A Christian Feminist Remembers Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)

By Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Elisabeth Elliot

So many memories flashed through my mind last week when I learned of Elisabeth Elliot’s death.

I thought back to the first time I heard about the five missionaries who had gone missing while attempting to reach a remote tribe in Ecuador—a tribe considered mysterious and dangerous. The bodies of the missionaries were found later, some with spears through their backs.  One of the men was Elisabeth’s first husband, Jim.

I was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago at the time, and I remember the somber atmosphere throughout the school, the gatherings for prayer, the new resolve among the students, many of whom were studying to be missionaries themselves. I rushed to a newsstand to buy the January 30, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine, which had a ten-page photo spread about the sad event. The story was headlined, “‘Go Ye and Preach the Gospel’—Five Do and Die.”

Elisabeth’s account of the tragedy was told in her book, Through Gates of Splendor, which was published a year later. In 1958, her second book appeared. I read this one as eagerly as I had read the first. Shadow of the Almighty: The Will and Testament of Jim Elliot drew upon her husband’s journals and letters to portray his short life of dedication to God.

In her 1961 coffee table book, The Savage My Kinsman, Elisabeth told in photos and text the story of her own efforts to share God’s message of love with the very people who had killed her husband, learning their language and living among them with her young daughter (who had been 10 months old at the time of her father’s death).

During those years, I purchased every book Elisabeth Elliot wrote, and each time I looked forward to the next one. Like many women of my generation, I considered her a role model, an example of what a strong, intelligent, confident, courageous Christian woman could be. (Years later, when I met Nancy Hardesty, I would learn that she, too, had felt the same way about Elisabeth during her college years and young adulthood.) In the evangelical culture of the time, when women were expected to be subordinate helpers in the background, missionaries could be viewed as leaders in a way other women could not. But even among missionaries, few women attained the stature of “Betty” Elliot, as she was then widely known.

Controversy and Correspondence

Elisabeth Elliot - No Graven ImageWhen Betty returned from South America to the United States, she settled in a small village in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Besides authoring books, she wrote articles for various Christian periodicals, and I read every one of them that I could find.

In 1966, she wrote her first novel, No Graven Image. The book jacket described it as “a novel of a young American missionary in the high Andes—and how her faith was tested by circumstances and tragedy.” Suddenly, all the admiration and adulation from within the evangelical world seemed to dissipate, and controversy swirled around the very mention of her name. Why? I wondered. Hadn’t Elisabeth’s own life demonstrated a “faith tested by circumstances and tragedy”?  Why would her novel be condemned?

But scathing criticism of the book spread rapidly, and she became a persona non grata in some circles for several years. Speaking invitations stopped. Church libraries that had prominently featured her earlier nonfiction books refused to add this book to their shelves.  She was accused of demonstrating “a faith turned sour,” of becoming bitter and pessimistic. Her honest questioning in the book was viewed as disillusionment and confusion.  One reviewer said that no one would be edified by her book.

Readers were also writing to her privately and telling her that her book “left them cold.”  The fact that her book didn’t have a happy ending—that God didn’t “come through” in the way readers wanted and expected—caused many to blame the author and accuse her of discouraging young people from going into Christian service. The book didn’t fit neatly into the formulaic view of God that their evangelical faith had taught them.

I liked her novel tremendously and thought the harsh attacks were both unfair and uncharitable. So I decided to write her a letter of encouragement.

It was the beginning of a correspondence and friendship that spanned the period from October 1966 to November 1976, when our philosophical differences over gender equality (what was then called simply “the woman question”) pulled us too far apart to continue the conversation.

My First Letter to Elisabeth

But in 1966, my only concern was for Elisabeth’s feelings as she faced the unsparing condemnation of her novel and the cruel verbal attacks on her ideas and her very self. I didn’t have a postal address, so I simply addressed my letter to “Mrs. Elisabeth Elliot, Franconia, New Hampshire.” I figured the town was small and she was well-known so would surely receive the letter.  She did. And she responded just a few weeks later, thanking me “from [her] heart” and saying that I had read her “loud and clear” in what she was trying to say about “the nature of faith and God Himself.” She said she found it “awfully depressing” that so many people were judging the author and completely missing the point of the book.

