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Wheaton College to alter missionary Jim Elliot's memorial plaque to nix 'pejorative' wording

Wheaton College to alter missionary Jim Elliot's memorial plaque to nix 'pejorative' wording

The sign on the campus of Wheaton College display's the Illinois evangelical institution's motto. | Wikimedia Commons/Christoffer Lukas Müller

Wheaton College announced its plan to rephrase dehumanizing wording included on a plaque honoring Christian martyr Jim Elliot and the four missionaries killed by the Waorani people in Ecuador due to “pejorative” language referring to the tribe as “savage.”

In a letter sent to students, faculty and staff last Wednesday, the Illinois-based evangelical higher education institution's president, Philip Ryken, said some individuals recently expressed concerns that the language on the plaque was offensive.

“Specifically, the word ‘savage’ is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world,” Ryken said in the letter obtained by The Christian Post. “Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God.”

The class of 1949 dedicated the plaque on Jan. 8, 1957, in memory of Edward McCully and James Elliot, both from the class of 1949. They were murdered while sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an unreached people group in Ecuador during "Operation Auca."

The plaque stated that Elliot and McCully and their colleagues “went to the mission field, willing for ‘anything — anywhere regardless of the cost.’ They chose the jungles of Ecuador – inhabited by the Auca Indians 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.”

Wheaton College's plaque honoring martyr Jim Elliot and four other slain missionaries will be reworded by May 1, 2021, to remove stereotypical language referring to a people group as "savage." | Wheaton College Marketing Communications

The plaque further explains that on Jan. 8, 1956, Elliot, McCully and the three other missionaries were “brutally slain — martyrs for the love of God” by the Auca Indians, who speared them to death.

Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth Elliot and their three-year-old daughter, Valerie, went to live with the tribe that killed her husband to share the Gospel with them two years after his death, according to Bethany Global University. The Auca tribe finally accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior in 1960. 

Joseph Moore, Wheaton’s director of marketing and communications, told CP in an email that the administrative cabinet decided to update the plaque to “continue to honor the sacrificial witness of the five missionaries it honors while at the same time avoiding the unnecessary offense of pejorative stereotypes.”

The college made a public statement to inform community members and practice transparency in decision making, Moore said.

“This is especially important for a story that is central to our mission and identity — a story we want the world to know. Wheaton College will always honor Jim Elliot and Ed McCully — along with Nate Saint ’50, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming — who died in service to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Moore wrote. “In the 64 years since the College received this gift, we have also continued to grow in our understanding of how to show God’s love and respect to others.”

Moore said feedback regarding this decision from former students who are missionaries or former missionaries has been “extremely positive.”

Wheaton’s senior administrative cabinet will appoint a task force to review the plaque’s wording and make a rephrasing recommendation by May 1. The ultimate decision lies with the cabinet in addition to the board of trustees. 

The task force will consist of a faculty historian, a faculty missiologist, a representative from the Wheaton College Alumni Association’s 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,” Ryken’s letter expressed.

The plaque will return to the lobby of the Edman Chapel this summer once the wording is updated.

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