As reports of Wycliffe’s accomplishments rolled in, he would listen with gratitude—then quickly return to the goal that eluded him.

In remote Papua New Guinea, a barefoot Iwam tribesman wearing a bone through his nose and a Hoosier T-shirt imprinted with a map of Indian steps up to computer typesetting terminal. In the Ecuadorian jungle, an Auca Indian, once a ferocious headhunter and now a polio victim, hobbles along a sun-dappled jungle trail with the incongruous help of an aluminum walker. And in Peru, a young Piro Indian who has never seen a car nor held a pencil boards a float plane for the first day of school. He will study first-grade reading for three months, then return to teach the rest of his tribe, always keeping just one semester ahead of his students.

Bizarre scenes like these are the fallout from civilization’s collision with the primitive world. For the past 46 years, the U.S.-based organization known overseas and in the scientific community as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, founded by the late Cameron Townsend, pioneered in the discovery and education of neglected peoples like these. With its sister organization in the U.S., chartered as Wycliffe Bible Translators, “Uncle Cam” Townsend’s linguistic descendants comprise a staff of over 4,200, scattered across the globe with a singular goal: to translate the Bible into every spoken language. It was the lifelong vision of that remarkable man, who died last April at the age of 85.

Working against great odds, Townsend founded and led the movement that became a worldwide phenomenon. (For an in-depth treatment of Wycliffe and SIL, see CT, Feb. 19, 1982). His life spanned a century that has seen most cultures, including the advanced West, undergo tumultuous changes. As a teen-ager, Townsend pedaled his bicycle past the level fields where aviation inventor Glenn Martin was trying to master the secrets of flight; communism was merely a theory debated in coffeehouses. The world consisted of a few colonial empires, and hundreds of different tribes and languages in the Americas and Asia were unknown.

Cam Townsend was a 131-pound boy of 21 when he took his first steamer trip to Guatemala in 1917. To his surprise, a National Guard captain had agreed to his unusual request for dismissal, saying, “You’ll do a lot more good selling Bibles in Central America than you would shooting Germans in France.” With a $25 monthly salary and a supply of Spanish Bibles, the skinny young kid arrived in Guatemala. A veteran missionary, sizing up Townsend as he arrived, predicted, “He’ll never last two months.”

Article continues below

On foot and muleback, Townsend tramped the rural trails of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Sometimes the jungle would grow so ominously dense that he would hike with his hat bobbing on a long stick held out before him—to fool the jaguars. He survived marauding hordes of Central American insects, and even learned to eat such delicacies as bugs, worms, and fried tadpoles.

Townsend could shake aside the momentary hardships of the jungle. But one overwhelming impression haunted him as he traveled: the broken spirit of the Indians. It seemed to him that Indians were treated almost as beasts of burden. Many of them he passed on the trail carried 100-pound loads strapped to their foreheads. Drunkenness and a plantation-style system approaching slavery kept them in perpetual poverty.

Having studied the history of the region, Townsend knew their ancient culture had rivaled that of contemporary Egypt or Rome. Yet, over the years of conquest, its proud tradition of mathematics, astronomy, and hieroglyphics had eroded away. Only one link remained between that mighty culture and its downtrodden descendants: a curious, complex language. He was fascinated by its melodic quality and strange-sounding consonants. But language, too, was under the threat of being absorbed. It had never been written down, and authorities at that time were insisting that all education must be conducted in Spanish.

Townsend kept running into the language barrier as he attempted to sell his Bibles. Were Spanish Bibles really that worthwhile, he wondered, when 60 percent of the Guatemalans spoke another language and could not read? At last, the probing question of a Cakchiquel Indian crystallized his frustrations and promptly launched a new career. “If your God is so smart,” asked the Indian, “why doesn’t he speak Cakchiquel?” Townsend had no answer; he knew that most meaningful concepts were fully communicated only in a person’s mother tongue.