I’ll include here part of what I wrote about the book in that first letter. (And to my present readers who may be troubled by the non-inclusive language, please remember this was written in 1966!). I said:

I think it’s very difficult for many evangelicals to imagine even remotely that “the work” itself can become an idol, that the tangible result in which we glory can actually become a graven image, that serving the Lord can detract from worshiping Him and loving Him. It’s so easy to become wrapped up in doing what’s “expected” of one, to desire success and recognition and results and never recognize it for the “worldliness” it is. Your book should be a shock treatment to many in this regard.

I said that many Christians accepted unquestioningly, “all facets of the thinking, methods, emphases, and emotions which make up the subculture of evangelicalism” and those who did  raise questions were  branded as rebels and condemned for disturbing the status quo. Thus, persons genuinely hungry for God could easily become disillusioned by so much of what was spoken and done in the name of Christianity. “No Graven Image shows what it’s like to pass through such disenchantment,” I said.

I continued:

Far from “hurting the cause of missions” as some may imagine, I think your book’s realistic description of missionary work has much to say to modern youth who above all else cry out for honesty  and aren’t afraid to evaluate the time-honored methods held sacred by their elders, nor are they afraid of challenge. The usual presentation of missions may not seem convincing to today’s young people who are well aware of world conditions and problems; but many of them seem quick to respond to openness, frankness, and genuineness. Yet, a picture of missions (or any other kind of Christian work) which doesn’t seem to show “instant success” upsets many people.

Near the end of my letter, I referred to one of Elisabeth’s magazine articles that had, like her books, made a deep impression on me.

Your writings have meant a great deal to me spiritually and have provided encouragement and challenge for my own writing. I found particularly helpful your guest editorial, “The Secret of Christian Creativity,” in the October 1964 issue of Eternity, and every once in a while I read it over again. I hope you’ll continue to write many more articles and books which will stab Christians awake and make us think and face reality. —Excerpted from Letha’s letter to Elisabeth, Oct. 13, 1966).

The Correspondence Continues and a Friendship Develops

Elisabeth’s response was so gracious and her gratitude so real that I decided to write a second and much longer letter (Nov. 21, 1966). In that one, I interacted specifically with a number of the ideas she had presented in No Graven Image as well as in various magazine articles. I expanded on my appreciation for her novel and its willingness to question the way evangelicals so often seemed to think they had figured out everything about God and God’s workings in the world.

Elisabeth Elliot - Who Shall AscendIn that letter, I referred again to Christians and creativity and spoke about a Joe Bayly column from Eternity magazine in which he had asked readers for their opinions on why there was a dearth of creativity in evangelical circles. I suggested that four of the reader responses could be applied to the negative reactions to her book. “The more I’ve been thinking about this whole matter,” I  said, “the more I keep coming to this conclusion: many people are being so hard on the book not because they didn’t ‘get the message’ but precisely because they did! It shocks some people to find out that God isn’t helpless without our help!”

Elisabeth wrote back and called my second letter “even better than the first,” and thanked me profusely for taking so much time “to write so fully and comprehendingly” of her novel. “No one else has written such evidence of a complete understanding of what I wanted to say,” she wrote.  She said she was encouraged to find that she was “not merely mumbling to [herself] in the dark”—that knowing there were ears to hear cheered her on to keep speaking. She also told me she was working on her next book, a biography of missionary Kenneth Strachan (Who Shall Ascend, 1968 ) and ended her letter by expressing a hope that she and I could meet sometime soon.

Writer to Writer

In my next letter, I spoke about how much it meant to me to know that my first two letters encouraged her. “I’m a writer, too,” I said, “and I know how lonely this work can be at times—particularly if one isn’t afraid to ‘rock the boat’ a little and speak out on controversial issues.”

