The founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators penetrated unknown languages.

From the remote comers of the globe, the leadership of the world’s largest Bible translation organization came to North Carolina late last month for the funeral of William Cameron Townsend. He was founder and retired general director of the 4,500-member Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT), now working in 735 minority languages. David Gotaas, pastor of the Winnetka (Ill.) Bible Church and speaker at graveside services, ranked him (with William Carey and Hudson Taylor) as one of the three greatest missionary leaders of modern times.

Joining the Wycliffe leadership was a motley collection of friends and admirers of the beloved “Uncle Cam.” They included a Soviet Jew who traveled all night by bus from New York to attend the funeral services in Charlotte and Waxhaw, North Carolina. A world-famous Jewish photographer, a Cakchiquel Indian from Guatemala, members of the small neighborhood black evangelical church, where Townsend was an associate member, and hundreds of others came not to mourn but to celebrate his “home-going.”

They came to pay tribute to the 85-vear-old Townsend, whose career as a missionary linguist spanned 65 years, beginning in Guatemala in 1917 when he was a 21-year-old Bible salesman. This was followed by pioneering stints in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and—after his retirement—the Soviet Union.

Home-based in Waxhaw, where Wycliffe’s technical affiliate, Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS), is located, Townsend had been noticeably slowing during recent years. Still, a heart problem had not kept him from making his eleventh trip to the Soviet Union and to other distant spots.

Last August a medical checkup indicated that he had borderline leukemia. In October, he flew to Peru to receive from President Fernando Beláunde Terry the “Order of the Sun,” the highest honor Peru bestows on a foreigner. January 29, after attending his last Wycliffe board meeting, he was found to have pneumonia and an alarmingly low hemoglobin count. During the next three months, he rallied and fell several times, sometimes receiving four blood transfusions in a single day. Back in the hospital on Wednesday, April 22, he was told by Dr. William Duke (twin brother to astronaut Charles Duke), “It won’t be long now until you’re over there in glory.” Uncle Cam reportedly smiled back, “It’ll be good to be over there.” Late Saturday afternoon, April 24, he lost consciousness and died peacefully about 6 P.M. “He never complained,” a nurse reported. “Every time I came in, he had a sweet smile.”

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The Wycliffe leadership was preparing to attend a board meeting at Saint Simons Island, Georgia, when news came of his death. Several remarked at the seeming providential timing of the two events, making it possible for all board members to attend the funeral.

The main service was held in the large independent Calvary Church of Charlotte, which Townsend had often attended. (He retained membership in the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles.) The 1,700-seat sanctuary was about two-thirds full. The program featured a blend of personal tributes, reading of Townsend’s favorite Scriptures, a recording of one of Uncle Cam’s last appeals, a message from Billy Graham, and the singing of Townsend’s missionary hymn, “Bible-less Tribes.”

Ben Elson, director of the Mexico branch and one of Uncle Cam’s first recruits, read a selection of messages from Latin American political leaders and American evangelical dignitaries. Peru’s Belaunde Terry called Townsend’s death “an irreparable loss.” Colombian president Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala cabled “profound sadness” at the death of “this man of great spiritual stature.” A Mexican professor declared, “Mexico has lost one of its greatest friends.” Billy Graham said, “Uncle Cam’s death is a great loss to the Christian world. I lost a great personal friend.”

Most moving were recollections given at the funeral by the graying first-generation Wycliffe leadership and other old friends. Former WBT president George Cowan, who presided, said, “God gave Uncle Cam a vision of himself and the world. Uncle Cam was not disobedient to that vision.” Kenneth Pike, recognized worldwide for scholarship in linguistics, called Townsend “a giant under God, one of the greatest leaders since Paul.” Pike noted that Townsend made Wycliffe “a unique hybrid of scholarship and devotion.”

Richard Pittman, another of Townsend’s first proteges, told of accompanying Uncle Cam to visit “God’s Enemy Number Two” in Mexico during the heat of anticlericalism there. “This man had stood in the Mexican congress and defied God to strike him dead. Uncle Cam greeted him with a Mexican embrace. Forty years later, I went back to see this man and he had a Bible on his desk. ‘I’m now identified with you in faith,’ he told me. He was won by Uncle Cam’s love.”

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“Uncle Cam,” Pittman continued, “believed in two kinds of Bible translation: translation into words and into deeds. Now God has ‘translated’ him.”

The spirit of the man was mentioned more often than his attainments. “Uncle Cam radiated a true human, loving spirit,” reported photographer Cornell Capa. “I never saw him lose his cool.”

Several singled out Uncle Cam’s practice of loving his enemies, especially hostile Catholic prelates during early years in Latin America. “Uncle Cam delivered me from the demon of hatred,” said colleague Al Shannon, who is now a counselor and Bible teacher for Catholic charismatics in Lima, Peru.

Neighbor Bea Wright recalled that Uncle Cam always greeted the garbage men with a cold drink or coffee. Writer Hugh Steven said, “Uncle Cam taught me the theology of courtesy.” Calvin Hibbard, Townsend’s private secretary for 32 years, recalled that hardly an evening went by when I left his house that he didn’t say thanks in some way for my help.” Joe Chicol, Townsend’s first Cakcbiquel translation helper, called his old friend, “a determined gentle man, who, when he made up his mind about something, went on with it.”

Family members also gave testimony. Son Billy, a resident of Dallas, called his father “a family man, a man of faith, who exemplified the fruits of the Spirit.” Daughter Joy, a Bible translator with her husband, David Tuggy, among the Aztecs, where her father once worked, said, “With Daddy’s enormous vision, he still had time for tea parties and volleyball with us.” Other surviving members of the immediate family include wife Elaine, and daughters Elainadel Garippa (married to an Arizona pastor) and Grace Goreth, whose husband Tom is an engineer. One brother, Paul, an ordained minister who spoke at the funeral, a sister, Ethel White, and 12 grandchildren survive.

After the observance, one question seemed to remain: Can the memory and vision of Uncle Cam keep Wycliffe advancing toward the acclaimed goal of reaching 3,000 additional Bibleless tribes?

“We’re more together than we ever were,” said executive vice-president Frank Robbins. “The world is different now. There’s no stable place left. But there are also more opportunities than ever before. Even where we’ve had to leave, God is still providing ways to complete the task of translation.”

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Other Wycliffe executives agreed. “One of Uncle Cam’s great strengths,” observed North American director Al Spence, “was his willingness to delegate. His vision will be fulfilled.”

They reflect Uncle Cam’s confidence expressed on the tape played at his funeral: “There will be in glory among the redeemed, some from every tribe, nation, and language.”

For this “Uncle Cam” Townsend lived.

JAMES HEFLEY in Charlotte, North Carolina

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