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.