She wrote back (March 7, 1967) and said, “I trust that you are finding the courage, in your writing, to set forth what is (as you see it). It is good to know you are my friend.”

As the friendship developed, we continued writing back and forth every two or three months. Sometimes the intervals between letters were longer because we both had busy lives. We talked about books and articles we were reading, our various speaking engagements, our children, Scripture passages and poetry and what they meant to us, and various general subjects. I often told her about people’s reactions as I shared her books and articles with others and about the discussions friends and I were having about them.

I enjoyed a special series of six articles she wrote for The Sunday School Times, a weekly periodical for which I was also a writer and columnist. In that series, she did not hold back from expressing her questions and doubts and how they contributed to Christian maturity. I was happy when she compiled that series into a little book called The Liberty of Obedience (1968).

We continued trying to arrange a time to meet each other in person.

The Beginning of our Discussions of Feminist Issues

In one letter, thanking her for admonishing me to find courage to “set forth what is” as I saw it, I mentioned my own experience of controversy and my expectation of more to come.  I said:

One of the next books I’m planning to write will be on the role of women in the church, the home, and the world.  As you’ve hinted, it takes courage to set forth one’s idea of truth on a subject—particularly when one’s ideas differ from the customary “evangelical opinion” on the subject, as mine do on this one. I suppose I’ll run into a lot of criticism and accusations about this. If you happened to read the feedback after my article in Eternity last year on women in the church, you know what I mean! (Incidentally, I’d like very much to discuss this subject with you sometime. I have a feeling you may have given some thought to it.  Some of us noticed your brief allusion to the attitude of men missionaries toward women missionaries in your description of the missionary conference in your novel, and I’ve heard other missionaries say this, too.)  —Excerpted from Letha’s letter to Elisabeth, April 18, 1967.

In her next letter (May 16, 1967), she said she wished she had seen my Eternity article and asked if I could send her a copy. She added that she had “thought plenty” on the role of women in the church and mission field.

When she received the copy of “Women’s Place: Silence or Service?” she thanked me for what she called “the very fine article” and said, “I agree with all you say.”  In that letter of July 3, 1967, she also told me of an extreme example she had experienced in one church where she was invited to speak. The men were so concerned about a woman’s teaching when men were present and usurping male authority (based on their interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 ) that they asked her to speak to the women in the church sanctuary, arranged to have her message recorded, then played the recording for the men downstairs afterwards!

Up until that time, we had been addressing each other very formally as Mrs. Elliot and Mrs. Scanzoni, but in that July 3 letter, she addressed me as Letha for the first time and signed her name Betty. It seemed we had reached a new level in the friendship.  (A few years later, she seemed to prefer being addressed as “Elisabeth,” but at least we never went back to those “Mrs.” titles!)

Gradually Realizing Our Differences over Gender Equality

Elisabeth Elliot's Let Me Be A WomanMany readers today are most familiar with Elisabeth through her later writings and speaking, which have sometimes been labeled “antifeminist” or “counterfeminist,” (e.g., Let Me Be a Woman, Passion and Purity, The Mark of a Man, and various magazine articles). Such readers will no doubt be surprised that she and I carried on these friendly discussions over many years and with a genuine appreciation of each other and respect for each other—up until November 1976, when the correspondence suddenly ceased.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, however, we both had so much else going on in our lives and had so many other topics to discuss that we kept up the correspondence in spite of a gradual realization that we weren’t totally on the same page about the women’s movement for gender justice and equality.

But most of our conversations steered clear of the topic. It didn’t feel like a deliberate avoidance; there were just so many other things on our minds. One time, she wrote to me from a writers’ workshop she was conducting and expressed her feelings about the work of her writing students. Another time, in October 1967, she sent me a very insightful letter on airmail stationery from Jerusalem, where she was conducting research for a book on the Arab-Israeli situation. She told me about the variety of people she was meeting and the many points of view they represented. “I want to learn the truth from all of them, and I want to write it when I get home,” she said. “Will anyone believe me?” (The book that resulted was Furnace of the Lord, published in 1969).

