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Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

My Pilgrimage in Mission*

Kenneth L. Pike


I grew up in a godly home, with prayers and worship and Christian commitment by my parents. For them the pressure of living was enormous. Mother had to take care of eight children in a house without a bathroom or electricity or central heating. In addition, she was father's secretary, finance officer, and even telephone operator. At the time I was born, in 1912, Dad was a country medical doctor for the Woodstock area of eastern Connecticut. The telephone was a party line, with many people using the same line.

In the winter, Dad kept three horses in the barn, rotating them daily as they got tired, and in the summer he had to grow hay for them. So Dad too was very busy. On Sundays, though, he would take us to church, and on Sunday afternoons he scheduled time to play with us outdoors and read the Bible to us. On top of the complicated work, he was not strong. In 1900 he had gone as a medical missionary to the Tsimshian Indians at Metlacatla in southern Alaska, but his health broke in just one year. It took months before he could practice medicine again. Later, a physically weak constitution threatened me as well.

I have an early memory of being in Mom's arms and wanting her to sing me a certain song. I couldn't say the name, but I kept gesturing toward the bookshelf. Finally she went over, pulled down a book, and opened to the song I was hoping for: "There Were Ninety and Nine That Safely Lay." The missing sheep touched my heart, a feeling that later grew to a concern for tiny, unreached people groups. These preliterate peoples were desperately in need of alphabets, dictionaries, written literature of their own, and Bible translation.

I went to a grammar school in a red brick schoolhouse with one room, one teacher, and about forty or so students. I was the only one who passed the second grade. So the teacher (weary, I suppose) pushed me on to the fourth grade. Later, as several of us were in the seventh grade, the teacher pushed all of us to high school, skipping the eighth grade. Overall, I was not athletic and took no part in sports.

I accepted a grocery job in Providence, Rhode Island, for a year. Then, since I did not have the initiative to handle it myself, my mother registered me to go to Gordon College in Boston. But the very hour I was to leave by train to Boston, Dad got very sick. I told Mom that I could cancel plans for college. "No," she said, "it's awfully easy to quit!" So I jumped into the car that had come to take me to the station and went off to college.

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*International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 1997, used by permission.

Kenneth L. Pike is President Emeritus of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Michigan, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He and his wife, Evelyn, have been members of Wycliffe Bible Translators since 1935 and 1938, respectively.