Remembering the Other Elliots

The above photograph was taken in Yurimaguas, a port town in the Amazonian rainforests of northern Peru where Bert and Colleen Elliot ministered for over thirty years. The river depicted is either the Río Huallaga or Río Paranapura. Undated

Earlier this year, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives marked the 65th anniversary of the death of Wheaton alumnus Jim Elliot and four other American missionaries in Ecuador at the hands of Waorani tribe members in January 1956. The shocking event became an instant media sensation among evangelicals and the general public in the United States. The five missionaries—particularly Jim Elliot—were praised as examples of heroic dedication to Christian evangelism following their deaths, due in large part to the literary efforts of Jim’s widow, Elisabeth Elliot, who chronicled the now-famous story in Through Gates of Splendor (1957) and secured her husband’s place in post-war missionary mythology through the publication of his journals, Shadow of the Almighty, in 1958. The Archives’ digital exhibit To Carry the Light Further explores this fascinating narrative of missionary martyrdom through photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and diary entries held in the Archives’ collections.

The death of the five men remains a perpetually fascinating story in American evangelical circles today, and the Elliot papers are among the most popular collections in the Archives’ holdings. Archival materials relating to the other Ecuador martyrs have also found their way to the Archives over the years, adding new dimensions to the story of the Waorani. Those collections include the papers of Peter Fleming’s brother Kenneth, and widow Olive, as well as Ed and Marilou McCully. Just this year, the Archives opened Collection 721, a recent donation of papers containing significant correspondence from Jim Elliot to his parents, Fred and Clara, and their own response in the wake of his shocking death.

Bert and Colleen Elliot pose with an unidentified Peruvian Christian in Pucallpa, circa 1958.

While Jim and Elisabeth Elliot are familiar names to twentieth-century American evangelicals, much less known are the other missionary Elliots — Bert and Colleen. Like his younger brother Jim, Bert also felt called to evangelistic work in Latin America. In 1949, three years before Jim Elliot landed in Ecuador, Bert and his wife Colleen sailed for Peru, where they would serve as missionaries for over sixty years. The photographs and documents featured on this page and many others related to the Elliots’ lives and work in Peru are found in Collection 684: Papers of Herbert and Colleen Elliot. The Elliots’ correspondence alone spans over 50 years, from 1943 to 1994, and provides rich details about the rigors of missionary life and unexpected challenges of evangelistic work.

Colleen Elliot completed the Missionary Medicine program at BIOLA University in 1948, training that she put to good use in rural Peru, where access to medical care was scarce. Colleen’s correspondence to her parents and sister in the United States is filled with descriptions of setting broken bones, treating rare eye diseases, snake bites, and infections, as well as the numerous babies she delivered.

Colleen Elliot with Peruvian woman and child, circa 1959.

The photograph on the right offers just a glimpse into the quotidian realities of the mission field. Collen’s inscription on the back of the image reads: “This is the little girl who broke her arm almost a year ago in Santa Cruz and we took her to the hospital. We stopped to see her and she gave me a chicken. Her arm is well but very crooked and useless as you can see.” In her letters, Colleen also reflects on the spiritual aspects of providing medical and the opposition she faced from indigenous witch doctors who opposed both Western medical practices and the Christian gospel.

Out of necessity Bert Elliot became an amateur dentist and was frequently called upon to extract teeth, circa 1959.

During their sixty years in Peru, Bert and Colleen ministered in a variety of locations, including Lima, Lagunas, Yurimaguas, Chiclayo, Cajamarca, and Trujillo. In addition to providing rudimentary medical care in rural areas, evangelizing, and planting churches, the Elliots also founded Colegio Cristiano Elliot in 1988 to provide a Christian education for Peruvian children. Named after Jim Elliot, the Colegio still exists today and offers education based on biblical values to students from kindergarten through high school.

The following excerpt is taken from a letter written by Bert Elliot to his in-laws while traveling back to Peru after a visit to the United States, following the death of his brother Jim Elliot earlier that year. Dated May 17, 1956, the letter describes the pain of parting from family members after their furlough, and Bert reflects on the spiritual legacy he inherited from his parents and the comfort he finds in the gospel following Jim’s death.

Letter to the Collison family located in the Papers of Bert and Colleen Elliot, Box 1, Folder 10. May 17, 1956.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s