A Concise History of WBT and SIL

Joice A. Franklin* [November 2003]

Abstract: It is important and instructive to remember how our organizations developed. This article provides a brief history of SIL and WBT and can be used to orient outsiders to our work.

William Cameron Townsend

It is certainly appropriate in this study to look at the life and work of W. C. Townsend. Ralph Winter, noted missiologist, believes that the first era of mission history began with William Carey, India; the second era began with Hudson Taylor, China; and the third era began with Townsend. Winter states, “Surely in our time one person comparable to William Carey and Hudson Taylor is Cameron Townsend. Like Carey and Taylor, Townsend saw that there were still unreached frontiers, and for almost half a century he has waved the flag for the overlooked tribal peoples of the world.” (Winter and Hawthorne 1982:174).

Townsend was born in 1896. His missionary career began in 1917 at age 21, when he dropped out of Bible college to sell Spanish Bibles in Guatemala. Very soon he observed two things: the Indians usually spoke their indigenous languages in their homes and market places, and Indian evangelists were effective because they used their own languages to explain the Gospel.

This use of local languages in the building of God’s Kingdom changed Mr. Townsend’s life focus. Though he learnt Spanish and established some growing churches, he became convinced that indigenous languages were the best way to evangelize, plant churches, and to teach and train local citizens in God’s Word.

Francisco Diaz, a Cakchiquel (‘kah-chee-kel) Indian of Guatemala, challenged Mr. Townsend to respond to the need of his people, numbering about 200,000 speakers, most of whom spoke no Spanish. Townsend decided to learn the Cakchiquel language and to translate the New Testament into it.

About this time in 1919, Townsend married Elvira Malmstrom, a missionary already working in Guatemala. They joined the Central American Mission and were the first missionaries devoted to translating Scriptures into an Indian language in Guatemala. While living in a village named San Antonio, they learned Cakchiquel, wrote it phonetically, and developed a grammar. They began literacy classes for a group of 80 believers who were keen to learn to read Cakchiquel so they could understand the Bible better. By 1931, the Cakchiquel New Testament was published and dedicated, and plans for extensive literacy campaigns were underway.

The Townsends also promoted schools, clinics and other helpful community projects. Cal Hibberd, SIL colleague, noted that Cameron Townsend always worked with “appropriate local governmental and educational agencies to help…people[s] acquire self-esteem, dignity and national identity.” (Cameron Townsend, SIL Website)

Then Townsend was diagnosed with tuberculosis and while recovering in California, his vision grew for the isolated language groups in Peru, South America. Since seeing the power of the gospel in Cakchiquel, “he knew that the Bible in the tongues of the South American Indians was their only hope. It would be a long, hard and costly job, but it was the only way.” (Wallis and Bennett 1959:37) But many friends and missionaries advised him it would be futile: “They’ll kill you,” “Those tribes are dying out anyway,” “The language groups are too remote,” they claimed. But Townsend felt that the Lord gave him a verse to answer the critics: the tribal groups were like the “one lost sheep.” (Matt. 18:11-12)

His vision had to wait because Townsend’s wife was diagnosed with a serious heart ailment needing a long recuperation. So he used this time to research the world’s language situation. At that time there was thought to be 1000 languages without any portion of God’s Word. (We now know there are over 3000 Bibleless language groups.)

Townsend remembered his struggles to learn, write and analyze the Cakchiquel language, so he knew that missionaries needed training in three major activities: linguistics, translation and literacy. He also knew that scientific help in these studies was available.

In 1934 Townsend opened a training institute in rural Arkansas, U.S., that he called “Camp Wycliffe” after the first translator of the English Bible, John Wycliffe. Besides academic work, prayer was a constant emphasis. Students prayed earnestly, “asking God to undertake in behalf of the hundreds of tribes of Indians in Latin America as well as unevangelized tribes elsewhere in the world” (Wallis and Bennett 1959:48). Later the course was re-named the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) because it was held only in the summer. Mexico, with its many languages, was the first country entered by newly trained linguist-translators from Camp Wycliffe.

