of what she found in the love letters of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Forgiveness, for February 12, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh. 

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Can you remember back to when people actually wrote letters to each other? When was the last time you actually used a postage stamp on a letter you were sending to someone? And are you old enough to have written love letters to the person you’re now married to? Maybe, maybe not. 

Robert’s and my relationship has been way more texts and emails than it has been love letters. But we’re talking this week with Valerie Elliott Shepard, the daughter of Jim and Elisabeth Elliott, and they were back in that wonderful era of actually writing letters! And there’s a wonderful story about their love letters.

So, Val, welcome back to Revive Our Hearts. We’re eager to have you give us a little inside scoop about the love letters of your parents. Thanks for coming on to tell us some of their story, and yours as well.

Valerie: Thank you for having me.

Nancy: And let me just say, if you missed the last two programs, or you’re not familiar with the Jim and Elisabeth Elliot story, make sure and go back to ReviveOurHearts.com and listen to the last two days, because Val has shared some of that story with us. It’s spellbinding! It’s a really important story in Christian history, and you want to know it. So you can go back and listen to that.

Now in more recent years, Valerie has compiled the love letters that her parents wrote to each other (and she’ll share with us how she came to have those) into a book called Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. 

We’re making that resource available this week as our way of saying “thank you” when you make a donation of any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts. It’s a beautiful book! It’s one you can just dive into and get rich spiritual nuggets and insight. It’s just also a sweet glimpse into this relationship between Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.

So, Val, you’re the daughter. You were ten months old when your dad was taken at the tip of an Auca spear there in the jungles of Ecuador, so you don’t have a personal memory of that season.

But in God’s kindness and providence, there were some letters left that came into your possession, that gave you a lot better picture of your dad and your dad’s courtship with your mom.

How did you come to have those letters, and the journals as well?

Valerie: Well, my mother very kindly gave me a huge packet that said—in her bold and clear writing—“The letters of Jim Elliot to Elisabeth Elliot, from 1948 to 1953.” She brought them to me when I lived, I think, in California with eight children at home. She said, “Val, you don’t have time to read these now, but someday you’ll want to read them.”

So about 2011 and 2012, when my youngest daughter was finishing her last two years of high school, I started looking for those letters. I vaguely knew that my mom had given them to me. I put them in a safe place, and it took me a while to find them . . . until I got to the bottom of a trunk that had all kinds of memorabilia in it. And there was this wonderful package of his letters to her.

When she gave them to me, she said, “But Val, unfortunately, your father destroyed all of my letters.” And I thought, Wow, how sad, because she was such a great writer! But then in 2012 when I found the letters, I remembered that she had given me her journals from those same years: 1947 through 1956, after he died.

And I thought, What a treasure it would be to put together what she says in her journals with what he says in his letters. But the more I read his letters—and was awestruck by the beautiful writing and his commitment to Christ throughout every letter—the more I thought, That’s going to be really hard to put together a book without any of her writing, except for what she said in her journals.

So I began the process simply by re-reading my mother’s books: The Shadow of the AlmightyThe Savage My KinsmanThrough Gates of Splendor and I re-read The Journals of Jim Elliot, which my mother published. I also read Passion and Purity.

Nancy: And, by the way, at ReviveOurHearts.com, we’ve provided links to these books because they’re classics and they’re worth reading. And if you’re not familiar with them, you want to read them.

Valerie: Yes! 

Nancy: So you can go there to find those.

Valerie: So after reading through her journals of those years, and then reading all the letters, and then reading the books she wrote about those years, I decided, “Okay, the Lord’s going to help me—somehow—to put this together.” But then my mother died in 2015, and I was going through her attic specifically looking for my father’s original journal, but I didn’t find it..

I found out from the Wheaton archives man that the original journals were falling apart, but everything that was in the original journals is published, so he said, “You won’t find anything new,” which is what I had been hoping for.

As I went through the attic, I came upon an Ecuador trunk. I had a very dear friend with me, and she was carefully pulling each thing out of the trunk. 

Nancy: So this is in your mom’s attic?

