William Cameron "Uncle Cam" Townsend (1896–1982)

In June 1934, William Cameron Townsend, along with Leonard Livingston Legters, founded a linguistic training program for the purpose of promoting Bible translation among minority language groups. Named Camp Wycliffe, in honor of the first scholar to translate the entire Bible into English, John Wycliffe, the program was based in an old abandoned farmhouse near Sulphur Springs (Benton County). Camp Wycliffe would later become Wycliffe Bible Translators, the founding of which, as historian Dr. Mark Noll affirmed, “may stand symbolically for one of the great Christian events of the age.”

Cameron Townsend was born on July 9, 1896, in a one-room farmhouse in Eastvale, California, the first son and fifth child of William Hammond, a poor tenant farmer, and Molly Cormack Townsend. He had one younger brother.

Townsend attended Occidental College from 1914 to 1917. Upon graduating, he and a friend decided to sell Spanish Bibles in Guatemala. To Townsend’s surprise, many of the people he met spoke Cakchiquel rather than Spanish. He became convinced that people needed to have the Bible in their own mother tongue.

In 1919, Townsend married Elvira Malmstrom, and the couple began missionary and translation work among the Cakchiquel Indians in Guatemala. By 1929, the Cakchiquel New Testament was completed. Even with the death of his wife in 1944, Townsend’s vision did not wane. He married Elaine Mielke, a teacher of missionary children, in 1946. They had four children.

Realizing he and his small group alone could not meet the world’s Bible translation needs, Townsend founded three organizations: Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS). Together, these organizations have played a significant role in the translation of more than 600 New Testaments and Bibles.

As Townsend planned the curriculum for the first Camp Wycliffe, Loren Jones, a revival song leader, offered Townsend use of his barn on Happy Valley Farm in Sulphur Springs. Townsend accepted the offer, but one week before classes began, he located a farmhouse at nearby Breezy Point that provided more suitable facilities. In addition, the surrounding area afforded prime conditions for training in wilderness living. Only two students graduated from the first session of Camp Wycliffe, but enrollment increased steadily each year thereafter. The program was held annually from 1934 to 1941, at which point it became part of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

In 1966, the University of San Marcos bestowed a doctoral degree upon Townsend. He also received decorations from five Latin American governments and, in 1972, was asked to address the UNESCO Congress on Bilingual Education. Townsend never faltered in his belief that all people, regardless of education level, social status, or economic standing, should be able to access the Bible in their own language.

After battling acute leukemia, Townsend died on April 23, 1982. The organizations he founded continue to pursue the admonition engraved on Townsend’s tombstone, located at the JAARS center in Waxhaw, North Carolina: “‘Dear Ones: by love serve one another. Finish the task. Translate the Scriptures into every language.’ —Uncle Cam.”

For additional information:
Hefley, James, and Marti Hefley. Uncle Cam. Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1981.

Hibbard, Calvin, comp. “William Cameron Townsend, 1896–1982.” SIL International. https://www.sil.org/about/wct/william-cameron-townsend (accessed September 7, 2023).

Steven, Hugh. Doorway to the World, the Mexico Years: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend 1934–1947. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1999.

———. Wycliffe in the Making: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend, 1920–1933. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995.

———. Yours to Finish the Task. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 2004.

Steven, Hugh, ed. A Thousand Trails. White Rock, BC: Credo, 1984.

Wycliffe Bible Translators. Pass the Word. Huntington Beach, CA: Wycliffe Bible Translators, 1984.

Wycliffe Bible Translators. http://www.wycliffe.org/ (accessed September 7, 2023).

Matt Petersen and Borghy Holm
Wycliffe Bible Translators


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