William Cameron Townsend
“Understanding Scripture in a language other than the heart language in which we think and experience emotion is like trying to eat soup with a fork. You can get a little taste, but you cannot get nourished.” ― William Cameron Townsend
William Cameron Townsend, or Cam, was one of the most influential missions leaders in the last two centuries. He founded three organizations: Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS). These three have the purpose of promoting Bible translation among minority language groups.
Cam Townsend was born in 1896 in Southern California and attended a Presbyterian school in Los Angeles with aspirations to be a minister and go overseas. During Townsend’s sophomore year, the Student Volunteer Movement’s lead visionary, John R. Mott, visited his college and challenged students to give their lives to the evangelization of the world. Cameron met with Mott and joined the Student Volunteer Movement, taking one more concrete step towards a life devoted to the Great Commission.
But, there was a problem. He had previously joined the National Guard in 1917, and was prepared to serve his country in the war. But then someone persuaded him to meet with a missionary on furlough named Stella Zimmerman. When he, and a friend who was with him, told her that they were planning to go out with the National Guard, she said
“You cowards! Going to war where a million other men will go and leaving us women to do the Lord’s work alone! You are needed in Central America!” (Hefley & Hefley, 26).
Cam didn’t like being called a coward and thus decided to obey his SVM commitment and go to the mission field instead of to the battlefield. He put in a request to the National Guard to be allowed to go overseas as a missionary instead of as a soldier. To his surprise, his commander officer heartily agreed to let him go.
In 1917, Townsend started passing out Bibles in Guatemala among the Cakchiquel Indians. Many of the people he came in contact with had no idea who Jesus was. Whenever he would ask them, they would say “There is no Jesus who lives in our village; maybe he lives in the next village.” One day while he was passing out Bibles, Townsend struck up a conversation with an Indian man about God’s sovereignty and how all the answers to life’s questions can be found in the Bible. The Indian retorted back, “If your God is so smart, why can’t he speak my language?” Cameron had no words.
The question asked by the Indian haunted Townsend. Why wasn’t there a Bible translation in the Caqchikel language? This question tormented him to the point that he resolved to live among them long term so that he could translate the Bible into their language.
So Cam remained in Central America and spent years pulling his hair trying to understand this difficult language. One day, this discouraged translator was visited by an American archeologist who encouraged him to stop trying to fit the Cakchiquel language into an English-language structure, but instead to simply describe what he was seeing. Cam followed this advice and started to look for patterns within the language. It was organized differently than English was, but it was nonetheless still organized.
This advice set him on a trajectory of learning the language and would eventually lead him to starting a linguistics program to help other future translators do the same. Townsend labored among the Cakchiquels until the New Testament was completed. When that work was finally finished, a fellow missionary sat him down and said, “Now that you’ve finished the New Testament, your work is just beginning…You know their language and their ways. They believe in you. Go back and train more preachers” (Hefley & Hefley, 66).
Townsend, however, did not heed this counsel but instead broke with this mission agency. His heart burned for the many other tribes who were without Scripture at all and so he turned his attentions towards reaching them through mobilization and training efforts rather than settling down in one tribe to plant a church.
In 1934, Townsend started Camp Wycliffe as a training ground for future Bible translators. The camp was on a farm where the trainees could get used to living in places where there was no air conditioning, and no chairs for that matter. The students sat on barrels while learning the art of how to learn and describe unwritten languages.
This particular group of students was praying that they would have the opportunity to serve the various Indian tribes in Mexico. There were two women, Eunice Pike and Florence Hansen who wanted to live in a Mazateco village. One of Cam’s friends disapproved of Cam allowing these two women to be sent out alone into the village because he had heard that there was a lot of killing. Cam respected the opinion of his friend and shared his concerns with the two women. The two women looked at Cam in surprise and said “’Why, don’t you believe God can take care of us?” (Hefley & Hefley, 99). Taken aback, Cam replied, “If you put it that way, go ahead.” And so the two women set out to translate the Bible into the complicated Mazateco language.
His Passion that wouldn’t Die
After 50 years of ministry, instead of thinking about retirement, Cam decided to start all over in his translation work in a completely different are of the world: The Soviet Union. So, at 72, he flew to Mosco and started studding Russian for several hours a day and began conferring with linguistics and educators in the area.
However, Townsend was diagnosed with Leukemia in December 1981 and the doctors gave him several blood transfusions to keep him alive. On April 23, 1982 Townsend died peacefully at the age of 85 and yet his passion to see every people have the Word of God in their language lives on in thousands of Bible translators around the world. Even his grave stone located in Waxhaw, North Carolina calls out to the next generation: “‘Dear Ones: by love serve one another. Finish the task. Translate the Scriptures into every language.’ —Uncle Cam.
What we can Learn
There is much that we can learn, from the life of Cam Townsend but one thing that stands out to me is the idea that just as the Lord gives different people different passions within the local church, so he gives different people different passions within the missions world. And just as 1 Corinthians 12 tells us to honor and respect the different functions of the different members of the body of Christ within the local church, so I believe that we are to respect the different functions of the various members of the missions community.
It can be a temptation within missions to pit various ministries against one another and I think that when we do that we are pitting the hands against feet against eyes. We all have different passions, strengths, and weaknesses but we are all members of the body of Christ who are working together to see Jesus worshipped in every tribe, tongue and nation.
And so, for Dave and I, we would’ve stayed and planted a church among the people group that Cam decided to leave. But the truth is that we are not Cam Townsend and the fact that he left that village led to a training facility that has equipped hundreds to go out and translate the Bible around the world. We as the feet praise God for him, the eyes, who gave such vision to a remarkable organization.
And more than that, I pray that one day Cam Townsend could look down from Heaven and see every language community in the world able to see that God does in fact speak their language.
Stacey Hare (WT Cameroon)
A manuscript given to me by a friend, Lisa Lageorge, who presented on the life of Cameron Townsend at The Master’s University chapel.
Uncle Cam by James and Marti Hefley
From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker
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