163 languages to go in the Soviet Union

Soviet authorities helping to translate Scripture?

So far, the book of I John has been translated into five of the Soviet Union’s 168 minority languages, and negotiations are under way for more. Officials recently presented five copies of each language edition to the person who persuaded them to make the translations: William Cameron “Uncle Cam” Townsend, the 83-year-old founder of the Texas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics and its support arm, Wycliffe Bible Translators, with headquarters in southern California.

Townsend and his wife, Elaine, made 11 trips to the Soviet Union in as many years, spending a total of 24 months there in connection with the project. Whether the Soviets will permit printing and distribution of the Scripture portions is another matter; Townsend, however, is hopeful.

The Townsends returned from their latest Soviet visit in November, just in time to take part in a banquet in Washington, D.C., honoring SIL as the recipient of the annual International Literacy Award of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The UNESCO award went to SIL for its work among 145 of the 700 languages in Papua New Guinea. Diplomats from a number of countries and members of Congress attended the banquet, which was hosted by Ambassador Benoit Bindzi of the United Republic of Cameroon. Bindzi, a Christian, declared SIL to be “one of the best gifts God has given to the illiterate world.”

SIL passed along a portion of their $5,000 award to the Papua New Guinea, government to use for literacy, said an SIL spokesman. (Townsend himself has received numerous awards from a string of Third World countries, including the highest awards given foreigners by Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and the Philippines.)

SIL has 4,000 members working in 700 languages in 25 countries, and a 1979 budget of $23 million. Seventy percent of the workers are Americans; the remainder come primarily from Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and Britain. Additionally, SIL has provided linguistic training for thousands of missionaries from other organizations, though relatively few go on to devote full time to deciphering a language and reducing it to written form.

SIL workers go by twos to remote tribal areas, often staying 10 to 20 years in a single location, analyzing sounds and grammatical structures (in one Central American tribe, verbs have 100,000 conjugations; in another, men and women speak separate languages). An alphabet comes next, forming the basis for a dictionary and enabling people to read and write in the language into which they were born. The eventual goal: translation of Scripture. Modern technology, from helicopters to computers, has eased the task somewhat, but it still requires a lot of hard work and commitment. (Computer print-outs show that nearly 3,300 of the world’s 5,103 identified languages are without any portion of the Bible.)

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Townsend dropped out of Occidental College in Los Angeles after only one year to volunteer for World War I, but he heard the missionary call and instead went to Guatemala in 1917 as a Bible salesman. There he saw Indians disadvantaged and suffering because of the language gap. Said one Indian to whom he tried to sell a Bible: “If your God is so smart, why can’t he speak my language?”

That did it. Townsend in 1919 joined the Dallas-based Central American Mission and became the first missionary to devote his efforts to translating the Bible into an Indian dialect. He married and spent the next 14 years in Guatemala. While there, he translated the New Testament into the difficult Cakchiquel tongue, mounted literacy campaigns, and founded five schools for bilingual instruction, a small hospital, a printing plant, and a Bible institute.

Tuberculosis felled Townsend in 1932, forcing him home to Los Angeles for a year’s rest. Meanwhile, CAM board members were divided over the wisdom of spending so much time on a minority language, and some shot down his vision of using airplanes in mission work. Townsend quietly withdrew from the mission. Following a visit among Mexican Indians, Townsend and coworkers in 1934 launched a summer course in linguistics to train missionaries for translation work. They dubbed the farmhouse site near Sulpher Springs, Arkansas, “Camp Wycliffe.” Only two students showed up, but it was the beginning of SIL. Courses are now held at a number of locations, with the main center at the University of Oklahoma.

At first, SIL missionaries concentrated on the Indians of Mexico, and Townsend spent most of 20 years there. The reform-minded humanitarian Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) was favorably impressed by SIL’s work, and a friendship sprang up between him and Townsend. The missionary was enthusiastic when Mexico under Cárdenas chose a bilingual program of education for its more than 100 tribal minorities. After Cárdenas came under attack for expropriating, then nationalizing American oil companies, Townsend wrote a book exposing the “unscrupulous exploitations” of U.S. oil interests. The book. The Truth about Mexico’s Oil, sounds like a chapter out of the 1970s. Indeed, many mission observers say that Townsend was always ten or more years ahead of his time on everything.