Valerie: Yes, my mom’s attic in Massachusetts. At the very bottom of the trunk, she came upon this neat little blue-ribboned tied-up packet of letters from my mother to my father. It’s a tradition to wrap up letters with a blue ribbon if they’re love letters.

What had happened was, he had destroyed the first eight months of their correspondence of her letters to him.

Nancy: Do you know why?

Valerie: No, just that he probably didn’t want anybody to read them, ever. 

Nancy: So he intentionally got rid of them?

Valerie: Yes. But I think the more the correspondence carried on, the more he thought, Her letters are worth saving.So I found them, and I was just thrilled! I thought, This is God’s miracle and gift to me, to be able to find her letters!

So even though the first ones are missing, the rest of the letters which they wrote approximately every two weeks to each other—and every letter had at least five-to-eight pages (beautifully handwritten, both of them had great penmanship) are just an unbelievable treasure!

Nancy: : Do you know how she came to have the letters that she had written?

Valerie: Well, apparently he had brought them with him to Ecuador and had kept them amazingly away from rain! In the first six months of their marriage, they were in a leaky tent. So I don’t know how, except he had them in a plastic bag. They never got ruined. There was only one page out of all of his letters that some blurred ink.

Nancy: And nobody else had ever seen these?

Valerie: Right. They were in fountain pen, so all written with that kind of ink. The more I read her letters and his letters, the more I thought, These have got to be published!If we had published every single bit of all of the letters and all of the journals, it would have been too thick a book! Most people wouldn’t want to read a four-hundred or five-hundred-page book.

So LifeWay bookstores said they would help me figure out how much of each letter we could publish. The forget-me-nots that are on the cover of the book are literally a picture of my mother’s envelopes for at least six months of the time she had this particular stationery. So forget-me-nots were on the envelope and on the top corners of the letters.

Nancy: I see a picture of a three-cent stamp here. Is that what the postage was?

Valerie: Yes, can you imagine!? So, there are a lot of postmarks throughout the book, pictures of the letters, samples of their handwriting

Nancy: Both of them, you’re right, do have gorgeous handwriting!

Valerie: Yes. So it was such a treasure for me to read! I couldn’t have done the combination of journals and letters . . . First of all, my mother had kept them all in perfect order of dates, but to put them with the journal entries. And then, the editor at LifeWay helping me by asking questions of me: “Well, what was this meaning?”or “Where were they?” 

That helped me to put my little bits in there between the letters. As I said, I first wanted to just publish the whole thing, but it would have been too long.

Nancy: So as you read through the journals, the letters—of course you knew your mom well, you knew a lot about your dad—what were some of the “aha!” moments or big-picture takeaways that started to emerge about your parents, about their relationship?

Valerie: They were both very good at writing, so their writing is beautiful. The more I read, the more I was saying, “Ah, I can’t believe how they could write!”

Nancy: Beautiful in a classic sense, not the kind of writing people do today.

Valerie: Yes, right. And my father was very poetic and his writing was full of imagery. My mother used imagery, but not quite as dramatically as my father would. So it was just exciting to read! But also, I began to see themes in all of the letters.

So I thought, at first, that I would put a book together with about ten chapters of the themes that they wrote on. The more I’d try to find a bit here and a bit there, it got more and more confusing if I didn’t do it chronologically. 

Jan Wismer, who was the one who helped get Gateway to Joy started. She said, “Val, you need to do it chronologically.” So that helped me to get it more in order . . . with the help of two different friends.

Nancy: That was a labor of love!

Valerie: It really was! I’m just so thankful for the helpers, because I couldn’t have done it . . . plus transcribing. I had two different friends transcribe from handwriting to typewritten.

Nancy: Did they transcribe all of it? The journals, the letters?

Valerie: Yes.

Nancy: Wow!

Valerie: So that was a lot of work!

Nancy: That would have been even more work if they were my letters, because mine are not nearly as legible as your mom’s and dad’s! (laughter)

Valerie: Yes, it was not hard to read their writing, although, sometimes my mother’s writing was so tiny in her journals—even though it was neat and beautiful; it was very small! So she had a five-year diary that she wrote teeny-tiny words in! That was sometimes a little hard to figure out.

