Uncle Cam

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.

William Cameron Townsend

William Cameron Townsend

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.

William Cameron Townsend

William Cameron Townsend

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.

If you liked this, you might also like Nida, The guy who obliterated geography, or Ulifas.

500 2000 3000 then 2000 again


There are perhaps as many as 500 languages in the world. At least that’s what Wycliffe’s founder William Cameron Townsend thought when he started the organization in the 1930s. The number increased to 1,000. Then by the time I joined in the 1970s, it was over 2000. By then, Wycliffe had published a book entitled Two Thousand Tongues to Go.

Gradually, the number kept increasing. Why? Well, we kept discovering more languages. In the 1990s that stopped. Oh, we still might find a new language here or there, but nothing like the thousands being discovered in the middle of the 20th century. One of the little-heralded scientific achievements of that period was the cataloging of all the languages of the world, largely achieved by people interested in translating the Bible into more languages.

As the number of known languages increased – eventually to over 6,900 – so did the number without a translation of the Bible, reaching 3,000 in the 1990s – a far cry from the estimated 500 of only 60 years earlier.

But even as the number of languages stabilized around 6,900, the number still needing a translation was only decreasing by 25 per year – translation work was starting in about 25 languages every year. Imagine trying to save $3,000 by adding $25 to a cookie jar once a year. Even stalwart supporters of translating the Bible into all languages wondered if it was doable or worthwhile.

Enter John Watters. He had an idea called Vision 2025 which called for starting translation in all languages by 2025. A nice motivational goal, I thought, even if it can’t be done.

Well, Wycliffe just released the latest statistics. You can see them here. The number of languages without the Bible has dropped to less than 2,000 for the first time since we knew how many languages there are! Better, the rate of starting translation in more languages has increased way beyond 25 per year. The current pace has translation in the last language starting in the 2030s. Of course, that requires that giving, going and praying continue at the same pace. On the other hand, if God’s people were to pick up the pace a bit, 2025 is very possible.

This means that my children will see the last translation started and probably finished! Time is running out to be part of this historic moment. Don’t show up at the end of the world, see how proud our God is of those he asked to be involved and regret that you didn’t invest some prayer, money or time in this great thing God is doing.