Mexico was a special challenge because the government did not want any foreigners in the country. When Townsend and his friend, L.L. Legters, tried to visit Mexico, they were denied entrance. After many hours of waiting at the border, Townsend remembered a letter that he carried from a well-known Mexican educator, Professor Moises Saenz. Townsend had shown Prof. Saenz the Cakchiquel work and Saenz had recognized that similar work would be good for the Mexican Indians. He had even invited Townsend to visit and to initiate work in Mexico, and then Prof. Saenz confirmed his invitation in a letter. That letter was shown to immigration officials who called their leaders in Mexico City, and the men were allowed to enter the country. However, the government stipulated that Legters could not preach and Townsend could not study Indian languages.

Once in Mexico, Townsend’s natural ability to build relationships with government officials, and his offer to help them resulted in an invitation to study the rural school system in areas where most Indians lived. He gathered data about rural education in eight states and took word lists in Indian languages. He then wrote several articles explaining his proposed educational and spiritual projects. These articles were published in educational magazines and newspapers. Government officials read the articles and found answers to their criticisms about missionaries. The government had felt that religion was imposed on the Indians and it was superficial. They felt that it had not “brought spiritual life into their souls or transformed their living conditions” (Wallis and Bennett 1959:43). However, Townsend’s holistic methodology was acceptable. Even so, a number of years passed before Mexico allowed missionaries to live and work there.

The Townsends led the first group of ten recruits to Mexico, along with their niece, Evelyn, who would care for sickly Elvira. They did not have their required financial support until they received a check from a church the very day they left for Mexico. They also did not have the governmental required cash, about $5 per month per person, for the length of the time expected to be in the country. But they did have an old donated car pulling a large dilapidated caravan. At the border, the customs officials were so impressed with the vehicle and caravan that they only asked questions about their destination, not about the cash that they should have had.

William, Elvira and Evelyn settled in their caravan in an Aztec village southwest of Mexico City. There they began writing the language down, to the amazement of everyone including the town’s mayor. He said that no one had ever been interested in the language or the people before.

With his farming background, Townsend made a park with a vegetable garden, fruit trees and flowers. The mayor was impressed, and so was the President of Mexico when he arrived in the village unannounced and spent four hours with the Townsends. He asked if young people coming to Mexico would do practical projects in addition to translating the Bible. Townsend had always “insisted that members of SIL should be ready to serve others scientifically, materially and spiritually” (Cameron Townsend, SIL Website). President Cardenas told Townsend to bring all the young people he could get to come and help. Cardenas also provided improvements for the area including schools, clothing, sewing machines and a corn-grinding mill. Later Cardenas wrote Townsend: “It gives me pleasure to remain at your orders as your true friend and attentive servant” and another time he wrote, “Of all the people who come to talk to me, you are the only one who speaks to me on spiritual matters” (Wallis and Bennett 1959:85). Wherever he went, witnessing to government officials was always part of Townsend’s natural interaction.

The Pioneer Mission Agency in the U.S. was happy to forward donations from American Christians to the new linguist-translators, but as the numbers increased (51 new volunteers in 1942 alone), the Agency reluctantly told Townsend that they could no longer handle the work involved. Townsend was forced to seek a means to get funding to the field workers and he reluctantly concluded that he must form a new mission agency. Thus the Wycliffe Bible Translators was formed. On hearing about the new mission, California friends donated office space for it, manned by an unsalaried accountant. Thus began the first Wycliffe Bible Translators home office.

The Townsends had been married twenty-five years when Elvira died in 1944. The next year, Townsend signed an agreement with the Peru Ministry of Education to study jungle Indian languages and translate Scriptures.

Then in 1946, Townsend married Elaine Mielke, a Wycliffe teacher and literacy worker whom he knew well. Shortly after their marriage, they went to Peru to live at the jungle center, Yarinacocha, and direct the new work there. Under his encouragement, a bilingual Indian teacher training school was organized at the SIL Center. This school became recognized by the Peruvian government as part of a new bilingual (vernaculars and Spanish) educational system that paid teacher salaries to the school’s graduates who taught in remote jungle villages.