Anyway, you asked about things that jumped out at me. Suffering was something they talked about, wrote about, almost in every letter.

Nancy: Now, keep in mind, this is during the years leading up to their marriage, so they were young! They were college students and just out of college, so we’re not talking about wise old people. We’re talking about some wise young people.

So when I read some of this and I think, He was twenty years-old when he said this! or She was twenty-one when she wrote this! You’ve got to keep that in mind.

Valerie: Yes! But because they were well-read in Scripture—as well as well-read in the classics—they knew the theme that “death brings life.” They often wrote about their own dying to their feelings, especially my father wrote of that. My mother was a little more reticent of sharing what her feelings were with him—especially when they were not engaged yet. He had told her that they would not get married unless God made it very clear.

Nancy: So he would talk about dying to his feelings for her. 

Valerie: Yes.

Nancy: So he was acknowledging that he had the feelings, but thinking that God wanted him to be this celibate missionary.

Valerie: Yes, so they were in a turbulent period at least for three out of the five years.

Nancy: In their relationship?

Valerie: Yes, because my mother did not want to say anything emotionally charged to show her affection for him, because she didn’t feel she had the freedom to have any claim upon him because he had not asked her to marry him yet. He had said, “God brought us together for some reason, but I don’t know yet that it’s for marriage.”

So intellectually and spiritually they were completely on the same level of thinking. They often shared quotes by Amy Carmichael, or hymns that spoke of suffering. They knew they were to die to themselves and they knew that Christ and the cross were what was to be in their view, in their focus.

Nancy: We actually have a recording of your mom talking about getting to know Jim better in their days at Wheaton. But I think it applies to their correspondence, too. This comes to us thanks to our friends at FamilyLife Today. Let’s listen.

Elisabeth Elliot Gren: I had observed Jim Elliot on the college campus for months before he and I ever had a personal conversation. And when we had the personal conversation, it wasn’t on any level of intimacy whatsoever! We were talking about Scripture passages; we were talking about Amy Carmichael’s writing. 

It blew my mind to find a man (who happened to be a champion wrestler; I mean, he was a real he-man!) who was a fan of Amy Carmichael—to the point where he had memorized some of her poetry! We found that God had been dealing with us through the same hymns. So, there were a lot of things that we discovered in common; we were not talking about feelings.

But it was through observation. And, of course, in both of our cases, we were certainly praying silently. We were not talking to each other about a “relationship.”

Nancy: That’s your mother, Elisabeth Elliot Gren, remembering how she and your father, Jim, carefully got to know each other before allowing their emotions to run rampant. Val, you mentioned that suffering was a major theme in their letters.

But it’s not like they had some sense that he was going to die on the mission field as much as that they had to be willing to give up this relationship if that’s what would honor the Lord the most.

Valerie: Yes, but they knew that, in obedience to Christ, anything of dying to self was required—not necessarily just their relationship. But where they might even be ending up. My mother at first thought she might go to India, and my father was quite sure he was going to South America, but wasn’t sure which country yet, and then eventually it filtered down to Ecuador that he was to go to.

At one point, she thought she was going to the South Seas, and at another point she thought she was going to Africa, so again . . .

Nancy: They could have been a world apart! 

Valerie: They kept lifting up this unusual meeting of minds and of hearts my mother and father had found her senior year of college and his junior year and thinking, Why did God bring us together? We both know that we might end up as single missionaries?

Nancy: Here’s what your mom said about that in this interview from 1996.

Elisabeth: Jim Elliot was one of those who felt very strongly that he needed to be willing to be single. People thought—we thought on Wheaton campus—that Jim Elliot must be a woman-hater. He had made up his mind when he came to Wheaton that, if he was going to become “approved unto God” (and he called that his “A.U.G.” Degree), and get a B.A. (the Bachelor of Arts), then he was going to have to eliminate one or two things from his program that the average college man felt were absolutely necessary. And one of those things was dating. So he just made up his mind that he was not going to date.

