Dec. 21, 1926 – June 15, 2015
One does not surrender a life in an instant. That which is lifelong can only be surrendered in a lifetime.
Reflections on Elisabeth Elliot
David M. Howard, Jr.
June 15, 2020
I never got to know “Aunt Betty” very well personally, but I was of course proud to be related to the great “Elisabeth Elliot.” On the personal side, I loved her humor at family reunions, including her performance of “The Kindergarten Teacher” routine. And, my wife and I still use one of her famous phrases: “Y’all pray for us; we ain’t nev’r done this b’fore.” This was from a true story she told in which she was speaking at a small, country church, and the ladies’ quartet that was to sing a special number took several minutes bustling about, finding the hymnals, trying to line up in the right order, and whispering among themselves before they were ready to sing, and then prefaced their song with that statement. Classic!
I also loved hearing her play the piano and sing. At the 1988 Family Reunion, the first evening, she was playing the piano before things got started, with a few of us gathered around to listen and/or sing the hymns with her. At that reunion, she also played that funny song where she was playing the part of a small, rural church pianist and one key was stuck, so she had to play the one next to it each time, creating a discordant note each time; it was hilarious!
My most lasting memory from our cousin Kay’s wedding at the 1972 Family Reunion was an Aunt Betty moment (even if rather trivial!). It was when she was singing a solo, and a fly flew into her mouth. I remember there being a 2-3 second pause, during which time the accompanist (Aunt Ginny) had to improvise, and then she resumed singing. We kind of wondered what that pause was all about and didn’t find out till afterward that a fly had flown into her mouth; instead coughing or excusing herself in some way, she simply swallowed the fly and then resumed singing. Amazing! Shades of Ecuador!
I was only 3 ½ years old when Jim and the others were killed in January 1956, but I do remember Dad leaving us in Costa Rica for a week to be with his sister at that time. She and Val visited us in Colombia in 1958, and that was the first time I’d met her. She told us stories of the jungle, and Val taught me how to pick objects up off the floor with my toes, Indian-style. A valuable skill that I still use today!
I loved paging through her book The Savage My Kinsman when it came out; with no TV or other distractions, books were a primary means of entertainment in Colombia, and I spent hours looking through the pictures and imagining life in the jungles and among the Aucas (= “Waorani” today).
Two of her books were especially influential in my younger years, both of which I read in college: Shadow of the Almighty, the biography of Jim Elliot, and A Slow and Certain Light, the book about guidance. Both have contributed significantly to my understanding of God and to who I am today.
The Dave Howard, Sr. branch of the family probably has its own set of unique Jim Elliot and Betty stories, because Jim and Dad were best friends in college: campus leaders, both, influential in the missions emphasis at Wheaton in those days, wrestling together, on the debate team together, R.A’s together in the dorms, Jim being best man in my parents’ wedding, and more. And, my mother and Betty were good friends. In fact, Betty is the one who introduced my dad and my mom.
Dad’s marriage proposal in September 1949 to Mom is legendary in our family lore, and it involves Aunt Betty. First, some background: I’m not sure if Mom and Betty actually were roommates at Wheaton, or simply good friends, but, the year after college, they both roomed together at Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta, even sleeping in the same bed for the year. And, Betty’s formidable personality pretty much overwhelmed Mom, who lived much of her college life and PBI year quaking in Betty’s shadow. (Betty called her “Gibby”—my mom’s maiden name was “Gibson”—even throughout their adulthood. A term of endearment, perhaps, but it always seemed to me to be a bit patronizing; Mom certainly did not call her “Howie”!)
Back to the story: Mom was back home at her family’s ranch in Montana, and Dad was traveling the country for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He wrote to her, stating that he would like to come visit her, and she agreed. At this time, they had not seen each other for more than a year—and not even corresponded—because Mom and Betty graduated from Wheaton in 1948 and Dad and Jim not until the next year. So, for Mom, this was simply a courtesy visit from a friend; for Dad, coming with a marriage proposal, it was “That Moment” of a lifetime.
So, after dinner the first night, Dad suggested they take a walk. Out in the field, Dad proposed, following his father’s well-known script for such things: He told her (1) that he loved her and (2) that he wanted to marry her.
What were the first words out of Mom’s mouth at this critical moment?
Just these: “But, Dave, what would Betty think?!”
As you might guess, Dad was none too pleased to have Betty intruding on this moment, and he vigorously replied that he didn’t CARE what his sister thought, he wanted Phyllis’s answer! Since this was completely out of the blue for Mom—clueless Mom!—she took three or four days (!!) to give him his answer. Dad stayed with them for a week, so I can only imagine the awkwardness in the air during those first 3-4 days!
Since I’m in Christian work, I’ve had people over the years mention how much “Phil Howard” (i.e., Grandpa, respected editor of The Sunday School Times), Uncle Tom (a well-known Christian writer), and my dad (respected missionary statesman) have meant in their lives. But, the comments about Elisabeth Elliot probably outnumber the rest of them combined. She obviously was (and is!) famous and has had a huge impact in thousands upon thousands of people’s lives. I don’t usually drop her name, but somehow, the student grapevines in the seminaries where I have taught for almost 40 years persist down generation upon generation of students. This is because every year, I get several questions like this: “Dr. Howard, somebody said that you’re related to Elisabeth Elliot. Is that true?” When I confirm that it is, their expression changes to one of pure awe, and they immediately start telling me how much her books or speaking or radio broadcasts have meant to them. My stock in these students’ eyes rises considerably at this point! So, it’s a privilege to be related to this Great Lady.
Two personal notes: In 2000, when I was teaching at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary and she was speaking somewhere in Southern Mississippi, she and Lars drove an hour or more to meet our family at a halfway point, and we were able to introduce our daughters to her (they were 14 and 11 years old at the time). We could only find a tiny, greasy-spoon restaurant at which to meet, and so the six of us crammed into a little booth. But, the gift of that time showed her generosity of spirit, and I have appreciated the gesture—to take time away from a busy schedule to meet with two grand-nieces of hers—ever since.
Also, in my younger years, I was never completely sure how she regarded me, since I did not know her as well as many of my cousins did. But my stock rose immeasurably in her eyes when I married Jan in 1979. She was the only aunt or uncle who came to our wedding in Wheaton, bringing Grandma Howard with her. And, she loved Jan as she got to know her, and was full of compliments about her personable, exuberant personality and her gifts of homemaking and hospitality. She made a point of informing us whenever she had a speaking engagement in our town—whether in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, or the Twin Cities in the 1980’s, when I was teaching at Bethel Seminary, or the Chicago area in the 1990’s, when I was teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—and we entertained her in our home or met her in a restaurant a number of times. She raved about what a great catch I’d made in a wife…and I agreed, of course! (I tried not to let the feeling of “Now you’ve finally made something of yourself!” intrude too much in my thoughts, to be sure!)
I had the privilege of writing a tribute to her in The Wall Street Journal when she died; it was published on June 26, 2015 under the title “The Intrepid Missionary Elisabeth Elliot.” It was a privilege to know this great lady.