Elisabeth Elliot: Joyful Surrender

Chapter 1
She Could Not Turn Back Now

Before long you will all be dead and eaten by vultures!”

Elisabeth Elliot, or Betty, as most people called her, listened carefully to the words of Maruja, a Quichua Indian woman held captive for a year by a neighboring tribe. Betty and a group of others were on their way to the tribe’s settlement for the first time.

“But did you learn to love them?” Betty pressed, hoping for some sign of hope and encouragement.

Maruja shook her head. “The women, yes, but not the men. They are fierce. You cannot love them.”

Betty felt a chill run down her spine at the young Indian woman’s words.

Like Maruja, Betty’s life had been touched by the fierceness of this tribe. When Maruja was taken captive, her husband was killed—speared to death—by the attackers. And thirty-three months before, beside the very river they were about to set out on in canoes, Betty’s husband and four other missionary men had been speared to death by the same tribe. Both women understood what it was like to have someone you love taken away in what seemed to be a senseless act of violence.

Betty pondered Maruja’s words. Was she doing the right thing? After all, Maruja had spent a whole year with the tribe. She knew them better than anyone. And now she was telling Betty and her traveling companions that if they went ahead with their plan, the men of the tribe would kill them.

It was a not an easy choice. Betty felt the cold edge of fear. Yes, she had to admit there was a good chance that she could be speared to death just as her husband had been.

Yet she also felt a strange peace—almost exhilarating. This was the culmination of all Betty had worked and prayed for during the past several years. This was what her husband had given his life for. This was her destiny. She could not turn back now.

At dawn the group set out in canoes down the Curaray River, following it to the Añangu River, which they then followed upstream to the Tiwaeno River. Finally the river became so shallow the canoes could go no farther, and the travelers set out on foot through the jungle. It took them two days, but eventually, late in the afternoon, they rounded a bend in the trail, and there was the settlement, a small cluster of thatched huts set in a clearing. An Indian man, naked except for a strip of cotton cloth tied around his waist, stood on a log and watched as they approached, and several women stood at the entrances to the huts. They all stared as the group approached their village.

Betty breathed deeply as she walked past the man and into the village. Would she feel a sharp blow to her back next? She was living out one of those life-or-death tales she used to hear as a child back in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She recalled how she would sit at the dining room table mesmerized as she listened to visiting missionaries tell astonishing tales of faith in action. How far away that world now seemed.

Chapter 2
An Orderly Home

The year was 1934. Seven-year-old Betty Howard peered out the upstairs window of her bedroom in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Icicles hung off the clothesline in the backyard, and the flower garden was completely covered with a foot of snow. Since it was Saturday, Betty chose to put on her winter play clothes. Each child in the family had three sets of clothes: one for playing, one for school, and one to wear all day on Sunday.

After dressing, Betty put on her slippers and headed downstairs to help her mother fix breakfast. She was surprised to find her Aunt Alice standing by the stove, stirring a pot of oatmeal.

“Hello, young lady,” Aunt Alice said in a soothing voice. “I guess you are wondering where your parents are. They’re at the hospital getting a new baby—and during the coldest snap we’ve had in years, no less.”

Betty plunked herself down on a chair. The baby was on its way!

“I’m sure you’ve been praying for a little sister,” Aunt Alice continued.

Betty nodded. At age seven she was sandwiched between two brothers—Philip, who was ten, and Dave, who was six—and she certainly didn’t think she needed another brother.

After breakfast, the three children did their morning chores, with Betty washing the dishes and wiping the counters. Betty had just about finished her chores when she heard the sound of breaking glass. She ran to investigate and found Dave staring at a broken window in the front room. He had been playing with the window sash, which was propped up with a stick. The window had fallen suddenly, shattering the glass into a thousand pieces.

“I was trying to open it,” Dave stammered, “and it fell down and broke.”

Aunt Alice entered the room and assessed the situation. “Step away from the jagged glass, children. Dave, go and get a broom.”

Frigid air swirled around the room, and Betty gave an involuntary shudder while Aunt Alice went off to call a repairman. Unfortunately, the repairman could not come until later in the afternoon, and the temperature in the house was beginning to plummet. Betty and her brothers soon discovered that the warmest place in the house was right beside the heat register, where the three children camped out under a blanket. Now Betty wished for two things: first, that the baby would be born so that her parents could come home, and second, that the repairman would show up soon and fix the window.

Sometime around midday, the telephone rang and Aunt Alice answered it. A broad smile lit up her face as she exclaimed, “How wonderful! Thank the Lord everything went fine.”

After she hung up the phone, Aunt Alice hugged Betty. “Your prayers have been answered. You have a baby sister, and her name is Virginia Anne Howard.”