Two hundred thousand Cakchiquels lived in Guatemala. Townsend decided to learn their language, devise an alphabet, and translate the New Testament. Friends scoffed at his idea, “Don’t be a fool. Those Indians aren’t worth what it would take to learn their outlandish language and translate the Bible for them. They can’t read anyhow. Let them learn Spanish.” But Townsend chose one small Cakchiquel village, San Antonio, and built a house of logs and corn stalks for $70.

Article continues below

He had undertaken a formidable task. With no linguistic training, not even a college degree, he tried to comprehend the subtleties of Cakchiquel. He quickly learned that its grammar, like that of many “primitive” languages, was immensely complex. One verb stem could take on as many as 100,000 different forms.

After 12 years of arduous labor, however, Cam Townsend presented the first published book in Cakchiquel, the New Testament, to the president of Guatemala. In his spare time he had also founded five schools, a clinic, a printing press, an orphanage, and a coffee cooperative. The Bible had its own power: churches sprang up spontaneously and arcane customs of witchcraft gradually disappeared.

Though villagers begged him to stay in San Antonio, a spark had been lit inside him and he knew he must move on to repeat the process in another village, another language. While recuperating from tuberculosis, he pondered the fact that at least 500 tribes—maybe even 1,000—in South and Central America had no written language. Mastering one had taken him more than a decade; to make a dent in that total, he badly needed help.

In 1934 Townsend convened the first official training program of what would become the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Classes were held at a rustic Arkansas farmhouse rented for $5 a month, and a grand total of two students showed up. The next year the student body doubled, and the advance of Wycliffe Bible Translators was under way.

Townsend selected Mexico as his next frontier—an improbable choice because of the revolutionary-minded government’s severe restrictions on religious activity. Patiently and persistently Townsend called on government officials and described how his band of linguists would commit themselves to nonsectarian translation and literacy training. They could only help the peasant Indian population, he insisted. His sincere zeal, and the obvious side benefits of medical and agricultural assistance, convinced Mexican officials to sign an official contract with SIL. Mexico’s reformist president, Lázaro Cárdenas, became one of his closest friends.

The end of World War II dramatically expanded America’s international involvement and opened up new vistas and opportunities. With its membership climbing past 100, Wycliffe sent representatives to Peru, Ecuador, the Philippines, and Guatemala. Townsend himself moved to Peru to supervise the work there.

As Wycliffe linguists penetrated remote tribes, accounts of amazing transformations began to surface. Townsend was severely criticized for sending two single women in a canoe to live with the Shapra tribe of head shrinkers. But after they had lived there several years, translating, Chief Tariri converted to Christianity and gave up his practice of killing (he had a collection of the shrunken heads of 30 of his victims). Tariri later said that he would have killed any male missionaries on sight, but the two women seemed harmless. He assumed they had come to look for husbands.

Article continues below

In the late 1950s, Rachel Saint, a Wycliffe missionary, made the first successful long-term contact with the murderous Aucas in Ecuador. In 1956 they had killed her brother and four other missionaries in the slaughter that shocked the world. Now Rachel was living in an Auca hut, learning their language in order to translate the Bible into Auca.

As Wycliffe grew, Cam Townsend found himself in a management role. How could he overcome the logistical problems of an organization expanding at a breathless pace? He removed one of the biggest hazards of isolated jungle settings by forming a division to specialize in airplanes and radios—after surviving the crash of a plane piloted by an inexperienced national. Suddenly, instead of 25-day canoe trips through crocodile-infested rivers, linguists could reach their destinations in three hours’ flight time. Medical emergencies posed less of a threat: missionaries, linguists, nuns, priests, and Indians all began to summon emergency flights by radio.

