Judith M. Dinsmore
Forty years ago, in late May 1979, the general assembly meeting at Geneva College let out early. The commissioners eagerly jumped in their cars or scrambled to book flights home for the same afternoon. OP pastor Edwards Elliott, however, headed to the campus library to study.
The next day, as planned, he flew from Pittsburgh to Chicago. When he landed at O’Hare, he was late for the connecting flight and began to sprint across the airport.
“The last time anyone who knew Daddy saw him, he was running at full speed,” said Nancy Mehne, Elliott’s daughter.
The plane waited for Elliott, and then took off. It was airborne only a minute before something went wrong. One of its engines fell out, toppling over the left wing and severing the hydraulic fluid lines. Unable to right itself, American Airlines Flight 191 tipped to the side and crashed in a nearby field, killing all 271 passengers and crew in what is, to this day, the worst aviation accident in US history. Elliott’s remains were never identified.
Sixty-five years old, Elliott had been a pastor in the OPC since 1942, first in Maryland and later in California. At what would be his last general assembly, he shared a table with Jim Bosgraf, then a young pastor in Denver, and Roger Schmurr, who had interned for him a few years before.
“It was a special privilege to be able to sit next to him,” Bosgraf remembered. “He was very gracious to me—patient and encouraging.” Two days later, Bosgraf also came through O’Hare, and drove right past the site of the crash. Everyone in the airport was talking about it; everyone in the country knew.
“When I arrived home, I heard about the crash and was stunned,” Schmurr remembered. “I felt like I had my legs cut out from under me. It was quite a shock.”
The memorial service was like a Presbytery meeting, Mehne said, because everyone from the surrounding OP churches came. It was held at Garden Grove OPC, California, which Elliott had pastored for twenty-three years. The church had to open the windows and line up chairs outside to fit everyone. Not only did the tight-knit presbytery show up, but the surrounding community did, too. The lumberman who had helped with the most recent church building expansion was there. So were grocery store clerks. Everyone, it seemed, knew Edwards Eugene Elliott.
And with good reason. Although a quiet man, Elliott has become an OP byword for evangelism. In the trunk of his car were rows of cardboard boxes with the tops cut off, and, in the boxes, he had file folders containing little black books. “Each box was for a neighborhood around his church,” Schmurr explained. Every afternoon, he would drive to the next street on the list, knock on the door, introduce himself, and start a conversation. Afterward, he wrote down the information in the books: resident names, religious affiliation, whether the neighbors were new. He visited each house every three years or so. “It was his way of keeping in touch with the community,” Schmurr said. “He was systematic.” It worked. Garden Grove expanded its facilities three times, and most of the growth was due to new converts, not transfers.
He was not doing a sort of Evangelism Explosion, Nancy Mehne is quick to explain. He wasn’t asking folks where they’d end up if they died that night. Rather, he was introducing himself—always as “pastor,” never as “reverend”—and leaving a calling card. “When people had a crisis, they would reach for that card,” Mehne said.
In one sermon at Garden Grove, Elliott described just such a situation: “Last Sunday a man came to our church upon whom I had called five years ago. He had visited the church a few times but remained indifferent to the gospel—until this summer’s major crisis in his life.”
In the early 1960s, Elliott told one housewife from the neighborhood, Jennie Yahuso, that he would be happy to pick up her daughters for Sunday school. She agreed, but after some time began to feel guilty that this friendly pastor was picking up her children for church when she knew she should be doing it herself. She and her husband, Danny, began attending church with their daughters, and eventually both made professions of faith. Danny Yahuso, who was Japanese but born and raised in Hawaii, became an elder and served for some twenty-five years at Garden Grove OPC, attending general assembly and presbytery at Elliott’s encouragement. “The Yahusos were definitely some of the best fruit of Pastor Elliott’s neighborhood survey calling!” wrote David Winslow Jr., himself an elder at Garden Grove.
The diligence Elliott applied to evangelism, he applied to the rest of life as well. “He was a very organized man,” Schmurr said. “Mornings were study: sermons and Bible studies.” A Greek major in college, Elliott kept his Greek New Testament always at his side, even on that flight from O’Hare. He had vast amounts of Scripture memorized, and Winslow remembers Bible verses flowing easily into his sermons, without citing chapter or verse. He wrote out and read from the pulpit his sermons, each of which lasted a mere twenty minutes—short by today’s standards. “But we found his sermons to be very edifying and uplifting,” Winslow wrote.
Along with sermon-writing and Bible study, Elliott kept up with current events and consistently wrote letters to editors of local newspapers and national publications, which he saw as a natural outworking of his role as shepherd, as well as over forty articles and reviews for the Presbyterian Guardian.
But, like a true Californian, Elliott did more than study: “At noon, I would have lunch at his house,” Schmurr said. “But he didn’t have lunch. He went to the YMCA and played volleyball to keep in shape.” He jogged before jogging was cool, doing laps around the church parking lot. During his whole marriage, Mehne said, Elliott never gained a pound.
Shortly before the plane crash, Elliott had told his family and the elders at Garden Grove that he planned to retire imminently and move with his wife, Doris, to Egypt, to teach. In a way, this helped to prepare both the church leaders and the family for his death. “We knew that there was going to be a move. We just didn’t know that Daddy was going to go to heaven instead of Egypt,” Mehne said.
Elliott was the son of missionaries to China, and laboring in Egypt may have seemed a more natural fit for him than spending twenty-three years in sunny, suburban Garden Grove. Yet he didn’t see a difference between home missions and foreign missions. “When I was a little girl, I told him that I wanted to be a missionary,” Mehne remembered. “He looked right at me and said, ‘You don’t have to go someplace else to be a missionary.’”
“It is easier to dramatize Foreign Missions than Home Missions or Christian Education,” Elliott wrote in a sermon. “But a so-called self-supporting church can be just as much a mission station as one supported by the Missions committee. In our Lord’s eyes, there is no such distinction.”
Being a missionary kid undoubtedly affected his life, however. As one of six children left behind with relatives in the States while his parents labored in China, he learned young the value of money. One year in college, finances were so tight that he ate peanut butter sandwiches the whole year. As an adult, when he moved to California after pastoring a church in Baltimore, he hesitated to take on roles on denominational committees—he didn’t want to cost the church the expensive airline tickets to and from the West Coast.
He did still labor faithfully for the larger church, serving as stated clerk and moderator for his presbytery and assistant clerk for general assembly. When he died, letters of condolence flooded in from all over the country. As difficult as it was, the family knew how he would want them to act. “He had so nurtured us in God’s sovereignty,” Mehne said. “And his death has given us plenty of opportunities to, as my father would say, ‘speak a good word for the Lord.’ ”
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, June 2019.