Betty smiled, though she could hardly imagine how a baby would fit into family life. Babies, Betty had observed, were noisy and unpredictable, and the Howard household was just the opposite. Everything in the house was done in an orderly, on-time manner. As Betty thought about it, she realized that her mother added adverbs to everything they did. The children weren’t just to get dressed in the morning, but they were to get dressed quickly—no daydreaming allowed. They descended the stairs noiselessly, ate their breakfast punctually and cheerfully, brushed their teeth vigorously, and tucked in their bed sheets meticulously.

Betty’s parents, Katherine and Philip Howard, lived by the same rules they expected their children to follow. In the Howard home, everything had a place, and the children were expected to return things to their proper place when they were done with them. Betty marveled that even the pencils in the pencil box on her father’s desk were all sharp and lay facing in the same direction, and the writing pads were always in perfect alignment with the corner of the desk.

Finally the repairman arrived and replaced the broken glass in the window. The children crawled out from under the blanket by the heat register as the house once again began to warm up.

Soon everything was back to normal, and Ginny, as everyone called the new baby, arrived to a warm and welcoming home. However, things at the house did not return to the way they had been before. Soon after Ginny’s arrival, a round of sickness hit the Howard household. The health department required that all houses with sick people in them display a sign forbidding anyone but the breadwinner from entering or leaving them. And so a yellow quarantine sign was hung on the Howards’ front door.

No one in the house was spared. The first round of sickness involved Betty’s father, and then Betty came down with tonsillitis. Soon after, her brother Philip contracted the measles. A woman from church was given special permission to come to the house and help Mrs. Howard with all the extra work that a new baby and three sick people produced.

No sooner had Betty recovered than she, Philip, and their mother came down with the mumps. Instead of being cooped up in bed in her room, Betty longed to be outside playing Kick the Can or building a house from leftover cardboard and old blankets. Thanks to her good imagination, she escaped the four walls of her bedroom by reading and rereading her favorite books: Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, and Sir Knight of the Splendid Way.

As the days wore on, Betty’s mother bought her a large scrapbook and several old copies of the Saturday Evening Post. Betty spent hours cutting out pictures from the old magazines and pasting them into the scrapbook. She especially liked studying the children in the Campbell Soup Kids advertisements.

Slowly the children began to recover from their illnesses, and then they all—including Betty for a second time—came down with tonsillitis. The doctor ordered that surgery be performed to remove each child’s tonsils. Betty was not worried about the operation; she was just relieved that her very sore throat would at last start to feel better.

Throughout this time, Betty’s parents tried to keep up the family routine as much as possible. Certain things, like morning and evening prayer devotions, could not be overlooked and continued with whoever was well enough to go downstairs and join in.

The Howard household thrived on routine, and devotions had been the same for as long as Betty could remember. In the morning after breakfast, the family would meet in the living room. Mr. Howard would lead the family in the singing of a hymn—a different one each morning until they had sung their way in an orderly manner through the entire hymnal. He and Betty’s mother took turns playing the piano for accompaniment as they all sang. Then Betty’s father would read a page or so from Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible, after which everyone would kneel as Mr. Howard prayed for each person in turn. Lastly, they recited the Lord’s Prayer together. Each evening Mr. Howard would read a portion of the Bible as the family sat around the dinner table.

On the days when Betty was too ill to come downstairs for meals, her father would come up to her room to pray for her in the morning and in the evening. He also always sang a hymn. Betty especially liked “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, Hear Me” and often hummed it as she drifted off to sleep.

By the time the entire Howard family was well again and the yellow sign could be taken down from the front door, it was late August. Betty was delighted to be able to go outside again and was especially glad to have some girl friends to play with. She had soon learned that although she now had a baby sister, that sister was not yet any fun to play with.

Knowing that summer would be over soon, Betty spent as much time as her mother would allow playing with her best friend, Essie. Until now, Betty had tried to do everything a good girl should do. Her father was the associate editor of the Sunday School Times and superintendent of their local Sunday school, and at home Betty heard a constant stream of Bible stories and prayers. But suddenly she was gripped with the idea of doing something really bad. She ran through the Ten Commandments in her head and came up with the idea that stealing would be the easiest way for her to have a sinful adventure.

Just as it was time to leave Essie’s house one day, Betty spotted a brand new Mickey Mouse watch on top of the bottom banister of the stairs. “Let the adventure begin!” she told herself as she snatched the watch up and put it into her pocket.

Essie came skipping down the stairs, and the two girls said goodbye to each other. Betty was elated at how easy it had been to steal something. But her elation soon faded. As she walked down the street, she took the watch from her pocket and studied it. It had a picture of a mouse on the face, with long arms that were the hour and minute hands. Three more mice at the bottom of the face showed the seconds ticking away. This was the first time Betty had ever seen a watch with a cartoon on its face, and she was fascinated by it. Then she thought about how she had acquired the watch, and she felt as though someone had just punched her in the stomach.

What have I done? Betty asked herself. Why did I steal the watch? It was Essie’s. What kind of person would steal something from a friend? She answered herself, A really, really bad person, and I don’t like that feeling at all.