Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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A Passionate Romantic

Dannah Gresh: Ellen Vaughn has read the private journals of the late Elisabeth Elliot, including the days she was falling in love with Jim Elliot.

Ellen Vaughn: She felt like she had found her soulmate, someone who wondered about the same things she wondered about, who almost would finish a sentence for her before she had expressed her thought. That was a new feeling for her. She had been, perhaps, a little bit intellectually and emotionally lonely prior to that.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of You Can Trust God to Write Your Story, for September 15, 2020. I’m Dannah Gresh.

Well, Revive Our Hearts is now in its twentieth year, and we stand on the shoulders of the beloved Elisabeth Elliot. Her program, Gateway to Joy, was the predecessor to Revive Our Hearts. We want you to get to know this hero of the faith better, so we invited Ellen Vaughn into the studio.

She’s a New York Times bestselling author and has spent the last several years combing through Elisabeth Elliot’s private journals. Nancy sat down with her in the studio. Let’s listen.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Our listeners have been waiting for this book, have been eager for it. This is the early years of Elisabeth. It’s called Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

I’m already telling you, I can’t wait for the second volume because I’ve read this one, and I know you’re still working on that. We don’t know exactly when it will release, but in the meantime, we’re really thankful to have this one and to be unpacking for our listeners what I’ve already had the joy of reading, and that is glimpses into the early years and the making of the Elisabeth we knew and loved when she was an older woman, which is something your book helps us discover that we’ve never known before.

Ellen: Right. It was interesting to me even when I started working on this book. All of us have a tendency to think of Elisabeth Elliot as twice-widowed and middle-aged because . . .

Nancy: That’s when we first came to know her.

Ellen: Right, right. Much of her public ministry was in that season of her life, but she was a young, inquisitive, curious, passionate, funny, not-yet-formed young woman, and that’s the story that this book tells.

Nancy: She didn’t start old.

Ellen: She did not start old.

Nancy: She didn’t start mature. She didn’t start, this woman who was a fount of wisdom, God had her on a journey. Those things were developing in her, and sometimes through really hard pathways.

Ellen: Right. And the thing that I enjoy about this is this book made Elisabeth Elliot more relatable. In her older years, when she was on a platform, she was fairly severe and intimidating. And we knew what she was saying was true, but there was not necessarily the kind of connection that I found myself feeling with her as I wrote this book.

A lot of that came because I was given all of her journals. And so, to have these, a lot of them leather-bound books, filled with her flowing handwriting, that chronicled the days, the years, the decades of a long life, was an incredible privilege, and very poignant to me.

Nancy: She started journaling really young, didn’t she?

Ellen: Right. This was expected in her family—a very literate and literary family.

Nancy: She’s actually from the Philadelphia area. That’s where I’m from.

Ellen: Yes.

Nancy: My parents were familiar with the Howard family. It’s fun now to look back and see what was going on in her life as she was growing up in that home.

Ellen: Yes, yes. We’ll come back to that in a second because it’s interesting. All of us are products, initially, of our home of origin. So Elisabeth started, a young Betty—she was Betty, of course, back then, Betty Howard. Her first journal that I have at home in my office is this little stubby, sort of a diary that’s written in pencil and a handwriting that’s immature. And it says on the outside of it, “Private Property. No boys allowed. Men, women, and girls may look at this, but no boys.”

And so in it are very dutiful journal entries about her daily life as an eleven-year-old and what she/they played each day after school out in the neighborhood. And then the journal over the years take her through, like all of us, high school. She went to a boarding school and had many adventures there. None of us would want our high school journals known by others. Right?

Nancy: Not me, for sure!

Ellen: So they’re full of romantic intrigue—we’ll come back to that. But I was struck in these journals as the story of her life over the years that it poured out day by day by day by day . . . Again, the picture that some of us have of Elisabeth Elliot is that very severe, controlled woman.

Nancy: Proper.

Ellen: And so I found, like in this journal I have here, which happens to be right after the time of Jim Elliot’s death. And so here, pouring out page by page in her beautiful handwriting her incredible prose.

Nancy: Let me just interrupt just a sec, Ellen. Let me say for those who aren’t familiar with the story, just give us a nutshell of who Jim Elliot was and what she had just experienced when she made this entry.