In a letter I wrote her in December 1967, I quoted Malcolm Boyd’s definition of a prophet from his book, Free to Live, Free to Die, and I told her that his definition could apply to one of her articles I had just read. “Passion is quite real for a prophet,” Boyd had written. “He or she wants to identify the humanness in persons, strive for sensitivity and justice in life, and change structures when they have become tokens of idolatry within the status quo. . . . A prophet is prepared to die for the sake of what he considers freedom, morality, and humanness. However, he would rather live for them” (p. 3).

In Betty’s response a few months later, she began by talking about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., which had occurred the night before she wrote. She said Boyd’s description of a prophet in the quote I had sent applied well to King.

Our First Meeting

In the summer of 1968, Betty and I had a chance to meet at last when my family combined a vacation with travels to two conferences near the general area where she lived, and she kindly invited my husband and me and our sons (then ages 8 and 11) to spend what turned out to be a delightful evening of stimulating conversation in her home.

Although she had liked my Eternity article on women in the church, she was less receptive to my ideas about egalitarian marriage in my next Eternity article (1968), which during our visit she had asked me to send her. In thanking me, she said, “I must confess I wanted to argue about it,” but went on to say that she was then reading Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex and found her “own arguments on the subjection of women slightly weakened” (February, 1969).

She then moved on to another of the many subjects we were discussing.  She said her mind had mainly been filled with her engagement and marriage to Addison Leitch, a theology professor (whose work was familiar to me), and told me how happy they and her daughter, Valerie, were in their day-to-day living in love. And in that letter, she also answered my question about whether she knew Virginia Mollenkott, whose writings I had just discovered.” She said they were friends and that Virginia was a brilliant woman who had provided advice during the writing of her novel. (Virginia and Elisabeth also worked together as invited literary stylistic consultants for the New International Version of the Bible [NIV].)

During the early part of the 1970s, our letters continued, but with considerably less frequency. I was studying at Indiana University as well as writing other books and articles and taking on a number of speaking engagements.  Betty, too, was busy with writing and moving to a new location, and she said she was suddenly being invited for speaking engagements after the “long hiatus after No Graven Image appeared, in which virtually no churches invited me to speak.” She said she found this surge of speaking invitations “baffling.”  “Do people think I’m back in the fold?” and was it because of now being married, she wondered.

Our Conversations about Feminism Increase

In September, 1970, in the midst of discussions on numerous topics, I mentioned that I had been doing some speaking on women in the home, church and society, which sometimes stirred things up, and that my projected book on the topic was now underway. “The only difference,” I said, “is that now I’ve invited Nancy Hardesty (formerly of Eternity Magazine, now teaching at Trinity College) to join me as co-author, and we’re having a great time working out various questions together.” In that letter, I asked Betty what she thought of the term Christian feminist (which she didn’t answer in a letter but later did in some of her public writings critical of the term).

Betty answered in March, 1971 with some warm opening sentences about my September letter and then said, “If you have seen either or my recent articles on Women’s Lib you may not want to hear from me!” She told me she was at the “opposite pole from [my] friend Nancy Hardesty,” who had just written an article for Eternity.  Betty reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s views on hierarchy, which she called “ineluctable,” and said that, from a Christian viewpoint, “the question of women being ‘equal’ to men in any sense other than political or as objects of grace is not debatable. We are not.”

She said nothing more on the gender issue but went on to talk about the sorts of things we always discussed: books she was reading, family news, and so on. She enclosed a pamphlet reprinting “The Southwell Litany.”

My own life had become so time-pressured that I did not respond to that letter for an entire year, at which time I wrote, “I can imagine what you must have thought—probably that I had just decided to drop the correspondence because of our disagreement over women’s lib. But really, that’s not true. Admittedly, our views on this subject are quite opposite (at least in theory—I’m not so sure about in practice), but don’t worry, I still love you anyway!”  I went on to talk about how busy my life had become and was actually developing physical symptoms that seemed to be warning me to slow down.

