William Cameron Townsend

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William Cameron Townsend
William Cameron Townsend6.jpg
Born ( 1896 -07-09)July 9, 1896
Eastvale, California
Died April 23, 1982 ( 1982 -04-23) (aged 85)
Waxhaw, North Carolina
Nationality American
Education Santa Ana High School
Graduated in 1914
Occidental College
Occupation Missionary
Religion Christian
Spouse(s) Elvira Townsend (née Malmstrom)
(Jul 9, 1919 – Dec 23, 1944)
Elaine Townsend (née Mielke)
(Nov 6, 1915 – July 14, 2007)
Children Grace Goreth (née Townsend)
Joy Tuggy (née Townsend)
Elainadel (née Townsend)
William Crowell Townsend
Parent(s) William Townsend
Molly Townsend

William Cameron Townsend (July 9, 1896 – April 23, 1982) was a prominent twentieth-century American Christian missionary who founded Wycliffe Bible Translators and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL International), both of which have long had as their emphases translations of the Bible in minority languages and the facilitation of literacy in minority languages.


The ethos of these organizations is that once the Bible is available to a culture, the Christians of that culture can become far more autonomous, and the locals should be the leaders of their church. Local Christians should be freed from depending on other organizations or cultures for training and leadership.

Not many sources report the details of William “Cam” Townsend before he began work as a foreign missionary. Born in 1896 into a lower-middle-class family of Southern California, Townsend attended Occidental College in Los Angeles but dropped out to serve several years as a salesman for the Los Angeles Bible House.[1]:3–4

Work in Guatemala[edit]

Under the auspices of the Los Angeles Bible House he sailed to Guatemala in 1917 to sell Spanish Bibles near Antigua. After two years he joined the Central American Mission (CAM), a fundamentalist conglomeration and brainchild of some of the 19th century’s most renowned Protestant revivalists that had parceled Central America into various regions for evangelization. CAM advocated that the Millennial Kingdom of Peace would come after the Second Coming of Christ and viewed the foreign mission as necessary to bring the Word to any and all people possible before the turn of the millennium. Unlike his predecessors, Townsend did not deem social reform a wasted effort. He also noticed that CAM’s message, spread exclusively in Spanish, could not reach the monolingual majorityof the indigenous population.[2]:42–43

Townsend settled in a Kaqchikel-speaking community on the coast called Sta. Catarina and over the next fourteen years learned the language to the point where he could translate the Bible. He also founded the Robinson Bible Institute which, with generous financial backing from U.S. sources, built a center including a school, beds, medical clinic (supplied with effective western treatments for prevalent parasites like hookworm), electrical generator, a coffee processing plant, and agricultural supply store.[3]:38 During these years Townsend grew intimately concerned with the impoverished and excluded situation of the Latin American Indians, and the previous missionary practices which incorrectly or insufficiently addressed the indigenous people and culture.

Search for solutions[edit]

As Townsend sought the roots of indigenous misery, he found them first in the mixed-race ‘ladino’ middlemen who acted as the sole economic and social portal to general society for monolingual indigenous communities and who were closely associated with stagnant Catholic religion. These elites, he deduced, had a vested interest in maintaining the economic and social status quo, and therefore had no desire to improve the Indians’ education, literacy, or bilingualism, nor did they wish to inspire the values of self-improvement or capitalism.[3]:30–35

Secondly, Townsend blamed Mesoamerican indigenous society itself. In the syncretic culture, he found the same types of oppression which European cultures imposed, but from the inside. Numerous saints required many days of festivals laden with the obligatory purchase and excessive consumption of food and alcohol. Modern healthcare scarcely reached most communities, which preferred spiritual ‘witchdoctors’ who mandated payment but, in his view, returned no effective care.[3]:31–32 Townsend thus viewed the Maya who surrounded him as trapped from both within and without, and he searched for an exit strategy, a way to break the mold.

