Review – For the Gospel's Sake: The Rise of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics

Wycliffe Bible Translators is the largest and most influential evangelical mission of all time. Its ability to draw support from left-leaning evangelicals (and even some mainline churches) all the way down the spectrum to some fundamentalists is unique.

Because Wycliffe translates the Bible with a belief in its power to change lives, Bible-believing Christians of various stripes are enthusiastic about the end product: New Testaments (and sometimes entire Bibles) in the heart-languages of remote and not-so-remote people groups — be they large groups or small.

Wycliffe and its sister organization, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), have been part of a two-pronged approach with an unusually complicated relationship between them.
Like many monumental movements of the early and mid twentieth century, strong — sometimes overly strong — leaders can be found at the epicenter. Wycliffe/SIL ‘s epicenter was mission founder Cameron Townsend. Boone spends a lot of time discussing Townsend and his creative — albeit unorthodox — leadership.

Boone Aldridge, a true scholar in the realm of missions and himself part of Wycliffe, understands the organization like perhaps no one else on planet earth. He has immersed himself in the organization’s history — while also mastering the perspectives and movements within the evangelical world during Wycliffe’s history.

His extensive research might lead one to conclude that Aldridge traveled in time and actually witnessed all this history. 

As a pastor who understands the difference between the positions within fundamentalism, evangelicalism in general, and neo-evangelicalism, I was impressed that Aldridge easily trumped my knowledge base. He knows what Keswick spirituality means, how dispensationalism (or, in contrast, covenant theology) affects a mission’s approach. 
He does not embrace a naïve understanding of American evangelicalism’s history. Aldridge understands each camp’s thinking, and how the Wycliffe organization tried to present itself in a favorable light to each group.

Aldridge is the closest thing to an impartial observer, trying to tell the story with honesty and neutrality.

Wycliffe and SIL flew in the face of traditional faith missions both in the realms of separation and being above board; it was often accused of being chameleon-like.  Aldridge does not sanitize Wycliffe’s past or its leadership; there is no hagiography here.

Although Wycliffe drew many of its missionaries from the fundamentalist or conservative evangelical world, the organization’s attempts at “social uplift,” its ties to governments, political figures on both the right and left, and its philosophy of penetration rather than separation — put the organization (for better or worse) at the forefront of the New Evangelical movement.

SIL, meanwhile, went off in its own academic direction. While training missionaries in linguistics, it became an academic institution with a secular face; it went way beyond merely training Wycliffe missionaries.

Aldridge documents how the dual organizations grappled with issues and sometimes one another, eventually separating.

Most Bible believing Christians will admit — either with enthusiasm or reservation — that God has blessed Wycliffe and used the organization to get the Bible to massive numbers of people.  But, on many particular issues, some readers will conclude that God blessed Wycliffe because of the direction it took, others would say God blessed Wycliffe despite that direction. For the most part, Aldridge remains neutral, allowing the reader to decide.

This is an amazing history of an amazing organization, authored by a fully informed author who has interviewed scads of missionaries, had access to all of Wycliffe’s documents, and could not be better equipped to tackle this work. Well done.

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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Bert Perry's picture

Not a perfect organization, but one of my biggest areas of reluctance to be in the fundamental fold is our movement's relative lack of an equivalent to Wycliffe.  We're going to bring the Gospel to all nations without doing intensive language and translation work exactly how?

(yes, I'm aware of guys doing sort of this from a more TR point of view, but I just cringe at the notion of infecting our brothers and sisters in developing countries with that....)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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