Wheaton College Plaque
The original plaque at Wheaton College, honoring slain alumni James Elliot and Edward McCully, which some considered demeaning to indigenous people. (Courtesy of Wheaton College)

Reworded Wheaton College Plaque Honoring Slain Missionaries to Omit “Savage Indians”

By Julie Roys

Wheaton College today revealed the wording of a new plaque honoring slain missionaries and alumni, Jim Elliot and Ed McCully, which will replace a previous plaque some considered demeaning of indigenous people.

Wheaton removed the previous plaque from the foyer of the college’s main chapel in March, after about a dozen students and staff complained about the plaque’s language.

The previous plaque referred to the men who speared Elliott and McCully in  Ecuador in 1956—along with Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming—as “savage Indians.” According to the Wheaton website, the reworded plaque will refer to the missionaries’ killers as “indigenous people.”

The new plaque also refers to the killers’ tribe as “Waorani,” instead of “Auca”—a derogatory term, which translated means “naked savage.”

“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 Waorani people with whom (the missionaries) shared the gospel of the love of Christ,” the college said in a statement released today.

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At the time of the murders, the Waorani had a reputation as the world’s most violent people. But the missionaries carefully worked to build trust with the Waorani by giving them gifts. After a few friendly meetings with the tribe, a few tribe members turned on the missionaries and killed them.

Despite the murders, Jim Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth Elliot, and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel Saint, returned to the tribe and eventually led many of the Waorani to faith in Christ. Some of those converted included Jim Elliot’s and Nate Saint’s killers.

A gift by the Wheaton College Class of 1949 to honor their fallen classmates, the original plaque was donated in 1957.

“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 people from every culture,” said Wheaton College President Philip Ryken. “We have also learned much more about God’s ongoing work among the Waorani. We welcome this opportunity to ensure that we tell this unforgettable story in ways that reflect the full dignity of people made in the image of God.”

The new wording was recommended by a task force led by Wheaton Alumni Association President Beverly Liefeld Hancock, who’s the daughter of Pete Fleming’s widow, Olive Fleming Liefeld, and New Testament theologian Walter Liefeld.

Also serving on the task force was a faculty historian, a faculty missiologist, an undergraduate student, and a graduate student.

“We are deeply grateful to this remarkable team for their thoughtful work to continue the legacy of five missionaries who gave their lives to spread the gospel,” Ryken said.

The college plans to dedicate the new plaque in the lobby of Edman Chapel this fall.

The full wording of the new plaque:

Go Ye and Preach the Gospel

Dedicated to the glory of God and in loving memory of Ed McCully, President of the Class of 1949, and Jim Elliot ’49, also a campus leader. Motivated by God’s love and the Great Commission, together with Nate Saint ’50, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming, they went to the mission field willing for “anything—anywhere regardless of the cost.”

God called them to the rainforest of Ecuador and the Waorani, a people who had never heard the gospel message. Known for their violence to encroaching outsiders and for internal cycles of vengeance killing, they were among the most feared indigenous peoples in South America at the time.

After much preparation and prayer, and weeks of friendly gift exchanges by airplane, the missionaries made peaceful ground contact with the Waorani. On January 8, 1956, as the missionaries anticipated a second friendly encounter, the Waorani attacked. All five men were speared to death—martyrs for the love of Christ. 

Their sacrifice was a turning point for the Waorani and an inspiration for evangelical missions globally. 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.

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25 thoughts on “Reworded Wheaton College Plaque Honoring Slain Missionaries to Omit “Savage Indians””

  1. And Paul called a certain group as gluttons and did not mince words !

    Paul spoke from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!

    Calling out for what it is! Should then,we change the wording of God to comply with global PC agendas to satisfy the needs of the Godless and the cowards in Christ who would conform?

    Yes , they were savages indeed!! But they aren’t now because of Christ !

    That’s the story ! Savages is even a better word for calling them idegenuius makes one think the indegenous are by nature savages which is untrue! Making the new plaque even worse!

    A wretch or savage changed into the image of God is a miracle s as me actually shows God’s reality making the testimony of Christ even more unrefutable!

    But now these men’s lives are now displayed as a group of ordinary men killed by a group of fearing outsiders just doing the best they can

    What a wasted testimony and a disgrace to those men that died by the hands of conscience less men savages to the core that were won over by the power of God through these men !!!