But then I returned to the topic of gender equality. I told her no, I hadn’t seen her article about women’s liberation in the Christian Herald, but I had seen her response to Nancy Hardesty’s Eternity article. I wrote in that March 26, 1972 letter:

Nancy happened to come to visit the day the magazine arrived, and I saw the pained look across her face as she read your statements that seemed a bit strong; and for some reason, there flashed through my mind how you used to feel when you wrote me sometimes and described some of the letters you got reacting to No Graven Image. I guess we’re all too, too human and prone to give as well as receive wounds through criticism. It was interesting recently to read your husband’s honest description of his feelings in view of the barrage of criticisms about his C.T. [Christianity Today] article on youth and the church.

I went on to say how much Nancy had appreciated her husband’s article and said that I thought Nancy and she might have more in common than she might realize.

I told Elisabeth how surprised members of the group (two of them missionaries) who had earlier met with me to discuss No Graven Image were upon learning of her present views. I said I couldn’t agree with her that C.S. Lewis’s views on hierarchy were ineluctable. I went on to say I didn’t like arguing about it, however, and wished we lived closer so that we could have some give and take on the subject in person. But I included this paragraph:

Neither Nancy or I are extremists or man-haters or any of the other ugly stereotypes people seem to think of when someone talks about equality for women. We aren’t “rebelling against God’s created order,” Betty, but I think we have a different view of that order than you do, and even more than that, an outlook on the redemptive order that sees “neither male nor female in Christ Jesus,” which causes us to question some of the traditional ways the church has treated women. You said that yourself in some of your earlier letters to me, as well as hinting at it in the book.

I went on:

I sort of smiled to myself in reading “The Southwell Litany” that you sent me (which I appreciate very much. Thank you.), because I wondered if you were hoping I’d take to heart the part about “save us from impatience of submission and eagerness for authority. . . and from all insubordination. . .” But the other side is “save us from timidity; from hesitation; from fear of men and dread of responsibility. . . .from a low idea of the obligations of our Christian calling”— things that arise so often because women are not challenged to live up to their full potential in Christian circles, to use the talents God has given, the gifts the Spirit has bestowed.  But I said I wasn’t going to talk about it—so enough said.  (Excerpted from Letha’s letter to Elisabeth, March 26, 1972).

She did not directly respond to all I had said in that letter. The next I heard from her was a family Christmas newsletter in January 1973.  It included the sad news of her husband’s cancer diagnosis. With the newsletter, she included a very warm personal note, wishing me well in my writings, wishing the family well, and mentioning some scripture that she was finding comforting in their suffering and uncertainty. In April 1973, I wrote and assured her of my family’s and my prayers for her husband and discussed further a psalm she had mentioned as a source of comfort. I then talked about other matters in the way we always did in our letters. But I also mentioned that Nancy and I had at last found a publisher for All We’re Meant to Be (which at the time was still just using the working title of “The Christian Woman’s Liberation”).  And I told her I had been invited to a conference on “Evangelical Perspectives on Women’s Role and Status” at the Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver.

Commenting on a new Christian Herald article by Virginia Mollenkott, whom I had not yet met but wanted to, I said that she was also listed on the program in Denver.  I couldn’t resist teasing Betty: “It looks like I’m not the only one of your friends who’s a Christian feminist! You probably saw my article, ‘The Feminists and the Bible’ in the February 5 issue of Christianity Today.

That September, Betty’s husband died, and once again she was a widow. I sent her a heartfelt condolence letter, and she wrote me a loving note in response. She enclosed the bulletin from his funeral service.

The Last Years of Our Correspondence

I have not been able to find any record of correspondence between Betty and me during 1974, but during the weekend of Thanksgiving, 1975, she attended the first conference of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, DC.  By then, she was becoming widely known for her stance opposing the concept of gender equality. But she said she was there to report on the conference for a small conservative publication called The Cambridge Fish. Her report afterward was highly critical of the conference, and she especially disapproved of our not discussing femininity.

