“If Your God Is So Smart, Why Can’t He Speak My Language?”
Townsend is known worldwide for his tremendous efforts in getting portions of the Bible translated in hundreds of languages around the world. He concentrated on forgotten people, isolated by geography, culture and language. He believed every person should be able to read of God's love in his mother tongue the "language that speaks to the heart."
Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, internationally known linguist and former chairman of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, said: "not since the third century has there been a man like Cameron Townsend, who attempted so much and saw so many dreams realized in his own lifetime."
Townsend is remembered for his single mindedness for Bible translation. Evangelist Billy Graham admits that more than once Townsend tried to convince him to become a Bible translator. In turn, Graham tried to interest Townsend in his crusades, but "all Townsend wanted to talk about was Bible translation."
"He's touched the world in a way I never could," Graham told a large audience in May 1981 at a California convention center where they had gathered to pay tribute to Townsend and his efforts in Bible translation over the last 50 years. Within his lifetime, Townsend has seen 4,500 people of 34 different nationalities catch his vision for Bible translation. Townsend spent 10 years translating the New Testament for a Guatemalan Indian language in the 20's. Now nearly 160 New Testaments have been finished in other Latin American countries, North America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Translation and language study is progressing in 750 other languages that had never been written before.
Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California places Townsend among the great missionary pioneers. "If, in our lifetime, there is anyone comparable to William Carey and Hudson Taylor, I believe it is Cameron Townsend. He saw that there were still unreached frontiers, and for almost half a century, he waved the flag for overlooked tribal peoples of the world.
"Together with his counterpart in India, Donald A. McGavran, who simultaneously was to highlight social or caste structure both in India and other places as barriers walling off people groups from the Gospel, Townsend has had massive, unparalleled impact in awakening modern Americans to the unfinished task Both Townsend and McGavran embraced unreservedly the challenge of the remaining peoples or Biblical nations (whether tribal or other) that are yet to receive the blessing of the Word and a witness within their societies. Townsend and McGavran (born a year later) are thus the early prophets of what only now is beginning to burgeon the final movement to the last frontiers."
Townsend was born on a farm near Downey, California, on July 9, 1986. At 21 he thought he'd have to serve in World War I, but instead he ended up selling Spanish Bibles in Guatemala. But since 60 per cent of the population was Indian, his Bibles meant nothing to them.
One day one of the Indians confronted him, wanting to know why Townsend's God didn't speak his language. Townsend took the question seriously, and in 1919 settled in an Indian town. Rather than spending time reaching Indians to speak Spanish, he concentrated on studying their unwritten language Cakchiquel.
By 1929, when he was 33, he had translated the New Testament, mounted literacy campaigns, founded five schools for bilingual instruction, started a small clinic, a small printshop and a Bible institute.
He also developed a special technique for teaching people to read, called the psycho motor method that is still in use today. This method gives the student confidence in his ability to become a reader even before he has mastered the entire alphabet. Only a few letters are introduced in each lesson.
Tuberculosis forced Townsend home to Los Angeles for a year's rest in 1932. But his awareness of the needs of Indians broadened, especially when his friend, LL Legters (who later helped Townsend found Wycliffe Bible Translators), brought back photographs of tribes he had visited in Brasilian jungles.
Townsend started thinking about pioneering again, even though he was nearly 40 years old. Maybe he could go to the Amazon this time.
After a trip with Legters to Mexico, the men were convinced there were too many languages to tackle alone. They launched a summer course in linguistics to train young people for translation work That first summer in 1934 brought two students to the abandoned farmhouse in Sulpher Springs, Arkansas.
Called "Camp Wycliffe," it later became known on the campus of the University of Oklahoma as the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). (Today SIL's international headquarters is located in Dallas.) SIL courses are taught at 4 state universities, as well as in Germany, England, Japan, arid Australia.
In 1935 Townsend took a small group of young people with basic linguistic training down to Mexico. Today members work in about 30 different countries throughout the world.
In 1942 he and three close colleagues founded Wycliffe Bible Translators to help people learn how they could support the field work or get involved themselves. WBT headquarters is located in Huntington Beach, California.
In 1962 he founded a technical department to serve Wycliffe's translators with aviation, radio and computers. Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) has its international headquarters in Waxhaw, NC where Townsend made his home. Townsend had first dreamed of using planes in the late 1920's.
Townsend always encouraged his translators to keep on pioneering where others had never gone, following the Apostle Paul's example of giving the Good News "where Christ had never been named before."
From the very start he worked closely with officials in host governments. He always thought of himself as a guest in their countries, and tried to cooperate with them. Service held a high priority for him no matter whether an individual had low or high political stature, was rich or poor, friend or foe. "We must follow our Master's example and serve everyone."
This same man who had struggled through language analysis years earlier insisted the linguists follow a highly scientific approach in studying languages. "We're linguists. Our work had to be scientifically accurate. If we translate the Word of God, we have to use good grammar."
Townsend's driving force was to give people the Bible in their mother tongue. He cautioned against all ecclesiastical and sectarian activities. He didn't see that as the role of his organization.
Everything Townsend did was based upon his unfaltering faith in God. "We've got to trust God for the impossible." .Many of his friends said he never took "no" as a negative, although sometimes it took 20, 30, even 40 years for his dreams to become reality.
Townsend stepped down as general director in 1969, freeing himself to try to begin work in new lands. One of his deep concerns had been the many minority groups in the USSR which didn't have Scriptures in their own languages. He and his wife, Elaine, have made 11 extended visits to the USSR.
In 1981 Peru's President Femando Belaunde Terry acknowledged SIL's contribution in his country by giving Townsend Peru's highest decoration to foreigners. Townsend had begun work in the Peruvian jungles in 1946 with 25 young people. SIL's work there had extended to 45 indigenous languages in the last 35 years.
It wasn't the first time Townsend had been honored as founder of SIL. Previously he had received nine other decorations, from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and the Philippines.
In 1958 he was named "spiritual conqueror of the jungle" by Ecuador. In 1972 the Seventh InterAmerican Indian Congress called him "benefactor of the linguistically isolated populations on the Americas."
Townsend is survived by his wife, Elaine Mielke Townsend; four children, Grace Goreth, Joy Tuggy, Elainadel Garippa, and Bill Townsend; and 12 grandchildren.