Today is the anniversary of the death of William Cameron Townsend (affectionately known as Uncle Cam), founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators.
When Uncle Cam was just 21 he felt called to take the Bible to the peoples of South America, and set off with plenty of Spanish Bibles. But when he got there, he discovered something that shaped the rest of his life’s work: often the people he met didn’t speak Spanish. They asked Cam something that really made him think – why didn’t God speak their language? Was he only the God of English and Spanish speakers?
Cam thought everyone should be able to read God’s word in their own language. So within a few years, he and his wife were living with the Cakchiquel people of Guatemala, studying their complex language, developing a writing system for it and helping them to translate the Bible so they could understand it.
He became ill, and had to return to the US, but that didn’t stop him. In 1934, he ran the first Wycliffe Summer School. Within 10 years, this had become two partner organisations: the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Cam served for over sixty years(!) in Latin America, working in many countries. He knew everyone, including more than 40 heads of state. He received an honorary doctorate, was decorated by five Latin American governments and was declared Benefactor of the Linguistically Isolated Populations of America by the Inter-American Indian Congress.
What people most often commented on, though, was his humility: when the president of Mexico visited an Aztec village, a local man said of Townsend, ‘He treats us just like he does the President. If President Cárdenas comes, he leaves his dinner to talk with him. If one of us comes, he leaves his dinner to talk with us, too.’
Kenneth Pike, a renowned linguist, once said of Uncle Cam that, ‘Not since the third century has there been a man like Cameron Townsend who attempted so much, and saw so many dreams realised in his lifetime.’