Elisabeth Elliot - The Mark of a Man(For years afterward, in many forms, she would speak negatively about that gathering of our organization and single out Virginia Mollenkott and me by name for our views expressed there. See, for example this widely reprinted article,  or this one. In The Mark of a Man, she said the EWC conference rejected the inspired revelation of God by using inclusive language in a hymn she described as “emasculated.” In that same 1981 book, she took issue with Virginia and me for writing Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?  She said our position in that book could be called feminist and humanist, but couldn’t at the same time be called Christian and biblical.)

Nevertheless, a few weeks after the conference, she sent me a beautiful Christmas card and said it had been so good to see me even though our time was “tantalizing in its brevity.” I wrote back and agreed that our time to talk together at the conference was all too brief. I sent along with my letter some of my other books and articles, as well as copies of Daughters of Sarah, which she had told me at the conference she had never heard of.  I wanted her to learn more about the views of Christian feminists.

That year, 1975, the David C. Cook company, an evangelical publisher of Sunday school materials and related literature published a discussion course for young adults called, I Am Somebody: A Christian Search for Identity and Self-Acceptance. Its index listed Study No. 11 as “The Liberated Christian Woman” with the authors of the two sections under that heading listed as “Elisabeth Elliot and Letha Scanzoni/Nancy Hardesty.” Elisabeth’s article was called “A Christian Woman’s Liberation” which she defined as knowing the rules and abiding by them in accordance with her idea of God’s design and hierarchical order.  The article by Nancy and me was called “Jesus the Liberator” and was a reprint of a section of our book, All We’re Meant to Be.  I can find no evidence that Elisabeth and I ever talked about our mutual contribution to that David C. Cook series. The following year, they had both Elisabeth and me write again for the series, this time on the topic of marriage— and our perspectives were surprisingly compatible because we were talking about the institution sociologically, psychologically, and practically, rather than metaphysically, as she liked to do in the paradigm she was espousing in the first study of the series and elsewhere. But again, we didn’t acknowledge or talk about our contributions to the workbook, and I wish we had.

Our Different Assumptions

In a January 28, 1976 letter, she said she thought the “real crux of our difference on the womanhood question is one of imagination (in the highest literary sense) principally turning on the concepts of true femininity and masculinity.” She said she could not think of such realities in sociological terms. “The physical distinctions between the sexes are signs of metaphysical realities” she stated, not “mere biological trivialities.”

She was talking about male and female essentialism within the distinct paradigm that she presented in her first David C. Cook article and in her Cambridge Fish report, and which would frame her later speeches and writings. I describe and analyze this framework in a discussion Kimberly George and I had about Elisabeth’s philosophy on our 72-27 blog.  (See “’Paradigm Lost’ and Slippery Slope Panic.”)

Since Elisabeth and I had often let months slip by before replying, it was not unusual that I didn’t respond until September 24, when I told her about a dream I had that we were publicly debating before a large audience. I said the dream could have become a distinct reality if we accepted an invitation to a conference in the Pacific Northwest, but I wouldn’t be able to attend due to schedule conflicts (and she later said she had not accepted the invitation either).

I said, “I suppose in some ways it would have been interesting (to the audiences) but exhausting (to us) for you and George Knight III to be on one side and me on the other, but yet I don’t really like engaging in arguments like that and really wonder how much is accomplished.”  I went on to say I thought she and I proceeded from different basic assumptions, “and there’s simply no way our ideas are going to merge and form a neat consensus. But I do hope we can always continue to respect and love one another in Christ—even if we do disagree on some matters that are very basic to us.” I said I wished in some ways that we could have accepted the conference invitation because it would have given us some one-on-one time to talk and perhaps come to a greater understanding of each other and our differences. I told her I was as grateful then as ever for the influence she had had on my life through her early books and articles.

I said, “In some ways, it’s ironic that we should find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence in a matter of controversy in Christian circles today, because your Eternity  article on Christian creativity and speaking out courageously from one’s own personal vision even in unpopular causes had a lot to do with my speaking out on this topic of equal partnership between men and women!” (Excerpted from Letha’s letter to Elisabeth, September 24, 1976.)

