As a young man studying at Occidental College, Townsend heard of the need for laborers in central America to work among the large number of tribes down there. His heart was touched by this plea and, after finishing school, he sailed to Guatemala with the Los Angeles Bible House. His job was to distribute a large number of Spanish Bibles to the local Indian tribes living there.
Townsend’s excitement to be reaching the Indians soon turned to disappointment when he discovered that the majority of the people he met did not understand Spanish. He could give them a Bible, it it did nothing to reach their hearts and turn them to Christ. Townsend’s disappointment grew when he tried to find Bibles in the local language of the Cakchiquel Indians and found that their language wasn’t even written. This experience convinced Townsend to change this.
Townsend gave up his job with the Bible House and, with his wife Elvira, settled among the Cakchiquel Indians of Guatemala and applied themselves vigorously to the task of learning this unwritten language. He studied the structures, words, and verb system and began to work on creating a written language. The work was slow, but Townsend persisted. He began to hold classes to teach the Cakchiquel how to read their own language. As he found men who seemed to be gifted linguist in his small reading classes, he hired them to help him with his greatest project: the translation of the Bible.
Within ten years, the Cakchiquel New Testament was translated. Soon, small Bible studies were being carried out among the different tribes of the Cakchiquel. The people who could read would read their new Bible out to large groups of their fellow villagers. They loved their Bible!
As Townsend continued his labors in Guatemala, he met a professor from Mexico, who begged him to come do the same type of work there. But when Townsend surveyed the work in Mexico, he saw a task to great for one man to handle. He needed help.
Despite the Great Depression in the United States, Townsend dared to start a training school to recruit and prepare young men and women to work with him. Accordingly, the summer of 1934 found him, along with a young Cakchiquel man and two students, in an abandoned farmhouse in Arkansas. This first training session, called Camp Wycliffe, later became the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now known as SIL), where students not only learned linguistic skills, but also became experienced at living in difficult conditions—in this case the backcountry of the Ozarks.
The students sat on donated wooden barrels. Their linguistic theory was derived from Townsend’s work on the Cakchiquel language, and the Cakchiquel young man was an invaluable asset for putting theory into practice.
Two students attended the first session; five came the next year.1
This was just the start of two programs that have been used to get the Bible to a countless number of unreached tribes. Today, thousands of missionaries fill the rank of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Dozens of Bible translations have been made by these organizations. Hundreds of people who have never before read God’s word in their language now read it daily. This all came from a man who saw a grat problem and said, “With God’s help I will fix this!”
A friend said of Townsend: “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 lifetime.”
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