    1. Tony Nazarowski

      Depends on you look at it. Classifying the natives as “savages” could be seen as dehumanizing. I wander how others in this forum would respond if a group of foreigners came to change your culture and religion.

      1. Brian Patrick

        Tony Nazarowski,

        Do yo also make excuses for Hamas and Hezbollah and every other terrorist org in existence because they were “oppressed” and “victims of racism”?

        The r-word has gotten REALLY overused as an excuse these days. I don’t apologize for saying that and I’m not even completely white.

  2. Mark Zimmerman

    If only the Wheaton woke police cared a fraction as much about taking the gospel to unreached people groups as they did about an appropriately descriptive adjective on an old plaque; guess they were bored from having no statues to tear down.

    Will the new plaque survive the next generation(s) of nitpickers, with such potentially offensive and triggering words and phrases like: Great Commission, God called them, missionaries, vengeance killing, most feared indigenous peoples, martyrs, Christ, evangelical missions, God’s redemptive story…?

    May such words rather put a fire in the belly of believers to correctly value eternal vs. temporal things.

    1. Brian Patrick

      Mark Zimmerman,

      100%. In a generation or (probably much) less, the CRTers will be objecting to ANY remotely-mildly worded assertion of the authority of the preaching of the Gospel or the superiority of Christianity to pagan religion. The plaque will need to go period and Jim Elliot will be seen as a racist colonizer who got what he deserved. The Marxists will not accept anything short of total cultural victory and Wheaton and most of the rest of evangelicalism capitulated to the cult long ago.

  3. Chuck Chillingworth

    Well done Wheaton College! A thoughtful change in wording to better reflect our growing sensitivity to the people groups we are trying to reach with the gospel. Which one of us hasn’t changed our language over time to reflect a bettter and more sensitive understanding of a range of issues? Remember, “All Cretans are Liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons”? Paul rebuked a man 2000 years ago for labeling an entire people group in a derogatory manner. Fast forward to Wheaton 2021….this isn’t cancel culture, it’s personal growth and maturity.

    1. Tony Nazarowski

      ++ Chuck

      I agree. Sensitivity isn’t a bad thing. It’s not if Wheaton is conceding to a flat-earth.

  4. Rebecca Sodergren

    I don’t understand why this is a problem for so many people. The plaque still describes the violence and the vast shift in Waorani culture once the gospel changed hearts. The plaque hasn’t softened the story. It’s just avoiding inflammatory language that isn’t even required to tell the story. Why not take the opportunity to avoid giving offense? This isn’t the same issue as some of the other PC stuff that tries to mess with truth.

  5. Shawnele Surplus

    ““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 people from every culture,” said Wheaton College President Philip Ryken. “We have also learned much more about God’s ongoing work among the Waorani. We welcome this opportunity to ensure that we tell this unforgettable story in ways that reflect the full dignity of people made in the image of God.””

    I’m not really sure why those who are grasping at the very political straws of wokeness and PCness do not grasp this as easily:

    The call of a Christian is not quarreling and being offended, it is reconciliation and love for the glory of God.

    Finally, I think the wording on the new plaque is not only more informative, but it tells the most important chapter of this story to date: the Gospel’s continuing work in this Tribe…truly glorifying God and honoring the sacrifice of the missionaries who gave their lives hoping for the spiritual harvest that came out of it.

  6. Sarah Lennartson

    As a Wheaton grad, I think this is great. Language is dynamic and always changing and what was said in the past isn’t always what we should say in present times. Why not change something that may offend and hurt when you’re trying to celebrate and encourage? They changed the mascot years ago from Crusaders (I mean Cru has done the same thing in a way) to Thunder and I think it’s a decision based on love and honor, not on fear of cancel culture. Times change; language changes.

    1. Marin Heiskell

      To me, this comes down to empathy. The same people who are upset over this change, throwing around poltiically charged expressions like “woke” (and I doubt they even know that that word REALLY means), are the same ones who get upset when conservatives are labeled racist or Christians are called intolerant (despite there being proof of conservatives and Christians who fit this label).
      So now when the label is thrown at someone else, they hide behind Christianese to make it ok? NO.
      And then there is just some language that is outdated (PLEASE don’t call me “colored”), especially as we learn more about the history, meaning, and power of words and labels–and their impact on others.
      Intent doesn’t always matter when the impact is hurting others – especially the very others we want to win over with the gospel. What’s the expression–“the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? Yeah.

