Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) and the Rise of Extreme Evangelicalism

In the evangelical world in which I was born and raised, Elisabeth Elliot (who died on June 15) and her husband Jim Elliot were modern day saints. Being of the Protestant persuasion, we didn’t believe in saints the ways those Catholics did, and though we believed in supernatural power we didn’t ever expect humans to be the performers of miracles.

No, this evangelical sainthood was, ironically, one of works, of human effort. Miracles would just muddy the holy water.

In 1956, Elisabeth’s husband Jim, along with four other young men, were killed by the very Waorani people of Amazonian Ecuador to whom they had come to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of their modern day martyrdom was told in Ms. Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor, published the following year. Copious copies of the book have sold for the past half century and it was ranked number 9 in the “Top 50 Books the Have Shaped Evangelicals” by Christianity Today, alongside works by C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Schaffer, and Rick Warren.

Her influence is well noted in her obituary by Kate Shellnutt at Christianity Today.

Through Elliot’s book, evangelicals latched on to the deaths of these five young men, and their story became a galvanizing force for keeping the faith, and perhaps for inspiration to get up and go. Gates of Splendor continues to be evoked in books, songs, and videos (see here and here).

For many though, the real miracle occurred when Elisabeth Elliot returned to the Waorani two years after her husband was killed, along with her and Jim’s three-year old daughter. They stayed several years, made themselves something of a home, and even converted a number of the Waorani. The evangelical conversation about Elliot and the five who died before her evoked their commitment to God—though the language of “adventure” was woven through this rhetoric.

In the Victorian culture of the nineteenth century, a movement arose called “muscular Christianity,” which involved evangelism through sport programs, but also celebrated a certain perfection of the human (typically male) body through athletic endeavors. A century later muscular Christianity evolved into what I would call extreme Christianity, which is firmly located in the evangelical segments of the tradition. The tag “extreme” is now ubiquitous: there are extreme sports Christians, extreme Christian clothes, and teen extreme youth camps, among others. But there is something here beyond sales and marketing.

Muscular Christianity was about developing a muscular and masculine body that could protect and serve. Extreme Christianity is about pushing the individual body to its limits, with experiences marked by daring and adventure. If muscular Christianity finds its apotheosis in the team sport of basketball, extreme Christianity’s key example would be solo rock-climbing (Royal Robbins was the first to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome in 1957).

What I mean by extreme Christianity goes beyond sports per se. Extreme Christianity is about the mission field itself as a chance to put the body to the test. Just how treacherous was the mission field became the measure of one’s faith. Fulfilling the Great Commission meets adventure travel.

It was in the mid-twentieth century that the switch from muscular to extreme occurred, as the global expansion of U.S. power aligned with the rise of Billy Graham (his famous New York City crusade was in 1957), the founding of Campus Crusade of Christ (1951), and other evangelical groups aiming to fulfill the Great Commission. Elliot’s story emerged at the center of the wave of these movements.

As global capitalism began to make middle-class life more and more comfortable, something was needed shake people out of their settled religious ways.

Human effort, to the point of imperilment of one’s own body, was required for someone to become a modern day saint. Elliot stirred many, as she told about the extreme measures the mission field required.

Being a missionary—bringing the message of Jesus Christ to all nations—might not just be a job, it might be an adventure.

  • GeniusPhx

    Christians brag about the spread of christianity among the rice farmers of china and the back woods tribes of Africa while back home (where people are educated) christians are dropping out like flies. Pilgrims tried and failed to convert American Indians to christianity (Indians didn’t speak English) so they slaughtered them by the tens of thousands and ran the rest onto reservations where Catholics set up schools to make sure they converted. After the Edict of Milan made christianity the official religion of Rome all other religions were banned. Pagan temples/idols were destroyed and convert or die was the message.
    Judaism was spread by force after the first commandment was written and christianity was spread by extreme christian force in the 5th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries here (not counting the crusades). Islam is spreading by force now.
    Religion has never just caught fire because it was so great or made perfect sense.

  • Judith Maxfield

    This pile of words just show that if its in print it must be true. What form of history is this? From the 8th grade I would guess.Does your user name indicate how you see yourself?

  • lorasinger

    Except that that “pile of words” is true. This “form of history” is what your church doesn’t tell you.

  • lorasinger

    Religion “caught on fire” through censorship and murder, not love and kindness, and that is the unvarnished history.

  • Judith Maxfield

    You have a selective memory of facts that would suggest prejudice and a lack of historical depth. Believe what you will but that puts you in the same camp of the wild-eyed conservatives you (I guess) distain. You havn’t a clue about “my” church and the responsibility it does take on about the past. Know your position better before speaking.

