Wheaton College plaque bearing offensive language to be replaced in the fall

  • Wheaton College will display a new plaque in memory of five missionaries killed 65 years ago.

    Wheaton College will display a new plaque in memory of five missionaries killed 65 years ago. Daily Herald file photo

Updated 5/24/2021 6:24 PM

Wheaton College this fall will dedicate a new memorial plaque in honor of missionaries who were killed 65 years ago while trying to spread Christianity to Indigenous people in the Amazonian region of Ecuador.

The school removed the original plaque in March after students and faculty objected to offensive language on an inscription labeling the Waorani tribe as "savage Indians."


The new inscription eliminates that term and contextualizes the story of the five young missionaries who were killed by tribal members in 1956.

Three of the five were Wheaton graduates -- Jim Elliot, Ed McCully and pilot Nate Saint -- who, along with Roger Youderian and Pete Fleming, were viewed as martyrs by generations of evangelical Christians.

The reworded plaque will replace the original in the same place of prominence on campus: the lobby of Edman Chapel, where students attending services see its message to "Go Ye and Preach the Gospel."

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

"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 people from every culture," Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said in a statement Monday. "We have also learned much more about God's ongoing work among the Waorani. We welcome this opportunity to ensure that we tell this unforgettable story in ways that reflect the full dignity of people made in the image of God."

A task force led by Wheaton College Alumni Association President Beverly Liefeld Hancock -- the daughter of Fleming's wife from her subsequent marriage -- re-examined the wording of the plaque.

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The committee also included a faculty historian as well as a graduate and undergraduate student. They recommended changes that were subject to a final decision by the college's senior administrative cabinet, in consultation with the board of trustees.

The inscription now describes the deaths of the missionaries as a "turning point for the Waorani and an inspiration for evangelical missions globally." Tribal members had been known for "their violence to encroaching outsiders and for internal cycles of vengeance killing," the plaque states.

"Inviting members of the men's families to live with them, the Waorani responded to the gospel and put down their spears," the new plaque reads. "God's redemptive story continues as the gospel is still shared among the Waorani to this day."

Elliot's widow, Elisabeth, and other family members of the slain missionaries went to live among the Waorani people to finish the mission started by their loved ones. The tribal members became her "dearest friends," Elliot's granddaughter said.


"She could have left that country so easily and gone to live in America where it was much more comfortable," Elisabeth Martin said in March. "But instead she stayed because she believed she still had a job to do, and it wasn't just a job to save a people. It was a job to give her life, just like her husband had promised to do."

Martin, who graduated from Wheaton in 2003, said she trusted that the college was going to do its "homework."

"That plaque's important," she said. "It's important that it be there, and I do hope they put it back up whether they have to change the wording or not. I hope that it's put back in that prominent place so that many other generations of students will be inspired by the story. Even the fact that it's getting this kind of interest I think will bring to light the true story."

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