The Townsends worked in Peru for 17 years and then moved to Columbia, South America to begin SIL’s work there. They worked in Colombia for five years and in 1968, they moved to SIL’s center in Waxhaw, North Carolina. Townsend was then 72 years old.

In North Carolina, Cameron and Elaine became interested in Russia because they knew that Russia had many Bibleless language groups. At the time, Russia was closed to language work, but the Townsends made 11 visits to the country and were learning the Russian language. They believed Russia would someday open to mission work and SIL should be ready. Cameron Townsend did not live to see that time come, but now a number of languages in Russia are being studied and local citizens are translating Scriptures, with SIL members serving as advisors.

During his lifetime, Townsend published 21 articles and books. He was a personal friend of government leaders in many countries, giving him countless opportunities to attend to their spiritual needs.

Billy Graham called Townsend “the greatest missionary of our time” (Tucker, 1983:351). His missionary career spanned more than half a century when he died in 1982 at age 86. His faith that God would open doors to Bibleless groups, even in countries considered closed, was unwavering: “…the Lord has taught me never to take no as a negative,” he said. (Hefley 1974:198) This vision lives on as over 5000 Wycliffe and SIL members follow in his footsteps.

Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)

In 1999 at their general conference, the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics adopted a united goal called Vision 2025: “By the year 2025, together with partners worldwide, we aim to see a Bible translation program begun in all the remaining languages that need one” (WBT Website). This goal is the driving force behind the two organizations.

How is WBT related to SIL? They are sister organizations, something like Mt. Giluwe in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Mt. Giluwe has twin peaks, called Kiwame and Kawame in the Kewa language, two parts of one mountain. SIL and WBT are two parts of one focus—providing Scripture in mother tongues to people without God’s Word.

Over 5300 WBT and SIL members are volunteers who raise their own financial support from interested churches, family and friends. They come from over 70 countries worldwide. Usually WBT members are also members of SIL.

Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT)

WBT is the home country organization. It has a number of departments that serve its membership. The Finance Office forwards funds to members. The Member Relations Department screens and processes enquiries for membership, provides orientation for new members, and ensures members meet certain standards. The Member Care Department gives help for members on furlough or in need. The Recruitment Department publicizes the need for new workers in support and translation roles.

Wycliffe organizations exist in many countries in North America, South Pacific, Asia, and Europe. These countries recruit and send out members to other countries.

Who are these people of all ages, from all walks of life from around the world who are the members of the Wycliffe Bible Translators?

About half of WBT members are linguists, translators and literacy workers. The other half are support personnel: teachers, secretaries, pilots, mechanics, printers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and others. No matter what work they do, Cameron Townsend saw their role clearly from the very beginning of the organization: “Our tools are linguistics and the Word, administered in love and in the spirit of service to all without discrimination.” (Winter and Hawthorne 1982:251).

Wycliffe members have had a key part in completing over 500 New Testaments in the world, plus progress in 1500 more translation projects (WBT Website).

WBT International (WBTI) [Now Wycliffe Global Alliance]

The glue that holds together the many Wycliffe home organizations around the world is WBTI with its own set of officers who serve on a Board elected by the members. The Board meets twice annually and every three years holds a general Conference for elected delegates who discuss common issues related to the goals of the sending countries. The Board membership is elected at the general Conference and is multi-national.

WBTI also has area directors in the regions of Asia, Americas, Africa, and Europe. Area directors are responsible for strategy, training, encouragement, and public relations.

Field orientation courses

Before sending recruits to Peru, Cameron Townsend realized that they needed training for the hardships of the Amazon jungle life, so he searched for and found a ‘jungle camp’ site in southern Mexico. Today Wycliffe requires all members to attend a Field Orientation Course in the field area where they are assigned. The training was, and still is, divided into two parts: teaching practical skills along with healthy efficient living in an isolated setting, and living in a village applying the skills learnt. In Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Orientation Course (POC), located near Madang, provides three months’ training for new members assigned to PNG and the Pacific area, including Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the Solomons.

Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)

While members of Wycliffe Bible Translators are “organized into home divisions by the country of [their] origin” (Cowan 1979:221), SIL members are assigned to field branches in specific countries. In these countries, SIL is a “non-profit, scientific educational organization of Christian volunteers that specializes in serving lesser-known language communities of the world” (SIL Website). SIL members seek “to understand their cultures and learn their languages” (SIL Website). The SIL name is also more acceptable in non-Christian countries where the Bible is not promoted.

SIL provides academic training, special computer fonts and writing systems, publications, computer software (over 60 programs for the general public, mostly free downloads), and information and resources for children’s education (SIL Website). SIL members work in over 1300 languages serving about 350 million people. In most cases, SIL works under a government department, for example, Education. In some countries it has reporting relationships to national universities and organizations.

SIL has area offices in Africa (Kenya), Americas (Dallas, Texas), Asia (Philippines), Eurasia (UK) and the Pacific (Brisbane).

The beginning of SIL

In 1936 after students trained in linguistics and translation at “Camp Wycliffe,” the Pioneer Mission Agency forwarded funds to them in Mexico where they worked on Indian languages. However, the Agency demanded that the field workers had to belong to an organization, and there was none. Townsend didn’t want to start a new organization, but now he was forced to do so if the Agency was to continue forwarding funds to Mexico. Townsend suggested to the field workers that the Summer Institute of Linguistics or SIL be the name of the new organization because of the required summer training. (This name has continued, even though it now has a two-fold use: 1) the organization for field work and 2) formal linguistic training courses.) When the legal SIL organization document was signed in the fall of 1936, “it marked the first time in history that an organization had been formed for the primary purpose of reducing languages to writing and translating the Bible for minority groups” (Hefley and Hefley 1979:96). When Townsend moved to Peru to begin SIL work there, he made a novel suggestion to the new members. Rather than follow the lead of other missions at that time that had a governing board in home countries, the SIL group would elect their director and Executive Committee on the field and make their own decisions about their field work. The group was surprised that Townsend, who was an obvious choice for director, wanted to work under a field committee. “Townsend believed it was dangerous for one man to have control” (Hefley and Hefley 1974:96).

This policy continues today–field work is controlled by the SIL membership, who best understand the local needs. Soon requests for help for analyzing complicated tribal languages came from other Latin American countries.

When three missions in Guatemala asked for assistance, several SIL members went to help. Then requests came from Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, the Navajos (an American Indian group), and from Eskimo groups in Alaska. The work was also expanding rapidly beyond the Americas to Africa, Europe, Asia, and to the South Pacific including the Australian Aborigines, Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea. There are now 1576 languages studied by SIL members “usually at the invitation of the government, a university or a minority language community” (SIL Website).

SIL members have published 21,500 language studies relating to over 1700 specific languages. About half are vernacular publications and the other half are academic books and articles (SIL Website). SIL members have written 323 M.A. theses, and 210 published doctoral dissertations, plus 1600 technical monographs and 8000 published articles on a variety of languages.

SIL courses

SIL course training continues to impact missionary work around the world. A number of missions send their members to the SIL courses. By the close of the 20th Century, about 40,000 students had received linguistic training at SILs. In 2003, SIL has four linguistic training schools in North America, three in Europe, two in South America, one each in Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Other training courses are held in several countries. Graduates of SIL courses work on six continents as partners with many organizations. SIL courses are also held in several well-known Christian universities, Bible schools and seminaries in North and South America and Africa.

Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, SIL president

Dr Pike was a distinguished SIL scholar who was nominated many times for the Nobel Peace Prize and a student in the second “Camp Wycliffe.” He studied the Mixtec language in Mexico and while there, he broke his leg requiring a time in hospital. Later he would comment that had it not been for his broken leg, he would not have taken time to write the first definitive book ever published on phonetics (the study of language sounds), a classic that is used even today. He also published many other linguistic and devotional books and articles appearing in major linguistic journals. He was SIL president from 1942 to 1979 (37 years) and then was president emeritus until 2000 when he died. His stated goal was academic excellence and Christian commitment (SIL Website). Pike instigated SIL’s linguistic workshop strategy. He traveled to many countries, including New Guinea, bringing together SIL linguists for intensive investigation of the languages they were studying. He gave his expertise to solve many difficult language problems, and workshop participants were expected to write publishable papers about the languages they were studying. Pike also identified and trained consultants and encouraged promising linguists to get advanced degrees in universities. When not conducting workshops, Pike was a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, U.S.A until retirement.


