A Christian college in Illinois removed a plaque commemorating a group of martyred missionary alumni because it used the word “savage” to describe the members of an indigenous tribe who speared them to death in Ecuador.
Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, will be subjecting the plaque, which honors missionaries James Elliot and Ed McCully, to a task force appointed by the school’s Senior Administrative Cabinet, which will determine how best to reword it, according to an email that was forwarded to The Daily Wire and first reported by The Spectator.
“Recently, students, faculty, and staff have expressed concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive,” president Philip Ryken said in the email. “Specifically, the word ‘savage’ is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.”
“For generations all strangers were killed by these savage Indians,” the plaque says in part. “After many days of patient preparation and devout prayer, the missionaries made the first friendly contact known to history with the Aucas.”
The class of 1949 gifted the plaque to the school in 1957 to commemorate their slain classmates, who were killed in 1956 during their attempt to bring the gospel to the violent Huaorani, or Auca Indians, in the rainforest of Ecuador. Elliot and McCully, along with fellow missionaries Nate Saint, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian, initially made friendly contact with the tribe and exchanged gifts for several months.
On Jan. 8, 1956, however, a group of Huaorani warriors fell upon them, spearing them to death and throwing their bodies in the river.
Several years later, both James Elliot’s wife Elisabeth, and Nate Saint’s sister Rachel, traveled to Ecuador to live with and minister to the Huaorani who had killed their loved ones. Many in the tribe ended up converting to Christianity, including the warriors who had murdered the missionaries, and the tribe ceased being bloodthirsty.
Jim Elliot’s daughter, Valerie, and the Elisabeth Elliot Foundation responded to the plaque’s removal in a statement to The Daily Wire: “While we are saddened that the plaque honoring the martyrdom of Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming has been removed from the Edman Chapel at Wheaton College, we pray that the attention that this action is generating will bring renewed interest in the amazing work of God that was done in and through their sacrifice. To God be the glory.”
The full text of Ryken’s letter read:
I write regarding the plaque hanging in the lobby of Edman Chapel that honors Jim Elliot ’49, and Ed McCully ’49, who—along with Nate Saint Ex ’50, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming—were slain in 1956 while endeavoring to carry out the Great Commission with indigenous peoples of Ecuador. In a heartfelt act of remembrance, the Wheaton College Class of 1949 gave this plaque to the College in 1957 to honor their fallen classmates and their colleagues.
In the 64 years since the College received this gift, we have continued to grow in our understanding of how to show God’s love and respect to others. Recently, students, faculty, and staff have expressed concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive. Specifically, the word “savage” is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.
Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God. With this in mind, the Senior Administrative Cabinet will appoint a task force to review the wording of the plaque and to make a specific recommendation by May 1 for its careful rewording and replacement, subject to a final decision by the Senior Administrative Cabinet, in consultation with the Board of Trustees. Members of the task force will include a faculty historian, a faculty missiologist, a representative from the Wheaton College Alumni Association Board of Directors, a graduate student, and an undergraduate student.
The reworded plaque will carry forward the memory at Wheaton College of brave missionaries and their sacrificial witness, while at the same time respecting the Waodani people with whom they shared the gospel of the love of Christ. It will resume its place in the lobby of Edman Chapel sometime this summer.
UPDATE: This article was updated to include comment from Jim Elliot’s granddaughter, Valerie, and the Elisabeth Elliot Foundation.