  • lorasinger

    The mouse that roared!
    Not knowing much except what ever your church teaches you isn’t an excuse for calling names or making assumptions about what I know. What you’ve been fed over the years, no matter what Christian church you attend, has been selectively altered, edited and molded to hide the warts and bad breath. Your church got to the top through murder and censorship, along with forgery both of documents written and the production of entirely forged documents like the Donation of Constantine. It made heretics of those who didn’t deserve to be called so and heroes of those who were equally undeserving. For gosh sakes, read something outside of what your preachers who call themselves historians feed you. A true historian isn’t a preacher. A preacher can never be a true historian.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Its most likely your ancestors s well as mine engaged in the things you are referring to. State “religions” have nothing to do with the earliest Christianity. But what about now? How unhelpful to use the past to place blame. Your language here is born of emotion, not reason and you know it. It is not the full story and seems extremely personal. You know nothing of my church and you don’t bother to ask questions. To me this is another form of fundamentalism so you don’t have to bother with th rest of us. So here ends the discussion. Im not going to anymore. Believe whatever you will.

  • lorasinger

    State religion began with the RCC in 385AD, Judith. And the RCC was the very first official Christian church, having pushed all other schisms of Christian thought under and declared them heretics, including the Jerusalem “Christians” under James (Ebionites). Paul’s version of Christianity is what all Christian churches inherited from the RCC. You may call it whatever you want, Judith. What it is, however, is the unvarnished and demythologized history that your church doesn’t tell you about and if you want that, then you must read Eisenman, Ehrman, MacCoby, Moss, Ellerbe and other actual biblical scholars to whom truth trumps dogma.

  • Judith Maxfield

    One more time: I know this stuff more than you could know of me – and didn’t ask. Again, my church is self critical and teaches the full history. You just don’t seem to want to hear it. You don’t need to lecture me and of course will not admit to the full history. I am very cafeful about what I read and don’t read those with axes to grind. This is the last response – really. Dont like your attitude and bias.

  • lorasinger

    The Dark Side of Christian History (Ellerbe)
    Beyond Belief; Two thousand years of bad faith in the Christian Church – (J. McDonald.)
    The Mythmaker (MacCoby)
    .
    You have made your analysis of me and, of course, you’re wrong. If you choose to remain ignorant of actual facts, then it’s your choice. Sad!

  • Judith Maxfield

    1. When you state claim that “your” church is lying to you, you then set up an inferrence that one must be pretty stupid to put up with that.
    a. I was taught in H.S. school english not to make generalizations in taking a position.
    b. I don’t like being lectured at with obvious biases.
    c. With strong positions, one had better do some research and then check the source of the researchers and take in account their possible biases.
    2. I am a graduate of the U. of CA and thus a serious history buff with a hugh library of mostly European history, art history, and Philosophy after the 19th C. Before I purchase a book I check into the background and credentials of the author. I know too fully the horrors of feudal and state religion in Europe and the Middle East. I also know of the “good” history of those whose worked to protect the people from those horrors, the ones who went quietly and meekly about without power and glory. The half history stuff may not account for saints like Bonhöffer, Bishop Romero, Martin L. King, the assinated nuns of Salvador, and many unnamed others who stood for the poor.
    3. MY church, the Episcopal Church has its past, mainly during the division between the North and South in th Civil War over slavery. Today the church does not flinch from historical truth and is widely known – and accused by the conservatives – forr its work in social justice issues here and around the world. Recently TEC was a awarded official recongition by the U.N. the power to speak up anytime on behalf of indigenous peoples. (These reps are themselves indigenous.)
    4. I noticed a wealth of recommended books from you on the same subject. I checked on Erhmann and see he has an evangelical slant and is from seminaries / colleges that have their own severe prejudices and lack respect from other scholars who should be their academic peers. I would not bother with his books.

  • lorasinger

    By saying “your church”, I mean any Christian church including the Catholic since they all stem from the teachings of Paul and his man god. In this case, there can certainly be generalization since all of them are based on a God/virgin union that produced a sacrificial man god who died for sins of mankind and was resurrected. All churches share that first thousand years or so of history and their battles were over the trimming that they invented over the years and which version was to be the orthodox.
    .
    Certainly all churches have had their ups and down over the years but it is the very early formation of the church that interests me and in that, all churches have this in common. Erhman is no longer an evangelical. Like many others, exposure rendered him immune. Others are Jewish scholars and for this reason, because they have the original unedited copy of what we call the OT, and a history in the first years even of Christianity, I give them the biggest credence. Eisenman is also excellent because of his involvement with the DDS. MacCoby is a favorite as well. Rabbi Stuart Federow gives me a clear picture of Jewish beliefs, traditions and history and from that I can peel what is Christian accretion from that was possible in that time. For that reason I stay away from modern preachers who masquerade as historians.