As he matured and approached his final year in college, he made a commitment to the Lord: “If it’s required that certain men remain single for the sake of the gospel (for example, in pioneer missionary work), then Lord, I’m willing to be one of those.” It wasn’t that he was not interested in marriage.

But when he began to feel that God might give him permission to get married some time, then he decided that he had already made up his mind which woman on that campus he would like to have.

Nancy: So, Val, as you read their letters to one another, you were picking up on that tension.

Valerie: Sometimes my father is tender or affectionate in his wording; sometimes my mother seems very cool, logical, without any emotion. There were a couple of letters where he’s almost asking for her to say a little bit more words of endearment. But she would say, “But we have no claim on each other!” So she would stay distant.

And then there were some letters where she would say just enough that would give him a little bit of hope or encouragement . . . that maybe she really did love him! But she would not say, “I love you,” until she was actually engaged to him.

Nancy: This is Robert’s and my story. You’re telling our story!

Valerie: Yeah? You wouldn’t say it either?

Nancy: Yes. I’m not saying it’s wrong to, but that felt like the right thing to me.

Valerie: And in this day and age, where “I love you!” is such a common thing to say with anyone—“Love you!”—it’s just so often spoken lightheartedly. Back then, the words “I love you,” or even the phrase, “I love you,” was not heard in the Howard home, my mother’s family.

All of the children, as adults, said they knew their parents loved them. One, they were disciplinarian parents. So it says in the Bible if you love your children, you will discipline them. 

Nancy: So that’s how they knew they were loved. 

Valerie: They knew that because the parents were given to their children. For example, my grandfather gave every Saturday afternoon to his children. He would take them on walks and they would listen to birds. He was a great ornithologist. There was commitment to the family; there was commitment to reading the Scripture daily; there was commitment to prayer.

But it wasn’t until my mother actually went away as a fourteen-year-old that she saw the phrase in her mother’s letter to her: “Much love, Mother.” And she thought, I knew my parents loved me, but we didn’t hear it. They didn’t hear “I love you,” like we say it so freely here in this day.

Nancy: So she wasn’t going to just throw it around with Jim.

Valerie: Right, it meant a great deal to her, and she felt that she shouldn’t say anything to him like that unless they actually were committed to getting married. And that was really because her father had taught his four sons—her brothers—that you don’t tell a woman that you love her unless you’re ready to ask her to marry you.

Nancy: So Jim didn’t feel quite the same way. He was willing to say that.

Valerie: Well, he did say, “I love you,” maybe once or twice in the very first year of their relationship.

Nancy: Let’s listen to how Elisabeth told the story to Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine on FamilyLife Today radio. 

Elisabeth: He confessed his love for me long before he proposed to me. I was graduating from college; he still had another year to go. I was a senior, he was a junior, and in May—just a few weeks before my graduation—we went for a walk, and we had had some conversations. 

He was a close friend of my brother’s, so my brother brought him to our home for Christmas. He and Jim and I had sat up and talked to two- and three-o’-clock in the morning. We had also been taking the same major—we were both Classical Greek majors—so we were in almost exactly the same classes.

So I had seen him a lot and had a few conversations with him (I think we studied Thucydides together and stuff like that). But just before our graduation, he took me out for a walk and he said, “Bet, I think we need to get squared away how we feel about each other.” I was floored! I almost went through the sidewalk because I didn’t know Jim had any feelings for me.

My Mama had told me when I was thirteen years old, “Never chase boys! And keep them at arm’s length!” So I had done my level best to make sure that nobody had any idea that I was interested in Jim Elliot!

So it made me a little bit irritated to think that Jim Elliot was saying, “I think we better get squared away how we feel about each other!” I thought, Well, what gives this guy any idea that I have some feelings for him!?

Bob Lepine: Now, wait a second . . . but the truth was . . .

Elisabeth: . . . that I did! But I thought I had done such a wonderful job of concealing it! I hadn’t rolled my eyes at him. I hadn’t tried to sit next to him in class. I hadn’t put any little smiley faces on his book covers. So anyway, I responded by saying, “What do you mean?”