Problems to address[edit]

Townsend’s fundamentalism posed conversion to Protestantism as the ultimate salvation for indigenous peoples, but he had to first confront the question of why the current missions did not attract many indigenous converts. The primary answer he found was that the illiterate monolinguals had no access to scripture. Many Indians could not read, and even those who could did not have the Bible in a language they could understand. Although syncretism reigned supreme in indigenous communities, the clergy refused Bible translation, fearing negative Exegesis.[3]:36 Likewise Protestant missions like the Central American mission concentrated on ladino overseers as converts instead of indigenous subjects. According to Colby and Dennet, Townsend’s superiors already showed signs of unease that he had adopted local practices, clothing, and language.[2]:43 Unmoved by their concerns, Townsend gradually formulated his plan and ideology which would later shape SIL.

In the end Townsend wanted indigenous-run, self-sufficient evangelical congregations. This goal, however, would not be permanently achievable without a significant restructuring of society, and the addition of various parallel programs to provide prerequisite knowledge and skills to the indigenous communities. The first two steps toward these congregations had to be a group of literate individuals with a Bible in their native tongue. Thirdly, only the removal of the aforementioned cultural shackles and inculcation of a thoroughly Protestant mentality in the larger society could ensure the congregations’ eventual survival and expansion. Finally, always a deft socialite and, at this point, a dabbler in politics, Townsend knew that many of Latin America’s Catholic statesmen and newly liberal governments would require significant convincing to even allow Protestant missionaries to operate within their borders, particularly with aboriginal populations, who had always been politically sensitive. Townsend knew whatever organization he might create had to address all of these problems.

Linguistics as a means for evangelization[edit]

The solution which Townsend eventually found was so simple as to be encompassed in a single word: linguistics. The emergent field of study, freshly invigorated by the first widespread publications of German Edward Sapir (1921)[4] and American Leonard Bloomfield (1933),[5] could provide Townsend’s religious goals with the scientific credibility and prestige he would need to convince governmental officials of his organization’s legitimacy. Having already used some of Sapir’s less Eurocentric perspectives in his deciphering of Kaqchikel,[2]:44 Townsend could use linguistic theory to train Christian evangelicals in the United States to translate scripture into many indigenous languages. Once given access to the communities they would set up literacy programs, provide modern healthcare supplies, and begin attracting local evangelical converts as linguistic informants to begin translation work. Conversion and translation would thus happen as only a part of a larger reformulation of society which would win praise in the community, and at the governmental level. As seen by Stoll, Townsend hoped that by importing an ideology of capitalistic individualism, western technology, and modern medicine, he could insert the missionary/linguists into the place of the old ladino middlemen as the preferred brokers of goods and services from larger society.[3]:37 From this powerful position the evangelicals could reform indigenous society and create a community of entrepreneurial, bilingually educated, and above all, Protestant individuals capable of self-advancement in their national society.

Where to send first linguists with Bibles[edit]

As this ideology developed, Townsend already begun to envision where he would first send his linguists, and one area called above all: the vast and unexplored Amazon basin. Colby and Dennet argued that to his fellows in the Central American Mission his plan seemed extravagant, grandiose, and unrealistic.[2]:49 For centuries the tribes of the Amazon had been evangelized by the Jesuits until their expulsion from the Portuguese empire in the late eighteenth century and targeted by slave catchers, rubber tappers, and even some military operations. Many of these Amazonian indigenous groups remained elusive, always relying on the size and inhospitability of their native terrain to blend and maintain isolation.[6] Townsend proposed using airplanes, and a radio network to contact and concentrate tribes, but the complexity and cost of such an operation baffled less technologically minded missionaries. In the opinion of some, individual Bible translations would be incredibly labor-intensive and reach only tiny populations. The concept of indigenous-run congregations in native tongues ran counter to the generally paternalistic practices of fundamentalists in Guatemala.<[2]:46–48

