If you were Evangelical in the 1980s and 1990s, you knew about Elisabeth Elliot. She was the religion’s central teacher on sex.
What were her qualifications? She was the widow of Jim Elliot, a young missionary killed in Ecuador in 1956. She’d written his story in Through Gates of Splendor (1957), and a biography, Shadow of the Almighty (1958), each received as “classics,” as he became known as a “martyr.”
So that made her pretty close to God.
Her stance was anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-female ‘submission’, etc., but the great war of her life was against premarital sex, which she called ‘impure’. In the Bible, actually, ‘purity’ is a ritual concept—defined in reference to temple spaces, never to virginity or marital state.
But if you were Evangelical, all you knew is what she said.
For many a teenager, Passion and Purity (1984), Elisabeth Elliot’s book about her marriage to Jim, became required reading. It was God’s guide for dating and marriage. She describes him as “a real man, strong, broadchested, unaffected, friendly, and I thought, very handsome.”
But there was no hanky-panky. The Bible says to wait.
She sold the Evangelical world on their dream of controlled eroticism. She writes in Passion and Purity: “It is possible to love passionately and to stay out of bed. I know. We did it.”
You’d thrill at the romance at Wheaton, a Christian college in Illinois in 1948, when Jim asks ‘Betty’ to take a walk with him.
Out it comes.
“Come on, Bett. Don’t tell me you didn’t know I was in love with you?”
“I had no idea.”
“Really? But you must have! If you didn’t — then all I can say is you must have thought I was a pretty nice guy. I’ve been knocking myself out to be near you, be nice to you, show you how I felt without actually saying anything. You mean you didn’t notice?”
As Betty re-tells it later: “What were we to make of this tornado of passion we suddenly felt for each other?” He’s a junior and she’s a senior—about to graduate days later! Then it looks like she’ll be off to Africa, as he’ll go to South America, and be deep in the jungle, unable to marry.
There followed five years of occasional connections, mostly by letters, marked by the great Elliot themes: suffering as ennobling, waiting on divine guidance, and not having sex.
When I re-read Passion and Purity I was actually appalled at how her boyfriend/husband Jim had treated her. Here was a relationship I had idealized in my teenage years, and yet when I read the story now (especially having a psychology background), I am deeply disturbed at all the ways he led her on, criticized her, refused to commit to her, and yet spiritualized all his actions. The story somehow seemed so romantic when I was sixteen; now it seems to verge on emotional abuse and manipulation.
You took Elisabeth Elliot’s word for most of it.
In 1978, she published Jim’s journals, begun in early 1948 — or some of them. The archives page at Wheaton College notes: “In several places in Elliot’s journals, comments have been cut out.”
What’s left didn’t indicate the story she told, exactly. There’s only the barest outline of a romance, with agonized mulling about how Jim really feels about her. “How can I know my heart as regards Betts?” he writes. “I cannot.”
A reader of Passion and Purity would’ve had little idea of what Jim and Betty looked like. We get a look at him in a 1949 promo video for a new student center at Wheaton College—featuring a fake girlfriend.
His journals were mostly a lot of Bible analysis. It all seems heavy with personal meaning, but whatever it was, is hazy. He writes on Old Testament “purity” laws, saying he’s impure: “Lord, Thou must put an end to my fleshly issue. Stop it, Lord. Staunch the flow of this defilement which springs from rotten flesh.”
We could’ve used more help in understanding his story? In Shadow of the Almighty, a teenage friend is quoted: “Jim was extremely wary of women, fearing that they only intended to lure a man from his goals. ‘Domesticated males aren’t much use for adventure,’ he warned me.”
Around campus, Betty would note, there’s talk of Jim as a “woman hater”—but then he falls in love with her? The only girl he’d ever shown interest in. He only tells her about his dramatic love a few days before she’s to ship out for parts unknown.
Once they get corresponding, as Shadow notes, he writes his parents that he kind of has a girlfriend—“not on account of a fine-featured face, a shapely form, nor even on account of rare conversational powers. Of the former two she possesses little of appeal.”
He likes, he tells them, that she’s religious.
Jim was bright, devout, a leader, a star wrestler—and not too interested in women.
