By Melissa Chesnut
Each year, National Hispanic Heritage month (September 15–October 15) honors the histories and cultures of Hispanic nations and remembers the anniversaries of the independence of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile. This four-part “Throwback Thursday” series will focus on different aspects of Wycliffe’s work among Hispanic countries and language communities.
It all began in 1917.
William Cameron Townsend (known by friends as “Cam”) was a passionate twenty-one year old, fueled by a vision to obey Jesus’ command to take the Gospel to the nations.
“The greater need is where the greatest darkness is,” Cam said. “Our orders are to forget self and to give our lives in service for the Master.” While many of his friends and peers were fighting in World War I, Cam decided to fight a spiritual battle—a battle for lost souls. He packed his bags, said goodbye to his family, and moved to Guatemala to sell Bibles to farmers and villagers along the sparsely populated trails of Central America.
When Cam stepped off the boat, his youthful enthusiasm for sharing the Gospel was high, but he soon realized that most of the people he was meeting didn’t understand the Bible in Spanish!
Cam faced a dilemma. If they didn’t understand, how was he reaching people for Jesus? Frustrated and disappointed, Cam began to wonder if he’d failed. But God had others plans in mind.
As he continued to travel around Guatemala, Cam soon learned about the Cakchiquel Indians. People of Spanish heritage often thought of them as inferior and uneducated members of society, but Cam disagreed. Instead, he was impressed when he met the Cakchiquel man who first brought the Gospel to his own language group and led forty people to Christ—all without a Bible in his own language! After sharing a short testimony in Spanish, Cam decided to put behind his first failure and help reach these people with the Gospel. So he abandoned his attempts to sell Spanish Bibles to non-Spanish speakers and began serving as a missionary to the Cakchiquel Indians by helping start a school to teach them how to read and write.
Still, Cam didn’t have any Scriptures in Cakchiquel. When he’d brought Spanish Bibles to men who only spoke Cakchiquel, they’d asked him something that really made him think—why didn’t God speak their language? Was he only the God of English and Spanish speakers?
Deep down, Cam thought everyone—man, woman, and child alike—should be able to read God’s Word in the language of their heart. So although it would end up taking almost ten years of his life, he decided to learn the complex Cakchiquel language, create an alphabet, and translate the New Testament.
When he was done, the Cakchiquel Indians finally had God’s Word, but thousands of other languages still needed it. So in 1934 Cam started “Camp Wycliffe,” a linguistic training program named after John Wycliffe, the first translator of the entire Bible into English. Less than ten years later, the humble training camp had grown into two affiliate organizations known as Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International).
Cam served for over sixty years in Latin America, witnessing the work spread across the continent and reaching language communities in Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and more. SIL International established an SIL Americas branch, focusing on reaching people with the translated Word of God in the language they understand best. Cam’s work in translating the Bible for the Cakchiquel Indians was just the start!
Almost one hundred years later, Cam’s legacy lives on. Today there are over 1,500 translation projects currently in progress, with 518 language groups having the entire Bible and 1,275 having the New Testament in the language they understand best. And it all began in 1917 when a man’s eyes were opened to a people who were vastly overlooked and desperately needed to know that God spoke their language too.
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