Sometime between 1931 and 1933 Townsend decided to target Mexico as the initial operational theater instead of the Amazon. The first piece fell into place in Panajachel, Guatemala, when he met by chance with Moisés Sáenz, Mexican Under-Secretary of Education, who was vacationing and visiting rural schools. Both were missionary-schooled Presbyterians with common ideologies, the two became friends. Sáenz left a letter expressing his commendation of Townsend’s work in Guatemala and his welcome in Mexico.[7] Sick with tuberculosis and beleaguered by the continued and overwhelming lack of support for his ideas in Guatemala, Townsend returned to the United States in 1932 and sought the help of L.L. Legters, the field secretary of the Pioneer Mission Agency and a trusted friend. At a prayer meeting in August 1933 “‘the Lord revealed his will for… Mr. WC Townsend of Guatemala to make a trip to Mexico City for the purpose of meeting with the government to get permission for sending men into the Indian tribes to learn the languages and to translate the Bible into those Indian tongues.’” Just two months later, a letter from Sáenz arrived urging the two men, Townsend and Legters, to visit Mexico.[8]:1–3

Mexico and the founding of SIL[edit]

The initial foray[edit]

The winning faction of the Mexican Revolution created the Constitution of 1917, which extended the anticlerical measures of the liberal Constitution of 1857 restricting the Catholic Church in Mexico. Realizing this, Townsend and Legters devised a plan to enter Mexico without missionary credentials. Having officially cut all formal ties including the Central American Mission, the two men used Sáenz’s letter to cross the border and made their way to Mexico City.[3]:62–65 This instance represents the first of what later critical authors[9] would view as ‘deceits,’ whereby the two men concealed their deeper goal behind a veil of government sanctity. In this case, the concept behind the anti-clerical 1917 Mexican constitution was to reduce the power of the Catholic Church in Mexico. By reducing their religious profile without sacrificing belief, Townsend and Legters in fact acted in accordance with the law and its intent.[8]:4

The second key to success in Mexico was Townsend’s understanding of the importance of personal connections. His charm and keen attitude opened doors to many important figures. During the first trip Townsend and Legters made contact with some friendly Americans and Mexican officials in venues ranging from dinner parties to embassy lounges and touring rural schools. Key among these was Rafael Ramírez, director of rural education in the Ministry of Public Education (SEP). Still cautious of rejection, Townsend only indirectly and subtly referenced the subject religion and Bible translation in his conversations, and always left the officials enough room for plausible deniability.[8]:7

The third and final key to the organization’s founding was the congruence of Townsend’s proposed plan with a body of intellectual thought that had already begun to circulate in the Mexican intelligentsia called indigenismo. Many Mexican intellectuals had begun to believe in the gradual incorporation of indigenous cultures into the national one through greater understandings in anthropology and linguistics. Advances in these areas would lead to more effective systems of cultural and linguistic integration (particularly bilingual education) and the eventual absorption of indigenous cultures into the national one. The great similarity between indigenismo and Townsend’s ideology was demonstrated by what SIL members[who?] refer to as the ‘miracle of Tetelcingo.’[citation needed]

On January 21, 1936, President Lázaro Cárdenas, known for his extensive visitations to the countryside, paid a visit to a small town just south of Mexico City where Townsend had set up a project.[8]:9 The reasons for this visit, and for the resulting friendship between the two men, are many and complex. Most importantly, both men shared a singular concern for the indigenous people of Mexico. Townsend’s program which combined “linguistic research, practical help, and spiritual guidance” also meshed well with Cárdenas’ general preoccupation with removing the Catholic influence from rural and indigenous education. Simultaneously Cárdenas probably understood that as a person from the U.S. Townsend himself had certain attractive qualities and connections that could help assuage the festering disapproval of his government in the United States, in part derived from derogatory Catholic propaganda.[citation needed] Independent of the reasons for the visit, the result was the sound endorsement of Mexico’s President.[citation needed] The events of the previous twenty years of Townsend’s life came to a head at this meeting which solidified the welcome of his linguists in Mexico for several years to come.

