Keeping company with governments can be a liability in these times of political instability.

Chester Bitterman’s body was found, blindfolded, propped up on the front seat of a bus, with a single bullet wound through the heart. The revolutionary M-19 movement that had kidnapped him left one last vestige of their presence: a red-and-black guerrilla army flag enshrouding his body.

It was a rainy, oppressive day: March 7, 1981. Word spread quickly through the streets of Bogotá, and finally a shopkeeper banged on the gate of Brenda Bitterman’s residence and informed her with a shout, “They’ve found Chet’s body in a bus!”

The Christian world, anxious and prayerful during the 48 suspenseful days of captivity, experienced a numbing sense of déjà vu. It had happened before, this paroxysm of sadness and shock, the massive world attention focused on missionaries in South America, the word “martyr” slipping into press accounts, the dedicated servant taken. Minds went back 25 years to that haunting day in 1956 when a plane, stripped of its skin, was found on Ecuador’s Curaray River, and sprawled beside it the murdered bodies of five young missionaries.

The Auca slaughter ultimately proved to be a watershed of modern missions. The missionaries’ sacrifice galvanized the Christian community. Hundreds of young people volunteered to replace the missionaries who had fallen. Cornell Capa’s remarkable sequence of photographs in Life elicited more response from readers than had any other story in the magazine’s history. Eventually, Elisabeth Elliot, wife of one of the martyrs, would emerge as an author to tell the complete story.

Chet Bitterman’s death in Colombia evoked a similar response. Newspapers filled their front pages with accounts of his kidnapping and attempts to explain the work of his organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators. More important, at memorial services, hundreds of young people volunteered to “go and take Chet’s place.”

Yet the Auca and M-19 tragedies are marked by profound differences that signify epochal changes that have occurred in the last 25 years of foreign missions. On reflection, the Auca tragedy appears as a simple black-and-white affair. It occurred when America was riding a wave of postwar popularity, before Vietnam, and before many of communism’s advances.

Five clean-cut, smiling, good-natured men descended like gods from advanced civilization into the heart of the land of savages. They were attacked without provocation, killed by Auca spears. In a sense, they symbolized America the virtuous, attempting to bring the best values and the best of civilizations to a world trapped in darkness. No editorials anywhere extolled the cause of the Aucas or questioned the inherent rightness of the five missionaries’ goals.

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Chet Bitterman died in a vastly changed world. Everything is messier now, less clear-cut. The press in Latin America devoted as much space to complaints about Wycliffe as to the details of the guerrillas’ crime. Bitterman, too, was seen as an agent of America, but this time it was a damning charge: DID HE WORK WITH THE CIA? headlines asked. References to liberation theologians, revolutionaries, and embittered anthropologists mingled in press reports along with explanations of Wycliffe’s mission.

The world has changed, and no Christian organization feels it more acutely than Wycliffe Bible Translators. It is a movement that has achieved phenomenal success in less than 50 years of existence. Tremors, signs of warning, have been building in intensity for the past decade. Partly because of its success and resultant visibility, and partly because of its unique modus operandi, Wycliffe will be near the epicenter of change for the next few years. Other mission agencies will watch the impact on Wycliffe and adapt accordingly.

Wycliffe’S History Of Controversy

Controversy is hardly new to Wycliffe. The organization has endured a series of mind-boggling accusations over the years. Rumormongers in Peru in the 1950s accused Wycliffe of boiling Indian babies to produce jet fuel. In 1972, Colombian authorities took other rumors so seriously that a unit of the Colombian army descended upon Wycliffe’s main center, Loma Linda. A three-day search of a lake by frogmen failed to turn up any sign of the suspected underwater missile base and uranium mine, and Wycliffe was allowed to continue operations.

Wycliffe has also faced bitter criticism from within evangelical ranks. Some of the grumblings in the 1950s centered on Wycliffe’s practice of transporting nuns and priests in their airplanes. Other missionaries decried such acts of kindness toward a Catholic church that, in those pre-Vatican II days, often opposed evangelical work.

Cameron Townsend, Wycliffe’s founder and president, would not budge despite withering attacks. “How can I let a sick nun languish in a jungle outpost when we have the capacity, with our airplanes, to bring her to a hospital?” he asked. “Aren’t we there to serve?” In fact, he went out of his way to cultivate friendships with Catholics, preparing packages of cookies and newspapers for his jungle pilots to drop off at Catholic mission stations. The furor in the U.S. became so heated, however, that Wycliffe decided to resign from the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association in 1959.

