William Cameron Townsend

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

William Cameron Townsend was one of the three most influential missions leaders in the last two centuries. This was the statement that Ralph Winter made after hearing that Townsend had passed away in 1982. ‘Cameron’ was born in California in 1896 into a time of poverty for the country. He was raised in the Presbyterian Church and decided to stay in California, enrolling in Occidental College in Los Angeles.

The influence of the Student Volunteer Movement, though in its early beginnings, had gained enough momentum to reach from the East coast to Cameron in the West. During Townsend’s junior year, the movement’s lead visionary, John R. Mott, visited Occidental and challenged students to give their lives to the evangelization of the world in this generation. Cameron met with Mott and joined the SVM, committing his life to the Great Commission. He had joined the National Guard in 1917, and was prepared to serve his country in the war, when he was challenged by a missionary on furlough to obey his SVM commitment and go to the mission field instead of the battlefield. He applied for a discharge in order to become a missionary to Guatemala and was surprised to get it approved by his commanding officer.

Cam left for Guatemala in August 1917, with a Bible association that sold Spanish Bibles there. He was serving a one year commitment in Guatemala, and almost finished when, on one day, something radically changed his perspective and eventually the course of missions history. One afternoon, one of the Cakchiquel Indians that Cameron had been living among last few months, approached his table and looked curiously at the Spanish Bible, asking what it was. Townsend explained to him that it was the words of God, the creator of all mankind. The man replied, sarcastically to Cameron, “If your God is so smart, why doesn’t he speak my language?” Cameron was stunned to find that this man, though he lived in Guatemala, was one of the 200,000 Cakchiquel people and spoke zero Spanish.

The cutting remark left Cameron with a scar that he would never get rid of. It began to burden him that there were thousands of individuals, and hundred of other tribes, without one page of scripture in their language. Townsend would not return from his one year missions trip. In fact, he dedicated the next 13 years of his life to Cakchiquel Indians, translating the Bible into their language in an incredible 10 years. Cameron allowed the gospel to interrupt the course of his life. He began an organization known as Wycliffe Bible Translators, named after the Reformation hero who first translated the Bible into English.

Concerned about other minority language groups, Townsend opened Camp Wycliffe in Arkansas in the summer of l934. The camp was designed to train young people in basic linguistics and translation methods. Two students enrolled. The following year, after a training session with five men in attendance, Townsend took the five to Mexico to begin field work. From this small beginning has grown the worldwide ministry of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Wycliffe Associates. No cultural group is considered too small, no language too difficult. Pioneering continues as several thousand workers break new ground in many parts of the world. The highest standards of linguistics and anthropological orientation are upheld. Service is stressed. All field work is done in cooperation with host governments, universities and philanthropic groups. Portions of the Christian Scriptures are translated for people in their mother tongue, the language of their hearts.

“Uncle Cam” as he is known by Wycliffe staff was also credited for beginning the final missions era that we are living in today. It is an era that focuses not on just reaching continents and inland countries, but on every distinct ethnic group, or people group in the world. This people group focus, taken from the original meaning of the word ‘nations’ (ethnos) as it was used in the New Testament and in the Great Commission, is the commitment to pioneer into every ethno-linguistic group. Cameron truly was one of the greatest missionary pioneers of our time. Today Wycliffe has the goal of translating the Bible into every language on the earth. Currently, there are over 3,000 languages without scripture, but 4,000 have at least portions in their dialect, all because Cameron stumbled on the idea of People Groups.

By Claude Hickman