Living with a legacy
The bold faith of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot marked a generation of Christians, none more than their daughter
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VALERIE ELLIOT SHEPARD STOOD BY A FIREPLACE in her mother’s New England home, shifting charred wood with a poker and wondering what to do next.
Her mother’s husband, Lars Gren, had just left to run errands, promising to return by late afternoon. He’d built a fire for the women to enjoy, and Valerie fixed a pot of tea. Still, the four hours in front of them stretched as endless as the Atlantic outside the window. What could she “do” with her mother?
Valerie had grown up to the sound of typewriter keys pounding out the next best-selling book, and now there was nothing. Silence. Sure, she could read to her mother, but Elisabeth might fall asleep. She could play the piano and sing. Sometimes Elisabeth joined in on a hymn. Or maybe Valerie should just try talking, even though she might have to face an eye roll expressing boredom. But the worst reaction, Valerie knew, was no reaction—when Elisabeth clearly wasn’t present, although she was.
Just a few years earlier, Elisabeth Elliot was still touring the country, captivating audiences with the account of her first husband’s death at the hands of Waorani tribesmen in 1956. But by 2004, dementia had ravaged her mind, leaving Valerie to take up the mantle of the Elliot legacy. She’d spent her whole life preparing. But standing there by her mother’s fireplace, she wondered if she was really ready.
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot married in 1953 in Ecuador, where they were intent on evangelizing unreached people groups. Valerie was born in 1955. Just 10 months later, her father and four other missionaries landed a yellow Piper plane on a sandy riverbank deep in the Amazonian jungle. They’d recently made contact with members of the Waorani tribe, and now they prepared to meet them face to face. Two days after they did, Waorani warriors murdered all five of the young men.
That was more than half a century ago. But the Elliots’ story still resonates. And it’s still very much a part of Valerie’s daily life. A menagerie of black-and-white images, many taken in the 1950s by famed photojournalist Cornell Capa, hugs the walls of her retirement home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Valerie toddling in the Ecuadorian jungle. Valerie boarding a dugout. Valerie walking hand in hand with a Waorani. Some say Capa grew fond of Valerie’s widowed mother while capturing those scenes of missionary life among the tribesmen who murdered her husband. It’s certain that a growing number of Americans did after they saw Capa’s Life magazine spreads.
But it would take a while before Valerie understood the depth of that fondness. Even as Elisabeth’s Through Gates of Splendor gripped readers in 1957 on its way to bestseller status, mother and daughter managed to live discreetly for seven years in the jungle, and another six in New Hampshire. Valerie was 14 by the time her mother remarried, and during that happy, settled period, Christendom learned Elisabeth was available to speak. And that she was good at it.
“Things really amped up then,” Valerie says thoughtfully, careful to keep the timeline accurate. As the only child of perhaps the most famous missionaries of the 20th century, she understands the importance of being accurate. The Elliots’ story—their legacy of commitment, sacrifice, forgiveness, suffering—requires it.
Valerie is now 67, the same age as Elisabeth when she was convincing daily Gateway to Joy listeners they were “loved with an everlasting love.” On this June morning, she’s seated in a room filled with light and treasures, like the coffee table Jim Elliot carved from native wood at his first mission station in Shandia. It’s not easy to look dignified on a sectional sofa, but Valerie pulls it off. Back straight, legs crossed, hands placed gracefully one over the other near the knee. It helps that she’s tall and trim like her mother, with the same intense blue eyes, but it’s her dad’s dimples that soften her expressions. They show up in kind, easy smiles like the one that crosses Valerie’s face when she recalls it’s been seven years to the day since her mother died, and she misses her. “Mostly our talks, sipping tea,” she says, pausing at the memory. That their cups always held Earl Grey, or that the view from the Massachusetts waterfront home Elisabeth shared with her third husband was unmatched, will not surprise the average Elliot reader. The bit about a seagull that visited every day, banging on the picture window until Elisabeth brought scraps outside, might.
Valerie’s living room in Long Beach, Miss., is a long way from the New England home that shaped her—from where Valerie as a child sat listening to her Uncle Dave tell stories about her late father, teaching her about the dad she never got to know. “That he was lots of fun, loved adventure, loved to sing,” she remembers.
As a freshman at Wheaton, Valerie was a thousand miles away from her mother, but she couldn’t escape her, or even the father whose legend outlived him. On campus, she walked past the Elliot dorm, and on dates “the daughter” made guys as nervous as cats. When Valerie’s grades began to suffer, the man she still calls “Daddy,” Elisabeth’s second husband, theologian Addison Leitch, reined her in with a letter. “I really needed that authority figure, and my mother was glad he could be the dad. He was a wonderful stepfather.” Leitch’s death from cancer the next year hit hard. For Valerie, it was a big lesson in the sovereignty of God. For her mother, it was Round No. 2. Maybe that’s why Elisabeth didn’t think Valerie should return for the funeral, a decision Valerie still laments today.
