This thesis examines the development of one of the twentieth centuryâ€™s largest North American faith missions, the dual-organizational combination of the Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) from its founding in 1934 to 1982. WBT-SIL grew out of the distinctive vision of its founder, William Cameron Townsend (1896-1982), a former Central American Mission missionary. The extraordinarily inventive Townsend conceived of an approach to Christian mission that construed Bible translation as a linguistic and quasi-scientific enterprise, thereby permitting the non-sectarian SIL side of the organization to collaborate with anticlerical governments in Latin America, where it undertook pioneer Bible translation for indigenous peoples speaking as-yet unwritten languages. This unique government relations and scientific approach to missions was at many points in conflict with the prevailing missionary ethos of the organizationâ€™s North American evangelical constituency. Therefore the WBT side of the mission functioned as the religious arm of the enterprise for the purposes of publicity and recruiting. The dual organization drew sharp critique from nearly every quarter, ranging from North American evangelicals to Latin American Catholics to secular anthropologists. The controversial nature of the organization begs the question: Why did WBT-SIL become the largest faith mission of the twentieth century? This study seeks to answer this question by analysing the development WBT-SIL in both its foreign and domestic settings.
The principal argument mounted in this thesis is that WBT-SIL met with success because its leaders and members followed Townsendâ€™s lead in pragmatically adapting the organization to widely varying contexts both at home in North America and abroad as it sought to serve indigenous peoples through Bible translation, literacy and education. By striking a creative balance between maintaining the essentials of a traditional faith mission and imaginative breaking with convention when conditions necessitated a progressive approach, WBT-SIL became one of the largest and yet most unusual of twentieth-century evangelical missions.