Kenneth Pike and the Making of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International

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Wycliffe Bible Translators has become renowned as the world’s leading Bible translation organization, and William Cameron Townsend is well known for his role as its founder. Yet this is only half of the story. Townsend also founded the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) which has played an important part in Wycliffe’s success. SIL—known today as SIL International—is a scientific as well as a faith-based organization. The story behind SIL’s rise and of Kenneth L. Pike, the key character in that rise, is one of the most interesting episodes of the modern missionary movement.

Townsend and the birth of a vision

In 1917, Townsend arrived in Guatemala as a Bible salesman. The standard practice of selling Spanish Bibles to the Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Mam, and other indigenous peoples who spoke little or no Spanish proved frustrating. Townsend later recalled that Guatemala’s indigenous inhabitants kept asking, if not in these exact words, something like: “If your God is so powerful, why doesn’t he speak my language?” Staggered by the implications of this question, Townsend blazed a new path in missions.

Against the advice of veteran missionaries, the independent-minded Townsend translated the New Testament into Kaqchikel, completing it in 1930. He also started a school that used the indigenous language to train native pastors. From these experiences flowed Townsend’s threefold vision that would form the core of SIL.

Firstly, the move away from Spanish language ministry to Kaqchikel ministry and translation strengthened and expanded the indigenous church. Townsend found that Bible translation into the mother tongue was not optional but imperative if indigenous peoples were to understand its message and form viable indigenous churches.

Secondly, Townsend discovered that unwritten indigenous languages were not simple or primitive but rather extremely complex and capable of expressing the full range of human thought and emotion. Faced with an enormously complex grammatical structure, he concluded that the recently developed science of structural linguistics held the key to cracking the mysteries of these languages. He therefore sought out the advice of Edward Sapir, a leading linguist at Yale University. By enlisting scientific research in support of Bible translation, Townsend was on the path to creating an entirely different kind of mission.

Thirdly, living in close contact with Guatemala’s indigenous communities, he became acutely aware of these peoples’ extreme poverty and powerlessness due to illiteracy and social marginalization. For Townsend, saving souls was not enough. A true Christian response included social uplift. He was convinced that community development was an essential component of Christian missions.

For an evangelical missionary in the 1930s, the embrace of Bible translation was fitting, but science and social concern were hardly the stuff of evangelical missions. In the wake of the modernists-fundamentalists controversies, intellectual pursuits and the life of the mind—not to mention social ministry—were in serious decline in conservative evangelical circles. After all, it was from within the academy that evolution and secularism were emanating. In order to pursue the three strands of ministry he envisioned, Townsend was compelled by circumstance to found his own organization, hence the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Townsend first set his sights on anti-clerical and revolutionary Mexico. Since the country was closed to traditional missionaries when he crossed the border in 1933, he resourcefully dropped his missionary identity and entered Mexico as an ethnologist and educator. Clearly, even at this early date, he envisioned creating something other than the standard evangelical faith mission. During his two-month, 5,000-mile survey trip, Townsend met a number of key figures, of which the most important was Mexico’s director of rural education, Rafael Ramírez, who opened the way for him to study the nation’s educational system.

Mexico sorely needed linguistic research to develop the country’s many unwritten indigenous languages before real educational gains could be made. Mexico’s revolutionary leaders also remained frustrated in their efforts to raise the indigenous population out of grinding poverty. Townsend was bold to the point of audacity. Despite having no money or workers, he proposed to Mexican officials a “three point program of Bible translation,” cooperation in “scientific research,” and assisting “the government in its welfare program” on behalf of the indigenous peoples.

Townsend was a great salesman, and he convinced Mexican education officials that SIL could make a legitimate scientific and humanitarian contribution. They were even ready to permit Bible translation in order to gain the linguistic and community development aid promised by this intrepid American. SIL would be like no other mission. Motivated by religious purpose, it was yet truly scientific and pursued humanitarian aims. “In fifteen years,” Townsend exclaimed, “we will make the scientists sit up and take notice.”

Townsend envisioned sending young evangelicals into Mexico with his newly formed Summer Institute of Linguistics. Once there, they would carry out linguistic research and publish the results in academic journals. They would also develop alphabets, produce grammars and dictionaries for unwritten languages, translate the New Testament, and undertake community development and educational projects. It was a tall order, one that would require a new kind of specially trained missionary: the translator-linguist.

Pike and the realization of the vision

In 1934, Townsend established a summer linguistic course in rural Arkansas for training these translator-linguists. The first summer course was inauspicious. Only two students turned up for classes at the abandoned farmhouse Townsend rented for housing the “school.” The next summer Kenneth Pike, a skinny young man recently rejected by the China Inland Mission (CIM), arrived for the summer course along with four other students. The CIM had rebuffed Pike because of his nervousness and inability to pronounce Chinese. After failing as a CIM candidate, Pike had returned to Gordon College where he took a graduate course in Greek, and it was there that he learned of Townsend’s summer school. If he couldn’t be a traditional missionary, perhaps he could be a Bible translator? As unpromising as Pike appeared, Townsend had just collected his first linguistic genius.

In Mexico, with a mere ten days of phonetic training under his belt, Pike proved he had the makings of a competent linguistic scientist. He progressed rapidly in his analysis of the Mixtec language, into which he would translate the New Testament with the help of Angel Merecias. He quickly grasped the importance of the linguistic sciences for both the translation and humanitarian aims of SIL. In 1937, Pike wrote his family that “Townsend has his plan of action here in Mexico upon the basis of scientific research. In the bargain we will of course plan to do the translating which is our goal. But we do not want to masquerade as linguists and be anything else but that. The only answer is to become linguists, in fact, not theory, and deliver the real goods.”

Townsend took note of Pike’s ability and in 1937 sent him to the University of Michigan, where each summer the Linguistic Society of America held a “Linguistic Institute.” Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir, the two leading linguists of the day, were present at the Linguistic Institute in 1937, and Sapir was impressed with Pike’s initial analysis of Mixtec.

Pike returned to the Linguistic Institute in 1938. After lecturing on his Mixtec linguistic analysis, he was offered an opportunity to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. After completing his doctorate in 1942, Pike joined the faculty at the university where he eventually became a tenured professor and remained until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1977. Pike also developed his own linguistic theory, tagmemics, which was used to analyze many previously unwritten languages. In the end, he would contribute more than 20 books and 200 articles to the academic literature. It is a little-known fact among American Christians that Pike was not only an evangelical missionary and Bible translator but also one of the world’s top linguistic scientists of the 20th century.

Providence smiled on Townsend. In 1936, another linguistic prodigy walked through the door. Eugene Nida, who had studied Greek and linguistics at UCLA, was a student for only a few weeks before Townsend placed him on the summer school faculty. Nida was SIL’s second PhD, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1943. For various reasons, Nida would move to the American Bible Society full-time in 1953, where he would become well known for developing the Bible translation theory of dynamic equivalence. In the first two decades of SIL’s existence, these two men were largely responsible for advancing the organization in a truly scholarly and academic direction.

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Source: Christianity Today