Does God Speak My Language?

The Pioneering Legacy of Cam Townsend

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“If your God is so mighty, why doesn’t he speak my language?” So asked an indigenous man in Guatemala to William Cameron (Cam) Townsend (1896–1982) between WWI and WWII.1 Townsend had come to Guatemala selling Bibles in Spanish, but many did not know the language or used it only as a trade language. So, Townsend changed course: he learned the Cakchiquels’ language, devised an alphabet, analyzed the grammar, and translated the New Testament.

We know Townsend today as the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International), and Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (now JAARS). The founding principles that led this “pioneering Protestant missionary”2 to launch those organizations still shape Bible translation today. This is the remarkable story of Wycliffe’s beginnings.3

Unexpected Assignment

It was 1917, the year the United States entered WWI. Cam was in his junior year at Presbyterian-founded Occidental College in California and served as a corporal in the National Guard. Never fond of academics, “he was restless and frustrated with studies that, to him, seemed disconnected from the life of action he craved,” writes Boone Aldridge. (Ironically, his lowest grades were in Greek and Spanish.)4

After reading a biography of Hudson Taylor, missionary to China, whose pioneering faith missions deeply impressed him, Cam joined the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), pledging, God willing, to “become a foreign missionary,” though at the time he could not provide thorough reasons for joining.5 Then, in January 1917 he attended a special missions meeting held by John R. Mott, leader of the SVM, who pleaded for students to “evangelize the world in this generation.” Hearing Mott cemented Cam’s desire to engage in missions; shortly afterward, he learned of the need for Bible salesmen in Central America, so he and college friend Robbie Robinson applied for the one-year position.

The Bible House of Los Angeles sent them to Guatemala, where Cam would spend the next fifteen years, never completing his college degree.

Overcoming Linguistic Barriers

Once in Guatemala, Cam began selling Spanish Bibles house by house and sharing the gospel, but he quickly discovered that many people spoke only their mother tongue (Cakchiquel or another local language).6 This prompted Cam to reconsider his approach.

The primary factor leading Cam to work specifically with the Cakchiquel was his close friendship with Francisco (Frisco) Díaz, a 35-year-old Cakchiquel Christian who traveled with him as bag-carrier, cook, and fellow evangelist. Frisco was one of few bilingual indigenous men, fluent in his mother tongue and Spanish. Frisco walked with Cam to villages all across Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, evangelizing and selling Bibles in harsh conditions — from mosquitos and malaria to threats by machete (and at least one at gunpoint). Through such harrowing gospel exploits on “a thousand trails,” Cam gained a profound admiration for Frisco as an equal, a colleague, and a friend — at a time when people of Spanish heritage there generally disdained indigenous people.

In 1918, after “constantly” hearing Frisco share about the need for Jesus among the Cakchiquel,7 Cam surveyed missionaries in Guatemala and found that almost all worked in Spanish; hardly any learned the indigenous languages (all unwritten) due to the difficulty.8 The spiritual needs and social plight of the oppressed indigenous population weighed heavily on Cam. Frisco and Cam started dreaming of a school for indigenous children in Frisco’s hometown of San Antonio, Guatemala.

In 1919, the work began. Having recently married Elvira Malmstrom, a stenographer from Chicago who was serving as secretary for a missionary in Guatemala City, Cam joined the Central American Mission (initials providentially CAM) as a general missionary. He and Elvira started learning the Cakchiquel language and opened the first school for indigenous people in Guatemala (along with a clinic and much more).

Now firmly engaged in ministry using the Cakchiquel language, another influential encounter would soon direct Cam toward Bible translation.

Translation Work Begins

In January 1921, twelve expatriate missionaries gathered in Guatemala for a General Indian Conference to discuss ministry among the indigenous peoples of Central America. In attendance were the Townsends and Leonard Levingston Legters, a former missionary to the Comanche and Apache in Oklahoma who had come to Guatemala at Cam’s invitation.

The delegates reached two important decisions, both controversial at the time: “Indians should be trained to evangelize their own people” and “mother-tongue Bible translation was . . . an absolute necessity.”9 In order to ensure progress on these objectives, they formed a new mission called Latin American Indian Mission (LAIM) and instructed “Townsend and [Dr. Paul] Burgess to form a Bible translation committee.”10 The Townsends immediately set to work on translating the Gospel of Mark into Cakchiquel.

A series of hardships threatened to derail Cam from work with the Cakchiquel. His dear trail partner Frisco died of malaria at the inception of the school project in 1919. His wife Elvira experienced physical and mental-health issues that persisted throughout their marriage. And Robbie, his college friend and missionary colleague, drowned in 1922. Despite such challenges, he and the mother-tongue translators completed the New Testament in 1929, dedicating it two years later. Cam even presented the president of Guatemala with a special leather-bound copy, an event that made front-page news.