No logistical problem loomed larger, however, than the sheer vastness of the translation challenge. Working off his initial assumption of 500 to 1,000 new languages, Townsend had calculated the need for hundreds of dedicated volunteers to give a lifetime of service. He had always believed the job could be finished during his life—but as he approached 60 years of age, he started hearing reports of newly discovered languages in New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. He sat stunned as an Australian unrolled maps and charts that proved the existence of over 1,000 more languages in that region alone.

At the age when most people begin thinking about retirement, Townsend slowly adjusted to the idea that the job was twice as big as he had thought. He gulped hard, prayed harder, and adopted a new slogan: “2,000 tongues to go.” Even that projection proved short-sighted. As the Wycliffe organization continued to grow, linguistic survey teams compiled languages by the score: 158 in Russia, 312 in India, 1,620 spread across Africa. In all, a staggering total of 5,171 are known to exist today. (For perspective, consider that all the known languages of Europe, 63, comprise just over 1 percent of that total.) By the time of Townsend’s death last April, the slogan needed to be revised to “3,000 tongues to go.”

Article continues below

Linguists still follow the same basic pattern Townsend devised out of ignorance in his youth. For the first few months they listen with trained ears and record all the different sounds—a major endeavor since English uses only 50 of 300 possible articulations. Townsend struggled with four different glottal sounds for the letter “k” in Cakchiquel. Other languages rely on sounds made with the mouth closed; one SIL linguist can “say” 140 words with his mouth closed.

Once the sounds and grammar of a language are mastered, a linguist faces translation hurdles. In Guatemala, Townsend had to figure out how to explain concepts like desert and snow to people who had always lived in a jungle. The Eskimo-Inupiat language offered 60 options for the word snow, but words for horse and camel were nonexistent. SIL translators rendered horse as “like a big caribou” and swine as “queer caribous.” Camel became simply “humpbacked carrier.” (TV has now acquainted most Eskimos with these domesticated animals, and their Bible has been updated.)

On the whole, though, Townsend and his linguists found that biblical concepts and scenes transfer more easily into primitive cultures than to modern ones. “After all,” he once said, “Jesus spoke to first-century Jewish peasants, and his parables have a striking immediacy to people who still tend sheep, prune grapevines, and sow seeds.”

The modern SIL linguist relies on many tools unavailable to Townsend in Guatemala: extensive training, computer typesetting, translation consultant teams, and concentrated workshops away from the tribe. Yet it still takes 15 years, on the average, for a two-person team to produce a grammar, dictionary, and New Testament in a new language. Dr. Kenneth Pike, president emeritus of SIL, looks back with amazement on Cam Townsend’s initial success with Cakchiquel—with absolutely no training.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Bible had been translated into 67 languages. Today, there are portions of it in 1,700 languages, while translation work progresses in another 1,200. Linguists take on a new language every 13 days.

The designation “uncle” fit Cam Townsend well because of his easygoing, avuncular nature. Despite his accomplishments in rallying a small army of linguists, he broke every stereotype of an effective manager. Of medium height, covered with freckles and not particularly concerned about clothing styles, he spoke slowly and deliberately in a soft voice that seldom varied in tone or volume. He never seemed to be in a hurry, whether talking with a secretary at the Wycliffe center in North Carolina or with the president of a country.

Article continues below

“If I had seen him in a crowd of a dozen people,” says a close associate, “I’d have picked him as the least likely leader among them. He looked more like a shy farmer.” Raised on a farm near Redlands, California, Townsend carried to his dying day many of the habits he acquired while growing up amid poverty: oatmeal porridge every morning, a raw egg in his coffee for protein, and a good night’s sleep on a hard floor.

His father was deaf, and growing up in that household taught him a reverential respect for the written word. It was the only way to communicate in his family, and it impressed on Cam Townsend the need to share the magic of literacy. His father often read aloud, ending every breakfast meal with a few chapters from the Bible.

As a teen-ager, Townsend would rise long before dawn, milk the cows, and work in a soda shop from 6 o’clock until 9 before heading to school. It was that kind of dogged determination, more than anything, that brought him success. Throughout his life, he singlemindedly pursued one goal: to make it possible for every person alive to read the Bible. He believed there was no higher calling.