  • Judith Maxfield

    So keep on with your interest in th past. Its helpful. I prefer to look to the problems we have now in present time. Certainly there are events/issues that are still alive and not faced. Those churches I am not responsible for. Of course stay away from preachers who pretend to be more than they should. BTW: general use of the term preacher is not part of the language in my church, which may point to another problem all together of a disconnect and lack of proper theological education. It really scares me about the American evangelicals and their selfi inventions of the Gospel. For fun check out the Moody Bible and its college in Chicago. He wrote his own interpretation of scripture and many people swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. I don’t blame people who hunger for love and a hopeful life, but the flim-flam merchants of false and cheap belief I do. Only in America.

    P.S. I’m going to check out the statement above of Paul. He is mainly connected to the church of Rome and Europe. There were other original churches from the first C., the Coptic and the Eastern Orthodox who might not agree with Rome’s claim as the official and only Church. I’ve read the Syrian branch of the Eastern Churches (no pope for them) use the Koine language, (and written), the original Greek of the N.T. scriptures. Also their liturgy is the closest to the original churches in the M.E. Now thats amazing.
    BTW: What is the DDS?

  • lorasinger

    Paul originated Christianity in roughly 60 AD, 30 years after Jesus was already dead. He never met Jesus nor did he study under the apostles. He broke with the apostles at Antioch and based on his own revelations came up with the basis of Christianity today. Christianity grew and organized in Rome becoming legal in 325 AD under Constantine and the state religion in 385 under Theodosius. Helen Ellerbe covers the Schism that created the eastern and western churches in “The Dark Side of Christian History”.
    .
    DDS= Dead sea scrolls.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I really do know about this. However, I disagree about Paul’s beginning date and ownership. He did not start Christianity. His letters refer to churches already there but maybe struggling. Importantly, established scholars agree the year 40c.e. (or very close to it) can reasonably be established through a combination of Paul’s own references to events,
    facts-on-the- ground and other clues in history. The year 60 is too late.

    BTW: Howcome I cannot find any reference to Ellerbe’s biography online? Plenty on buying her (?) books but not only any bio, but at least one independently written which would be preferred. That not a good sign.

  • lorasinger

    This is what Jews believe – As you will see, Pauline Christianity does not come from Judaism, so where does it come from. It’s closest resemblance is Mithraism or the worship of Dionysus – all Greco Roman men gods. There are no men gods in Judaism, nor virgin birth. There was no Christianity of this kind in the time of Jesus. What we call “Jerusalem Christians” is a misnomer. They were all practicing Jews who believed that Jesus was the fully human messiah of Jewish prophecy. Those people went on to be led by James and Peter and in about 70 AD, very little is heard of them. Eisenman believes they are the Ebionites that the RCC labeled as heretics and killed off.

    One Person cannot die for the sins of another.

    A blood sacrifice is not required for forgiveness of sins.
    Jesus was not the messiah. He failed to prove himself. The Jewish messiah was not to die for sins, but to live, rule, lead and establish a dynasty like David did.

    God hates human sacrifices and forbids them.

    People are born pure and without original sin.

    God is one and indivisible – with no parents, siblings or offspring.

    God does not become human and humans do not become God.
    …………….
    The first mention of Paul’s writings came on the scene in 70 AD and the gospels after that.
    ………
    Ellerbe is a researcher and writer. I don’t know if she’s written a whole lot of other stuff but the bibliography shows that she’s done an awful lot of research for this. Her book is on Amazon and generally there is a short biography along with reviews on that site.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Not all Jews. This is crazy making to me. But Ok, i’ll keep reading if you want to keep this up. May I suggest “Christ Actually” by James Carroll, a very trusted source whose focus is us respecting Jesus as a Jew in a Jewish homeland and what the catastrophe of the Holocaust means for any religion’ future.. He mentions a Jewish scholar at Berkeley we should know about in this discussion. (Look up online, name is like Boyerin, don’t have time to get corrected name He is online)

  • lorasinger

    Yes, Judith. Every practicing Jew believes that. It’s all in the Torah, the first five books of the bible. Every supporting verse is available from Jewish rabbis. There is a very good book by Rabbi Stuart Federow called Judaism and Christianity; a contrast. Very informative. Not preaching – just comparing. As well, you can go to “Outreach Judaism” which is geared toward Jews who are not well aquainted with their own faith”. It’s not really for non-Jews but it provides a good insight into their beliefs as compared to Christianity. Or you can go to “What Jews Believe” on the net.
    .
    I will check out “Christ Actually” on Amazon. It’s a good source for reviews and for background on authors. I have a kindle which I read the books on at first and then order hard copy of those books that are “keepers”.

