WILLIAM CAMERON TOWNSEND

Born JULY 9, 1896

 “The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It needs no furlough and is   never considered a foreigner.”

William Cameron Townsend. [PD-USA]

William Cameron Townsend. [PD-USA]

Those words became the motto of the man behind Wycliffe Bible Translators,  without a doubt the 20th century’s greatest Bible translating organization. William Cameron Townsend, like missionary James Hudson Taylor,  is often not known by his first name. He became “Cameron” to many and simply “Cam” to others.

Both his general and spiritual education began in his hometown of Downey, California. As a teenager, he joined the Presbyterian church his family attended.

TO THE RESCUE

To further his education, Cameron entered the Presbyterian-owned Occidental College in Los Angeles. In his junior year, he heard guest speaker John Mott of the Student Volunteer Movement. Mott challenged students to commit their lives to missionary service. His passion captured Cameron’s attention. He personally met with John and signed up to go to those who had never heard the gospel.

At that time, America’s involvement in World War I seemed inevitable. Cameron enlisted in the National Guard.  When America entered the war, a missionary pressed upon him to seek a deferment so he could instead serve God in the fight for souls. His captain accepted Cam’s request, telling him, “Go. You’ll do a lot more good selling Bibles in Central America than you would shooting Germans in France.” So instead of Europe, Cameron headed for Latin America to hold services and sell Bibles in Guatemala.

A Guatemalan marketplace. [Photo by Chensiyuan]

A Guataemalan marketplace. [Photo by Chensiyuan]

His breakthrough came toward the end of his first year in the villages of the Cakchiquel Indians. On that day Cameron walked into a beer garden to distribute the gospel. He offered a tract to a native sitting at one of the tables, drinking. The man said, “Sorry senor, but I cannot read.” However, when Cameron left, the man followed him, saying, “Amigo, I have a friend who reads. If you will sell me the little book, por favor?” Cameron gave the native the tract and invited him to a Sunday service. The man showed up and responded at the close of the service to become a Christian.

WITH A NEW TESTAMENT

Nearly a year of travelling through other Latin American countries increased Cam’s desire to take the gospel to that part of the world. The extended assignment led to another aspect of his future: He met a young female missionary who felt the same call. Cameron and Elvira married in July of 1919. Together, they started a mission school.

Cameron and Elvira Townsend in Guatemala. [PD-1923]

Cameron and Elvira Townsend in Guatemala. [PD-1923]

Cameron wanted to create a written language for the Cakchiquel Indians. He developed a method for gradually introducing the language in written form, writing primers to aid both children and adult students.

His biggest dream (up to then) was to translate the entire New Testament into the Cakchiquel language. Cameron tackled his vision with fervor. However, there were delays. Among other setbacks, Cameron contracted tuberculosis. He returned to California to recover, eventually completing the Bible in 1929, after ten full years.

FOLLOWING A REFORMER

Cameron’s dream expanded. Why shouldn’t other tribes without written languages have translations in their native tongue? So in 1934, he initiated the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) on a farm in Arkansas to train workers to translate. SIL grew year after year.

John Wycliffe. [PD-1923]

John Wycliffe. [PD-1923]

He named the location Camp Wycliffe, after John Wycliffe, the 14th century translator of the English Bible. In 1942, Cameron incorporated his missionary work as Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Lazaro Cardenas, the president of Mexico, invited Cameron in 1936 to bring a team to help those of his country who had no written language. Cam agreed.

After World War II, the ministry grew even further.  One boost in interest and support came in 1956 after the violent deaths of SIL graduate Jim Elliot and his fellow martyrs. Their deaths at the hands of the Ecuadorian Indians that they were trying to help inspired others to willingly commit to the cause of spreading the gospel to those who had never heard it.

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH

In 1942, the year Cameron incorporated Wycliffe Bible Translators, American universities began requesting classes teaching the SIL linguistics method. The following year Elvira died, adding sorrow to the joy of those years of progress and expansion.

A JAARS King Air in the Hangar. [PD-USA]

A JAARS King Air in the Hangar. [PD-USA]

Cameron formed the final arm of his ministry in 1948: Jungle Aviation and Radio Service. He started JAARS to pilot and keep in contact with missionaries in the jungle.

During the 1960s, Wycliffe gained a presence in Africa and Asia.

When Cameron died from leukemia on April 23, 1982, he’d given over 60 years of his life to helping groups of people around the world receive God’s word in their native language. By the year 2000, Wycliffe Bible Translators had made the New Testament accessible in nearly 500 languages.

LET ME KNOW: How has Cameron’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.

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About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
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