A New Vision for Missions: William Cameron Townsend, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the Culture of Early Evangelical Faith Missions, 1896-1945

by William Lawrence Svelmoe

University of Alabama Press, Box 870380, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0380, 2008, 400 pages, $46.00.

—Reviewed by Dave Broucek, EMQ book review editor. 

When we evangelical missionaries write our own books, we tell our stories as we want them to be told. A New Vision for Missions tells our story as researched by a professional historian who had uncensored access to archives and wrote what he found. William Svelmoe, associate professor of American history at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, is not an unsympathetic scholar. He was a Wycliffe missionary kid who loved his childhood in the Philippines and admits, “I grew up an evangelical, and I’m still in the evangelical tent, or at least observing under the flap.”

This work had its origin as a doctoral dissertation under George Marsden at the University of Notre Dame. In it, Svelmoe tells how a “visionary maverick” who left college before graduating went on to found a missionary organization that today includes “approximately 340 PhDs and nearly 2,000 people with masters degrees” among its six thousand members. But he tells much more than Cameron Townsend’s story. The “culture of early evangelical faith missions” features prominently in the book.

We learn about the early ethos of the Central American Mission, under whom Townsend served for fifteen years before founding his own organization. We read excerpts from letters and memos in which missionaries and home council members argue over the locus of decision-making—does final authority belong to missionaries on the field or to home councils? We observe how the “faith” principle of raising money and recruits by prayer alone morphed into the far more forthright and aggressive fund raising and recruiting practices seen today. We see missiological questions—such as whether ethnolinguistic minorities should be incorporated into the majority church or evangelized, discipled, and incorporated into their own churches—disputed. 

We see how Townsend’s early friendship with Francisco Díaz, his Cakchiquel assistant, contributed to his passionate advocacy on behalf of the Indians of Guatemala, who were devalued by the majority ladino population. We see how his extraordinary, decades-long friendship with Mexico’s president Lázaro Cárdenas led to a strategy of working with governments to reach and improve the lives of Bible-less peoples.

Along the way, we learn the difference between the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Wycliffe Bible Translators, a relationship the author acknowledges is “somewhat unwieldy and confusing to many.” Through extensive quotations from primary sources, tragic-comic descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of some missionaries, and generous respect for Townsend’s and others’ unquenchable perseverance and commitment to their cause, Svelmoe hopes to show readers who are not evangelical “at least…a bit about what makes us tick.” To evangelical readers he says, “I hope you see a bit of yourself in my subjects, your good self, and the self that makes you wince from time to time.” I certainly winced, but I think I’m the wiser for it.

Check these titles:
Steven, Hugh. 1984. A Thousand Trails: The Personal Journal of William Cameron Townsend 1917-1919. Langley, B.C.: CREDO Publishing Corp.

________. 1995. Wycliffe in the Making: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend 1920-1933. Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw Publishers.

________. 1999. Doorway to the World: The Mexico Years: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend 1934-1947. Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw Publishers.

________. 2004. Yours to Finish the Task: The Memoirs of W. Cameron Townsend from 1947-1982. Orlando, Fla.: Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events