Wheaton unveils new wording for martyred missionaries' plaque; ‘savage Indians’ removed

Wheaton College's plaque honoring martyr Jim Elliot and four other slain missionaries will be reworded by May 1, 2021, to remove stereotypical language referring to a people group as 'savage.'
Wheaton College's plaque honoring martyr Jim Elliot and four other slain missionaries will be reworded by May 1, 2021, to remove stereotypical language referring to a people group as "savage." | Wheaton College Marketing Communications

Wheaton College has unveiled the new wording for a plaque honoring alumni Jim Elliot and other missionaries killed in Ecuador in 1956, which will replace an earlier plaque that had language considered derogatory towards indigenous people.

In a statement Monday, the Illinois-based evangelical Christian school explained that the “reworded plaque” will honor the martyred missionaries while also “respecting the Waorani people with whom they shared the gospel of the love of Christ.”

The new wording was approved by a task force comprised of a historian and a missiologist from the faculty and two students — one in graduate studies and another an undergraduate.

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The plaque will be rededicated in the lobby of Edman Chapel sometime in the fall. 

Among the changes, the new wording removes the term “savage Indians,” which had caused controversy. The offensive phrase was replaced with “indigenous peoples” as a descriptor instead.

The new plaque also removed the term “Auca,” known to be used as a negative label for the region's indigenous people, replacing it with the proper tribal name “Waorani.”

“Their sacrifice was a turning point for the Waorani and an inspiration for evangelical missions globally," the new wording states. "Inviting members of the men’s families to live with them, the Waorani responded to the gospel and put down their spears. God’s redemptive story continues as the gospel is still shared among the Waorani to this day.”

Originally dedicated in 1957 by the Wheaton College Class of 1949, the plaque was meant to honor the memory of Wheaton alumni Elliot, Ed McCully and Nate Saint, as well as Roger Youderian and Pete Fleming. They were speared to death by Waorani tribesmen in 1956 when trying to evangelize.

Later, the families of the martyred missionaries decided to live with the tribe and eventually won them over to Christianity, which also led to the Waorani ending their chronic warfare.

Wheaton President Philip Ryken said the school has been "blessed by the strong support for this project" from members of the missionaries' families and their class peers.

In March, Ryken sent a letter to students, staff, and faculty explaining that the school was planning to change the plaque's wording.

According to Ryken, several people had expressed concern that the plaque was offensive.

“Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God,” wrote Ryken at the time.

Joseph Moore, Wheaton’s director of marketing and communications, told The Christian Post back in March that the response to the plan was “extremely positive.”

“This is especially important for a story that is central to our mission and identity — a story we want the world to know,” Moore said.

“In the 64 years since the College received this gift, we have also continued to grow in our understanding of how to show God’s love and respect to others.”

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