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William Cameron Townsend
1896–1982

Stimulator of linguistic research among ethnic minorities and champion of their cultural dignity

Compiled by Calvin Hibbard


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Philosophy of three-fold service

Cameron and Elvira Townsend with some Cakchiquel children (c.l922) Cameron and Elvira Townsend with some Cakchiquel children (c.1922)

Townsend's life was as diverse as the programs he advanced and the organizations he founded. For instance, he insisted that members of SIL should be ready to serve others scientifically, materially, and spiritually. From early in his career Townsend was personally committed to each of these three areas of involvement. It is not sufficient, he argued, that a person should be interested in serving people unless he has that scientific preparation which will make his contribution relevant and effective. Service based on a foundation of scientific investigation, he held, is more likely to have a permanent impact than service motivated by high ideals but without a thorough understanding of the people being served.

Of special importance, he maintained, is a careful study of a people's language and, by means of that language, an acquired insight into their aspirations and goals. But a scientific study in which the investigator is interested merely in amassing data about the people studied and not in helping them reach worthy goals may have some value to the scientific world, but it will have ignored human values. Townsend affirmed that scientific knowledge should be used as a means for offering developing people the resource of choice for bettering their daily lives. Additionally, he taught that unless a minority people can adjust to their place in the changing world and, with economic assistance, learn something of the acquired wisdom of humankind, these people may sink into apathy or despair.

The market is an important part of the social life of the Cakchiquel people. The market is an important part of the social life of the Cakchiquel people.

Crucial to a well-rounded program for minority-language groups, Townsend believed, is the spiritual component. Natural religion, defined as man's seeking for an integrating explanation of his life and world, indicates that all people have deep, unfulfilled spiritual needs. An adequate effort to serve minority-language communities, he believed, must take cognizance of this spiritual dimension. It may not be convenient for some individuals or for a government to be involved in such matters, but for a private organization it is appropriate. It can devote itself to the tasks of scientific investigation and at the same time to practical service and to spiritual orientation. This three-phased objective molded Townsend's career.

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