Dave Howard, Betty’s brother, offers his memories of Jim, his roommate and friend, in a 2002 documentary, Beyond the Gates of Splendor. “He was really a holier than thou type of guy, and dating girls? He wouldn’t touch a girl. He wouldn’t look at a girl twice. He really believed that the highest calling of God was to be celibate.”
There’s glimpses of Jim—from his senior year, when he’s recalled to have gone a little wild. He’s shirtless a lot.
Olive Fleming Liefield, in her memoir, recalls being a teenager drawn into Jim’s circle, thinking his views strange and religiously problematic. He “scorned the modern-day wedding ceremony, and had such a zealous conviction to remain single that most of his friends believed he opposed marriage altogether.”
Jim belonged to the Plymouth Brethren sect, and this isn’t how they thought. If he didn’t marry and lord it over a family as God’s chosen vessel on earth, he’d be disappointing . . . even suspicious.
After her mother died, the Elliots’ one child, Valerie Elliot Shepard, rounded up their love letters.
A few had been quoted in Elisabeth Elliot books, especially in Passion and Purity. Most hadn’t. In 2019, Shephard publishes them as Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.
Snippets of a journal kept by ‘Betty’ are also published here, with lots (and lots) of editorializing by Shepard, trying to keep the story on track. But collating the accounts, I start to wonder what the hell was going on.
Early on, Betty sees herself as “wholly set apart.” She attends a wedding, weeping for joy because she’d been given some private message from God she’d not marry—so “winning victory in that realm.”
The prospect of a romance with Jim is unsettling. She writes in her journal: “Each of us has built up a sort of code, his on Matt. 19:12, mine on 1 Cor. 7 and Is. 54. Now what about these? Have we failed? Have we lost our vision?”
Jim is citing Jesus’ teaching to be a “eunuch for the kingdom.” Her “code” from Isaiah 54 would be: “Sing, barren woman.”
But then Jim asks her to go on a walk and says he loves her. Their dialogue in parting seems less than lovestruck.
Tonight we walked out to the lagoon. Perhaps we will not be together again — ever. We don’t know about tomorrow night — should we be together? He will decide. ‘It is going to be hard . . . harder than we’d like to think.’
Not hearing from Jim, Betty writes—twice—that she “misses” him.
We know this only from Jim’s journals. I’d have to notice Passion and Purity telling a dismissive story of a woman who pursues a man in a similar way, to some mockery by the author. The man is supposed to “lead.”
Receiving Betty’s letters, we see Jim, in his journal, trying to talk himself into being “natural.”
I am learning, I think, what Billy talks of, the giving out of natural love — it wastes easily with possession. If ever I am to love her, it must be God’s love in me — my own will not last, I know. I fear that the excitement of her presence roused me to an aggressiveness in my ardor that I do not really feel.
I’m struck by the regular references to ‘Billy’, ‘Bill. C.’, i.e. Bill Cathers, a friend lurking around the edges of Elliot lore.
With the letters, we can now watch Elisabeth the writer trimming Bill out of the narrative of Jim’s life. In Shadow of the Almighty, she’d quoted his first letter to her, of October 1, 1948, with an ellipses. In Passion and Purity, she re-writes a passage into this:
What makes me tremble is that I might allow something else (Betty Howard, for instance) to take the place that my God should have. Now something tells me that I can maybe have them both.
As Devotedly reveals, the actual second sentence was: “Now something tells me that I can maybe have them both, as both you and Billy have ministered to me lately.”
The Passion and Purity transcription also removes a passage referring to another girl who’d pursued Jim. He writes: “Remember, Betty, I have already upset one girl’s life to the extent that I know that if she ever misfires in her life for the Lord, her biggest excuse for doing so will be Jim Elliot.”
In Passion and Purity, his letter seems to be arguing for holy chastity. Even as she’d printed it, however, did the letter really suggest that?
He thinks of sex, he tells Betty, as a ‘monster’.
As the letter continues:
I cannot for the life of me understand my heart. Somewhere down deep in the murky pools of consciousness, there is a great monster whom I will name ‘Want’ for just now. This is the only constant thing about me — Desire.
