A Leopard Tamed: A Book Fifty Years Too Early

By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director

What do you do with a book that’s published ahead of its time? Publish it when the time is right! That’s exactly what Hendrickson has done with A Leopard Tamed, which was first published by Harper & Row in 1968.

For the original book, author Eleanor Vandevort’s fellow Wheaton College graduate and missionary Elisabeth Elliot (1926–2015) wrote the introduction, and now her daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepard, has added her own contribution to this special 50th anniversary edition. Also included are the original stunning drawings (as seen on the front cover here) from James Howard, Elisabeth Elliot’s brother, and a few photos not previously published. In addition, a long-lost epilogue the author wrote in 1974 is included, providing even further insight into the plight of the Nuer people after the situation began deteriorating in their country of the South Sudan. 

A Brief History of South Sudan

As in any country, much has happened in the Sudan over the years. Here’s a quick summary of historical events from 1899 to 2017 (for more details, visit http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14019202):

1899–1955      South Sudan is part of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, under joint British-Egyptian rule
1956                Sudan gains independence
1962                First civil war
1983                Second civil war
2005                North/South peace deal
2006                Fragile peace
2009                Independence referendum
July 9, 2011     Independence Day
2013                Civil war
August 2017   The number of refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan to Uganda passes the one million mark, according to the UN

Sadly, this is the state of too many in our world today: refugees seeking to escape civil unrest, desperate to get on with their lives—wanting to be free from fear, from starvation, from violence, from destruction, from death. The Nuer people of South Sudan are no different.

South Sudan in Recent News

As I was writing this article, the Nuer were mentioned in the latest edition of Christianity Today, and I had to make sure I included this news here. It seems that World Vision is helping return over 250 children to their families (it is reported that the United Nations has coordinated the release of almost 2,000 of 19,000 children recruited and kidnapped since the civil war began in 2013). These children had been abducted, with the boys being forced to fight and the girls subjected to even worse. All of these children have experienced unspeakable horrors, and World Vision is seeking to help them with their trauma as they try to go back to whatever “normal” life is now possible for them: reuniting them with their families, returning them to school, and providing much-needed counseling. Mesfin Loha, interim national director at World Vision South Sudan, says, “We will get them the support so they have a sense of hope again.”

Christianity Today further reports:

Christian South Sudan gained independence in 2011, making it the youngest nation in the world. Though the central African country is about 60 percent Christian, it still ranks among the worst places for Christian persecution (this year it was No. 4). . . . The South Sudan Council of Churches has continued to pray for peace and ask for humanitarian assistance.

While I was updating this article after reading this CT update, I was dismayed to learn of further persecution that took place as recently as this past Sunday:

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has learned that a Sudanese Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SEPC) in El Haj Yousif, Khartoum North, was demolished Feb. 11 [2018] by Sudanese security agents. Witnesses reported that at least three police trucks arrived at the church without notice moments after the service had ended, and security personnel proceeded to clear and confiscate property before demolishing the church. The confiscated property included chairs, bibles and musical instruments. (http://www.cswusa.org/filerequest/3906.pdf)

Can you imagine finishing your Sunday service when all of a sudden the police burst in and push you out? Picture the confusion as they begin grabbing everything removable, throwing it into their trucks. As you stand there dazed, you watch as they proceed to destroy your beloved church building. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Thankfully, most of us can’t relate to this scenario, but we should still take it to heart. While we may worship in freedom, we know this is not the case for many of our brothers and sisters around the world. These reports here are only a small sampling of the persecution of Christians around the world, but they serve as powerful reminders for us to continue to pray for peace among these nations and to provide for those desperately in need—whether that be food, water, shelter, or sanctuary.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40 NIV)

Getting to Know an Ancient Culture

The Nuer, however, have a long history of suffering—from the hands of Arab slave traders to Egyptian/British occupation, followed by Muslim takeover, and then years of civil war. This makes A Leopard Tamed all the more poignant to read. Eleanor Vandevort (affectionately known as “Van” in her later years) wrote of her time in the Sudan from 1950 to 1963, capturing the true and beautiful essence of this people.

Although life was mostly harsh and short for them, even in the second part of the twentieth century, the Nuer people seem almost idyllic when we first meet them in Van’s story. They live off the land, moving their village seasonally, working with nature and the other people (and animals) around them. They are generous, they are welcoming, they are curious. They wear no clothes, but they do not consider themselves naked. If they have on their jewelry, that’s enough—enough to make them “full.” And why do they need money? There’s no place to carry it anyway. It’s those types of details that Van provides. She is a gifted writer, and her prose seems more like poetry at times. I found myself lost within this world of the Nuer and of the well-meaning American missionaries who came to bring medicine, education, and Christianity.