And he said, “What do you mean, ‘What do I mean?’ You know what I mean! I’ve been in love with you for months!” And he said, “I’ve been trying to show you this in every way except verbal. But now I’m telling you. I love you!” And he said, “Didn’t you know that?” 

And I said, “No!”

“Well,” he said, “You must be deaf, dumb, and blind. I’ve been trying to show you in every way!” We went into a park, and we sat down on the grass facing each other. We were more than an arm’s length apart, according to my mother’s rule, and we talked for seven hours!

He said, “I’m not proposing to you. I cannot ask you to marry me. You’re going to Africa, I’m going to South America.” He lived in Oregon, I lived in New Jersey. I was graduating, he had another year. The chances of our seeing each other again seemed to be zero.

He said, “I have to leave you in God’s hands. God knows how to bring us together if He ever wants us together.”

But he said, “In the meantime, I am not going to lay a finger on you, because I have no right over you. You belong to God. You go ahead and go to Africa; God can bring us together.”

Valerie: Then, as they carried on this conversation about what does this mean, to follow Christ and what does it mean to love each other (my father mainly using that word), the more you see this struggle of, “What do we do with this?” 

There’s one letter that just tickled me, how my mother wrote a long eleven-page letter about what true friendship was between Christians. So, for her, between a man and a woman as Christians, they could truly love each other in Christ, but the friendship was given by God and was to be held honorably and holy before God . . . but it wasn’t a romance.

So she writes this long letter logically explaining how they could be true friends—and they had the meeting of the mind and the heart—but there was no commitment for marriage yet. So she waits tremblingly to hear back from him what he thought of this letter, because she had put a lot of thought and prayer into what she wrote.

He waited for several weeks and finally he answers her by saying, “I’ve read your long letter . . . and I can’t make heads nor tails out of it! And so, therefore, I won’t say anything in response!” Which was terribly disappointing to her because she had put so much thought into it. Again, he wanted a little bit more emotionally endearing words. 

Nancy: A clue to where her heart was.

Valerie: Right. But she was like that.

Nancy: And yet, it’s clear from her journals that her heart was being drawn to him, and that she was also wrestling with, “Is this the will of God?” But then also, this waiting for him to declare or to take the initiative. This is so old-fashioned! 

That’s how it seems today, and yet there’s something so sweet and beautiful that I think we miss today by not having that sense of restraint and waiting, the willingness to wait.

Valerie: I was going to say, delayed gratification was taught back then and there seem to be fewer and fewer parents teaching their children to wait for things that can be appreciated more greatly if they have worked hard and have striven to get something, like a car, if they were working to save money for a car.

There are so many parents or grandparents who give teenagers cars without the expectation of learning responsibility by earning the money first. I think their story is beautiful in that what they said to each other was timeless in their desire to lay down their lives and follow Christ. 

When they were sitting in a cemetery in Wheaton a few days before my mother’s graduation, the moon rose behind them and a tombstone with a tall stone cross on it left the shadow from the moon of a cross right between them as they sat on a bench.

They sat in silence as they thought about their commitment to Christ and the fact that they would have to die to their feelings in order to find out where Christ wanted them, if Christ would ever have them be married. Their love was real and deep and beautiful, but it was also something they laid on the altar.

Dannah: Wow! What a beautiful story! We’re listening to a conversation between the host of Revive Our Hearts, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, and Valerie Shepard, who discovered many of her parents’ love letters in a trunk in the attic. Doesn’t that make you want to get out your stationery and sit down, write a real letter?

Val compiled many of those letters into a book with the title Devotedly, which is the way Jim Elliot sometimes signed his letters to Elisabeth. This week as a way to thank you for a donation of any size to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts, we’d like to send you a copy of this book. The subtitle is The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.

To give to Revive Our Hearts, just go to ReviveOurHearts.com, or call us at 1–800–569–5959. And a special thank you to Bob Lepine, Dennis Rainey and all our friends at FamilyLife Today for the audio interview with Elisabeth Elliot from 1996!

Tomorrow the conversation continues. I’m Dannah Gresh, saying, “Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.” 

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you love in Christ-centered ways. Our program is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Speaker

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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