Jim goes on to say he and Betty must not touch anymore. “I must confess to you, Betty, that I have had regrets about going even as far as we did in our physical contact, and that was very little as most judge.”
Oddly, he quotes Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to her: “For too long hath there been a slave and a tyrant concealed in woman. On that account woman is not capable of friendship: she knoweth only love.”
The solution to the problem of a woman’s love, Jim says, is Billy’s example, as he’d been “neither a worshipper (though he loved me) nor an overlord (though he was most esteemed). We met as equal dogs at the feet of the Omnipotent. I would have it this way with you and me.”
For Jim to write to his sort-of girlfriend asking her to act more like his best friend . . . had to have been a little weird.
Jim loved that David and Jonathan thing.
He sees himself as Jonathan, the biblical prince of 2 Samuel who, out of love for a divine young man, gives up his own kingship. This is the love that “passes the love of women.”
Jim flirts with the idea of Betty as his David, but Bill was a better fit for the role. He writes in his journal:
The love of David and Jonathan (1:23–26) — felt again today for Bill C. upon receipt of a letter from him en route to China. How great shall be our fellowship in heaven! Oh, to spend eternity with such whose spirit quickens my own — makes me throb just to hear his soul’s surgings.
When Bill got a girlfriend and was fading out of his life, Jim prays for a replacement: “Lord, give me a David, I pray — one whom I can know as David knew Jonathan — ‘sweet, swifter, stronger…’”
But commenting on Betty, Jim seems self-lacerating, even panicked.
He writes in his journals, January 17, 1949. “O God, how can she desire me? Have I played the part so well that she actually thinks me worthy of woman’s love? I tremble, Lord, at what surprises she shall know when all secret thoughts of men shall be manifest.”
He returns to longing for a male companion, as in his entry on July 23, 1949: “Restless to do other things more directly related to the Lord’s work. Longing for a companion, who will be a David to me, and me his Jonathan.”
He has low periods. “Heavy and sorrowful because of my coldness, insincerity, and fruitlessness. Oh, how needy — what emptiness I feel. I am not ready to see the King in his beauty.”
The next day: “My love is faint; my warmth practically nil . . . I don’t love; I don’t feel; I don’t understand; I can only believe.”
Jim’s takes to travelling with Peter Fleming. Intending to become an English professor, Fleming was doing a thesis on Melville’s overtly homoerotic novel, The Confidence Man.
As Olive, his future wife, reconstructs Pete’s dialogue: “How can I spend my career talking about material that dwells so much on the base part of life? It is so contrary to Christian truth.”
Pete thinks he might train to become a Bible scholar. But under Jim’s influence, they decide to be missionaries — together — in Ecuador.
Jim’s correspondence with Elisabeth limps along. The tone is often cold, agonized, and sometimes hostile.
“If Betty Howard is a block of ice, Jim Elliot is a hunk of marble,” as Jim says. He calls them “brother and sister” as he returns to talk of an “aching void.”
He notes, over and over, his duty not to marry. “I feel quite confident that God wants me to begin jungle work, single,” he writes her.
She visits his parents’ home. It’s an utter disaster.
His parents hated her, Jim reports in a letter, with details on why they hate her. His mother, he reports, “thinks you uncommunicative, possessed of a ‘meek and quiet spirit,’ but a very poor maker of friends, and hence a poor prospective missionary.”
He quotes his father sizing her up: “no face, no form, a spindly dreamer who has cleverly set her cap on you, and you have bitten.”
Jim agrees with them? “I don’t write now as if they were all wrong and that you must be excused from all these charges.”
Betty replies: “I could hardly believe what I read, and I was utterly crushed by it.”
They debate whether to continue writing. He says: “My answer from the Lord about marriage is now a decided ‘no’ so long as present conditions prevail.”
In Passion and Purity, the visit to Jim’s family is mentioned only in that Jim’s mother is said to advise Betty to pressure Jim to marry. “I know these Elliot men,” she’s quoted. “They can never make up their minds. If I were you, I’d tell Jim it’s now or never.”
As Jim’s mother knows he is not inclined to marry Betty at that point, this advice would be, effectively, a prompt to break up.
Betty wants to get married, and doesn’t?
