William Svelmoe, A New Vision for Missions: William Cameron Townsend, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the Culture of Early Evangelical Faith Missions, 1896-1945 (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

Big dreams start small. In 1934, two seminarians traveled to Sulphur Springs, Alabama, to be trained as Bible translators at the first Camp Wycliffe. The camp was primitive—the men made their own furniture—and its founder and primary teacher, Cameron Townsend, was not a trained linguist. But Townsend was a visionary. He wanted to translate the Bible into South America's unstudied native languages. The camp helped him realize his dream. Since 1934, Camp Wycliffe and its daughter organization, SIL International, have trained between 30,000 and 40,000 linguists, and SIL's evangelistic arm, Wycliffe Bible Translators, boasts the world's largest missionary force.

Turning dreams into reality demands faith, tenacity, and often obstinacy. As William Svelmoe shows in his book A New Vision for Missions, Townsend had them all. The book recounts Townsend's transformation from a one-year missionary to the founder of a new organization committed to sharing the gospel with some of the world's most marginalized people. When Townsend went to Guatemala in 1917 for a one-year stint as a Bible salesman under the auspices of the Central American Mission (CAM), he discovered that American missionaries largely ignored the Indian population. Language was one impediment. Many Indians spoke little Spanish, and Americans had not studied their native languages. Townsend began translating the Bible into Cakchiquel. He also lobbied CAM for greater attention to Indians. A vision was born—yet the dream also brought conflict. Eventually, Townsend and CAM parted ways because both believed their way was God's will.

Svelmoe's willingness to acknowledge difficulties makes this biography compelling. Svelmoe, an assistant professor of religion at St. Mary's College in Indiana, is the son of Wycliffe missionaries, and he both admires missionaries and recognizes their humanity. This critical sensitivity appears in Svelmoe's treatment of one great difficulty: Townsend's marriage. Elvira Townsend was prone to violent outbursts and erratic behavior. Both Elvira's family and fellow missionaries saw her troubles as primarily spiritual and surmountable through surrender to God. Svelmoe underscores the complex role evangelical piety played in Elvira's life: "If Elvira failed to obtain victory over her emotions, she failed at the task at the center of her being a Christian person, which was to trust God … which must have created an extremely painful internal struggle, even as her spiritual guides told her she was not to struggle, but to rest."

Svelmoe shows similar sensitivity toward Townsend's struggle with the culture of faith missions. Evangelical faith missions had "rules." Missionaries did not ask supporters for money lest they undermine faith in God's provision. Socialists and Catholics were the enemies. Townsend broke these rules, not because he abandoned evangelicalism but because he believed that the rules impeded his work. Realizing his dreams required asking people for financial support. Helping native peoples meant accepting strange bedfellows. In the 1930s, for example, Townsend befriended the Socialist president of Mexico, Lézaro Cérdenas, because Cérdenas championed Mexico's indigenous people. When Cérdenas nationalized Mexico's oil companies in 1938, Townsend described the decision to Franklin Roosevelt and evangelical supporters as good for Mexico's poor.

Townsend also rethought the rules on Roman Catholics. At first for pragmatic reasons—he did not want Catholic clerics agitating against his linguists—he advised his missionaries to offer priests and nuns transportation on SIL airplanes. Eventually, these pragmatic relationships became authentic friendships as Catholic and Protestants discovered common religious ground and a shared commitment to Indians.

Townsend's willingness to break faith mission rules raises questions. Evangelicals rightly care about correct doctrine and practice. Knowing when rules aid faithful living and when they preclude faithful service is tricky. Townsend's life demonstrates the benefits and the dangers of breaking rules and risking relationships.

Townsend's life also demonstrates the rewards and risks of big dreams and great faith. Although he accomplished great things, Townsend's dreams had casualties. As Svelmoe notes, Townsend "was not necessarily an easy man to live with … To outsiders, especially Latin Americans, he was the sun, but to his lieutenants he could at times be the north wind." After reading about Townsend, I wonder how you can be on fire for God without burning up others.

Svelmoe's biography is an engaging work about a fascinating man. At times the details of Townsend's life and his battles with mission organizations become confusing. But the major themes and the story raise pertinent issues and introduce an interesting cast of characters, including a few who made their own furniture so they could learn to translate Scripture.

Sarah E. Johnson is assistant professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, MN.