Does God Speak My Language?

"The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue." (MorningBirdPhoto/

One can only imagine how William Cameron Townsend, lovingly known by millions as "Uncle Cam," would operate in a world of instant translations and Bible apps downloaded by millions. But even in a pre-computer world, Townsend was far ahead of his time.

His fresh ideas received both lavish praise and harsh criticism. Despite disapproval, Uncle Cam accommodated those who resisted him. Townsend believed cooperation was a must if the Bible was to get to the vast languages and dialects of the world.

He maintained that the Bible's message would transform cultures, so getting God's Word to the people was his first concern. His passion ultimately led to the founding of Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS).

Born on a farm in California in 1896, Townsend came from a family with strong Christian moorings. Each morning, his father would read the Scriptures to his children. Then Townsend's father would pray, always ending with this petition: "May the knowledge of the Lord cover the earth as the waters cover the sea."

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It's little wonder that during college, young Townsend accepted an assignment to sell Bibles in Guatemala. His missions enthusiasm was heightened when John R. Mott, a leader of the Student Volunteer Movement, spoke at his campus. Townsend was further inspired by reading works from Hudson Taylor, the groundbreaking missionary to China.

Townsend's trip to Guatemala was the beginning of a missionary career that would last more than 50 years. He realized the indigenous peoples he was trying to sell Spanish Bibles to could not understand them. So he settled among the Cakchiquel Indians, beginning the arduous task of reducing their language to writing. In 1929, after 10 years of work, Townsend completed the New Testament in the Cakchiquel language.

He knew he had found his life's calling. Riveted by Jesus' story in Luke 15 of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to search for the one that was lost, he prayed, "Well, Lord, that settles it. Unless You definitely lead me down a different path, then I'm going to the 1%." Townsend felt that illiterate people throughout the world were asking, "Does God speak my language?" His advocacy for Bible translation and literacy among minority language groups was soon recognized worldwide.

Townsend helped change the paradigm of missions. Missions historians see the inaugural meeting of Camp Wycliffe (which later became SIL) in a small Arkansas town in 1934 as a landmark in Christian missions. The few would-be translators in that little farmhouse probably could not conceive that they were on the ground floor of what would become one of the largest missions enterprises in the world.

Innovation was embedded in Townsend's makeup. He despised racial prejudice and urged people of color to apply as Bible translators. In 1950, when most missions agencies wouldn't have considered it, Townsend sent two single women as a team to a murderous tribe. Their lives so impacted the people that the chief gave his life to Christ, and the area was transformed.

"If you had sent men, we would have killed them on sight," the chief said. "Or a couple. I'd have killed the man and taken the woman. But what could a great chief do with two harmless girls who insisted on calling me brother?"

After Townsend served 50 years, it might seem logical that he would have retired. However, that was not in his nature. As he looked back on his half-century of spreading the gospel and translating God's Word, his eyes were still on the future. Taking his wife's hand, he announced, "Elaine and I want to invest our next years where they will count the most." Thus, they went to the Soviet Union, studying Russian and opening discussions for Bible translation for the many languages spoken by the people in the Caucasus.

Townsend's vision for Bible translation in every language spawned other impactful ministries, including Evangel Bible Translators and The Seed Company. Syvelle Phillips, Evangel's founder, said, "I was a successful pastor when I met Uncle Cam. But through his example and encouragement, I've given my life to getting God's Word to the world's Bible-less peoples."

When Townsend died in 1982, tributes poured in from around the world. Missiologist Ralph Winter placed him with William Carey and Hudson Taylor as one of the three most influential missionaries of the last 200 years. Billy Graham called him "the greatest missionary of our time." But Townsend himself had another opinion: "The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It never needs a furlough, is never considered a foreigner." We stand on his shoulders.

David Shibley is founder and world representative for Global Advance. This summer, Global Advance launched the inaugural session of the David Shibley Institute in Dallas. This two-week intensive time brought together influential, young church leaders from 11 nations for inspiration and instruction. Also this year, Global Advance will equip thousands of leaders to fulfill the Great Commission in 87 training events in 35 nations. This column is based on profiles from Great for God: Missionaries Who Changed the World (New Leaf Publishing Group).

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