Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall (Photo Credit: Wheaton College Website)

Wheaton College Removes Plaque Calling Tribe that Killed Jim Elliot ‘Savage’

By Jackson Elliott

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.”

Jim Elliot plaque. (Photo Credit: Kirsten Johnson)

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 ElliottJackson 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.

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79 thoughts on “Wheaton College Removes Plaque Calling Tribe that Killed Jim Elliot ‘Savage’”

  1. Shouldn’t the wording of the plaque be the decision of the believers who are from the Waodani tribe instead of the students or faculty? To do otherwise is another form of paternalism. Also, would it not be better to leave it up and then put a second plaque up that gives an update on language use and the spiritual impact that came about from this incident in 1956? To do otherwise is to miss the historical context and understanding of the 1950’s. If a second plaque was erected it too should be approved by the Waodani tribe.

    1. I suspect the Waodani would need to be taught that they should be offended. You’re spot-on with the paternalism charge.

  2. Perhaps any reference to satan as the “father of lies”, “wicked one”, “deceiver”, will be deemed insensitive and culturally unacceptable—-Oh, Holy God, may we use ONLY your Holy Word as (y)our measure of Truth & (y)our reckoning of evil!

    1. I think you may be missing the point. The Bible calls all people “sinners” not savages. The plaque should reflect what the Bible teaches about the human condition apart from Christ.

      1. Actually, Scripture uses the adjective “savage” in Acts 20:29, speaking of savage wolves that will not spare the flock of God (NASB).

        1. I think you are still missing the point: ALL people are fallen apart from the atonement of Christ. The missionaries bringing the Good News were also savages and sinners before accepting and living out Christ’s atonement. (See 1 Cor. 6:9-11). When you call a people now saved “savages” you elevate your own spiritual condition above others. Yet the bible does not do this. It calls for humility and awareness of our true condition apart from Christ.

  3. This is absolutely ridiculous and ignorant. The word indian is offensive, not savage. “For generations all strangers were killed by these savage Indians…”. Savage was and still is the appropriate adjective. It wasn’t a noun used to NAME them, it was an adjective describing the noun, indian. They weren’t Indians, they were Ecuadorians, if we want to be politically correct here. If they were called savages on the plaque, that could be offensive to some persons. But savage as a descriptor of that tribe at that time, IS absolutely accurate and appropriate. God never changes, but words, which ought not change either, are used by the devil to deceive and manipulate Christians by the boatload. Here is yet another example of wokeness destroying the intelligentsia of the church, and our Nation, and the world over.

    1. I do agree with you. I think it would be good for the tribe to add a second plaque describing the postive impact of the Gospel on them.

  4. This was so maddening that I feel I needed to comment twice. God holds all of us as sinners to the “Christian Standard” so the freshman stating we shouldn’t hold unsaved people to God’s standards, doesn’t fit God’s model. I suppose calling Hitler savage would be wrong, too? Or Stalin? Or the CCP? You can only be called savage if you’re a Christian who then acts savagely? Because then the judgment call is fair and unbiased? Come. On. ♠️
    Their own people described themselves as savage. And again, the term INDIAN ought to have been more concerning than an adjective.
    Paul said Whoremongers won’t inherit the kingdom of heaven and of such were some of you. Was it fair for Paul to name those yet whoremongering, whoremongers? And this plaque, at least from the wording quoted in the article, does not call them savages, but rather describes them as having BEEN savage Indians.

  5. James Lutzweiler

    The Aucas were savages, pure and simple. Lost savages, but still savages.

    The students who favor removing this precise noun savage history and grammar. They should take up knitting instead of Christian ministry or the profession of history.

    End of story.

    James Lutzweiler
    Archivist (1999-2013)
    Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

    1. hannahruth1947

      James Lutzweiler, I agree with you. Jesus taught me to judge things as they really are and not what they seem to be. There were no grey areas with God…..it’s black or it’s white and it’s yes or no because anything in between is evil.

  6. Has anyone here read FIVE WIVES by Joan Thomas? It’s a reconstruction in novel form of this famous story that’s raising a few eyebrows. I’ve spoken with the author who did a ton of research.