Mission to Mexico

Cam’s next phase of ministry meant new opportunities beyond Guatemala. In 1934, he cofounded the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) with Legters and began work in a new field of service: Mexico.

Several factors led the Townsends to transition out of Guatemala. Both Cam’s and Elvira’s health began failing. It was the height of the Great Depression, and they had little money. And as the Cakchiquel congregations were becoming self-supporting and self-governing, Cam had a growing desire to serve in a new field.11

A new ministry opportunity was also presented to them. While the Townsends were in the United States on deputation in 1933, Legters met with Cam to discuss the idea of starting a linguistic training school. They had exchanged several letters since the conference in Guatemala twelve years prior and shared a passion for Bible translation among indigenous peoples. Legters had also conducted surveys among jungle tribes in the Amazon, and his reports intrigued Cam. That year, after much prayer by him and others, Cam sensed that God would have him “give his talents and energies to Mexico.”12

Cam and Legters took a vision trip to Mexico that November, but they faced opposition from the start. At the border, the Mexican immigration official denied them entry, stating, “Religious missionaries are not permitted to enter.”13 But God amazingly opened the door. As the two men paused to pray and consider their options, Cam remembered a letter he had with him. In God’s sovereignty, two years prior, while in Guatemala, Cam had met Dr. Moisés Sáenz, then undersecretary of Mexico’s Department of Education and a “champion of Protestantism.”14 A few months after that meeting, Sáenz sent him a letter of invitation to come do multifaceted work in Mexico similar to Cam’s work in Guatemala.

Cam promptly presented this letter to the Mexican border official, who granted him and Legters provisional entry.15 During that initial trip to Mexico, Cam met key leaders who suggested he conduct rural educational research. He published the results, and Mexican officials invited him back to conduct linguistic research.

Further convinced that God was at work, Cam organized “Camp Wycliffe” in Arkansas during the summer of 1934. He named the summer linguistic school after John Wycliffe, translator of the first complete Bible in English. For several years following, he returned to Mexico with SIL trainees, entering “as linguists rather than as missionaries.”16 A few years later, he received an unexpected village visit from Mexico’s then president Lázaro Cárdenas, who gave Cam’s Bible translation work a huge endorsement. The visit began a lifelong friendship that cemented a fruitful partnership with SIL.17

Finally, in 1942, when SIL membership reached almost one hundred, Cam founded Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) to handle the administrative needs in the USA. WBT-SIL soon expanded work throughout the Americas, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa.

Pioneering Ministry

Cam was a visionary pioneer, decades ahead of his time. He devoted his life to indigenous peoples when no other full-time missionaries in the region were doing so. It wasn’t until many years later that mission agencies shifted strategy from reaching continents and countries to reaching people groups.

In 1931, Cam published the diglot Cakchiquel-Spanish New Testament, aiming to transfer literacy in Cakchiquel to Spanish — a full twenty years before UNESCO preferred bilingual over monolingual education.18

Cam also broke ground by applying descriptive linguistic principles rather than the more common comparative linguistics of the day to help gain understanding of the complex system of word formation in Cakchiquel. (Each verb had one hundred thousand possible conjugations!)19

“Cam Townsend was a visionary pioneer, decades ahead of his time.”

In addition, Cam began dreaming of using airplanes to reach peoples in the jungle when flying was still in its infancy, a vision he would realize through founding JAARS in 1948.20 It was not without reason that Billy Graham said concerning Cam’s legacy, “No man in this century has . . . advance[d] the cause of Christian missions as [has] Cameron Townsend.”21

Scripture in Every Tongue

In the ninety years since Cam’s first summer institute of linguistics (1934), the pace of Bible translation has accelerated among minority languages. Several Bible-translation organizations now contribute, with WBT-SIL still playing a significant role. In 2018, Wycliffe celebrated their one thousandth New Testament. The first five hundred languages took 67 years (1934–2001), but the second five hundred languages took only 17 years (2002–2018).22

In 1935, the French Academy reportedly listed 2,700 different languages in the world, which led Cam to reason at the time that “a thousand languages . . . needed the Scriptures.”23 Today’s updated list more precisely identifies 7,396 different languages. One-sixth of these still require Bible translation to begin (1,216). A third have either a full Bible or a New Testament (2,437). Over half currently have Bible-translation activity in progress (3,801). This past April, the Tz’utujil of Guatemala, a people group next door to the Cakchiquel, became the 744th language in the world with a full Bible; their celebration was held where Cam and Elvira lived a century ago!