Ellen: So, we’ll talk about it in a second, in her early years at Wheaton College, Elisabeth Howard, her maiden name, had fallen madly in love with Jim Elliot. After a long courtship, they had married, and they were missionaries in Ecuador together. They had a vision of reaching an unreached people group, indigenous people who had never heard of the gospel and were known for their violence.

Jim and four of his colleagues felt that God was leading them, bit by bit, through a lot of careful planning, to make contact with this unreached people group. In spite of many positive indications that it would be peaceful, all five of the men were speared to death.

As Elisabeth and her fellow widows mourned, they all felt committed to continue on in ministry of various types. Elisabeth felt that if there was any way she could, she wanted to go to the tribal people who had killed her husband. (That’s another story we can talk about maybe on another day.) But she did so, and lived among the people who had taken her husband’s life and really lived out the gospel among them incarnationally.

I was struck, as I said, as I had all of these wonderful journals to see, again, unfolding in real time what she was thinking. Many of us thought, if you’ve read Through Gates of Splendor (that’s a very detailed, and yet dispassionate account of the missionaries’ deaths) . . . 

Nancy: And you think she must have been very strong.

Ellen: And she was! She was very strong. But what you find in these journals, and what I’ve included liberally in the book, because I think we all can relate so well to this kind of loss, is what she was feeling day by day, and particularly night by night.

Elisabeth Elliot from past message: After Jim was killed, five men who had put their trust in the God who represents Himself as our shield, was speared to death. They were speared in the course of their obedience. Now, what does that do to your faith? Does it demolish it? The faith that disintegrates is a faith that has not rested in God Himself.

Ellen: She dreamed of him constantly. She said, 

5:45 a.m., March 16, I just had one of the most vivid dreams ever. The scene, the same old song, Jim came back. He and Pete and Olive. [Pete Fleming was one of the other missionaries who was murdered and his wonderful wife, Olive.] We were all in Moorestown, going shopping. 

Jim was wearing his favorite coat. Elisabeth buries her face in his shoulder, holding on to him tightly. And she kept saying to them, 

I’m so afraid that this is just another dream. And they’re, ‘No, no, this is real. We’re back.’

And then there’s an odd discussion of how their bodies were found in the river. And it’s, like, “No. We really are here.”

I could not keep my eyes off of Jim. He was as handsome and cheerful as ever. I felt so happy that I had not decided to remarry because he was back.

And in her dream, she says,

We went into a restaurant, and I was telling Jim about my dream and how I had called my mother and told her that Jim was back. And he said, ‘It’s real, Darling. This is really happening.’ And then I said to Jim in the dream, ‘Oh, Darling, if this turns out to be just another one of those dreams, I’ll just die.’

On that last phrase, my voice choked to a sob, and he put his arm around me, and he squeezed me hard to reassure me that this was no dream. With that I woke in the same hammock, the same gray mist, the same emberred fire beside me, and the jovial voices nearby within the tribe of Dawa and Kimu, two of Jim’s killers.

Nancy: Wow!

Ellen: When you read material like that, and you think, Wow! How is it that God orchestrates all the days of our lives? I want to know more about this woman who went through such incredible loss and wrote about it in ways that all of us who have experienced loss can identify, and yet, how she stayed steady, how she stayed true in her relationship with Jesus.

That’s a transferrable truth that comes out of this story that I was excited to discover and try to write in a way that it would be accessible to readers to be of help in their lives.

Nancy: And for any of us, who we are as adults is shaped by our childhood, our family of origin, and there were some remarkable aspects of Elisabeth’s upbringing that were unique to her and that influenced and shaped her as she was becoming the Elisabeth Elliot we knew and loved.

What did you find about her childhood, her younger years? You spent some time there that was really interesting to me. How did that shape her, for better or for worse? We get things from our childhood that send us in the right direction, and then we get things we have to overcome, and she had some of both.

Ellen: Sure. We all have a mix of influences in our lives. Elisabeth’s parents were missionaries in Belgium when she was born. They then came back to the United States, and her dad became editor of The Sunday School Times, which at the time was a big periodical that went out to all of Christendom.

Nancy: Yes, premier.

Ellen: Yes. She grew up in a larger family where all the kids were expected to be punctual and prompt. There were morning devotions. There were evening devotions. One sang all the hymns with all five of the verses. One kept everything in exact order. All the pencils were sharpened. The shoes were shined. The windows were clean. The floors were waxed. It was a home, in spite of the number of people there, that was of extreme order and discipline.

