A Christian college in Illinois removed a plaque commemorating a group of martyred missionary alumni because the word “savage” was used to describe members of an indigenous tribe who speared them to death in Ecuador.
Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., plans to hand the plaque over to a task force that will decide how to reword the apparently offensive language, according to an email that was first reported by The Spectator.
“Recently, students, faculty, and staff have expressed concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive,” president Philip Ryken said. “Specifically, the word ‘savage’ is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.”
“For generations all strangers were killed by these savage Indians,” the plaque says in part. “After many days of patient preparation and devout prayer, the missionaries made the first friendly contact known to history with the Aucas.”
The plaque was gifted to the school by the 1949 class in 1957 in an effort to remember their slain classmates, who were killed in 1956 during their attempt to bring the gospel to violent Huaorani, or Auca Indians, in their rainforest buried in Ecuador.
Missionaries James Elliot and Ed McCully, along with a number of others, initially made friendly contact with the tribe and exchanged gifts for several months, according to reports.
It was on Jan. 8 in 1956 that a group of Huaorani warriors attacked them, spearing them to death and dumping their bodies in the river.
It would be several years before Elliot’s wife Elisabeth, and another missionary’s sister, traveled to Ecuador to minister to the Huaorani who had killed their loved ones. Many in the tribe converted to Christianity, including some of the warriors who had killed the missionaries. As a result, the tribe stopped their bloodthirsty ways.
The full text of Ryken’s letter can be read below:
I write regarding the plaque hanging in the lobby of Edman Chapel that honors Jim Elliot ’49, and Ed McCully ’49, who—along with Nate Saint Ex ’50, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming—were slain in 1956 while endeavoring to carry out the Great Commission with indigenous peoples of Ecuador. In a heartfelt act of remembrance, the Wheaton College Class of 1949 gave this plaque to the College in 1957 to honor their fallen classmates and their colleagues.
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. Recently, students, faculty, and staff have expressed concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive. Specifically, the word “savage” is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world.
Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God. With this in mind, the Senior Administrative Cabinet will appoint a task force to review the wording of the plaque and to make a specific recommendation by May 1 for its careful rewording and replacement, subject to a final decision by the Senior Administrative Cabinet, in consultation with the Board of Trustees. Members of the task force will include a faculty historian, a faculty missiologist, a representative from the Wheaton College Alumni Association Board of Directors, a graduate student, and an undergraduate student.
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 Waodani people with whom they shared the gospel of the love of Christ. It will resume its place in the lobby of Edman Chapel sometime this summer.