  • Judith Maxfield

    You are too confusing right now. If we are talking about the Ebonites being lost Christians, we are talklng about a time period distinctly way after the Torah was first in script. So maybe I don’t understand you.

    Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself so I don’t make assumptions? I am a committed Christian but not a believer in fairy tales or magic. I’m in a healthy church that beautifully respects human life – but here on Earth, not in some far off Supernova. I cannot afford to buy books and am extremely selective anyway. I fully use my brains and right now as a near poverty artist I am intersted in certain bad boy philosophers that can work ideas into my art. I need to start selling again and I don’t paint boring and easy to sell flowers and picket fences. For theology I use Youtube stuff. I am interested in why people think the way they do, especially between richard Dawkins and the Anglican Church in conversation – very civil. They actually listen to the other voice – not like here in the U.S. Try it.

  • lorasinger

    After the death of Jesus, his brother James became the leader of the apostles. Paul joined the group after his conversion. He had neither met Jesus nor studied under the apostles. The party of the circumcised headed by James preached to Jews who had lost their faith. Paul was found to be preaching a line of doctrine unlike the others and was brought back to Antioch to explain the accusation that he was teaching his converts to turn their backs on Moses law. This was found to be true and he called on Roman soldiers to protect him, revealed that he was a (hated) Roman citizen, after which he returned to Rome.It is his doctrine that became the Christianity of today. The James gang eventually went on to be called Ebionites who were declared as heretics by Paul’s group when it became powerful enough.
    ..
    Not much to say about myself. Whether or not there is a God, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does for sure. Christianity was left behind about 15 years ago. I looked to Josephus for support for the life of Jesus (I had assumed there would be lots of literature from that time) and found there was none to be found there or anywhere except as later hearsay. I then became interested in strictly the history. I’m aware of their beliefs but view them the same as I would any other religion – only for interest sake as secondary to the events. So I’ve been stuck in ancient history for some time. As far as beliefs go, the so-called golden rule does nicely for me.
    .
    It’s good that you have that talent. I let mine go because when I started out, an intention to become an artist was met with “but what are you going to do for a living?” I envy you and wish I’d done the same thing.

  • Judith Maxfield

    The art is my avenue to a very spiritual life that cannot be shared because people think you’re either really crazy or hallucinating. Now I know why some famous artists needed to live a solitary life or drink a lot. I found in my 50’s a form of philosophy that actually works in the American more liberal version of the Anglican Church, where the arts, education and music is a major part of the teaching and practice. The idea of a god is OK with me. I see “it” as beyond the verb “be” which we usually hear as material or physical existence. I don’t get the scientists who only want material proof. That leaves out half of our human experience. The only god worth anything is one of love and reconciliation,connecting us with this force of something beyond our language and belief. The struggle should be encouraged to move past the material. We’ re capable but afraid to let go and enter that door. My struggle with art is my way of going through the door to another level of experience and answers, to be fully human as my church says so well.

  • lorasinger

    Years ago, I was doing a charcoal portrait of a couple. The man was ok but I felt like I was reading into the woman’s personality and all the while I was doing her, I was disliking her. I could actually feel what she was like. Later, I met her for the first time and she was exactly what I felt about her. Have you ever “read” your subject?

  • Judith Maxfield

    Well, maybe yes. I do not paint from physical objects normally. With age and I hope some wisdom, I am more interested in ideas and reality that come from within, what comes from the heart, i.e. intuitive, creative, the Holy Spirit that can open up existential questions of how we live and what we care about. The vision comes out in mixed media and oil, often very large in size. To answer you question, it is a visual language that reads into our experiences. Those who like my work often tell me what they see and it turns out to be what i meant. Its not literal, but trying to provide a way to live in uncetainty where we may not have the answers until we are ready to grow into the possible answers. I’ve been surprised to find out many artists I admire say they experience the sacred in their work. I do too. Right now the current work seem to address the environment, very textural and minimum color of natural hues, black, and white.

    To end, I’ve been amazed to see that my art always addresed a god I didn’t know but now i do. The struggle was well worth it. I’m now free to investigate everything past all the rules I learned in art classes. They were the toolbox but not the end. Does that ring any bells of religion and St. Paul ? What goes around comes around to full circle. Thanks for asking.