Betty Ellen Cox

February 10, 1918-December 29, 2012

Photo from Andrea croppedElizabeth Ellen, better known as Betty Ellen, was born on February 10, 1918, and died on December 29, 2012. Funeral services were held on January 7, 2013, at the Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church, Spring Arbor, MI.

Betty Ellen was a third-generation Free Methodist. The Christian character of her parents greatly influenced Betty Ellen’s life. When Betty Ellen was 3 years old, ill with pneumonia, the doctors did not think she would survive. Her parents dedicated Betty Ellen to the Lord to be a missionary, and she immediately began to get well.

While in high school, Betty Ellen first began to feel the Lord drawing her toward missionary work. But, she felt she had no talents the Lord could use. God said to her, “Even though you can’t sing or make a decent speech, you do like to learn foreign languages. I could use that.” Finally, Betty Ellen felt that she must accept God’s call; she sensed great peace.

Betty Ellen graduated from Spring Arbor High School, Michigan, in 1934, and from Junior College in 1936. During her senior year at Greenville College, Illinois, she applied to Free Methodist World Missions but was told she was too young to be considered for overseas service. It was 1938; she was 20. At the end of the summer the Missionary Board offered her an opportunity to work among the Japanese in California. Betty Ellen writes she was a little disappointed, for she had wanted to go to a more remote area, such as the new work in the Belgian Congo (what is now considered Burundi) that had opened in 1935.

In 1940, after two years of ministry to Japanese youth and their families, the Missionary Board determined Betty Ellen could go to Japan. However, word came that the U.S. government would not permit women or children to travel to the Orient. She had never felt sure God wanted her in Japan, so now she felt at peace. She stayed among the Japanese in California another two years. Then, in 1942, due to the war, all Japanese were forced to go to relocation camps. Betty Ellen tried to get permission to go with them, but no missionaries were allowed to do so. She returned to Michigan and taught for two years.

Suddenly in the middle of war years, when travel was limited, Betty Ellen was asked if she would consider going to Burundi. God began performing one miracle after another to open the way. In October 1944, Betty Ellen sailed for Africa.

The first task was to learn the language. While other missionaries were willing to help Betty Ellen, there were basically no printed materials from which to study. After three months of language study, Betty Ellen had become principal of the primary school in Kibuye and Muyebe. When she had been on the field a year, she was asked to write a grammar of the language for other missionaries. When that was completed, she began writing school text books in the Kirundi language. Soon, she was writing or translating other books, including arithmetic and geography, in addition to assisting Dr. Frank Laubach in preparing literacy charts. She was considered a pioneer in the literature movement.

During her third term, Betty Ellen became principal of the primary school in the capital. There she learned Swahili, the trade language, and all the classes were taught in French. In the fall of 1961, an African whom Betty Ellen had been training, became school principal, freeing Betty Ellen for literature work.

Betty Ellen spent much of her time preparing manuscripts of the Old Testament in the Kirundi language to be sent to the printers. She wrote in a 1963 Missionary Tidings article that sometimes it took a whole day to work on one verse of Scripture – to understand what it meant and to find the most accurate way of expressing the thought in Kirundi.

In 1965 Betty Ellen was approved as a full-time literature missionary. Her translation work expanded to include a Kirundi-English dictionary, Kirundi Bible translations and concordance, pastor’s study courses, Sunday school quarterlies, and books for church membership. Whether it be in education or literature work, Betty Ellen believed training others who would be qualified for the work was vital.

Betty Ellen Cox & translator 2In 1980, Betty Ellen transferred to Rwanda where the people and language were similar, though she had to learn Kinyarwanda. Working alongside a national helper, Betty Ellen completed the Kinyarwanda translation of eight Theological Education by Extension books and the Free Methodist Discipline, a vital step toward the formation of the Rwanda General Conference. She also taught in the John Wesley Bible School at Kibogora for three years, as well as working with the mission and conference in bookkeeping and secretarial responsibilities.

In 1986, Betty Ellen retired from missionary service, but did not retire from God’s work. She was invited to represent the FMC on an interdenominational missions literature task force and also helped update the Book of Discipline for the Burundi FMC. In 1988 Betty Ellen was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Spring Arbor University and was named alumnus of the year by Greenville College.

In 2008, increasing demand for the Kirundi-English and Kinyarwanda-English dictionaries prompted the Marston Memorial Historical Center to publish Betty Ellen’s dictionaries online.

Betty Ellen’s Colleague Writes

Martha Kirkpatrick remembers Betty Ellen fondly, “We began Kirundi language study with Betty Ellen Cox as our teacher in March 1965. She had already established her reputation of knowing this African language by writing and having published the first grammar study. It was used by the Catholics as well as the Protestants for teaching. Even the U.S. Embassy used it for personnel who needed to learn Kirundi.

“Later, it was our privilege to share a duplex at Kibogora, Rwanda, with Betty Ellen, overlooking beautiful Lake Kivu. Again Betty Ellen provided an excellent language text for those learning Kinyarwanda. In those days, we could set our clocks by her schedule. We always knew what time it was when she left the house in the morning for her office and when she returned for lunch. Early every Sunday evening she would bring her supper to the porch we shared and bask in the beauty of our surroundings: Lake Kivu and the fishermen in their canoes, the volcanos far away, and the mountains.

“In those days the American bishop who went to Africa to hold annual conferences needed a translator. Betty Ellen was the translator. She, as well as other pioneer Free Methodist missionaries, did much to form the strong Free Methodist Church in central Africa that exists today. As faithful and prompt as she was with people, so she was in her commitment to God: in prayer, in Bible reading, in tithing, and in fellowship with others.

“When she came home to the U.S. to retire, she wrote a book Simply Following about her life. She continued to teach the African language to new missionaries.”