The evangelical flagship school, Wheaton College, is removing a plaque commemorating the death of five martyrs killed by indigenous people in Ecuador in 1956 because the plaque refers to the people as “savage.”
For 64 years, the plaque hung in the foyer of Wheaton College’s main chapel, honoring Wheaton alumni Jim Elliot and Ed McCully, along with Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming. The plaque was a gift from the classmates of Elliot and McCully to the school.
Wheaton College spokesman Joseph Moore said that about a dozen students and staff told the college they were concerned by the language in the plaque.
In explaining the college’s decision, Wheaton President Philip Ryken said the word “savage” demeaned the Ecuadorian Indians.
“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,” said Ryken in an email to students obtained by The Roys Report.
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“The word ‘savage’ is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat Indigenous peoples around the world,” Ryken said. “Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God.”
Ryken added that the college will replace the plaque with one that does not contain the offensive language.
The men who killed the missionaries were from the Waodani tribe, previously known as “Auca.”
Elisabeth Elliot, Jim Elliot’s widow, wrote in her best-selling book, Through Gates of Splendor, that Auca is the Quichua term for “savage.” Elisabeth Elliot also wrote a book about her experience living among the Aucas titled The Savage, My Kinsman.
Moore, however, noted that the word “savage” means something different now than it did in the past.
“The meaning of language and descriptors can change over the decades, and it’s understandable that eventually we would have to examine whether something still honors people appropriately,” he said.
At the time of the murders, the Auca had a reputation as the world’s most violent people. Anthropologists said they were in danger of wiping themselves out by murder.
Steve Saint, the son of one of the missionaries, said about 60% of tribe members were murdered by their own tribe. Almost no one died of natural causes.
Missionaries Elliot, McCully, Saint, Youderian, and Fleming traveled to Ecuador and carefully worked to build trust with the Waodani by giving them gifts. After a few friendly meetings with the tribe, a group of tribe members suddenly speared the missionaries.
After the missionaries’ death, Elisabeth Elliot and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel Saint, returned to the tribe and eventually led many Auca to faith in Christ, including some of their husbands’ killers.
“We lived angry, hating, and killing for no reason until they brought us God’s markings,” said Mincaye, one of the tribesmen who killed the missionaries.
When Auca became Christians, their violence ended, Micaye said.
“Now, those of us who walk God’s trail live happily and in peace,” Mincaye added. “Maybe if we had known sooner that ‘Waengongi’ (the Creator) did not see it well that people should live angry, hating, and killing for no reason, we could have walked God’s trail sooner.”
Some anthropologists, however, have condemned the missionaries for erasing the Waodani culture of violence and polygamy.
The plaque at Wheaton read: “For generations all strangers were killed by these savage Indians. After many days of patient preparation and devout prayer, the missionaries made the first friendly contact known to history with the Aucas.”
The Roys Report interviewed 14 students on campus at Wheaton. All said they agreed with Wheaton’s decision to change the plaque because of the word “savage.”
Sophomore and history major Bella Hicklin suggested that if an adjective had to be used, the plaque should say “aggressive,” rather than “savage.”
Secondary education major and freshman Aslin Tanco said the removal of the plaque was the right call.
“Wheaton’s doing a better job of trying to be mindful of the language that they’re using and how it harms people, especially indigenous people,” she said. “I don’t think reducing them to their violent tendencies is humanizing because they’re still created in God’s image. It’s also holding them to a Christian standard when they’re not Christians. They’re still people and they’re living life that is not the same as ours. Holding them to our standards wouldn’t necessarily be fair.”
Other students also agreed that Christians shouldn’t describe someone created in God’s image by their violent tendencies.
“The word ‘savage’ that they used should not represent humans,” said sophomore Christian formation major Colleen Davis. “The reason that Wheaton wants to change it is because that is not honoring them in the sense that we are all creations of God. Calling something that God has created a ‘savage’ is not giving it the honor that it’s due. We shouldn’t speak that identity over them.”
The school’s senior administrative cabinet will appoint a task force to recommend rewording, but college leaders and the board of trustees will make the ultimate decision.
Jackson Elliott is a Christian journalist trained at Northwestern University. He has worked at The Daily Signal, The Inlander, and The Christian Post, covering topics ranging from D.C. politics to prison ministry. His interests include the Bible, philosophy, theology, Russian literature, and Irish music.