Posts Tagged ‘William Cameron Townsend’

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.

Read Part 1: A Man with a Vision or Part 2: One Person at a Time

Starting a mission organization with the goal of translating the Bible worldwide is a daunting task. During the early years, Wycliffe founder Cam Townsend encountered many people who weren’t confident that the mission would succeed. The odds stacked against it just seemed too high!

But God is much bigger than any of these odds, and in the face of every obstacle, He has proved faithful.

When foreign missionaries weren’t allowed in to Mexico in the 1930s, God opened an unexpected door. Although Cam and others were not allowed to enter the country officially as Bible translators, the government did recognize a need for assistance in studying the rural education system. To Cam, the solution was obvious. “We will enter Mexico as linguists rather than as missionaries,” he decided.

Cam shakes hands with men he knew as boys when he lived and worked in Mexico.

Cam shakes hands with men he knew as boys when he lived and worked in Mexico.

Although it wasn’t their official job in Mexico, Cam’s colleagues were still able to help with Bible translation. But when Cam got a request from an official to send translators to the Lacandons, a tribe of only two hundred people, he was faced with a dilemma. He knew that tribes with large populations needed the Scripture, but did tribes of two hundred merit the lifework of an educated linguist?

As Cam pondered the question, he was reminded of Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who sought the one lost sheep. Yes, he decided, even the small tribes needed the Bible in a language they could understand. But where would he get the volunteers?

At that time, there were forty-four workers under Cam’s leadership. He decided to ask, “Will each of you be responsible before the Lord for one new recruit for Bible translation? … I’m sure He would give us six extra for good measure.” Sure enough, by the end of that year, Cam had fifty new volunteers for Bible translation—plus one more for good measure!

When finances were limited, God sent other believers who gifted the money to Cam and the work of Bible translation. From simple needs like the monthly $5 to rent a vacant farmhouse for the beginning of Camp Wycliffe to $10,000 to build a clinic and dwelling places in Peru, God always came through.


L.L. and Edna Legters pose with friend and Wycliffe founder, Cam Townsend.

The journey was never easy. Gaining access to countries where missionaries weren’t allowed was difficult and trying. Finding volunteers who were willing to dedicate their lives to linguistics and translation sometimes seemed overwhelming and impossible. Supplying funds for the projects in various countries seemed unfeasible. But each time, God opened another door.

Though the odds stacked against them seemed high, God is more powerful than any obstacle. As L.L. Legters, one of Cam’s friends and a fellow pioneer of Bible translation, would sing:

Faith, mighty faith the promise sees,
And looks to God alone.
Laughs at impossibilities
And shouts, “It shall be done!”

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Ethel Wallis

Ethel Emily Wallis, one of Wycliffe’s unsung heroes, went peacefully home to be with the Lord on Wednesday, December 14, at approximately 9:30 p.m. She was 96 years of age.

“Aunt Ethel is safely home,” Mary Kathleen Green Waldner, Ethel’s niece who also used to work for Wycliffe, said. “Her focus to the end was to see every tribe, tongue, and nation hear the message of God’s love and salvation in their own language. When we talked about this, her eyes twinkled.”

In her early years, Ethel studied journalism at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was there she became friends with Florence Hansen Cowan, Velma Pickett, and Evelyn Griset Pike, all members of the second wave of Wycliffe pioneers.

Because of Ethel’s training in journalism, Wycliffe founder William Cameron Townsend challenged her to write the first book about Wycliffe. She rose to the challenge, producing Two Thousand Tongues to Go along with Mary A. Bennett. In the years that followed, Ethel wrote eight more books including Dayuma: Life Under Waorani Spears, Tarir: My Story, Otomi Shepherdess, God Speaks Navajo, Aucas Downriver: Dayuma’s Story Today, and The Cakchiquel Album.

Ethel was also a linguist and wrote more than twenty-five articles for professional journals describing the linguistic characteristics of the languages she studied.

Over the course of her lifetime, Ethel did both Bible translation and literacy work serving languages in Mexico and Eastern Europe. She was also instrumental in helping to open the doors to linguistic work in Southeast Asia.

Ethel Emily Wallis’s memorial service is scheduled for January 21, 2012, at 10:30 a.m. in the Hillcrest Meeting House, 2705 Mountain View Drive, La Verne, CA 91750.

Postal notes to the family can be sent to Eloise Wallis Greene at 2701 Mountain View Drive, #246, La Verne, CA 91750 or Mary Kathleen Greene Waldner at 110 Beaverfork Rd, Conway, AR 72032-9515. E-mail notes can be sent to Eloise Greene via Martha Heisel at mmheisel@verizon.net or Mary Kathleen Greene Waldner at waldnerdesign@gmail.com.

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I suspect that when William Cameron Townsend moved into a stick house in Guatemala (about 10k from where I was  on Wednesday evening last week), he couldn’t see as far as I’ve seen. And I don’t say that because I have some sense of greatness. I have literally seen the impact of Bible translation beyond what I believe Townsend imagined.

I know he had a vision of all people having access to God’s Word in the language they understand best — that’s the vision that propelled him, along with a few others, to found organizations which eventually became SIL International and Wycliffe Bible Translators. At that time, he thought there were about 1,000 languages in the world, total, and it turns out to be closer to 7,000 — but I’m not referring to a limitation of scope. I have no intention of devaluing his limited vision. I’m so grateful that God planted that vision in his heart and mind and used him to do some pretty extraordinary things.

God continues to use those organizations and others to move toward the fulfillment of Townsend’s dream. The majority of language communities lacking access to God’s Word in their heart language in the mid-20th Century were what we might classify as “indigenous.” Indigenous peoples are any ethnic group who inhabit a geographic region with which they have the earliest known historical connection. (In the U.S. we call indigenous people Native Americans; in Canada they are called First Nations) Many were living in isolated locations and their lives were often characteristically privative rather than modern. These are peoples who often were ignored or oppressed by colonizers who brought plans of unified languages and large nations.

Uncle Cam (that’s what some call him) had a vision that was both expansive and limited. He saw a day when people from every language community would have access to God’s Word and therefore could decide for themselves whether to enter into a relationship with Him or reject that invitation. That vision is in the process of being fulfilled. Today there are just over 2,000 language communities with no access to Scripture who need it, and around 2,000 with a translation in progress.

What I saw this past week was not simply the first fruits of the Bible translation movement — something we often illustrate or express with a New Testament dedication or a statement of an individual who puts her faith in Christ alone for salvation. I saw a harvest that I’m pretty sure was beyond Townsend’s purview.

This week I sat under the leadership and teaching of people from a number of indigenous communities in Central and South America who are leaders in growing mission movements.

These are people who have not simply entered into a relationship with God; they have become a part of the Kingdom of Priests who extend the invitation to others. They are crossing barriers and boundaries for the sake of Christ. They are filled with the Spirit and guided by the Word of God to act boldly, to extend grace, and to worship their Creator who loves them extraordinarily…perfectly…completely.

They called me (and many others with me) into greater obedience, deeper commitment, and a hope that is indescribable by their wise teaching and godly examples.

Gloria a Dios!

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