When Ellen Vaughn was young, she heard a friend reading a story out loud. She felt transported and transformed, seeing images and hearing truths she could not articulate. The story was C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and the experience let her know that when she grew up, she wanted to be a writer.
Today, Ellen is the author of 23 books. She served as the former vice president of executive communications at Prison Fellowship, and she collaborated with late Chuck Colson on many of his most seminal works. There is no doubt that Ellen’s childhood dream came true. And yet, after so many years of writing, her most recent book might be the one that has impacted her most.
Becoming Elisabeth Elliot is the only authorized biography of the widely famous and influential missionary, writer, and speaker Elisabeth Elliot. Her husband, Jim, went alongside four other men to reach the Waodani people of Ecuador with the gospel. Tragically, all five men were speared to death. Suddenly a widow at 29, Elisabeth was left with a 10-month-old daughter. Faced with such tragedy, most people would rightfully seek comfort in family and community. Or maybe they would uproot their lives and move far away from anything that reminded them of their grief.
Elisabeth Elliot did indeed uproot her life, but it wasn’t to run away. Instead, she moved herself and her daughter to Ecuador in order to continue the work Jim had started. This act of love and service was revolutionary to the way the Waodani understood the gospel. As Ellen puts it, “It wasn’t a verbal message. It was an incarnational message.”
Elliot went on to be a prolific author. However, in writing her biography, Ellen had access to writings the public had never seen. Elliot’s daughter Valerie still had all of her mother’s journals, and she allowed Ellen to read them. What Ellen discovered was a very real person with deep pain and struggles, contrary to the brave, stoic face Elliot wore in public.
In fact, before reading Elliot’s personal writings, Ellen wasn’t quite sure how she felt about the woman. “Elisabeth could be severe and abrupt,” she explains. “I knew I admired her, but I wasn’t sure I liked her. But as I read the private journals and saw the person she didn’t reveal to other people, I liked her a lot.”
Ellen didn’t want to write Elisabeth Elliot as a caricature, a granite figure untouchable and unrelatable. “That’s not how real life is. Look at the Bible, the great heroes there. They all had their warts, their weaknesses, their mistakes. And yet, we see the powerful way God uses broken human beings. That’s the story of Scripture, and that’s the story of this book.”
As she was writing this remarkable story about a prolific author shaped by deep loss, Ellen saw profound reflections in her own life. Her husband was facing a very rare, aggressive brain cancer. The outcome did not look promising. She was sitting in hospital waiting rooms, reading Elisabeth’s writings on Jim Elliot’s death while Ellen’s own husband was fighting for his life. He is still alive today, but their battle with cancer is still ongoing. And yet, Ellen’s perspective is surprising.
“For me, in the writing of the book was the conflation of my own life, what was happening in Elisabeth’s life, and God’s work as I’m about the journey of becoming Ellen Vaughn. We’re all on a journey of becoming, right? On this journey, I’ve probably never been more joyful at any other time in my life, even though circumstances are not particularly cheery all the time. That comes from the reality of, what is our faith really? Does it hold? For me, the reality is, ‘Yes it does.’”
On this episode of Step Into the Story podcast, Ellen Vaughn talks with Phil Tuttle about Elisabeth Elliot, radical faith, and finding joy in the hardest parts of our journey.
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