Offensive language prompts Wheaton College to revise plaque for slain missionaries

  • Wheaton College leaders say they're addressing the "offensive" language in a plaque displayed in memory of five missionaries killed 65 years ago.

    Wheaton College leaders say they're addressing the "offensive" language in a plaque displayed in memory of five missionaries killed 65 years ago. Daily Herald file photo

Updated 3/19/2021 8:24 AM

Before the pandemic, Wheaton College students would often file past a tribute to five missionaries memorialized in a place of prominence on the evangelical Christian campus.

Today, there's a bare spot on the wall of the lobby in Edman Chapel.


The college has temporarily removed a plaque entreating students to "Go Ye and Preach the Gospel" and bearing the names of the missionaries who were killed by Indigenous people living in a remote region of Ecuador 65 years ago. The plaque was taken down after students and faculty members expressed concern about offensive language on the inscription, college President Philip Ryken wrote in a letter.

School leaders say they plan to put the plaque back on display in Edman Chapel sometime this summer once it's updated with appropriate wording.

"Specifically, the word 'savage' is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat Indigenous peoples around the world," Ryken wrote. "Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God."

Three of the five missionaries were Wheaton graduates -- Jim Elliot, Ed McCully and pilot Nate Saint -- who along with Roger Youderian and Pete Fleming were slain in 1956 by Waorani tribal members two days after making contact. Major national publications covered the deaths. The attention turned to an incredible story of forgiveness when several of the widows and their children went to live among the Waorani people to finish the mission started by their husbands.

The saga also inspired a film released on the 50th anniversary of the killings and the christening of Wheaton College buildings after Elliott, Saint and McCully.

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A college exhibit notes that almost all English-language articles and books about the deaths referred to the tribal members as the "Auca" people, a name they didn't use for themselves but one assigned to them by their neighbors in the region. The plaque also used that term.

"Most Westerners, including American missionaries, historically accepted the use of the name without question," the online exhibit states. "However, 'Auca' is an ethnic epithet, meaning in the most negative possible way a 'savage' or 'barbarian.' The Waorani themselves object strenuously to the term."

During this school year, concerns about the terms inscribed on the plaque were raised in comments and emails that Ryken and other members of the college's senior administrative cabinet received from about a dozen members of the campus community, including students, according to the school's spokesman.

The Class of 1949 donated the plaque to the college a year after the killings of their two classmates, Elliot and McCully.

A task force will review the wording of the plaque and make a specific recommendation for the changes by May 1, Ryken wrote. The revisions will be subject to a final decision by the administration in consultation with the board of trustees.

Members of the task force will include a faculty historian, a representative from the Alumni Association board, and graduate and undergraduate students.

"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," Ryken wrote, using another English rendering of the tribe's name.

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