Walter Shepard entered the picture during that grief, and in time the young seminary student won Elisabeth’s blessing and a bride with a singular pedigree. The week before the wedding, Elisabeth presented the couple with a set of sterling silver flatware and a copy of her latest project, Let Me Be a Woman. This was 1976. The women’s liberation movement was roiling, and Elisabeth wanted to provide her daughter with a Biblical response to it. All these years later, Valerie still seems struck by the thought that her mother would write a book especially for her. “I think it was an amazing wedding gift. I had no idea she was working on it.”
In the absence of Jim Elliot, Elisabeth’s brother, Tom, walked Valerie down the aisle and into her new role as a pastor’s wife. When she joined Walter at his first church, Valerie says, she went in thinking she couldn’t be herself. She and her family had to be an example because of who her parents were. That struggle intensified through the years, eventually affecting her marriage. “I was all about changing my husband until one day Walt said to me, ‘Val, I’m never going to be an Elliot. … You’re going to have to accept me as a Shepard.’” Valerie says that got her attention, but it was another five years before she really understood the problem behind her desire for a flawless family. The Shepards were living in California, and discouragement had Walter wanting to quit the ministry. A study in Galatians helped them change course. The couple realized they had placed her parents on the top rung of a spiritual ladder, with everyone else trying to climb up to their disciplined and holy level. “We thought God was more pleased with them than us, but we came to understand we’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. It’s about Jesus and not how holy we look.”
Humbled, Valerie says she had a new spirit of grace toward her children and a new honesty with women in their congregation. Even her mother noticed. When Elisabeth expressed concern that she may have contributed to Valerie’s bent toward legalism, her daughter wouldn’t let her take the blame. She knew the truth. It’s everybody’s bent.
But Elisabeth apparently went to lengths to avoid the appearance of legalism. While Walter pastored Presbyterian congregations, the kind that catechize, Valerie as a child only quoted the 23rd Psalm. Elisabeth wasn’t big on showy recitations, and she didn’t teach Valerie about hard theological concepts like predestination, although she believed in it. Even so, Valerie says she did absorb theological truths from Elisabeth—through prayers on the nights her mother was home, during their talks, watching her day-to-day testimony: “My mother’s trust in the Lord and her teaching me that God was in charge, that’s what I learned from her.”
Valerie learned much from Jim Elliot by reading Shadow of the Almighty, a book she admits overwhelmed two of her sons. In it, they saw a grandfather who was far out of their reach with a zeal they did not possess at the time. Few do. Still, as the Shepards’ children aged, most of them preferred to keep their lineage hush-hush when they went to a new school. They’d sit incognito at conferences to avoid the attention—the fawning—that came along with their famous connections.
By this time, Valerie had her own speaking schedule, appearing at colleges, churches, even on television programs. She hints at disappointment over her children’s reluctance to embrace their remarkable heritage, and she wonders if she spent too much time away, telling others about what happened in Ecuador. “Maybe they resented that,” she muses. But two daughters have come to share her enthusiasm for the platform, and they’re happy to address interested audiences. The question is, how long will interest in the Elliots last? Even Valerie once confided to her mother she was concerned about telling the same story over and over again. Elisabeth had concise counsel on the ready: That’s the story God gave you to share.
Moments like that make clear Valerie didn’t just inherit a legacy, she lived alongside one—the kind that not only gave wise advice but also possessed the drive to answer hundreds of fan letters a month. By hand. Still, Valerie knows her mother wasn’t perfect, and that she never claimed to be. In 2019, Valerie wrote a book about a part of her parents’ lives missing from other publications—their five-year, long-distance courtship. In the dedication to Devotedly, she lists each of her children, including namesakes Elisabeth and James, and she quotes from Jim’s journal: “Mayhap, in mercy, He shall give me a host of children.” Surely Valerie’s eight qualify. Once, however, Elisabeth wasn’t thrilled to hear of another Shepard pregnancy. She got as far as a plane headed home before she wrote her daughter a letter apologizing for her reaction to the news. “She just thought it was too much work for me. She was very protective,” Valerie explains. That doesn’t mean Elisabeth didn’t enjoy her grandchildren, or that they didn’t relish the summer weeks she’d host them, three or four at a time. The kids knew the drill. Elisabeth spent mornings in her study and afternoons with them exploring the coastline’s crags and tide pools. The same held true when “Granny” visited them. She had lessons to write, and sometimes 30 recording sessions in a week. But Elisabeth brought a story—a true, funny one—to every meal.
Valerie says she never expected her mother to be the kind of woman who takes her grandkids to Disneyland. It was Elisabeth’s practicality she counted on, like when Valerie went into labor with her firstborn, and more than two hours lay between the manse and New Orleans General Hospital. Elisabeth’s training for jungle deliveries kicked in, and she grabbed scissors and twine before climbing into the backseat of Walter’s truck. She was much the same when that baby turned 18. No car keys for a gift, but Elisabeth made sure he, and all his siblings, could go to college debt-free.
