For Gospel's Sake

The Rise of the Wycliff Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics

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Boone Aldridge
Studies in the History of Christian Missions
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , April
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $45.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802876102.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Twenty-four-year-old William Cameron Townsend was confident all the other US missionaries were doing it wrong. They were working in Spanish. Across Central America, they were preaching in Spanish, baptizing in Spanish, and distributing the Bible in Spanish, even when that wasn’t people’s primary language. Townsend, working in Guatemala in the early 1920s, thought indigenous groups should be given the gospel in their own languages. It was true most of them couldn’t read in their own languages and had no native literature, and schools in their languages were illegal, but Townsend thought those were really just excuses for “old missionaries or lazy ones” (27). 

Townsend taught himself Cakchiquel. He translated the New Testament and, in the process, developed a new approach to world missions. Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics were born, a dual-structured organization that, when Townsend died in 1982, had more than 4,500 people working to translate the Bible into 761 languages (222). For the Gospel’s Sake: The Rise of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a new offering in Eerdmans Publishing’s series on the history of Christian missions, tells this story.

Author Boone Aldridge is an insider to the story. He has been affiliated with Wycliffe Bible Translators-Summer Institute of Linguistics (WBT-SIL) since 1996 and served as a translator in Africa. He is also a historian. He wrote his dissertation with evangelical historian David Bebbington at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. For the Gospel’s Sake excellently combines the rigor of scholarship and the keen insight of an insider. Aldridge had extensive access to the WBT-SIL archives and it shows. Perhaps even more importantly, he has a special sense for WBT-SIL’s internal dynamics and tensions. Where an outsider might see a flat surface, Aldridge observes dimensions. He helps the reader see them, too. 

In one chapter, for example, Aldridge explores internal debates the organization had over translation theory. Some WBT-SIL translators held “the readers’ response to a biblical text should determine the adequacy of a translation” (89), making the case for “dynamic equivalence.” Others insisted on a closer adherence to the original linguistic structure and vocabulary, arguing for “word-for-word” equivalence. Some pursued theoretical questions about “information-correspondence,” while others adamantly argued that theory was unimportant to the task at hand. They debated, too, about inerrancy. Translators all signed on to a statement affirming divine inspiration, but that meant different things to different people. For the Gospel’s Sake uncovers layers of intense discussions.

In another example, Aldridge looks at how missionary fundraising methodology was a critical distinction between different types of Protestants in the first half of the 20th century. This might seem an esoteric aspect of missionary work, but Aldridge makes the case this was as essential as theology to dividing different groups of Protestants at the start of the 20th century, and that this changed over time. Only close attention to the inner workings of a missionary organization would reveal that, and that’s the great strength of For the Gospel’s Sake.

For the Gospel’s Sake is weakest when it tries to situate WBT-SIL in a broader context. It’s not quite clear how WBT-SIL fits in the shifting dynamics of global politics during the Cold War, for example. Aldridge mostly accepts the organization’s claims to be apolitical. The organization, he writes, was “willing to become all things to all men that by all means they might save some” (110). Townsend was happy to work with a whole range of foreign governments, even if that sometimes required shading the truth about WBT-SIL’s mission (it “makes me feel,” Townsend wrote at one point, “rather like a spy” [40]). But in the intertwined history of US missionaries and US imperialism, what does this policy add up to? Aldridge doesn’t say. 

Similarly, Alrdidge, doesn’t do the best job of placing WBT-SIL in evangelical history. Partly this is a problem of relying on older scholarship. For the Gospel’s Sake doesn’t cite anything from the last decade, missing important and relevant connections with the work of Molly Worthen, Timothy E. W. Gloege, Darren Dochuk, Daniel K. Williams, Mathew Avery Sutton, and others. It’s unfortunate, because WBT-SIL offers some beautiful illustrations of the arguments of this transformative new scholarship.

Worthen, to take just one example, argues that evangelicalism was driven by anxieties about intellectual status. WBT-SIL sent its first student to graduate school in the late 1930s. Kenneth L. Pike was at first a “mixed bag of scholarly potential, anti-intellectualism, and missionary ardor” (56), but then went to the University of Michigan and wrote a dissertation on phonetics. He had a successful academic career at Michigan, and continued to work for the missionary organization, training Bible translators. He became an advocate for academic rigor in a movement that was also “a mixed bag of scholarly potential, anti-intellectualism, and missionary ardor.” Worthen could have easily made Pike a central figure in her argument; Aldridge could have benefited from seeing how Pike is a prime example of what was happening within American evangelicalism more broadly.

It will be up to others to draw out further connections and conclusions. That weakness, however, may end up being a great gift to scholars. For the Gospel’s Sake will be incredibly useful as a case study for anyone wanting to think through one or another theory of modern American evangelicalism. It’s a history full of questions waiting to be further explored. 

This is critical reading for anyone interested in the history of 20th century evangelical missions, the Bible in America, and the modern history of Bible translations, but it also touches on an incredibly wide array of subjects and will be interesting to those studying the history of philanthropy, anti-Catholicism, religious higher education, parachurch organization, private aviation, linguistics, Protestant debates about ecclesiology, and developments in the construction of evangelical identity. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow at Valparaiso University.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Boone Aldridge has served with Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International in both Africa and the United States since 1996. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Stirling in Scotland. This is his first book.

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