Home Christian News UPDATE: Wheaton Removes Offensive Language From Missionary Jim Elliot Plaque

UPDATE: Wheaton Removes Offensive Language From Missionary Jim Elliot Plaque

waorani jim elliot

UPDATED May 25, 2021: Wheaton college announced Monday, May 24, 2021, that it will reword a plaque that hangs in the lobby of Edman Chapel honoring missionaries Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming. This comes after Wheaton president Philip Ryken removed the plaque in March 2021 because it used the word savage to describe the hostile indigenous tribe that killed the peaceful missionaries.

The college’s president said the school wanted to respect the Waorani tribe by not using a word that “has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.”

The statement from Wheaton College said: “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 they shared the gospel of the love of Christ.”

The plaque was given to Wheaton College by the Class of 1949, who were classmates of the slain missionaries. The new plaque will be rededicated this later this fall.

The plaque now reads:

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.


ChurchLeaders original article written on March 24, 2021 below:

In an effort to “reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God,” Wheaton College has announced it will appoint a task force to review and rephrase an insensitive description on a plaque. The on-campus memorial for five martyred missionaries, including Wheaton alumni Jim Elliot and Ed McCully, references their 1956 killing by “savage Indians” in Ecuador. The formerly unreached tribe had been known as Aucas, which means “savage” in the Quichua language. Now the group calls itself Waorani, also spelled Huaorani or Waodani.

Wheaton president Philip Ryken says the word savage “has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.” Rewording the plaque, he says, “will carry forward the memory at Wheaton College of brave missionaries and their sacrificial witness, while at the same time respecting the Waodani people with whom they shared the gospel of the love of Christ.”

Working to Avoid ‘Unnecessary Offense’ by Using ‘Waorani’

Joseph Moore, Wheaton’s marketing communications director, says administrative leaders decided to take steps to eliminate “unnecessary offense of pejorative stereotypes.” Over the years, he says, they’d received about a dozen comments about the questionable wording. “In the 64 years since the College received this gift,” says Moore, “we have also continued to grow in our understanding of how to show God’s love and respect to others.”

The plaque, dedicated in 1957, was a gift from Wheaton’s class of 1949, of which both Elliot and McCully were members. The missionaries’ story, Moore says, is central to Wheaton’s “mission and identity,” and it’s “a story we want the world to know.”

A task force consisting of various campus representatives is expected to make a recommendation for new wording by May 1. The school’s board of trustees and administrative cabinet will have final say, and a replacement plaque will be installed this summer.

In the year 2000, Wheaton changed its mascot name from the Crusaders to Thunder, noting that the institution didn’t “want to glorify” a violent period of Christianity.

Missions Attitudes Under Scrutiny

A reworded plaque also reflects how views of missions work have evolved. Missionary organizations now avoid what’s called the “white savior complex.” Mission to the World coordinator Lloyd Kim says Western missionaries consider themselves guests and follow the lead of national partners. “We’re trying to dispel the attitude that says, ‘We are the heroes coming to save you,’” he says. “We are coming in as learners.”

Elisabeth Elliot returned to live among the tribe that killed her husband, and its members eventually converted to Christianity. In her writings, Elliot attempted to change perceptions of the Waorani as savages and of Americans as saviors.

Lucy S.R. Austen, who’s writing a biography of Elisabeth Elliot, says evangelical Christians have tended to retell “the same streamlined version of events, with the same triumphal gloss” from the 1950s. “It seems to me,” Austen adds, “that white Americans tended to have a faulty understanding of non-Western cultures when the plaque was given, and that now that we know better, changing the plaque would be a great chance to do better.”

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 28 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her family.