That’s the Elisabeth her fans assume they know, not the one Valerie recalls getting flustered under a portable hair dryer when guests surprised her or scooting down the streets of Franconia, N.H., in her VW. Valerie has always been measured with the pictures she paints. Enough, but no exposé. Still, some readers expressed surprise at her decision to include in Devotedly intimate portions of her parents’ love letters, like Jim’s scoffing at Elisabeth’s “militant morality.” Valerie’s response? Don’t place her parents on a pedestal. “The physical longing was, to me, just real. Readers need to see that they were real people.”
Real enough to die with dementia. In sharp contrast to Jim Elliot’s sudden spearing death, his wife began a slow descent in 2002, even though her family wouldn’t know exactly what to call it for another two years. Against that backdrop, Elisabeth continued to keep a speaking schedule, relying more and more on manuscripts, and less and less on eye contact. She quoted Amy Carmichael’s “in acceptance lieth peace” to her loved ones, and “He knows the way through the wilderness” to herself, even as it became more and more like a wilderness in her mind. The Shepards were living in Africa when Elisabeth would call and forget where they were, and why. Valerie and Walter would exchange glances and wonder the same thing. Maybe they shouldn’t have taken the mission assignment. Maybe they should have stayed near Elisabeth and her husband, but they had no idea they were buckling up for a 15-year journey with the disease.
By 2008, the Shepards had returned to the United States. They prayed hard that Walter could secure a job in Massachusetts that would allow them to live near Elisabeth and Lars, but that was not to be. And for the first time in two hours of heavy reflection, Valerie tears up. “I’d go to see her every few months and stay a week.”
It was on one of those visits that Lars spent the afternoon running errands, leaving Valerie to face the prospect of her once vibrant mother’s vacant stare.
“I just thought I couldn’t do four hours with that happening,” she says. “But as I stood there, the phrase ‘In acceptance lieth peace’ came, and I realized the Holy Spirit was reminding me that I needed to accept the fact that my mother had dementia.” So she did. After fighting her mother’s prognosis for seven years, Valerie sat down in peace. Her nightly prayers for a miraculous healing ceased, and her belief that Elisabeth was in God’s hands deepened. Whether she lived or died, whether she stayed in her own home or went to a nursing home, He would take care of her.
The Shepards were asleep at their home in North Carolina when a call jarred Valerie awake. Elisabeth’s condition had changed. For the next two hours, Valerie and Lars and the night shift’s caregivers sang hymns in her mother’s ear. Even the family’s other Elisabeth, Valerie’s oldest daughter, joined in from the U.K., making it through all five verses of “Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners” while her grandmother, quiet and still, listened.
It would later take a cousin’s acumen to point out the irony in the timing of Elisabeth Howard Elliot Leitch Gren’s death. Elisabeth had routinely started writing at 6:15 every morning, just after completing devotions that started at 5:00. She died at 6:15 on the morning of June 15, 2015.
“How punctual,” the cousin said. “Aunt Betty would have loved that.”
The couple that together parented Valerie for less than a year left a sizable footprint for their daughter to manage. Elisabeth’s syndicated radio show ran more than a dozen years, and Through Gates of Splendor spawned two documentaries. Then there are some 30 other books Elisabeth wrote. And Jim Elliot’s published journals. Piles of their letters. Audio files. A trunk of collectibles from Ecuador. Since her mother’s funeral, it’s been up to Valerie to decide what goes to the Wheaton archives and what to keep as family heirlooms. Is she done?
Not really. Author Ellen Vaughn has all the personal papers needed to write Elisabeth’s authorized biography. Valerie and Lars share the copyrights to the other books, and Valerie must continue to tune in to the Elisabeth Elliot Foundation’s monthly board meetings.
An extra bedroom in the Shepards’ coastal home is painted a stormy gray. Valerie takes me there to see her grandmother’s antique writing desk and a shelf lined with books by her mother’s favorite writers—Amy Carmichael and George MacDonald. In blank pages at the back of the MacDonald novels, Elisabeth’s scrolling penmanship defines terms the author is prone to use, her own glossary of the old Scottish brogue. Valerie shakes her head at the sight of such an endeavor. She is not made that way. She is no glossary maker.
The few photographs Valerie has of herself during the months before her father’s death decorate an adjacent wall. They’re yellowed, but Valerie has heard they can be retouched, restored. She plans to undertake that project soon, maybe after the family vacation in Kissimmee, Fla., with all the Shepard children, spouses, and grands. Valerie walks over to a frame and points to a photo in the top right corner. It’s her at the crawling stage, less than a year old, playing alone on a sandy bank along a Quichua river. For a moment, the Elliot heir stares at the picture, then she turns around to furnish a final memory: Elisabeth always believed the photo was taken the day her husband died.
Ah. But Valerie does not relate this as some might, with sadness or a question of what might have been. Instead, she extends perspective: “I was protected and cared for by the Father of orphans, as well as a mother who was kind and wise, even lots of fun. I continue to be thankful for my parents. We all can.”
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