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The life and legacy of William Cameron Townsend

August 2018 | by Ben Wilkerson

William Cameron Townsend
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‘The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It needs no furlough and is never considered a foreigner’ (William Cameron Townsend).

Since the days of the early church, scholars and pastors have sought to provide updated translations of the Holy Scriptures for the common man. What began as the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament epistles slowly became one book, encompassing the inspired and inerrant Word of God.

In its early days the Bible remained in Greek, until Jerome translated it into Latin for the Western church. ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures’, he said, ‘is ignorance of Christ’. A few centuries later his wise words had been forgotten, with the Bible only understood by priests and scholars. While there were some early exceptions, it was not understood in vernacular tongues until the 14th century.

Those exceptions included men like John Wycliffe and John Huss, who translated the Scriptures into English and Czech, respectively. John Wycliffe wrote: ‘The laity ought to understand the faith, and, since the doctrines of our faith are in the Scriptures, believers should have the Scriptures in a language familiar to the people, and to this end the Holy Ghost endued them with knowledge of all tongues’.

William Cameron Townsend, early 1917
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This was the vision that inspired William Cameron Townsend nearly 500 years later to pursue translating the Scriptures into native languages, and to found the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Language (SIL) in pursuit of that goal.

Translation

William Cameron Townsend was born into a humble farming family in California on 9 July 1896 and grew up in the Presbyterian Church. While not much is known of his origins, he attended Occidental College from 1914 to 1917.

During that time, he became involved with the Student Volunteer Movement and became deeply interested in mission work after hearing sermons on that subject. After graduating from the college, he and a friend visited Guatemala to sell Spanish Bibles to the locals.

To their surprise, they found that most of the local people spoke other minority languages. One man even rebuked him when Cameron tried to sell him a Spanish Bible, ‘Why, if your God is so smart, hasn’t he learned our language?’ (Brummel Allen, William Cameron Townsend: father of Wycliffe Bible translators and Summer Institute of Linguistics, Reformed Free Publishing Association, 3/1/2011).

This so impressed Townsend that he soon began working to learn and translate the Bible into the Cakchiquel language. During the early days of trying to transliterate this Latin American tongue into a written form, he met with an archaeologist who suggested he stop trying to impress a ‘Latin mold’ on the language and instead look for a pattern within the language.

This helped Cameron tremendously and he was soon able to make progress translating the Scriptures into Cakchiquel. This became the standard method Townsend taught other translators for the rest of his life and the model for Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL.

SIL

Cameron joined the Central American Mission (CAM) to continue his work translating the Scriptures. After he completed the New Testament in Cakchiquel, CAM urged him to stay and pastor the Cakchiquel Indians in the faith.

However, Cameron had a greater urge to translate the Scriptures than pastor a church, so he left CAM in 1934 and founded Camp Wycliffe, located in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, at Breezy Point.

Navaho language school teachers (WBT), 1956
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Townsend worked with L. L. Letgers and developed a curriculum for linguistics. He also used the nearby woods to train his first students in ‘wilderness living’. Although he only started out with three students and one Cakchiquel native speaker, the school gradually gained more students and was in session from 1934 to 1941, when Cameron Townsend renamed it Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), which it remains to this day.

Students learned phonetics and how to transcribe difficult sounds into an orthography. It was during this time that Townsend’s ‘psychophonemic method of teaching reading was formalised. A sympathetic understanding of minority peoples and cultures was stressed’ (SIL.org).

After his second year of teaching (1935), Townsend returned to Latin America (Mexico, specifically), where he worked with local governments to promote literacy and linguistic study in the minority languages. Even the president of Mexico, General Lázaro Cárdenas, visited the Townsends to see the marvellous work they were doing in the Náhuatl language.

Other skills

Not only were the Townsends teaching linguistics students how to teach and translate, but were also teaching local native speakers of Náhuatl how to read their own language. They taught them other valuable skills, such as planting orange trees and teaching women’s sewing classes.

This became a lifelong vision of Townsend, not only to translate and teach literacy, but to teach the ethnic tribes marketable skills. Today, SIL is an organisation that serves to train professionals in linguistics, whether involved in business, government work, or mission work, and to work in harmony with local governments and education boards.

When his first wife Elvira died in 1944, Cameron returned from the US to Mexico to continue translation work. After marrying his second wife, Elaine, in 1946, Townsend entered Peru to begin translating there, along with 20 other SIL students.

Due to the impenetrable rainforest, transporting supplies into the remote area of Yarinacocha was nigh impossible. However, friends donated a Catalina flying boat to Townsend and the work proceeded.

Plane used by JAARS
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In 1947, Cameron was involved in a serious accident. Cameron, his wife and six-month-old son were in a plane heading for Mexico, when the inexperienced pilot crashed the plane in a tree. Cameron became convinced that he needed trained pilots for SIL. The following year, Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) was born and has served to train pilots and supply transportation and training in remote areas.

Seventy years on, JAARS works with Wycliffe to build airstrips in remote mountain jungles, that help speed translation and the spread of the gospel in native languages.

Wycliffe Bible Translators

As the work of Townsend and SIL was growing in the 1940s, others wanted to start an organisation totally involved with Bible translation. In 1943, Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) was begun in the garage apartment of Bill Nyman.

Over the next several years, Wycliffe served as a sending agency for Bible translators trained at SIL, to translate languages into the Scriptures the world over. As SIL began teaching linguistics courses in various countries, by the start of the 1950s interest in Bible translation grew and national Wycliffe offices sprang up in the UK, Australia and Canada.

Over the next 40 years the number of translations grew as more countries opened up. By the 1990s, many Asian and central European countries were open and primed for the translation of the gospel in their mother tongue.

While SIL and Wycliffe remained historically close and often shared the same board, today they are two separate entities, working together to train people in linguistics.

People groups

Throughout his life, Cameron devoted himself to teaching linguistics and pursuing the translation of Scriptures into every language on earth. Early on, he was a pioneer in the idea of treating missions in an ethno-linguistic fashion.

By understanding the Great Commission as it related to people groups, he had the vision of reaching every people group — not just every nation — with the gospel. Today, out of over 7,000 living languages, WBT have translated portions of Scripture into over 3,300 languages.

As his work with SIL grew into other countries, Cameron Townsend was a busy man. He continued to teach linguistics and translate the Scriptures throughout Latin America, until 1968 when he moved to his home in Waxhaws, North Carolina (the home of JAARS). From there, he would often visit the former USSR to pursue the translation of the Scriptures.

Hundreds of languages were translated into the Scriptures during his lifetime. What a tremendous legacy! Cameron was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize shortly before his death from leukemia in 1982.

His other great legacies are the three institutions he founded or helped start: Wycliffe Bible Translators, Summer Institute of Linguistics and Jungle Aviation and Radio Service. Let us pray that more labourers will be raised up to translate the Scriptures and preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all unreached people groups.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.