Townsend and Legters opened Camp Wycliffe in Arkansas in the summer of 1934. Named for John Wycliffe, who was responsible for the first complete English translation of the whole Bible, 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 (including Kenneth Pike who would become a lifelong friend and well-known linguist), Townsend took his students to Mexico to begin field work. Even despite the warm welcome afforded the translators in Mexico, Townsend could not take any extra risk, and still dreamed of his operation’s expansion into the Amazon and beyond. He knew that such a blatantly religious name would be a liability when dealing with most governments and negotiating what he would still present as purely linguistic and anthropological ventures.[citation needed] From this small beginning has grown the worldwide ministry of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), Wycliffe Bible Translators, Wycliffe Associates, and the technical and logistics partner of SIL known as JAARS.


Kenneth Pike was the first SIL representative to visit Peru in late 1943. SIL signed a contract with the Peruvian Ministry of Education on June 28, 1945.[10] According to Colby and Dennet, in Peru and later expansions, Townsend “found [his] mission tailor-made to the needs of U.S. policymakers…American missionaries had always accompanied American businesses abroad, but the political climate in postwar Latin America gave Townsend’s new crop of missionary translators and educators a special appeal to U.S. ambassadors who were charged with securing markets and resources for the American economy.”[2]:199 1942 also marked Peru’s victory against Ecuador in a conflict concerning the two countries’ oil-rich Amazonian borderland. President Manuel Odría, Prado’s successor, supported Townsend’s aviation-based plan as a means of bringing military expertise and equipment from the U.S.[2]:198 As firm nationalists, both presidents strongly believed in the value of the Amazon for its natural resources and possible colonization, Stoll claims that both also agreed that the SIL would be the most important organization to introduce the indigenous population to the new realities of western expansion, all while providing a nascent infrastructure.[3]:102–109

The Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS)[edit]

Helio Courier, a light C/STOL utility aircraft designed in 1949; in a JAARS’ hangar in 2005

By 1948 Townsend created the third important corporation tied to SIL: the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service. Until this point operations were held together shakily only by a jeep and several two-way radios provided by the U.S. Embassy. A U.S. Army Air Corp Mission pilot Larry Montgomery contacted Townsend in 1946 offering a Grumman Duck, a navy amphibious plane, for a cheap price.[2]:199 The plane proved its worth and even served as the sole rescue transport for a crashed Peruvian military plane in 1947, but required far too hefty of an investment to achieve the potential which Townsend envisioned. Furthermore, a small fleet would require a hangar, runway, mechanics, more pilots, fuel, and parts.[3]:104 The missing piece was funds. Townsend sought money successfully by soliciting several wealthy evangelicals including the son and heir of Quaker Oats founder Henry P. Crowell, and thus JAARS was born.[2]:202

Adapting management[edit]

Townsend remained active in SIL as the founder and organizational leader for many years. His power gradually ebbed, however, under the influence of two general trends:

First, linguistics slowly became a more popular field of study, and standards for academic prestige were gradually raised. Townsend’s Spanish-Kaqchikel Bible never circulated widely even in Guatemala, and despite his enthusiasm for linguistics, the field would remember him as only “a devoted but linguistically naïve missionary.”[citation needed] In Townsend’s mind, however, SIL’s religious goals necessitated scientific understanding and thus he endeavored to create truly competent field linguists with trustworthy credentials.