Nancy: I’m thinking of The Sound of Music before Julie Andrews came—a lot of order.

Ellen: Well, yes. It was a lot of order.

Now, Elisabeth’s family was so kind to me. I interviewed her brothers and her close friends, and quite a few. And what Tom Howard, her younger brother, said is, 

If you describe it as this place that had incredible order, it sounds like it was no fun, but it was a house of great fun. There was much laughing until they all cried. There was a lot of wit. There was a lot of mimicry in terms of being able to reproduce accents and tell stories with great vigor. It’s a close, rollicking family.

Elisabeth went from this home of great order to an unnamed boarding school, a Christian boarding school, which, at the time, was the place that a lot of prominent Christian families sent their kids for high school. And there the same tendencies toward order were reinforced.

If you had dust under your bed, then you shouldn’t carry your Bible around. Sloth was an indication of running morally rampant. So it seemed to me, as an outsider, reading the journals and the interviews with people from those school days, and reading Elisabeth’s many, many letters that this was a place that had the tendency, shall we say, to enhance legalism.

So that already kind of, coupled with the young Elisabeth Elliot’s personality, that “we check off the boxes, we do all the right things. If we love God, then everything is tidy and in order and just right.” And she already was an introvert by nature. She already spent a lot of time “in her own head.” And she already had a very severe way of looking at her own self and behaviors.

So she went from there, that high school, to Wheaton College right near the end of World War II. It was a highly patriotic time in the country, a time when a number of young men who had served in the Army were coming back to Wheaton for school. There, too, was a great sense of duty and performance and discipline—a lot of other wonderful things as well. When you read the book, you’ll see how her college years were a great time of flowering in a lot of different ways.

But I need to pause there because it’s interesting. She wrote in her journal during her college years, “Today we took a test in Psychology class, and I have discovered that I am an introvert. I have eleven of the twelve tendencies of an introvert.” And she felt like it was a very bad thing to be an introvert. “Clearly, I must change.”

And all of her life, people who saw her as remote, I think the introversion explains a lot. She would get completely all of her energy used up in social situations. Where, if you saw her in a setting where she was speaking, and then you waited in a long book line, maybe to come and talk to Elisabeth Elliot, and she might be brusque, or she might even be rude, it’s because, as an introvert, all of her energy had been used up just in being around people.

So there were insights like that that I picked up along the way that explained a lot to me about her personality.

Nancy: Yes. And also the fact that a lot of her childhood influence was that you don’t express emotions. You control your emotions.

Ellen: Yes.

Nancy: And she went through many emotional seasons of her life. But it’s more in her journals, it seems, that she unpacked what some of her emotions were, things that maybe she didn’t feel free to share publicly or even with some of her close friends. But the feelings were there.

Ellen: Yes

Nancy: We’re going to talk later in the series about what she did with those feelings that was positive and how she taught us to deal with runaway rogue emotions. But it felt like there was a cap on that.

She got to Wheaton College and met Jim Elliot. First of all, this is a season where she had made a list of the things that she wanted in a husband—this long list.

Ellen: Yes. She, in her later years, I think forgot that she had dated so much at Wheaton. Sometimes in the journals you’ll see the older Elisabeth’s handwriting coming in and saying, “Huh, I hadn’t remembered I went out this much,” or that type of thing. So it was fun to discover a college romance that I had not been aware of that was before Jim, for example.

Jim Elliot was a guy in her Greek class. He was a close friend of her brother, her younger brother Dave, who was fourteen months younger than Elisabeth. Initially, she thought that Jim was a good guy. He had a reputation on campus for being a little too uber spiritual. And so she noted him, but was not necessarily attracted to him.

And Dave invited Jim to come home for Christmas one year.

Nancy: To the Howard’s.

Ellen: To the Howard family home, Elisabeth’s family home. There Elisabeth really watched Jim and saw how he washed dishes for the old lady who had brought them wonderful food to eat, or how he would just enter into whatever, or how he went sledding with the younger kids. And the two of them would stay up late at night and talk about philosophy and theology and the things about which they were both very curious.

