William Cameron Townsend : biography
William Cameron Townsend (July 9, 1896 – April 23, 1982) was a prominent American Christian missionary whose ministry began in the early twentieth century. The organizations he founded, Wycliffe Bible Translators and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL International), both remain active and focused on producing translations of the Bible in minority languages, and on facilitating literacy in minority languages.
The ethos of these organizations is that once the Bible is available to a culture, the Christians of that culture can become far more autonomous, and the locals should be the leaders of their church. Local Christians should be freed from depending on other organizations or cultures for training and leadership.
Not many sources report the details of William “Cam” Townsend before he began work as a foreign missionary. Born in 1896 into a lower-middle-class family of Southern California, Townsend attended Occidental College in Los Angeles but dropped out to serve several years as a salesman for the Los Angeles Bible House.Eunice Victoria Pike in A William Cameron Townsend en el Vigesimoquinto Aniversario Del Instituo Linguistico de Verano (Mexico, D.F.: La Tipografica Indigena Cuernavaca, 1961), p. 3-4
Townsend remained active in SIL as the founder and organizational leader for many years. His power gradually ebbed, however, under the influence of two general trends:
First, linguistics slowly became a more popular field of study, and standards for academic prestige were gradually raised. Townsend’s Spanish-Kaqchikel Bible never circulated widely even in Guatemala, and despite his enthusiasm for linguistics, the field would remember him as only “a devoted but linguistically naïve missionary.” In Townsend’s mind, however, SIL’s religious goals necessitated scientific understanding and thus he endeavored to create truly competent field linguists with trustworthy credentials.
During the early years academic prowess received less priority than strategic expansion, which implied quickly training large numbers of recruits. Townsend had envisioned the organization primarily as a widespread mechanism of Bible translation. His adroit salesmanship and acute sense for politics had made this vision a success. A minority group, with Pike as a figurehead, pursued the science of language deeper than pure Bible translation. These figures filled the upper tiers of SIL’s academic hierarchy, but, at first, held relatively little sway in the operations of the organization. As the discipline of linguistics grew steadily through the 1960s and 70s, however, academic prestige in the field became a more sought-after commodity and thus more difficult to attain.T. Hartch, phone interview
Second, a fiery controversy, composed of two separate but related components, engulfed SIL between approximately 1971 and 1981. Firstly, attention both in the U.S. and abroad shoved the increasingly high-profile organization into the international spotlight and, particularly in the halls of U.S. academia, infused the very name SIL with an air of notoriety. Backed by fresh perspectives in anthropology, critics left few facets of the Institute unscathed. Secondly, during the same period many governments argued internally over whether to continue supporting SIL with state contracts, and furthermore whether to allow SIL presence within their borders. For a variety of reasons, some well-founded and others seriously misguided, several states opted to sever ties with SIL through various tactics including outright expulsion, contract cancellations, and non-renewals. The upshot of these circumstances was that SIL could no longer work comfortably without significant competition from new actors offering similar services with comparable terms of exchange to both governments and indigenous people.Stoll, "SIL and Indigenous Movements," 85.
The controversy period forced members and leadership to reconsider their strategies and methodology. SIL members, particularly Kenneth Pike, had identified the risks and downsides of the Townsendian approach years earlier. Outside pressure coincided with internal stresses caused by the logistical difficulties of maintaining the JAARS network of bases, particularly in the Amazon. These forces allowed some inside of SIL to push through needed reform against stodgy opposition, or in the words of David Stoll, “the nerds’ vote finally won out over the flyboys’.” As a result of these power shifts Townsend's ideology was adapted and post controversy, he played a more passive, fatherly role.
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