Sixty years ago, SIL began a comprehensive listing of languages called the Ethnologue. Its database lists 6809 languages worldwide with about 3000 needing translation work, representing 250 million people. About 2303 languages have some or all of the Bible translated into them. The Pacific area has 1311 languages—19% of the world’s languages.

Many people around the world access the Ethnologue website. In October 2003, for example, 3,606,492 “hits” were made on the website, equaling almost 48,000 per day! (More information can be accessed from the Ethnologue website.)

SIL International

SIL International holds a general Conference every three years with delegates chosen by members working in various countries. The delegates report back to their colleagues about discussions and decisions made at the Conference. Thus SIL International depends on input from field members, or is “field-driven,” in its organization. There is also an SIL International Board, with an elected President, that keeps informed about SIL work around the world and makes decisions related to SIL policies. The Board is elected at the general Conference and its membership is multi-national.

Aviation and other programs

JAARS is a subsidiary organization of SIL. It originally stood for Jungle Aviation and Radio Service, but it has expanded to include computer technology, telecommunications, non-print media, truck transport (in the U.S.), maintenance and construction skills. JAARS motto is “Partners in Bible Translation (JAARS website). JAARS began this way: Cameron Townsend, his wife and family visited the field training course in the jungles of Mexico. Flying on a commercial airplane out of an isolated airstrip, they were injured in an accident. Townsend realized that “the organization must have its own dedicated pilots and well-maintained equipment to provide safe and adequate transportation” (Cowan 1979:18). This was affirmed when Townsend returned to Peru: he learned about one couple who spent 25 days in river travel to get to their assigned language group, a two-hour trip by plane. In 1948, JAARS was organized for Peruvian needs, but today JAARS members serve around the world. All applicants must pass stringent technical evaluations before going to an overseas posting.

National Bible translation organizations (NBTOs)

Many Christians in countries where SIL works have organized their own Bible translation associations. They are considered sister organizations to SIL and work in partnership with them. NBTOs have their own leaders and Boards with similar goals to SIL. But they focus on recruiting and supporting national translators as they prepare New Testaments in their own languages, and also do literacy work so people can read vernacular Scriptures. Conclusion SIL’s goal is to complete its work in any country and leave. However, due to the hundreds of languages without Scripture, and the low literacy rate in many countries, SIL is committed to continue its work as long as the people and government allow them to do so. One language problem is part of a world-wide concern. Linguists are worried about endangered languages, i.e., small languages that might disappear in the next generation or so. Many articles have been published about this problem. For example, PNG has over 200 endangered languages with 500 speakers or less, mostly in the Sepik and Madang Provinces. SIL is considering how to help revitalize them before they are lost. SIL is committed to continue training citizens from villages to management levels. They believe that the work of literacy and Bible translation cannot be done by SIL alone. Thus they welcome citizens who share their vision to join them in the huge task of teaching people to read and write in their own language, and preparing Scriptures for people who have never had them in their own languages.

* Joice Franklin is a volunteer worker with GIAL and has an M.A. in Social Science from Azusa Pacific University.  She wrote this in November of 2003 at the request of the Director of Government Relations, William Edoni,, for him to use in schools.  The final part of the series, which outlines the history of SIL in PNG, is omitted here.


Cowan, George M. 1979. The Word that Kindles. Chappaqua, NY: Herald Books,

Hefley, James and Marti. 1974. Uncle Cam. Waco, TX: Word Books.

JAARS website (http://www.jaars.org/).

SIL website (http://www.sil.org)

Tucker, Ruth A. 1983. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. A biographical history of Christian missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Wallis, Ethel Emily and Mary Angela Bennett. 1959. Two Thousand Tongues to Go. The story of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. NY: Harper & Bros. Winter,

Winter, Ralph D and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. 1982. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Wycliffe website (http://www.wycliffe.org)