ZAMBIA (BNc) – Iris Elder (nee Merritt) celebrated her 98th birthday on December 16, 2019. She was born to Dow and Alice Merritt in 1921 at Fort Collins, Colorado. The Merritts went to Africa as missionaries with Iris and her little brother, Sterling, in 1926.  Sterling was born on May 25, 1925, also at Fort Collins. The Merritts joined the W.N. Shorts and the Ray Lawyer families at Sinde mission. The Shorts had opened the mission in 1923.


Here Dow Merritt is holding Sterling and Iris is standing by him.

In 1928 the Merritts and Lawyers moved from Sinde and opened Kabanga Mission, fifty miles in the bush.


This picture shows the Merritts and the Lawyers moving to Kabanga by oxcart. It took two days to go the fifty miles. At first they lived in grass houses and depended on oxcarts and bicycles for transport.

The Merritt children studied by correspondence courses and their mother Alice was their teacher.

Iris played with the African children and became fluent in the Tonga language. When she was thirteen she translated one of the shorter books of the Bible into Chitonga and there was a write-up about her in one of the brotherhood papers.


This picture shows Alice Merritt in 1940 teaching Iris’ younger sisters, Elizabeth and Ruth. Iris and Sterling were studying at Harding College.

On January 28, 1941 Alice Merritt (nee Cook) passed away after an unsuccessful operation for breast cancer. She was buried under the tree you see in the background of the above picture. While in chapel at Harding, Iris received a telegram from her father telling of her mother’s death.

On May 14, 1942 Dow Merritt married Helen Pearl Scott, the daughter of George and Ottis Scott who had come to Sinde mission in the late 1920s.

Dow and Helen Pearl had four children, Roy, Rosaland, Danny and Georgia, but Danny died when he was a baby.

Iris graduated from Harding with a BA degree in 1942. She married Ken Elder on December 13, 1942 at Searcy, Arkansas.

During World War II Iris worked at an ammunition plant in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Later she joined the Coast Guard in Florida. After the war, Ken and Iris went to Searcy, Arkansas, and Ken earned a BA degree from Harding College in 1949.

Iris and Ken Elder went to Zambia as missionaries in 1949. Iris was so fluent in Tonga that Africans would say, “If Iris is talking with African women on the other side of a wall, where you don’t see who is speaking, you cannot tell that there is a white woman talking there.”

Iris’ younger brother, Roy Merritt, writes: “Ken and Iris worked at Kabanga Mission while I was growing up. She was strict and bossy but affectionate, and as a kid I loved her very much. She had one problem that troubled her a lot. She had not had any children after ten years of marriage. Like the Bible Rachel, she felt inferior, and felt traditional Africans did not respect her because she was barren. They returned to USA for awhile, and there she became pregnant and delivered a boy whom they named Dow, after my father. Quickly they returned to Africa and were so happy!”

Roy Merritt continues, “I was then 11 or 12 years old in boarding school at Namwianga. About a year later the boarding mistress, Mrs. W.N. Short, called me and said she had received news that little Dow had died. I walked out of her office, sobbing. As I cried I prayed, ‘God, please give Iris twins! A boy and a girl!’ About a year later, she had twins, a boy and a girl, Mike and Rachel! Later she had another daughter, Lisa.”


Here is Iris and Ken’s family in later years. Iris is in the blue dress with Rachel, Lisa and Mike. Iris and Ken adopted two more children, Vivian and Newton. Vivian is the baby being held by Rachel in the picture. [Note: Rachel is known as “Shelly,” a nickname, in Africa and among relatives.]

Because of her language ability, Iris helped the Bible Society improve the Tonga translation of the Bible.

Her brother, Roy Merritt, writes: “I remember her being very upset one day. ‘Look how they translated the bird that came down on John the Baptist! They say it was a nkwiilimba! No! A nkwiilimba is a pigeon! A dove is a nziba!”


In this photo she is working on the translation with her husband Ken Elder and two local church leaders, Sibwaalu and Botias Kalulu.

Elaine Brittell helped with the translation work and wrote the following in July of 1973.

“Iris Elder is the coordinator of all the material for the revision of the Tonga Bible, and I’m helping with the typing. God always gives a blessing in everything, for as I type reading the words, I learn how to use the proper words. Isn’t that wonderful to get this extra ‘study-practice’ in Tonga while also getting the typing done? It may take five years to finish the whole Bible. Ken and Iris have an electric IBM typewriter which is such a great time-saver and so easy to use. They are at Namwianga Christian Secondary School where three of their children attend. Ken teaches part time.”

Georgia Estes, the youngest sister of Iris, writes: “Iris was instrumental in organizing women’s meetings, teaching in those meetings, and encouraging the next generation to teach and to lead. Even as she got older she enjoyed going to these huge meetings, sleeping on the ground, and singing deep into the night. Every year she longed for the next gathering.”

Rachel Taylor, another daughter of Iris, writes: “Mom and Dad retired in 1979 and returned to live in Searcy, Arkansas in time for Newton and Vivian to start the fall semester at the Harding Academy high school.

“Dad worked at ACE Hardware and Mom worked at one of the Nursing Homes in Searcy until she went to work at White County Hospital. She was an LPN night shift nurse on the Geriatric Unit and was Grandpa Merritt’s nurse when he was there.

“They retired from secular work in 1994 and went back to Zambia a couple of times. They were hoping to move back permanently, but Dad fell and broke his hip, and due to degenerative bone loss at the hip socket, he would never be able to drive and ended up in a wheelchair.”

Kenneth Edward Elder passed away on March 1, 2017 at Smithfield, Ohio, where he and Iris were living with their son, Mike.

Plans had already been made for them to move to Texas, so after Ken died, Iris and her daughter Vivian who was caring for her, went to live with Rachel. Rachel continues, “We have been extremely blessed to have Vivian be able to be Mom’s caregiver. Mom has Alzheimer’s. She still recognizes us and still loves to sing and talk in Chitonga.”

For more information see the autobiography by Dow Merritt, “The Dew Breakers” and by Roy Merritt, “Pot Holes: Ups and Downs on Zambia’s Mission Road.”