To help finish the task, the Townsend-launched Bible-translation organizations are making advances in AI technology, leveraging satellite Internet, serving as authorities for linguistic data and research, publishing on translation theory, and doing much more. In addition, Wycliffe Global Alliance was formed in 2011, bringing together over one hundred organizations to collaborate in translating the Bible in language communities worldwide.

Cam’s fingerprints can be found on Bible translation work among thousands of language groups and countless people around the world. Such people include Chief Tariri in Peru, who learned of God’s love in his language from Bible translators and turned from hate to “let God come into [his] heart,”24 or Kwame in Ghana, the son of a witch doctor, who learned about Jesus from the translated word in Dilo, his mother tongue; he trusted in Jesus and is now a Bible-translation leader.

With Romans 15:20 in mind, Cam’s motto was “always pioneer.” That same pioneer spirit is alive and well today. The remaining task of Bible translation includes some of the least-reached, most under-resourced, most isolated people on the planet. Much has been done; much work remains.

  1. See “Our Story,” Wycliffe Bible Translation, 

  2. Cited (from Time magazine’s obituary of Townsend) in William Lawrence Svelmoe, A New Vision for Missions: William Cameron Townsend, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the Culture of Early Evangelical Faith Missions, 1896–1945 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2008), ix. One of Townsend’s favorite slogans was “Always pioneer.” See William Cameron Townsend and Richard S. Pittman, Remember All the Way (Huntington Beach, CA: Wycliffe Bible Translators, 1975), 131. 

  3. Svelmoe identifies Wycliffe as “the largest, most innovative . . . Protestant mission of the twentieth century” (A New Vision for Missions, ix). 

  4. Boone Aldridge, For the Gospel’s Sake: The Rise of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, HSCM (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 16. 

  5. Svelmoe, New Vision for Missions, 8. 

  6. William Cameron Townsend, A Thousand Trails: The Personal Journal of William Cameron Townsend, 1917–1919, ed. Hugh Steven (Langley, Canada: CREDO, 1984), 162. He also observed that in some regions he “didn’t meet a single Indian Christian” despite twenty years of evangelism in Spanish. Cited in Hugh Steven, Wycliffe in the Making: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend, 1920–1933 (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995), 73. 

  7. Townsend, as cited in Svelmoe, New Vision, 79. 

  8. In 1921, Cam claimed that “of the forty missionaries working in Guatemala only he and Elvira were ministering full-time in an Indian language” (Svelmoe, New Vision, 78). 

  9. Aldridge, Gospel’s Sake, 32–33. CAM opposed both. The prevalent mission strategy of the day was to assimilate the largely monolingual mother-tongue-speaking indigenous population into Spanish-speaking congregations led by people of Spanish heritage (Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 41). Townsend, however, advocated separate congregations and Bible translations for the respective languages. For a list of prior attempts at Bible translation without the backing of mission agencies, see Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 41–42. 

  10. Aldridge, Gospel’s Sake, 31. 

  11. Aldridge, Gospel’s Sake, 229. 

  12. Aldridge, Gospel’s Sake, 200. 

  13. Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 248. 

  14. Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 228. 

  15. For this incredible story, see Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 249; Townsend and Pittman, Remember, 33–41. 

  16. James Hefley and Marti Hefley, Uncle Cam: The Story of William Cameron Townsend, founder of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1981), 101. 

  17. For the story, see Townsend and Pittman, Remember, 65. 

  18. Aldridge notes, “Not until the mid-1940s would bilingual education begin to achieve some measure of acceptance in Guatemala, and not until 1953 would . . . [UNESCO] conclude bilingual education should be preferred over monolingual education” (Gospel’s Sake, 29). 

  19. Hefley and Hefley, Uncle Cam, 60, 77; Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 13–14. 

  20. In the fall of 1926, Cam attended the ceremony of the US Navy’s Pan-American Goodwill flight to Guatemala and met with the commander to request a detailed cost estimate for an aviation program. After WWII, the flight program finally got off the ground. For the story, see Steven, Wycliffe in the Making, 179, 210; Townsend, A Thousand Trails, 161. 

  21. Svelmoe, New Vision, ix. 

  22. See “Why Is the Pace of Bible Translation Increasing?” Wycliffe Bible Translators, 

  23. Kenneth Pike, as cited in Hugh Steven, Doorway to the World: The Mexico Years: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend, 1934–1947 (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1999), 23. 

  24. For Tariri’s testimony, see Townsend and Pittman, Remember, 39–41. 

is a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, a translation consultant with Seed Company, and an adjunct professor of Hebrew at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He is a husband, a father of three, a blogger at, and the author of King of Israel and “Do Not Fear, Daughter of Zion”: The Use of Zephaniah 3 in John 12.