She responded on November 3, 1976 and said I did not touch on the nature of masculinity and femininity in my letter. “I’d still like to know how you understand the two modalities of our existence.” She said all the sociological insights in the world could not define for her “what God meant by a man or a woman.”  She ended by remarking on my mention of her article on “creativity” years before. (She used quotation marks around the term.) “I cringe at the word! Did I write such? I have since expunged the word from my vocabulary!” She said she was teaching her seminary students “not to aim at creativity or originality but at authenticity.” And she ended by asking that “God give us grace to see the truth and obey it.”

It was the last letter I ever received from Elisabeth Elliot.

I wrote back less than a week later (Nov. 9, 1976) to answer her questions about what I believed about masculinity and femininity. “I believe we are born male or female but we learn to be “masculine” or “feminine” according to what those concepts are expected to include in a particular society,” I said. “God made us human beings, equally bearing the image of God whether our bodies happen to be male or happen to be female. I cannot believe that one set of God’s attributes (the nurturant qualities) were intended to be reflected in females and another set (those related to strength and mastery) to be reflected in males.”

I told her of my surprise in learning that the word “creativity” had taken on some kind of negative connotation for her.  I asked why, adding that it seemed to me that being creative was part of what it meant to be made in the Creator’s image. I told her that since she couldn’t remember her article I would enclose a copy with my letter, along with several of her earlier letters from my files that showed she and I had discussed the topic of women’s roles a number of times during our ten years of correspondence. “You told me at the conference you couldn’t remember those discussions,” I wrote.

I also enclosed a speech I had given at Fuller Theological Seminary that had been reprinted in the Reformed Journal (October, 1976 issue). And referring to that article in the last paragraph I ever wrote to her, I said:

Actually, this is the first time I have ever taken issue with your views in public or in print—although you have taken issue with mine a number of times. (Sometimes I’ve found myself in the odd position of defending you for attacking me!  At least, I’ve tried to help people be charitable toward your views and your right to a different opinion and interpretation of Scripture.) Anyway, I thought you’d like to see this; I think it shows clearly that we are both proceeding from an entirely different set of assumptions. But as I indicated in my other letter, I’m sure there are many other things on which we do agree; and I hope we can continue to love and respect one another as sisters in Christ and fellow members of His Body. (From Letha’s letter to Elisabeth, Nov. 9, 1976)

She never replied. In the years after that, I frequently looked up her writings, listened to her radio program, and read items on her website, including the musings that her third husband, Lars Gren, wrote to keep her devotees posted on her well-being after dementia took away Elisabeth’s abilities to do such communication herself.

And now she is gone—gone to be with the God she loved and strove to honor. I regret that we never had the opportunity to discuss again, from the perspective of our later years, the differences that ended our correspondence; but I will always remember fondly how intellectually rich and spiritually deep the friendship was to me during the early years of our letter writing.  Rest in peace, my sister in Christ.


© 2015 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni


Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


  1. That makes me incredibly sad. As a writer who has both met my influences and has been one, I know full well of the foundational issues that threaten to crack the relationship. In my opinion, these things are never a reason to dismantle a friendship. How else can iron sharpen iron if we are to be carbon copies of one another? I have been discarded many a time for failing to match up on all points, especially as I, too, am a Christian feminist. Much love to you, and thank you for sharing this tender tribute.

  2. For me much of organized Christian religion has gone astray with the misapplication of the curse from Genesis. Many hold out the fact that the man shall rule over the woman as an ideal when really it’s because of the Fall and is a manifestation of sin. This statement is not meant to be a guide for how men and women should relate to one another but rather how men and women should not relate to one another. The same goes for the misapplication of the curse when it comes to the woman when it says that her desire shall be for her husband. Many Bibleolotets have misinterpreted this to mean that the woman is somehow trying to control or use her power. I prefer the interpretation of excellent feminist theologians that the issue is the sin issue where the woman’s desire is to worship her husband rather than God.


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