  7. This will be ignored or dismissed as cancel culture or an attempt to erase culture and history. Those who had the guts to address this sin and to take action to do something about it will be labeled racists for acknowledging racism. The truth is that plaque is another smoking gun and proof of white Christian institutions historically creating and perpetuating racism in the United States of America against certain groups of people. Though the victims of the slur were Ecuadorians, the term savage has deep roots in white Christian literature, society, teachings, and culture. It has been attached to Native Americans and African Americans as far back as the 13 colonies and the effects of labeling ANY people as less than human based on their race has had a devastating impact on this country. Kudos to Wheaton College for doing the right thing and helping to dismantle racism one piece at a time.

  8. This will be ignored or dismissed as cancel culture or an attempt to erase culture and history. Those who had the guts to address this sin and to take action to do something about it will be labeled racists for acknowledging racism. The truth is that plaque is another smoking gun and proof of white Christian institutions historically creating and perpetuating racism in the United States of America against certain groups of people. Though the victims of the slur were Ecuadorians, the term savage has deep roots in white Christian literature, society, teachings, and culture. It has been attached to Native Americans and African Americans as far back as the 13 colonies and the effects of labeling ANY people as less than human based on their race has had a devastating impact on this country.

    1. Well, Carla, the Vikings were savage. The Crusaders were savage. The Nazis were savage.The Comanches were savage. It is a word for a violent people or person. It perfectly describes the people at the time who slaughtered the missionaries. Some people groups are especially savage, as were the Waodani at the time.

    2. Oh Boy-Us WHITE Folk are the problem. We in America are ssoooooo oppressed. Please go live in the Mddle East, Russia, Sub Saharin Africa. If you raise your voice against a regime or switch to Christianity you may well just disappear or face a number of unpleasant consequences. We won’t even go into what women face.

    3. Carla, I was created “white” by the Creator Himself in His sovereignty. I didn’t choose my race or skin color. It was chosen for me. I suppose I could “identify” as some other race, if that might be helpful, but then I would be pretending to be something I am not.

    4. Carla, bringing race into this specific issue about a word on a plaque makes no sense, and says much more about your bias than any facts about this issue.

      Do you disagree that the Waodani people of 1956 could be accurately characterized as savage, or would you prefer another adjective like brutal or murderous? Would you have dared to try to make contact with them in 1956?

      Are you aware Wheaton College was founded by abolitionists, was a stop on the underground railroad, and was one of the first, if not the very first, colleges in Illinois with a black graduate?

  9. Some definitions of savage: a brutal person, a rude or unmannerly person, lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings. The Waorani tribesman would agree that, that would define them before they were saved. In fact, we were all savages before we were saved. I’m afraid we are going to soon learn how savage people can be apart from a relationship with Christ.

  10. Silly, silly little woke generation that thinks they are doing something noble and meaningful by toppling statues and changing words instead of actually investing their own time and resources to build into the lives of those they claim to care about. Just got back from my 6th trip to Kenya where I have used my own resources and all of my vacation time to go teach the Bible to the Maasai in the bush.
    Trust me, they are not concerned about the things this woke generation in America thinks are offensive.

    1. Strange how concerned this generation is for things that are temporal but little regard for the eternal.

  11. From a missions perspective, I think the correct way to handle this would be to ask the Christian leaders in the Waodani tribe for their input on how to go forward, as opposed to the faculty or student body of the school. To do otherwise seems paternalistic. An option that should be considered by them is to leave the plaque as is and add a second one that corrects the language used and provides an update on the Waodani tribe,

  12. The irony of this is that today Ed Stetzer who works at Wheaton College leading the Billy Graham Center had a program with a Guest Author on a book addressing “Progressive Christianity”. In which the author described as a “Cancer that needs to removed from the Evangelical Church”. Ed Stetzer: A guy who I consider an advocate of Progressive Christianity within the North Ametican Evangelical Christian Church promoting an author addressing “Progressive Christianity!” Just when I thought Ed Stetzer was redeeming himself this story from Wheaton College comes out clearing showing Progressive Christianity. What a joke Ed Stetzer is. I could probably characterize him worse than that.