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The Christian world has changed in 25 years too.

Today the issues facing Wycliffe are more political in tone. Topping the list in Third World countries is the suspicion that Wycliffe cooperates with the CIA. Newspapers in some Latin American countries daily carry major stories accusing Wycliffe of a CIA connection. In the Third World, there is no more damning calumny.

No one has yet been able to produce evidence substantiating the CIA charge, although journalists have spent months looking for corroborating evidence. Wycliffe officials insist their organization is clean. Most of the charges, they say, originated in the murky swamps of Vietnam. There, after Wycliffe linguists trained Montagnard tribesmen to read and write, CIA agents swiftly brought in their own favorite reading materials: booklets on how to use M-16 rifles and blow up bridges. “How can we be held responsible for what they read?” asks one Wycliffe executive. “We are not censors, just linguists and educators. We merely translate the Bible, but we certainly cannot control what else a culture reads.”

In training programs, Wycliffe tells its members that any who willingly give information to the CIA will be dismissed. At least five times CIA officials have asked Wycliffe executives for access to information and have been refused. In three countries, Wycliffe has been the channel for AID funds earmarked for schools and supplies, and the U.S. has admitted some CIA influence on the use of other AID funds. Other than that very tenuous link, however, no questionable practices have surfaced.

Why, then, do charges linking Wycliffe and the CIA proliferate? Third World critics of all persuasions know that a CIA stigma would permanently stain the reputation of Wycliffe and hamper its effectiveness in their countries. Repetition of the charge thus creates an underlying suspicion about the organization and keeps governments friendly to Wycliffe on the defensive. In addition, Wycliffe’s efficient fleet of 55 planes and 12 helicopters, and its network of radios linking jungle outposts, raise questions.

What are they up to out there? people wonder. Are they really devoting all that time, energy, and money to the simple goal of translating the Bible? Surely something else is going on.

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Besides the CIA charge, Chester Bitterman’s kidnappers took up the ubiquitous rallying cry of anthropologists: Christian missions are destroying indigenous cultures. Mission leaders bristle at this criticism, and counter it with numerous stories of how modern missions have helped, not harmed, indigenous cultures. Yet most mission leaders will freely admit many past mistakes. Especially when under the influence of colonialism, missions were extremely insensitive to existing cultures.

To be sure, missionaries are not the only culprits. Modern technological civilization rumbles like a steamroller through world cultures with or without missionaries. Ethnic minorities in Russia, China, and Arabia have hardly fared better.

In fact, Wycliffe should offer a less inviting target on this issue than other missions. They try to preserve native languages—an act that almost assures a culture will persist in some form despite the inroads of civilization. Still, subtle influences of Western dress, lifestyle, and patterns of thinking leak out and affect the tribes Wycliffe works with.

Education opens the door to other, more sinister forces: land speculators, businessmen, oil explorers. Anthropologists point with despair to the Aucas, who, because of world attention, have been severely disrupted by modern civilization. Now Dayuma’s son Sammy, educated in the U.S., runs a tourist business based in Quito. He flies the curious into the jungle for a firsthand look at the Aucas.

Criticism from anthropologists will only increase in coming years as the number of isolated tribes available to study continues to shrink. Many anthropologists, as cultural relativists, heatedly oppose the introduction of Christian values into cultures. Loud complaints will come from such organizations as the London-based Survival International, which espouses the preservation of indigenous cultures. Survival’s U.S. branch is headed by Jane Safer, wife of newsman Morley Safer. In the spring of 1981, Survival International hosted a symposium in Manhattan that focused publicity on their objections to Christian missions.

A Bold Move

Anthropologists do not normally single out Wycliffe for criticism; they strike out against the entire missionary movement. In the realm of politics, however, Wycliffe stands alone among missions. To understand the reasons, it is necessary to trace some of the chief distinctives of Wycliffe as developed by its founder, Cameron Townsend. Surely one of the most successful and innovative mission leaders, Townsend is still going strong at the age of 85. His career in missions began in 1917 when he went to Guatemala under the Central American Mission as a Bible salesman.