In his quest, Townsend remained unaffected by the usual distinctions that divide people. He slept in jungle hammocks and government palaces, and felt equally comfortable in both. He patiently listened to shy Indian peasants stammer out their language, and also dined with the presidents of 39 republics. Political labels like liberal and conservative meant little to him: he had close friendships with Mexican radicals, Russian officials, and the heads of rigid military dictatorships.

In the months before his death, Townsend came under sharp fire for cooperating with authoritarian, even oppressive, regimes. He listened to those critics with confusion and dismay. “But don’t they realize we are the guest of those governments?” he asked. “We are there to serve the neglected people—to give them the Bible and to improve their lives. If we foment unrest, we will be asked to leave immediately, and then who will help them?”

Article continues below

Although an anomaly in the realm of power politics, Townsend’s unassuming, gracious style melted down barriers of governmental bureaucracy. He sometimes spent up to three hours waiting outside a politician’s office, sitting quietly, never bringing a book to read (that “would not be respectful”). He won over dissenters with his disarmingly friendly style, a quick apology for any slight misunderstanding, or a simple act of thoughtfulness. In Mexico, Uncle Cam would be sure to take a fresh-picked head of lettuce to urbane government officials.

Along the way, the organization he founded swelled to a staff of 4,255, making it the largest nondenominational Christian mission in the world.

Known for tackling unlikely, even impossible, assignments, Townsend took up in his seventies and eighties one of his most difficult challenges: to get the Bible into the languages of the Soviet Union. To the end, he still wandered the grounds of his North Carolina home, studying confusing Russian noun endings, struggling to enhance communication with his contacts in the USSR. With his wife Elaine, he had made 11 trips there, and eaten meals in 105 different Soviet homes. Somehow Townsend talked the distinguished (and officially atheistic) Academy of Sciences into translating the biblical book of I John into five Soviet languages that previously had no Scripture.

Townsend’s pace slowed in his old age, though he still managed several overseas trips each year to visit his friends in Latin America and to open up new frontiers. As impressive statistics on Wycliffe’s accomplishments rolled in, he would listen with gratitude, but quickly return to the goal that eluded him. Even after all his efforts, one fact haunted him: half of all language groups had no access to the Bible. His dream, to extend the Bible to all people in his own lifetime, was finally unfulfilled.

Last year Wycliffe sponsored a Golden Jubilee celebration honoring Townsend’s work and the fiftieth anniversary of the Cakchiquel translation. The tribute came in the midst of a tumultuous year, as Wycliffe was reeling from the shock of Chet Bitterman’s death. For many, the anniversary offered a time to pause and reflect on the original vision that first burned inside Cam Townsend so long ago. Townsend himself had become something of a legend, despite his mild-mannered demeanor; already Bible colleges were offering courses on three great mission leaders—William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and Cameron Townsend. And yet he told the crowd gathered there that what mattered most to him was not what had been accomplished, but what still lay untouched. Half the languages of the world had no portion of the Bible.

Article continues below

Townsend’s health was failing badly. It was obvious to everyone there, and to him, that he would not live to see his dream realized. The problems were too complex, the task too enormous. Less than a year later, on April 24, 1982, Uncle Cam passed away. Leukemia had ravaged his already weakened body. The news spread on wire services and shortwave relays around the world, and condolences soon poured in from heads of state, Christian leaders, linguists, and government officials.

Also, tucked away in remote hamlets, among people with strange names like Iwam, Auca, and Piro, several thousand people turned for a moment to recall the legacy Uncle Cam had left them before resuming their efforts to see that his dream does not die.

Philip Yancey, publisher of Campus Life magazine, is a frequently published writer and author. He wrote this article on assignment for Reader’s Digest, which granted permission for ct to publish it in advance as a memorial.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.