Things quickly become complicated, however, when you tell a man that he can have only one wife and that he doesn’t need to slaughter a cow to appease God. When he starts to move away from the life he has always known, the ones upsetting the oxcart (so to speak) begin to wonder if they are doing more harm than good.

This is why it can be said that this book was published too early. Trudy Summers (trustee of Van’s estate and programs manager at the Global Honors Institute at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts) writes in her foreword to this new edition:

When A Leopard Tamed was first published in 1968, this honest account of missions was not well received. Van was so very far ahead of her time in understanding the cultural endangerments and theological quandaries embedded in the then-accepted method of missions, and yet she believed thoroughly in Jesus’ command to go into all the world. At the time of its original writing, the world of evangelical missions did not yet have a framework that could hold those two things in tension.

Missionary Eviction

After thirteen years of translating the Bible into the Nuer language (which Van first had to create in written form), she doubted that she and her fellow missionaries had done any good. Following the Muslim government takeover of what had been a predominately Christian area, many American missionaries were evicted. Van suffered the same fate a few years later when the commandant of police in Malakal of the Upper Nile Province informed her that she had to depart within six weeks. She writes:

I planned to leave Nasir on the following Friday. During that week I had visitors who came to sit, to talk, and to pray. It was like attending one’s own wake. The same people came and went and came again, came to be with me. Even as no man of them [in the Nuer culture] lives alone, so they never allow anyone to die alone. And they were treating me in the same way.

But she didn’t feel that they had really received or understood the message of love and redemption she had tried to bring to them:

Light had not broken through the darkness. There were the paths criss-crossing the land. Over them the message of good and evil still went. But not the Gospel.

Were the fields already white for the harvest, and had we, or I, somehow failed?

She tried to comfort herself with believing that “God would certainly bless the translation work. This was His Word. He would see to its successful conclusion for His own sake and for the sake of the Nuer people.” But she also knew that the new Muslim government was transitioning the school systems to Arabic script. Her Roman script would soon be undecipherable for her intended readers.

I won’t give away too much of the story—I’m just trying to whet your appetite! You really need to read this book for yourself. In it, you will learn about an ancient people and the struggles they encountered in the second half of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century. You will also meet a woman of exceptional strength, sensitivity, and faith—and how it turns out her work was not in vain (which is why I mentioned Nuer refugees earlier). But before she found out about this remnant of believers, she struggled for a number of years. As she writes toward the end of the book:

It was the severest test of faith I knew: to believe Him, not for what he would do, for that is only one infinitesimal aspect of God, but for who He is. . . . Now as I left, I knew for myself, at least, that God meant what He had said: that I was to know, to understand that God is God, and leave His defense up to Him.  

A “Leopard Tamed”

By now, you are probably wondering who the “leopard” is in the story that was “tamed.” This is Kuac Nyoat, a Nuer tribesman who worked closely with Van in her translation work and who later became a pastor (which is pretty much where all his troubles start). Again, you need to read this riveting book to find out more!

There is also a companion volume to this book titled Sioux Center Sudan: A Missionary Nurse’s Journey by Jeff Barker (Hendrickson, March 2018). The nurse in this story is Arlene Schuiteman, a close friend of Van’s who served alongside her. Another highly recommended read!

I’ll let Eugene Nida (1914–2011), the famous linguist and a forerunner in translation studies, have the last word here. Although he wrote this blurb in 1968, it still rings true:

This is certainly no run-of-the-mill book on missions, but movingly realistic and strikingly honest. This is not merely an account of trials faced by an African who emerges from primitivism to the complex value system of a modern world. It is also a heart-touching confession of a missionary whose traditional views were shattered, but who, in seeming failure, nevertheless found new faith and real meaning to life.

Patricia Anders is editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).

Eleanor Vandevort (1925–2015) graduated from Wheaton College in 1949. After returning from Africa, she served as academic advisor and mentor for over twenty years at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

For more information about A Leopard Tamed, please visit our website.

2 thoughts on “A Leopard Tamed: A Book Fifty Years Too Early

  1. Pingback: A Leopard Tamed: A Book Fifty Years Too Early | PLA Productions

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