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Associates talk of Townsend’s single-mindedness: he has clung doggedly to a handful of principles throughout his long career. One, of course, is his insistence on the need for Bible translation. He learned that lesson when he realized 60 percent of Guatemala’s Indian population could not speak Spanish. “What am I doing selling Spanish Bibles to people who cannot understand them?” he asked himself.

So, with no linguistic training and not even a college degree, Townsend settled down in a small Cakchiquel Indian village and promptly translated the New Testament. His translation, with no modern tools, took only 11 years of work, whereas it takes two well-trained linguists an average of 15 years to accomplish the same task today. (Linguist Kenneth Pike likens Townsend’s translation effort to “learning brain surgery with no formal training.”)

In his spare time, Townsend supervised 20 Indian preachers and founded five schools, a clinic, a printing press, an orphanage, and a coffee cooperative.

His flurry of activity taught him another lesson, though negatively: do one thing, and do it well. It may be possible to master one language with all those ancillary projects going on, but what about 500 or 1,000 languages? As Townsend learned more about the immense need for Bible translation, he founded a school, the Summer Institute of Linguistics. There he stressed the need to concentrate on the singular goal of translation.

Townsend indelibly learned one more lesson in his early days in Guatemala: cooperate with the local authorities. Being a pragmatic sort, he arrived at the principle while being dragged before the mayor of a town for distributing Bibles without permission. Townsend apologized profusely, and tucked away in his mind a principle he has never forgotten. “Missionaries are guests,” he says, “and the government is the host. We must treat them like hosts by getting advance permission for the work which we do.”

While other missions were striving for a low profile—especially in Latin America, where the government and Catholic church were so closely intertwined—Wycliffe boldly came out of the closet. Townsend spent long hours sitting outside government offices, waiting for appointments, and planning official ceremonies to involve local officials. When the Cakchiquel New Testament was finally published, the first copy went to the president of Guatemala.

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“We are here to serve the government,” Townsend concluded. “They are our best ally in the goal of linguistics and literacy.” Wycliffe is unique among modern missions in this respect. It reports to the government, not to the national church. In most cases, its work in a country is defined by a contract with the government.

Townsend’s innovation, which contradicted everything anyone knew about mission strategy to that point, seemed prophetic from the start. After Guatemala, Townsend approached Mexico—hardly a likely frontier for foreign missions in the early 1930s. A revolutionary-minded government was busily shuttering churches, banning the import of Bibles, and generally causing havoc in religious circles. In his disarming, persistent manner, Townsend plugged away at the authorities, trying to convince them of the need to help their indigenous Indian peoples. Before long, he had a contract with the Mexican government and, amazingly, Wycliffe members were partially paid by the government. For decades Wycliffe members enjoyed special favors not granted to other missionaries: instead of having to renew a visa every six months, for example, they gained permanent residency status.

Townsend perfected his governmental relations technique with Mexico’s President Lázaro Cárdenas. After his first wife’s death, his second marriage occurred in Cárdenas’s house, with Cárdenas serving as best man. Townsend wrote a biography of Cárdenas, and argued his bitterly contested case for expropriation of U.S. oil companies before the most hostile audience imaginable, the United States Senate. For his part, Cárdenas granted Wycliffe land and buildings, and even donated an airplane for the fledgling work in Peru.

The pattern continued in Peru, Ecuador, the Philippines, and Colombia. Other non-Wycliffe missionaries, accustomed to being reviled in the local press, were astonished to see pictures of Townsend popping up all over: standing in front of airplanes with air force generals, dedicating a new school, opening a mission base, receiving awards from national presidents. Obviously, mild-mannered Uncle Cam was on to something.

It took a few decades for other missionaries to adjust to Wycliffe’s distinctives. Tinges of jealousy appeared as they watched Wycliffe’s cozy relationship with governments earn such lagniappes as hassle-free visas, suspended import taxes, cheaper fuel.

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Then, of course, there was that problem with the Catholics. Dropping off cookies to nuns and priests? Who were they serving down there anyway? On that point, Wycliffe was unequivocal. We’re here, they said, to serve everyone who can help us with our goal of translation. It was radical missiology at its best.

Two, Not One

Some Wycliffe workers even started feeling uncomfortable with the word “missionary.” “We’re really linguists,” says Townsend. “When an ordained minister joins us, we effectively defrock him. We ask him not to marry or bury people. In fact, I discourage Wycliffe members from speaking in churches on the field. Universities, yes, but not churches. It’s too easy to get caught up in other Christian work and lose our identity as translators of the Bible.”

