William Cameron “Cam” Townsend (1896-1982), founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and Jungle Aviation and Radio Service. Townsend was born to a Presbyterian tenant farmer and his wife in Eastvale, California. He attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and became involved with the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM); after hearing a speech by SVM leader John R. Mott, Townsend decided on a career as a missionary.
Recruited by a California-based mission in 1917 to go sell Spanish Bibles in Guatemala, Townsend was startled to find that most of the rural people he encountered were Cakchiquel Indians who spoke only their native tongue. When one of the Indians asked him “If your God is so smart why doesn’t he speak Cakchiquel?,” Townsend decided he would take up the challenge to begin reaching the tribe. Marrying a fellow missionary, he began working with the Cakchiquels and after ten years of arduous translation produced a copy of the New Testament in their language.
In 1934, Townsend with colleague Leonard L. Letgers, took over a small farm near Sulphur Springs, Arkansas and created “Camp Wycliffe”. Within a short time Townsend had begun his Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Wycliffe Bible Translators and by the beginning of American involvement in World War II had nearly a hundred missionaries in place in Central and South America working on translations for small language groups. Aided by the rapid expansion of American involvement around the globe that followed the war, Townsend was able to greatly expand Wycliffe’s potential reach, even as its adventurous Gospel exploits appealed to many potential missionary candidates back in North America.
The publicity surrounding the martyrdom of Wycliffe missionary Jim Elliot and the rest of the “Auca Five” in 1956 in particular triggered a vast outpouring of funds and candidates for the missions movement overall, and Wycliffe in particular. By the 1980s Wycliffe translators were working in every region of the globe. Today, more than 5,000 Wycliffe workers are active around the world, and well over a thousand people groups now have access to the New Testament through their efforts, and hundreds have the entire Bible in their native tongue. Currently, Wycliffe has nearly 2,000 translation projects in progress for languages with no, or limited, access to the Bible.
For further reading see William L. Svelmoe, A New Vision for Missions: William Cameron Townsend, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the Culture of Early Evangelical Faith Missions, 1917-1945 (Alabama, 2008); James and Marti Hefley, Uncle Cam (Mott, 1981).