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Three years after Townsend’s wife Ermelia died in 1943, he married SIL support worker Elaine Mielka of Chicago, 20 years his junior. Cárdenas and his wife served as best man and matron of honor at the wedding. Cárdenas went on to receive the Lenin Peace Prize from Moscow, and it was Townsend’s friendship with Cárdenas that later got him into the Soviet Union. Townsend never preached in a single church in Mexico, yet he witnessed to the high and the mighty, say his colleagues.

Townsend spent several years in Peru, and later settled down in Waxhaw, North Carolina, the base for Jungle Aviation and Radio Service, which he also founded.

With-SIL experiencing steady growth in the hands of strong leadership, Townsend bowed out as general director in 1969 in order to pioneer in an area where he would not “step on the toes of any SIL leaders.” With the help of Mexican contacts, Townsend became acquainted with officials in the highly regarded linguistics section of Moscow’s Academy of Science. He and his wife were entertained in the homes of linguists, teachers, and librarians in cities scattered across 8 of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics. At least one family apparently converted to Christ as a result of the Townsend witness. He has given Russian-language Bibles to many of his Soviet friends. Uncannily, he persuaded academy officials to assign teams to translate a Scripture portion in the tongues of five minority groups in the Caucausus region.

“Others [in the Soviet Union] can’t believe the academy is helping,” Townsend commented in his tenor drawl to supporters back home. “They can’t believe it just like we can’t believe it.”

The Townsends have mixed feelings about life in the Soviet Union, but they are impressed by the educational system and the quality of children’s television, among other things. The pair visited a number of Soviet churches, but in accordance with longstanding practice followed elsewhere they did not give any talks. Townsend has a well-defined strategy for entry into difficult places that includes a sort of tentmaker-witness tactic.

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In virtually all the countries where SIL works, it is with a government contract (no money involved) calling for linguistics work and translation of literature having high moral standards—including the Bible. In some countries anti-Americanism has combined with misunderstandings or mistaken notions of tribal protectionism, resulting in trouble—even ouster—for SIL workers. Yet in those very countries, tribal representatives and high government spokesmen alike have insisted that SIL is among the best friends the tribes have.

Rosario Revisited: Less Rosy but Still Impressive

The 1976 Luis Palau crusade in Rosario, Argentina’s second largest city, was a first-of-a-kind event because of what had preceded it—an organized effort to plant new churches and church nucleii to absorb the expected converts (Dec. 17, 1976, issue, p. 33).

With 1.6 million inhabitants, metropolitan Rosario had less than 4,000 evangelicals in some 42 churches. Pastors from 20 of the churches attended a workshop 14 months before the crusade and identified the major obstacles to expansion: the pastors’ overcrowded schedules and the constraints of church building capacity. The solution agreed upon was for pastors to train laymen to establish functioning annexes (or house churches) in homes in unchurched parts of the city before the crusade. Sixty-seven annexes were projected at the workshop; 42 were in place at the time of the crusade. A year after the crusade, four annexes had been organized into churches, 23 others were still functioning, while 15 had disbanded.

Inevitably, the Rosario Plan has been closely scrutinized for its implication for mass evangelism and church growth.

At the time of the precrusade workshop the 20 participating churches had a combined membership of 1,799. Six months after the crusade they had grown to 2,564—a hefty 42.5 percent increase in 17 months.

Palau Team members reported more than 3,000 responses to the crusade invitations. Of these, they reported, 40 percent had been baptized and incorporated into a local church within a year of the crusade—an unprecedented figure.

These figures have been questioned, however. Last November the Rosario pastors met with members of the Palau Team for a joint review. Samuel Libert, a Rosario Baptist pastor and member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, coordinated the meeting. Libert filed this report for CHRISTIANITY TODAY:

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After reviewing the flood of literature published around the world about the Rosario Plan, leaders of the evangelical churches in Rosario met together several times to consider the reports and to reevaluate the 1976 crusade. I coordinated the new survey as a part of the study, “Reaching City Dwellers—Large Cities,” to be presented for analysis at the Consultation on World Evangelization to be held at Pattaya, Thailand, next June. The meetings were attended by qualified representatives of most of the main evangelical denominations.

