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.