    1. I severed my relations with Wheaton and the Alumni Ass’n about two “woke crises” ago. I wonder how the 200+ staff members who signed the “we hate Trump” letter back in January are feeling about the Biden administration now.

  13. Laurel J Howard

    I have a number of questions: 1) How did the Auca tribal members respond to Wheaton’s quest to change the plaque? 2) How did the survivor ‘s family members respond when asked by the College for their opinion on the plaque change? 3) How did the classes that paid for the plaque give their assent to changing the wording? 4) Will the current students objecting to t he original wording pay to replace the plaque for which they were offended?
    In my opinion, the College seems too concerned about transient things and unconcerned about living the motto of the school. The College seems lost in ennui to me.

  14. I went to Wheaton for two years and entered the chapel hundreds of times. I remember the faces of the two men on the plaque (and was in choir with the daughter of one of them) but not the inscription. You have to be searching for offenses to even notice the wording of the plaque. But twelve little culture warriors searching for microagressions made a fuss, and as usual, President Ryken caved in. His quote above is boilerplate woke-apology. The word “savage” is applied to anyone who acts savagely, no matter what their race. I don’t think you could describe the tragic event in the Ecuadorian jungle as anything but “savage.” I have seen one of those tribesmen speak in person, and he has been transformed by the Spirit of God.

  15. Spare a thought for the innocent people who will be savagely attacked after dark in the streets of Chicago tonight.

  16. Are we really arguing over the meaning of one word? “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.” 2 Tim. 2:14
    And boy this verse is just so straightforward and clear…

  17. So we are not concerned that the two missionaries were brutally murdered, we are just concerned that we use the word “savage” to describe the perps. Genius!

    1. Deborah Cagwin

      Hard to believe a dozen people can cause all this trouble! Not impressed with an organization to changes things because 12 people objected.

  18. simply refer to the tribe by what they choose as their preferred tribal name, whether it’s the Waodoni tribe or the Auca tribe… or??

  19. It must be hard to be Wheaton College’s president during these contentious times. And yet, I trust that President Ryken, a former pastor, would appreciate the fact that he missed an opportunity to teach well-intentioned students about linguistics, history, and the power of the Gospel that can convert and transform Waoroni “savages.” Perhaps it’s not too late for President Ryken to address this issue in a more accurate and effective way.

  20. It must be hard to be Wheaton College’s president during these contentious times. And yet, I trust that President Ryken would appreciate the fact that he missed an opportunity to teach well-intentioned students about linguistics, history, and the power and glory of the Gospel that is able to convert and transform murderous Waorani “savages.” Perhaps President Ryken would still be able to address this issue in a more accurate and effective way.

  21. Not having read Elisabeth’s book I had understood her and her husband as having influenced a savage CLAN to deciding (for themselves) on different ways. I think the old wording subtly shifted the focus onto a national, rather than a clan, one, amplifying the force of adjectives applied as contrasting identities.

    I didn’t up till now suppose those specific missionaries really did as they did for Wheaton, or for Americanism? Had the Elliotts’ grandparents similarly remoralised the Western crime syndicates? Did the unreformed syndicates see themselves as just as good Americans? How are the general public to take sub texts in the minds of alumni who get at other alumni? Easy: just substitute the word “clan”.

  22. As many colleges are fighting to survive from the financial crisis COVID created, I think a plaque is the least of our worries while trying to keep the college running without spreading COVID. I think it’s fine to remake the plaque. If the language is outdated enough to cause a problem, I don’t think it is a big deal to change it to “killed by Waodoni individuals” or something similar. Any language that isn’t dead changes slightly with time. As a Christian, I’m glad Christian colleges exist and hope they survive the strain of COVID, especially ones that actually teach Christ like Wheaton does instead of just having a nominal Christian heritage in the past.

  23. I’m not happy with the word savages and still not sure the best option. I’m worrying we are erasing history too much, which makes me like the explanatory plaque idea above.

    But I think the way we still call people of non Indian origin Indians is just as big a problem. It’s a little less offensive but we do it a lot. I’m all for the Canadian First peoples instead.

    1. Read the article and plaque: the word “savages” is not used, but rather “savage,” an adjective, resulting in a huge difference in the meaning.

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