And what I loved to see in the, sort of the inner cycling of the romance especially in those early days, is she felt like she had found her soulmate; someone who wondered about the same things she wondered about, who almost would finish a sentence for her before she had expressed her thought. That was a new feeling for her. She had been, perhaps, a little bit intellectually and emotionally lonely prior to that.

So you have rollicking Jim Elliot, the school wrestler, and by now a pretty popular guy on campus, and the somewhat aloof Elisabeth Howard. And, against all odds, these two fell in love. Now, that romance is pretty well chronicled in books that your listeners may very well be familiar with.

Nancy: The first time Elisabeth Elliot went to visit Jim’s family didn’t go quite as well as when Jim went to visit her family. Tell us about that.

Ellen: Yes. So they realized that they had strong feelings for one another, and they were twenty and twenty-one years old.

It boggles my mind at this time—they both felt, once they recognized that, yes, they really could love each other, that that love was to be sacrificed, if God so asked, on the cross for Him. They both felt that they needed to cleave first to the love of Christ and secondarily, if He so willed, to do something about their relationship. (It’s hard to find twenty-one-year-olds who would think that way, and I certainly didn’t think that way when I was twenty-one.)

At any rate, their relationship continued. They wrote millions of letters to each other, very beautiful and literary letters.

Nancy: This was not the email generation or the texting generation.

Ellen: No, it was not, and no emoji’s. So thoughts were actually articulated. It was wonderful.

But Elisabeth was invited to spend, I think, a Labor Day weekend with the Elliot family in Oregon. She went. They had a wonderful time swimming in the ocean and picnicking and singing and worshipping with the family. It seemed to have gone quite well.

When Elisabeth got home, she has a letter from Jim that basically says, “You made a universally horrible impression. Your visit was a disaster.”

Now, at that point, I would have completely given up on Jim Elliot and gone in the opposite direction. But Elisabeth read the rest of the letter and discovered that his family had seen her as very standoffish.

And so some of those things about her personality that were a little bit off-putting, the Elliot family, which was very different from the Howard family, had seen as a distance that they did not care for.

Nancy: And they said some harsh things.

Ellen: Some very harsh things.

Nancy: But Jim later regretted having passed on to Elisabeth.

Ellen: Yes. But she was a gifted debater in her years at Wheaton College, so in her responses to Jim, even though he had mortally wounded her by relating his family’s less-than-positive remarks about not just her personality but what she looked like . . . At any rate, once she had gotten over the shock of those things, she rallied and almost as if she was on the debating team, began to make points about what she felt was viable and that she had chosen was in the relationship, and what was not.

And that kind of robust, intellectual and spiritual back and forth really characterized their five-year courtship.

Nancy: And some of that back and forth over those five years was because both of them had this passion for Christ, this passion for ministry, this sense of calling to missions, and it seemed that both of them on their own were wondering, Am I called to singleness? Is it less spiritual for me to get married?

They had a lot of back and forth in their own hearts and then in their relationship about whether it was okay to get married and whether you could really love God with all your heart and still choose marriage.

Ellen: Right. And I have to say, perhaps I am not the best judge about all of this, but as the biographer, I’m standing on the sidelines looking at this as it unfolds and thinking, Oh, my goodness! Just get married and go to the field together! What’s all the big deal?

But for them, they were really weighing and very careful to make sure that their commitment to obedience to Christ was above all else. And I think that flies in the face of what so many of the rest of us have experienced and certainly what goes on in our culture at large.

Nancy: If you’re in love, follow your heart, get married.

Ellen: Right.

Nancy: They wanted Christ first. When you read some of how they went about it and at times you do think, You both love Jesus, and you can love each other, too. But one of the hallmarks of Elisabeth’s life, as we knew her later, was this deep, deep commitment to obedience, to not just follow your feelings. She learned that it was okay to have feelings, but that all feelings and personal desires had to be brought into submission to the obedience of Christ.

Ellen: Right. And that was interesting to me because, in the midst of her relationship with Jim Elliot, she constantly had her feelings bridled. She wrote a very poignant letter to her mom at that time and talked about from the time she was young she had “taken pride in bottling her feelings.” She had taken pride that people not know what she was feeling. She had somehow gotten mixed up early on that stoicism was a virtue.

Nancy: And that feelings were . . .

Ellen: . . . to be ignored or to be disguised or acknowledged . . .

Nancy: . . . not expressed.

