Today (April 23) in 1982, William Cameron Townsend passed into eternity, leaving a huge temporal legacy. Not money, mind you. Rather, the man the members of Wycliffe Bible translators affectionately called Uncle Cam, left behind a translation movement which has continued to grow after his death.
I use the word “movement” on purpose. Uncle Cam did found an organization – Wycliffe Bible Translators – and for that he is best known. Wycliffe Bible Translators has spread beyond the USA. There are now hundreds of organizations worldwide affiliated with Wycliffe including the one I with with, the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. Uncle Cam did much more than found a successful Christian organization! What he started has morphed into a worldwide movement to translate the Bible into every language.
Actually, I don’t think it was Uncle Cam’s doing at all. Let me explain.
The movement to translate the Bible into all languages has its ideological roots in the reformation. “Scriptures only” was the cry of the reformers, meaning that they believed that the final authority for faith was in the Bible, not in the church. They also believed that any person could rightly interpret the Bible without the guidance of the church. They put feet on those belief by translating the Bible into the languages right where they were – English, German, French, and so on even when people thought they were crazy to abandon the world language of the time – Latin. The founding of the Bible Societies in the 1800s was another outworking of those same beliefs.
When missionaries with these beliefs spread across the world, they to acted in a manner consistent with them and they too translated the Bible into the languages where they went, native North American languages in the US and Canada, the languages of India, and I could go on and on.
Uncle Cam came from this heritage. As a young man, to put his beliefs into practice he went to Guatemala to sell Bibles in Spanish, the official language of that country. There he discovered a fact he did not know – many people in Guatemala spoke languages other than Spanish. They were not interested in a Bible in a language they did not know. Uncle Cam’s beliefs kicked in. He translated the Bible into one of the languages of Guatemala. He also started gathering information about how many languages did not have the Bible. He thought it was about 500.
Knowing that he could not do that alone, he went back to the USA and started recruiting young people. The rest, as they say, is history, except that the history is still being written. It is hard to know, but there are tens of thousands of across the world involved in translating the Bible into a language for the first time. There are millions of people supporting them in prayer, giving, advocacy and going short term. Those people come from all over. Yes, there are Americans, Canadians, Germans and other Westerners. But there are also people from Ghana, Korea, India, Indonesia, Russia, Slovakia, Mexico, Brazil and yes, even Guatemala and many others. Wycliffe is now a broad-based, international alliance.
This cannot possibly be the doing of one man.
God planted the seeds in the form of a simple idea – the Bible is for everyone in their own language. He nurtured that idea. It grew into the Bible Societies. Then as Uncle Cam made known that there were still thousands of unique languages without the Bible, others who embraced that simple idea joined him. God fanned a spark in individual hearts and turned it into a huge fire that spread out of control across the world.
The lesson of Uncle Cam’s life is simple and the conclusion I draw from it is not really mine. He engaged in something God was doing and which fit the core tenants of Christian faith. I have sometimes dealt with people who were skeptical that some group, say Africans, had what it took to be part of the movement. That skepticism goes nowhere because God is pushing the other direction. As we remember Uncle Cam today, the question for each of us is whether our passions fit the core tenants of our faith and align with what God is doing in the world. Anything else cannot have lasting impact.