  7. Thank you to all those who expressed your appreciation of our work. I was blessed to have the opportunity to serve as a member of the task force that wrote the new text, and I can say that it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. I can also offer a bit of insight.

    As the article states, the task force was chaired by Dr. Beverley Hancock, a current trustee who has long been close to the family members of the slain missionaries. We also had current student whose parents are serving as missionaries among the Waorani, and who speaks Spanish and Wao. In addition, we had an alumna missionary serving in Mexico, a faculty member whose family heritage traces to an indigenous community in Panama, a faculty missiologist who has served as a missionary in Nigeria for many years, an historian (faculty emerita) who wrote an award-winning book on the five missionaries, and me, an anthropologist who has studied missions and coordinates the missions studies certificate at Wheaton.

    Our mandate was to honor the sacrifice of these missionaries, the gift of the Class of ’49, and to give a fuller, more accurate portrayal of the events, which are increasingly unfamiliar to incoming generations of Christians in the Wheaton community. Yes, the description of the Waorani as “savage Indians” was hurtful to them and concerned many members of our community, on campus and off. Yes, we do have indigenous students, staff, faculty and alumni who have long found this hurtful and insulting. We do not fault the class of 1949, who were very close to the events and did not have the benefit of the now decades-long story on which to reflect. We recognized that language and culture are always changing and mission work and Christian witness is always called to express the gospel in terms that will be understood and not create unnecessary stumbling blocks.

    Wheaton continues to send out many many missionaries. In everything we do – on campus, in our public witness, and through our lives – we seek to make God known throughout the world, and that mission will not change until Jesus comes again.

    Thank you, Julie Roys, for publishing this update of the plaque.

    Yes, there may be a time in the future when Wheaton will update its language again. Only God knows the future. But it was an honor to revisit the account of God’s work through and in these families and the Waorani people. We pray this small thing will serve to inspire future generations of Wheaton students.

    1. Shawnele Surplus

      Mr. Howell,

      Thank you for such an informative comment. I love the mandate of your task force and believe that it honored all involved.

    2. It is a pleasure to hear about the thoughtful and inclusive process behind this story, Brian. Thanks so much for this insight.

    3. Daniel / Terry Unruh

      Mr. Howell,
      It would be great if you could see your way to post this explanation on Julie Roy’s Facebook page!

    4. Brian, Thanks so much for adding more detail about the process and thought behind the rewording of the plaque. That’s really helpful to know. Wheaton is truly blessed to have access to people with training in anthropology as yourself, and connections to the Waorani, like Dr. Hancock and the student with missionary parents.

  8. Looks like they did a pretty good job revising the plaque. Didn’t Woke-wash the Waorani’s pre-contact reputation for aggressiveness and violence. What happened was a “First Contact Gone Sour”.

    Regarding the term “Auca” (“native savage”), that was the pre-contact name for the tribe, given by outsiders. And in most tribal languages, the word for their own tribe usually translates as “The People” and the word for other tribes usually translates as “The Enemy”.

    Like “Apache”, which began as the Pima word for “Enemy”. Usually you learn about a new uncontacted tribe from its contacted neighbors, and their name for the uncontacted tribe is usually the one that first gets in the books.

  9. Brian Patrick

    Wheaton College has officially become apostate… not that they weren’t heading in that direction all along (look at Professor Gary Burge for instance).

    1. Yes, they have! Robert Weber is another name to look up, and they have a Professor there now, (Nathan Cartagena) that teaches CRT and he said…

      “When I interviewed at Wheaton the very first time, my guest lecture was on an essay about critical race theory by Tommy J. Curry. I wanted to see: Is this a place that would welcome such reflection? I received a warm welcome from the students, my department, etc., so I thought “OK, this is a place where I can do this.” I taught a reading group my first year at Wheaton that involved one of the important texts in the critical race theory movement, Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell. The following year I asked if I could teach a half-semester class on critical race theory — I got a full thumbs up.”
      https://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/blog/?p=33788

      Makes you wonder why Wheaton isn’t as sensitive to the parents “feelings” as they are the natives? I know I wouldn’t like to spend a small fortune having my kids indoctrinated with lies, would you?

      Wheres all the love in that?????

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