During the early years academic prowess received less priority than strategic expansion, which implied quickly training large numbers of recruits. Townsend had envisioned the organization primarily as a widespread mechanism of Bible translation. His adroit salesmanship and acute sense for politics had made this vision a success. A minority group, with Pike as a figurehead, pursued the science of language deeper than pure Bible translation. These figures filled the upper tiers of SIL’s academic hierarchy, but, at first, held relatively little sway in the operations of the organization. As the discipline of linguistics grew steadily through the 1960s and 70s, however, academic prestige in the field became a more sought-after commodity and thus more difficult to attain.[11]

Second, a fiery controversy, composed of two separate but related components, engulfed SIL between approximately 1971 and 1981. Firstly, according to Stoll, attention both in the U.S. and abroad shoved the increasingly high-profile organization into the international spotlight and, particularly in the halls of U.S. academia, infused the very name SIL with an air of notoriety. Backed by fresh perspectives in anthropology, critics left few facets of the Institute unscathed. Secondly, during the same period many governments argued internally over whether to continue supporting SIL with state contracts, and furthermore whether to allow SIL presence within their borders. For a variety of reasons, some well-founded and others seriously misguided, several states opted to sever ties with SIL through various tactics including outright expulsion, contract cancellations, and non-renewals. The upshot of these circumstances was that SIL could no longer work comfortably without significant competition from new actors offering similar services with comparable terms of exchange to both governments and indigenous people.[12]:85

The controversy period forced members and leadership to reconsider their strategies and methodology. SIL members, particularly Kenneth Pike, had identified the risks and downsides of the Townsendian approach years earlier. Outside pressure coincided with internal stresses caused by the logistical difficulties of maintaining the JAARS network of bases, particularly in the Amazon. These forces allowed some inside of SIL to push through needed reform against stodgy opposition, or in the words of David Stoll, “the nerds’ vote finally won out over the flyboys’.” As a result of these power shifts, Stoll argues that Townsend's ideology was adapted and post controversy, he played a more passive, fatherly role.


  1. ^ Eunice Victoria Pike in A William Cameron Townsend en el Vigesimoquinto Aniversario Del Instituo Linguistico de Verano (Mexico, D.F.: La Tipografica Indigena Cuernavaca, 1961).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett, Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon : Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h David Stoll, Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? : The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America (London: Zed Books, 1983).
  4. ^ E. F. K. Koerner and R. E. Asher, A Concise History of the Language Sciences (Oxford: Pergamon, 1995), p. 297.
  5. ^ Pieter A. M. Sueren, Western Linguistics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p. 193.
  6. ^ Vickers, William T (1982), Hvalkof, Søren; Aaby, Peter, eds., Is God an American?: An Anthropological Perspective on the Missionary Work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Copenhagen: International Work Group For Indigenous Affairs, pp. 51–55 .
  7. ^ Jan Rus & Robert Wasserstrom in Hvalkof & Aaby, 164.
  8. ^ a b c d Hartch, Todd (2006). Missionaries of the State: the Summer Institute of Linguistics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, 1935–1985. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press. 
  9. ^ http://www.wayoflife.org/database/wycliffe_bible_translators_warning.php
  10. ^ Cerebro Palomino, El Instuto Linguistico de Verano: Un Fraude (Lima: Ediciones Rupa Rupa, 2980), p. 9.
  11. ^ T. Hartch, phone interview
  12. ^ David Stoll (1982). "The Summer Institute of Linguistics and indigenous movements". Latin American Perspectives 9 (2): 84–99. JSTOR 2633505. 


These sources could be used to substantiate and balance the article:

  • Hugh Steven: Wycliffe in the Making: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend, 1920–1933 (Wheaton, Harold Shaw 1995).
  • Ruth A. Tucker: From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Zondervan ), ISBN 0-310-23937-0, p. 376f.
  • Virginia Garrard-Burnett: A History of Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in the New Jerusalem (University of Texas Press), ISBN 0-292-72817-4.
  • Larry Ziegler-Otero: Resistance in an Amazonian Community: Huaorani Organizing Against the Global Economy (Berghahn Books), ISBN 1-57181-448-5, p. 52ff.
  • James C. and Marti Hefley: Uncle Cam: The Story of William Cameron Townsend (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. 1975)
  • Janet and Geoff Benge: "Cameron Townsend: Good news in every language" (YWAM 2000)

External links[edit]