She’ll wait for whenever God gives him permission, she says. Someday in the future, they’d maybe be together?
In the meantime, she fumes: “You and Pete must be having the time of your young lives. My, what a contrast your situation is to mine!”
She has her own doubts about the relationship, writing in her journal: “My conscience (I guess it is my conscience) condemns me constantly. Somehow I cannot bring myself to do it.”
They meet occasionally. From his journal: “And then I cried, and we walked. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to explain sensibly just why it was not time for engagement.”
Jim writes love letters . . . to Jesus.
“ . . . if only I may see Him, smell His garments, and smile into my Lover’s eyes, ah, then, not stars, nor children, shall matter — only Himself.”
And he writes Betty too.
The biblical references and God-talk are so heavy that it’s never clear what anyone is really feeling or experiencing.
But many passages suggest unclear psychosexual profiles. When Betty gets to Ecuador, she sees unclothed men bathing in a river, and washing clothes. “My whole being recoils at such sights — not that I am shocked, in the sense of ‘surprised’ or horrified, but it is a shock to my nature. I cannot express just how it affects me.”
It makes her long for the Second Coming.
She bemoans: “Men here do not know the meaning of the ‘cold shoulder,’ and ogle and whoop at me.”
I find myself thinking back to some odd lines in her journals, before getting together with Jim, of her ‘struggle’, left unstated. “I cannot write it even here,” she writes. “O God, purge me, take away all desire!”
Even when Betty joins the group of young missionaries, Jim vacillates. He writes in his journal: “Spoke of engagement. She thinks I’m inconsistent, Lord, seeming to be self-contradictory so often in speaking plainly of marriage and then seeming to be so unsure about it all.”
On July 11, 1952, he writes a prayer: “Give me not to be hungering for the ‘strange, rare, and peculiar’ when the common, ordinary, and regular, rightly taken, will suffice to feed and satisfy the soul.”
This passage is quoted in Shadow of the Almighty with the average reader likely assuming that Jim is favoring simple values and tastes. The phrase “strange, rare, and peculiar” is from homeopathy, and refers to symptoms of illness which elude explanation. In The Principles and Art of Cure by Homoeopathy (1936), the phrase points to “abnormalities of the sexual functions.”
He has passages of affection for Betty. They tend to oddly feminize him. He writes in his journal on July 30, 1952:
I don’t understand what there is about loving her that makes me such a damned woman. I can hardly begin to describe it; I only know that I feel it strong and that I can’t talk of it without twists coming to my mouth. Lips get dry and tears seem to brim at my eyes, and there is a crushing sense in my chest.
In October 1953, they marry!
The new official biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, by Ellen Vaughn, tells a less romantic version of the story. The Elliot marriage happened because a job came available for a married couple. “How soon can you marry me?” Jim asked Betty.
Until that point, it might not seem like he’d wanted to marry at all. Vaughn quotes a letter by Pete Fleming: “Jim said late last night he and Betty spent more time crying than talking and it was really a heart-rending time.”
Through Elisabeth Elliot’s books, “Jim Elliot” becomes, for a generation of Evangelicals, the devoted missionary, then the ideal husband-lover—tender, godly, insisting on correct morals.
Elisabeth Elliot would remain defensive when mentioning Jim’s celibacy. In a 1983 speech, when launching Passion and Purity to a crowd of college students, she says: “It had nothing to do with being Jim’s ‘thing.’ It had nothing to do with his temperament or preferences. He really did like women.”
The Elliot superfans were not famous for scrutiny of details. “Their story of God’s provision and their commitment to purity is truly incredible; their love is the stuff of fairy tales,” writes Ann Swindell.
I ask Kimberly George how she’d wrap it up. She replies:
I remain convinced EE wrote a story for the public based on very little actual truth of their relationship. I think she was likely miserable in their dynamics, but she loved to write — her writing meant a great deal to her. I think he was emotionally abusive. And yes, not so sure either was “straight” in any conventional way…but were trying to fit into a toxic script that they then reproduced in mass through Christian media.
And that’s the love story of Jim and Betty Elliot.
That time I went a little viral
The sexuality of an Evangelical hero was interesting. Who knew?