The object was to make an honest interpretation of the statistics, to avoid semantic problems, and to correct some errors and misunderstandings. By invitation of the survey group, members of the Palau Team attended one of the meetings and explained their own analysis. They recognized, however, the need to begin new research and to define the meaning of expressions such as “house churches” or “silos,” often poorly translated into Spanish as “iglesicis” (“churches”), thus leading to inaccuracies in interpretation. The team members also reported that their statistics about such matters as follow-up, baptisms, and the respective percentages, were extrapolated for all 42 Rosario area churches from reports submitted by just 18 of them (the only ones that supplied the requested records).

The city’s evangelical leaders also reevaluated the Rosario Plan according to four criteria for evaluating evangelism suggested by George W. Peters, Dallas Theological Seminary missions professor, at the 1974 Lausanne Congress: (1) Has the evangelism effort brought renewal, revitalization, a new pulsation of the Holy Spirit to the local church communities? (2) Has the evangelism effort added new converts to the local churches? (The survey groups answered yes to both questions.) (3) Has the evangelism effort resulted in a movement or has it remained one great event in the community? (4) Has the evangelism effort facilitated the continued ministry of the local churches in the community? (The answer of the survey group to both of these questions: a strong movement began in a few churches, but most churches of the area reverted to their “status quo” mentality.)

This preliminary study revealed that crusade-related church growth occurred where there was potential for growth. Further research is needed, and both the Rosario survey group and the Palau Team are ready for a more penetrating analysis.

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The Prime Time Bishop Enters Eternity

American Catholicism lost its best known spokesperson last month, when Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, 84, died in his Manhattan home on December 9 after a long struggle against heart disease. Sheen, something of a patriarch of the electronic church, attracted millions of mass media followers long before the PTL or 700 Clubs.

Sheen spoke on three different television series, the most popular of which was “Life Is Worth Living” from 1951 to 1957. The show, which won an Emmy Award in 1952 and frequently outdrew such prime time entertainers as Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, attracted a weekly audience estimated at 30 million.

Beginning in 1930, he spoke for 22 years on the NBC radio program, “The Catholic Hour.” The program at one time was carried on 118 NBC affiliates. He also wrote more than 60 books and edited a pair of magazines.

Sheen had open heart surgery in 1977 and last year had a pacemaker implanted. A subsequent relapse didn’t diminish his characteristic wit and turn of phrase: he told a reporter that “One advantage of the Lord throwing you on your back is that you face heaven.”

Ordained a priest in 1919, he later became bishop of the Rochester, New York, diocese. After his retirement in 1969, he was named titular archbishop of Newport, Wales. Sheen was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, a place previously reserved only for those who led the archdiocese or the cathedral.

Sheen’s preaching crossed religious barriers; evangelical Protestants could have embraced his message as their own. Sheen personally introduced to Christianity such notables as former ambassador and congresswoman Claire Booth Luce, Communist Daily Newspaper editor Louis Budenz, and auto tycoon Henry Ford II.

In a CHRISTIANITY TODAY interview two years ago, Sheen stated his own preaching mission: “I have taken a resolution all the rest of my life to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified.”


Walter Frank has retired as general director of Greater Europe Mission. After 19 years at the post, he becomes the agency’s director at large. Based in Carol Stream, Illinois, GEM now works on 13 European mission fields, with nine Bible institutes, one seminary, and a $6 million annual budget.

Pentecostal leader Charles Yates was elected president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an umbrella agency of evangelical denominations and organizations representing roughly one million persons. Yates presently is general secretary of the Pentecostal Assemblies, Canada’s fastest growing denomination.

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An evangelical has been appointed chaplain of the United States Military Academy. Richard P. Camp, Jr., a Wheaton College (Ill.) and Gordon Seminary graduate, will be directly responsible to the academy’s superintendent for all religious activity at West Point, which has four chapels. Camp, 43, a former local church pastor and Gordon Seminary dean of students, had been an assistant chaplain since 1973 and acting chaplain since last year, when James D. Ford left to become chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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