William Cameron Townsend
July 9, 1896 - April 23, 1982
Founded Summer Institute of Linguistics, Bible Translatorsby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Cameron Townsend, who many people now call "Uncle Cam", was born four years before the turn of the century. He has made a big impact in Latin American religion today. Despite many trials, he founded two famous organizations, Summer Institution of Linguistics and Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Cameron Townsend entered this world on July 9, 1896 in an old farmhouse in Los Angeles, California. Because he had four sisters and one brother, it was a full house. He and his brother, Paul, had lots of fun together. Pulling pranks on his brother and getting him in trouble was one of the ways young Cameron amused himself. Sometimes he acted like Tom Sawyer and got Paul to "paint his fence."
One experience he had with his cousins changed his life. He and his cousins ran to the lake for a swim. Jumping in after them, he suddenly realized it was to deep for him, since he was a non-swimmer. In panic he yelled, "Help!" He sank under two times before one of his cousins saved him from drowning. Because of this close to death experience, he tried harder in school and everything else he did. However, a year later Cameron almost dropped out of school because of financial needs in his family. Fortunately, his sisters and their husbands pulled some money together and they were able to keep Cameron in school.
In 1914, Cameron graduated the highest in his class from Santa Ana High. Since he was a transfer student, he could not be a valedictorian. He attended Occidental College after his graduation. Until his last year in high school, he wanted to be a teacher. When he began to think of being a minister, his sisters were surprised. They wanted him to help pitch in to pay the bills of their aging parents. Although he wanted to be a minister, he was sadly lacking in Bible knowledge.
One day after Bible class a student asked him "Cameron, do you know how we are saved?"
"Through Christ's death, I suppose." Cameron answered lamely.
"No, through Christ resurrection," his friend answered lively.
So Cameron decided to take a class to study this more carefully. In 1916 during Cameron's junior year a National Guardsman, recruiting at the college asked him and his friend to consider signing up for training. They figured that they would be drafted anyway so they joined. Throughout the year, they learned the art of war and Cameron became a Corporal. Because they were not at war, they did not have to be at the base full time.
In January 1917, Cameron heard that the Bible House in Los Angeles wanted a Bible salesman in South America. Since he knew a little bit of Spanish he decided to join. He was accepted and assigned to Guatemala. Before he left for Central America, he talked with a missionary to Guatemala named Miss Stella Zimmerman. When he told her that he was expecting to be called to battle, she exclaimed, "You cowards, going to war with a million other men and leaving the woman to do the Lord's work alone!"
This surprised Cameron and he sent a letter to the captain of his guard that asked for a discharge. Miraculously the captain of the guard replied, "Go, you will do a lot more good selling Bible than shooting Germans in Europe."
Cameron and his friend, Robby, left on a boat to Guatemala on August 18, 1917. The director of CAM, which stands for Central America Missions met them at he dock and invited them to stay with him for several weeks. After getting to know the missionaries, they climbed on to mule cart to go to participate in a mission conference in Antigua. They arrived safely just before nightfall. At the end of the conference the director encouraged everyone to practice what they learned and to share the gospel with someone. Cameron decided to try this so he walked up to a Guatemalan and said "Conoce Usted el Senor Jesus ?" The man replied in Spanish "I do not know him. I am also new here." Cameron had forgotten that "Senor" in Spanish also means "mister". Cameron went home feeling like a total failure. The conference over he left for another town with a guide who was also a believer in Jesus.
Putting his first failure behind him, he began handing out tracts to each person he passed. When he handed a tract to a man in the street the man stated, "I am sorry sir, I don't know how to read". After Cameron left he heard footsteps behind him and turned to see the same man. The man said, "I have a friend who can read." So Cameron gave him a tract and invited him to the believers meeting the following night. When the man showed up and announced that he was a believer he boosted Cameron's morale tremendously. One of his good Indian friends, Francisco, or Frisco, invited him to come to his village and start a school there. The only problem was that the Cakchiquel language was unwritten. Learning a language and making an alphabet for it would be tough. Before going to Frisco village, he went to Guatemala City. During conferences, Cameron met a woman called Elvira. When he told her about starting schools in Frisco's village, she agreed to help him. He proposed to her on Valentines Day and she accepted a few days later.
He had already started to learn the Chakchiquel language when he visited Frisco's village with his newly wed Elvira. On arriving there, he instantly began to work on starting a school. After working very hard to gain support, finally in March 1919 he started the first Indian mission school in Latin America. Once school was under way, he began to work on translating the Gospel into the Cakchequel language. The printed copies of one Gospel translation sold rapidly. Surprisingly, on a furlough trip to the states he got a combined gift of $7,000 to use on founding more schools throughout Latin America. A short time later his friend Robby and Frisco unknowingly contracted a disease, and while swimming, lost all strength and drowned.
After these tragic deaths, Cameron began to start training camps to teach people how to share the Gospel. The Government required him make a name of the sponsors of these camps. Therefore, he decided to call it SIL, which stands for Summer Institute of Linguistics. In 1936, a document was signed that made all of this official.
This was just the beginning work of Cameron Townsend's lifelong commitment to language learning and Bible translation throughout the world. Only in heaven we will find out how many lives, he touched during his time on earth.