Ellen: All of that. And then she came to realize, of course, that that was not the case. But she was so constraining herself not to blurt out to Jim how much she loved him, not to get ahead of him in his leadership of the relationship, that at times it drove her crazy.

Nancy: And at times it drives me crazy reading about it.

Ellen: Of course! I’m just amazed that they both hung in there.

Nancy: I’m thinking, Get with the program, Jim!

Ellen: Yes, you’re right.

So they both were pursuing the relationship but not pursuing the relationship. And, as God was guiding them, they both knew they were called to the mission field. Elisabeth initially thought to a hut in Africa. That was the picture she had had in her head since childhood.

Nancy: She had grown up having missionaries visit in their home, so this had made a mark on her.

Ellen: Yes, very much so. She had been very affected by missionaries, in fact, who had martyred, who had lost their lives in the midst of bringing the gospel to people who had not heard it. It was a very strong part of who she was way prior to meeting Jim Elliot.

So in her pursuit of God’s will for her, she spent some time in New York City. (I wasn’t familiar with this part of her story.) She lived in a tenement flat in Brooklyn and worked with a Hispanic congregation there, learning her Spanish, and working under the auspice of the Plymouth Brethren.

During that time she met a woman missionary who talked with great passion about an unreached people group in Ecuador known as the Waodani, and that they were violent. They killed all outsiders, and they had never heard the gospel.

So, though many of us think that Elisabeth Elliot’s interest in the Waodani came because of Jim Elliot, in fact, it came through another female missionary who dared to dream that where men had failed, perhaps women could go and bring the gospel to this violent tribe.

Nancy: She and Jim both ended up in Ecuador but at different mission stations, not married yet, but staying in contact.

Ellen: Correct.

Nancy: And in God’s providence, He did bring their lives together. We’re going to pick up on that part of the story when we continue this conversation.

But, Ellen, I want to just say that one of the really helpful things you’ve done for those of us who knew and loved Elisabeth Elliot, and those who are just being introduced to her life now, it’s not too late. You’ve helped us to see how her upbringing, how the influences in her life, in her childhood and her teenage years, were all part of shaping and molding the woman that God was making to be used for His kingdom purposes.

Some of those influences were extremely positive, and some of them were, well, things you wouldn’t want to grow up with or have them as part of your experience, but in God’s providence, He used all of that as she was becoming the woman we knew as Elisabeth Elliot.

This is why I love reading Christian biographies because they help me to lay on my own life and experience the stories and experiences of others who’ve had a journey in coming to know God, to walk with Him, to serve Him. I could not be more thrilled that you have written this new authorized biography on the early years of Elisabeth Elliot, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

I’m so eager for our listeners to have a copy of this for themselves. I know that you want to have this in your hands, you want to read it. I’ve been just putting out some feelers on social media and saying, “How did Elisabeth Elliot impact your life? How did God use her in your life?” And I’ve received so many, many wonderful, encouraging statements that many of us could affirm.

And now this book by Ellen Vaughn is available. We’d like to send it to you as our way of saying, “Thank you for your support of Revive Our Hearts,” which is the successor ministry to Elisabeth Elliot’s Gateway To Joy. So we stand on big shoulders.

I’m so thankful for the biography of this very remarkable woman of God. It’s our gift to you when you make a donation to Revive Our Hearts of $30 or more. Whatever the Lord puts on your heart, we want to make this available to you.

So you can visit us online at, or you can give us a call at 1–800–569–5959. And when you make your gift of $30 or more, be sure and let us know you want a copy of the new biography on Elisabeth Elliot. Whether she’s brand new to you or you’ve been familiar with her for many years, this is a book that’s going to speak to you in some deep and significant ways.

Thank you, Ellen, for walking us through this journey. When we pick back up on this conversation tomorrow, we’re going to move forward on the progression of Jim Elliot and Betty Howard’s romance. We’ll get them engaged and married, but we’ll also see some of the journey that the Lord took them on in that season of their lives that was, well, inexplicable and really hard in some ways. But through their willingness to walk through that, God speaks to our hearts today. We’re going to see how when we come back tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to enjoy fruitfulness, fullness, and freedom in Christ. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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About the Speakers

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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Ellen Vaughn

Ellen Vaughn

Ellen is a New York Times bestselling author and speaker who has written or co-written twenty-three books. Former vice president of executive communications at Prison Fellowship, she collaborated with the …

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