When William Cameron Townsend (known as ‘Uncle Cam’ or ‘Cam’) was just 21, he felt called to take the Bible to the peoples of South America. But there he discovered something that shaped the rest of his life’s work.
Cam had brought Spanish Bibles to give to the people he met, but often they didn’t speak Spanish. Indeed, when he tried to give these Spanish Bibles to people who only spoke their own mother-tongue language they asked Cam something that really made him think – why didn’t God speak theirlanguage? 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, creating an alphabet 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 the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), one of Wycliffe’s key partners, 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 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 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.’
The Bible translation story continues today. Why not stay up to date with the latest stories in our free magazine, Words for Life?