From its earliest days, Wycliffe was not one organization, but two. In the U.S., members are known as Wycliffe Bible Translators. Overseas, and in academic communities, many have never heard of “Wycliffe”; there, the group is known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Wycliffe personnel are members of both organizations, and the two groups have identical boards. National governments find it easier to work with the nonreligious-sounding SIL. American supporters find it easier to support the religious-sounding WBT.

The WBT/SIL distinction has raised eyebrows overseas, and in Christian circles in the U.S. Are they ashamed of being missionaries? some wonder. Are they going liberal? Why don’t they want countries to know they are Bible translators?

In truth, Wycliffe has insisted on a doctrinally pure membership. Many of its members are trained by the same Bible colleges and seminaries as members of any other mission. They sign a comprehensive statement of faith, and show the same outward signs of evangelical fervor as other missionaries.

The decision to specialize in linguistics grew out of Townsend’s commitment to the most expedient way to accomplish his goals. He believed missionary work, as traditionally understood, would result. And his thesis has indeed proved out. After a Wycliffe linguist translates the Bible for a language group, converts result and churches spring up. After decades of discouraging missionary work, a virtual revival broke out among the Navajo Indians when a Bible was finally published in their language. There are no “Wycliffe churches” as such, but hundreds of churches and hundreds of thousands of believers have grown out of Wycliffe’s work.

So convinced is Townsend of his calling that Wycliffe works with any language group, regardless of size. Chet Bitterman, for example, was headed for a tribe with only 125 members. Church-growth advocates wince when they hear of extensive resources being poured into dwindling peoples. But Wycliffe executives reply, “No one complains about a U.S. pastor with a congregation of 125. And besides, Jesus taught we should leave the 99 and go to any length to find one lost sheep. Our mission is to the neglected people—the 5 percent who have no written language.”

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Except for minor skirmishes, the main arena of conflict today is not in the Christian community. Wycliffe Bible Translators has earned the respect of missions and churches worldwide. Townsend is seen as a brilliant pioneer. People may criticize his methods, but the results speak for themselves.

Criticism over Wycliffe’s distinctives comes instead from the political arena, from groups like the M-19 guerrillas in Colombia. The political world has metamorphosed, and Wycliffe’s future hangs in the balance. When Cam Townsend first went to Guatemala, communism was still merely a theory being debated in coffeehouses. The world then was divided up in a mosaic pattern among a handful of colonial empires, and hundreds of different tribes and languages thrived, undetected, under jungle canopies. All that has changed.

Wycliffe’s affiliate, SIL, still has cordial, even enthusiastic, relationships with many governments. Its leaders point to invitations from new countries. And in Colombia, government ties proved crucial in the Bitterman episode. The Colombians honored their contract with Wycliffe, despite intense pressure for them to reconsider.

But in other countries, government ties have sometimes proved to be a liability. For example, when President Carter spanked the regime in Brazil for its human rights violations, Brazil “coincidentally” restricted Wycliffe’s work. In Peru, the government yielded to pressure and asked Wycliffe to leave, until a chorus of doctors, lawyers, educators, generals, and politicians rose up in its defense. Ecuador clamped down on Wycliffe activity—Ecuador, home of the Aucas! And, in the ultimate insult, beloved Mexico ended its historic special relationship with Wycliffe and refused to grant any more permanent residencies. Nigeria and Panama asked all Wycliffe workers to leave.

These abrupt turns in Wycliffe’s relationship to foreign governments relate not so much to changes in Wycliffe as to massive shifts in the Third World. Nationalism is the most potent force in Third World politics. Nationalistic politicians bristle at the thought of their people needing outside help. Some view Wycliffe’s well-run, comfortable centers as pockets of capitalistic influence, and Wycliffe linguists as agents of U.S. imperialism. In addition, governments have the habit of toppling. Who is in today may be out tomorrow. If Wycliffe is closely allied to an existing government, it can easily become a casualty when a successor government ushers in sweeping reforms.

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Even with the Christian community, Wycliffe attracts criticism for its willingness to work with oppressive regimes. Sojourners and The Other Side question the advisability of a contractual arrangement with a regime like that of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Wycliffe responds: “We are their guests. If we foment unrest, we’ll be asked to leave. Then who will help the Indians?”

