Being Elisabeth Elliot: The Authorized Biography: Elisabeth’s Later Years – Ellen Vaughn

Being Elisabeth Elliot: The Authorized Biography: Elisabeth’s Later Years by Ellen Vaughn
Published by B&H Publishing on September 12, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography, Christian Life
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Elisabeth Elliot was a young missionary in Ecuador when members of a remote Amazonian indigenous people group killed her husband Jim and his four colleagues. And yet, she stayed in the jungle with her young daughter to minister to the very people who had thrown the spears, demonstrating the power of Christ’s forgiveness.

This courageous, no-nonsense Christian went on to write dozens of books, host a long-running radio show, and speak at conferences all over the world. She was a pillar of coherent, committed faith—a beloved and sometimes controversial icon. And while things in the limelight might have looked golden, her suffering continued refining her in many different and unexpected ways.

Her early years, related in Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, traced the transition of a young woman who dealt in “certainties” to the woman who lived with the unknown.

Now, being Elisabeth Elliot increasingly meant confronting how much she did not understand. She sought her reference point beyond her own experiences, always pondering what she called the “impenetrable mystery” of the interplay between God’s will and human choices.

And it is that strange mystery which shaped the rest of her startling life story.

This second volume completes the authorized biography of Elisabeth Elliot, covering her life from 1963 to her death. I enjoyed the first book when it came out a few years ago, and I enjoyed this biography as well, appreciating Ellen Vaughn’s careful handling of complex life events. This is not a hagiography portraying Elliot to be a saint, and nor is it a tell-all that focuses on the more difficult or sensational parts of her life. Vaughn writes with grace and truth, and she portrays Elliot in an authentic, well-rounded way, drawing from Elliot’s personal journals and correspondence.

I found this book compulsively readable. Even though many chapters don’t cover anything particularly dramatic, Vaughn tells the story in a very engaging way, portraying Elliot’s private and public life with an eye for the right details to make it all feel real to the reader. Although the pacing gets shaky towards the end, with rushed revelations in the final chapters, I found this very gripping. There are a lot of ways that this could have been dry, especially in its coverage of everyday life and domestic details, but Vaughn explores deeper themes beyond daily minutiae and highlights memorable human interest elements.

Being Elisabeth Elliot: Elisabeth’s Later Years is an excellent read for people who are interested in Elisabeth Elliot’s life, especially if they want a more nuanced view of her beyond her compressed, simplified public image. There was a lot here that surprised me, and Vaughn shows how Elliot chafed against the evangelical machine of her day, choosing to embrace mystery and paradoxes even when people wanted clear-cut triumphalism from her. Vaughn also does a nice job of showing all of this in historical context, providing background information for readers who may not be familiar with mid-century history. Vaughn’s explanatory asides and reflections on different themes enrich the reading experience, and I never felt that she inserted her own voice too much. However, there are a number of typos that an editor should have caught, and it surprised me that there weren’t any photos in the book, unlike the previous volume.

However, even though I appreciate Vaughn’s forthrightness, careful explanations, and emphasis on truth, she sometimes shares too many extraneous details about sensitive topics. For example, when Vaughn writes about Elliot’s second marriage, she quotes from journal entries where Elliot wrote rapturous reflections about sex. Even though Elliot preserved these entries while excising others, that doesn’t mean that she wanted them shared for public consumption. These journal quotations felt like an unnecessary invasion of privacy, especially since it was already obvious how much passion and joy Elliot and her husband experienced together. The intimate details were unnecessary.

I also wish that Vaughn had been more selective when writing about that husband’s declining health, cancer battle, and death. He clearly felt humiliated by his infirmities and medical struggles, so why write about them in such detail? The ravages of disease and the suffering they created are an essential part of Elliot’s story, but there are whole chapters with information about her husband’s symptoms, medical interventions, and struggles with physical and emotional problems. Reading this made me feel like I was intruding on someone else’s private business, and it’s not even a biography about him. I wish that Vaughn had glossed over some of the things she focused on here.

Being Elisabeth Elliot: Elisabeth’s Later Years is a gripping, powerful biography about a memorable Christian figure. Although people should know that this focuses on the sixties and seventies, not on Elliot’s speaking and radio ministry from later in life, there’s a lot of interesting material in this book. I would recommend both volumes of this authorized biography to people who are interested in Elliot’s life and accomplishments, especially if they want a look into the more complicated and nuanced aspects of her life and faith. This book grapples with deep themes in a thoughtful and honest way, and I appreciate Vaughn’s careful portrayal of so many complexities. This is a very well-written, engaging, and memorable biography, and I am thankful that I had the opportunity to review it.