While Wycliffe slogs through the increasingly turbid political morass, other missions face equally complex issues with the national church. How closely should they be allied? Who should serve whom? Wycliffe makes an end run around those problems by bypassing the national church and pioneering mainly among people who have no church.

Cam Townsend was the first major mission leader to espouse the planned obsolescence of missionaries. He insists that when a linguist’s task is finished—meaning a grammar, basic literacy tools and a published New Testament—that linguist should move on. Some Wycliffe members are now tackling their third language. In Bolivia, Wycliffe is preparing to pull out voluntarily since all its work there is drawing to completion. Wycliffe plans a ceremony, hoping that the attention will help convince doubters that they have no ulterior motives or desire to stay after their goals are completed.

The Future

Obviously, Wycliffe has done something right. The problems it faces now are outgrowths of its success and visibility. In less than 50 years it has grown from one employee to 4,255, making it the largest independent mission in history. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Bible had been translated into 67 languages. Now portions of it exist in 1,700 languages, translation work progresses in 1,200 more, and work begins in a new language even 13 days. Much of this energy has spun out centrifugally from the vision of Cameron Townsend.

Unlike some missions, Wycliffe has the luxury of easily understood, quantifiable goals. Other missions espouse such goals as “evangelizing the world,” but centuries of effort have produced minimal effect in places such as Japan and the Moslem world. In contrast, one can tally the number of languages in the world and graph out exactly what is needed to reduce all of them to writing.

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For Wycliffe, one language requires about 15 years of work by at least two people, and a $200,000 investment. To accomplish its goal, Wycliffe has gathered together an impressive array of computers, airplanes, jungle bases, Ph.D.’s, and other resources. Over 4,000 scientific publications have come out of SIL, and Wycliffe is viewed academically as a major force in the field of linguistics. Eighteen thousand people have attended SIL training programs.

And yet, huge obstacles remain. How can Wycliffe linguists ever reach language groups sealed off in such places as Russia and Albania? Cam Townsend has taken on the Russian problem personally, and has made 11 trips to the USSR since 1968. Somehow he talked the distinguished (and officially atheistic) Academy of Sciences into translating the book of I John into five Bibleless languages.

Political pressures and the heated issues that swirled around the Bitterman case will only increase. Will Townsend’s bold principles, devised early in this century, hold up in the tumultuous 1980s? Members of Wycliffe disagree on the answer. Some feel the organization will function best when it scrupulously follows the pattern Townsend set; others argue for a more flexible approach, with less visibility in the Third World.

By far the largest obstacle facing the organization, however, is the sheer vastness of the translation task. In 1955, Townsend was shocked speechless when informed the total languages in the world exceeded 2,000, not 1,000 as he had thought. But even then he had underestimated Babel. The optimistic slogan, “Every tribe by ’85” was quietly scrapped as reports of more languages rolled in by the score. Today Wycliffe can vouch for the existence of 5,171 separate language groups, and the total increases each year. Despite all that has been accomplished, over half the languages of the world have no portion of Scripture.

Today, Wycliffe stands on the edge of a clouded horizon. The external stresses it faces have never been more severe. Morale within the organization had slumped in recent years. The number of new recruits sagged badly for a while, and it did not help to have to abandon projects in at least seven countries. But now, the Bitterman tragedy has refocused commitment within the organization. Everyone seems aware that the task will grow even more difficult. An old hymn, a favorite of Cam Townsend’s, is heard more often these days.

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Social Obligation


ate with sinners

so do I

every day


ate with blind men


poor folks

I see them

at the grocery store


Faith, mighty faith the promise sees,

And looks to God alone.

Laughs at impossibilities

And shouts, “It shall be done!”

In 1981, Wycliffe held a Golden Jubilee celebration honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Uncle Cam’s Cakchiquel New Testament. At that celebration, Billy Graham offered this encomium:

“As I look back over the last 50 years, great events stand out—world wars, the Great Depression, natural disasters. But if I could read God’s record of those same 50 years, I have no doubt that one of the most significant events would be the explosion of Bible translation.

“We are in a new era now. But as I watched the space shuttle Columbia return from its maiden voyage, I said to myself, ‘If we ever make contact with other planets, Uncle Cam will be there translating!’ ”

Author Philip Yancey lives in Chicago. He is publisher of Campus Life magazine.

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