Unlikely Heroes: Women in Bible Translation
Two single women become Bible translation pioneers for generations to come.
As human beings, we often have a narrow lens of understanding. We can often find ourselves to be near-sighted — we have no true concept of the big picture, like God does.
But God is limitless in his understanding, and he is the God of the impossible. He takes us finite, fallible human beings and — through his power — uses us for his glory. He takes our weaknesses and infuses us with his supernatural power to accomplish his will and plan.
God has called each of us to something significant, simply because he lives and dwells in us. But we can often tend to think that only people who have overcome large obstacles or accomplished big and mighty things are “heroes.” In reality, these people are ordinary human beings — just like you and me — who God used in extraordinary ways. The odds might be stacked against them, but with God’s help, mountains are moved and he turns unlikely people into heroes.
Florence (Florrie) Hansen and Eunice Pike are two such people. They were the first team of single women to begin translation work with SIL.* And through their efforts, they opened the door for many single women to participate in Bible translation in the years to come.
Against the Odds
Florrie and Eunice attended Camp Wycliffe, a linguistic training program, in the summer of 1936 — the third session of this new program. (Camp Wycliffe began several years before Wycliffe Bible Translators USA was even founded as an organization!)
After the women completed the training program, William Cameron Townsend, Wycliffe’s founder, was excited to learn that they wanted to work on a translation project in Mexico. But his friend and counterpart, L.L. Legters, was reluctant when Cam told him this.
“Think of the criticism we’d get for sending two young girls ... where not even male missionaries have ever gone.” But Cam disagreed, pleading their case until Legters finally conceded. “Oh, all right. Go ahead, Townsend, and do what you think best. But I don’t like it.”
Legters wasn’t the only one who disagreed with sending two women into the field on their own. The decision was unprecedented for the time, and stretched people’s perceptions of what was acceptable for women — particularly single women — to do. Others also warned against sending the women, saying that the area was dangerous, or even that they were “too good looking to be [missionaries].”
But when Cam passed on the warning to the women, they both looked at him in surprise. “Why, don’t you believe God can take care of us?”
Stepping Out in Faith
Confident that God would be with them, Florrie and Eunice moved to the mountainous Mazatec village in Oaxaca, Mexico. Eunice’s brother, Ken, escorted the two women and helped them rent a house and learn their first Mazatec words before he left them to begin their life and work in the village.
They were the first SIL team of single women to ever live and work in a village on their own. And while Florrie and Eunice had complete confidence that God would take care of them, many still struggled with the decision as it stretched their perception of what was safe and appropriate for young Christian women to do. But Cam continued to encourage and support the women’s decision. “Those of us who have wondered just what place single lady missionaries might have in our project have learned from this lesson that God has heroines today,” he shared.
Heroines in Bible Translation
Florrie and Eunice excelled in their work in the Mazatec village. Because of their pioneering, Camp Wycliffe went from having separate men’s and women’s camps to one unified camp. And by 1940, there was no mention of gender in any publicity material. Instead, the brochures simply stated: “All persons are invited to apply who are going to pioneer fields where the language work is not yet finished.”
By the fall of 1940, there were five pairs of single women working in different language communities throughout Mexico. In early 1941, 22 out of 37 linguists working in Mexico were women. And half of those 22 were single women! By the fall of 1944, two-thirds of 122 members were women, with one-third being specifically single. Wycliffe had been started by a group of men, but women were quickly finding their role in Bible translation too.
Florrie and Eunice were pioneers, and — more importantly — they were unlikely heroes. They not only helped open the door for women to serve in Bible translation, but they also were successful in their translation for the Mazatec community. By 1941, Florrie and Eunice had completed the rough draft of the Mazatec New Testament — a first in the history of Mexico’s indigenous languages, and just six years after they began work in the village.
God’s ability to work through us is not dependent on who we are or what we’re capable of; it’s about whose we are and what he’s capable of doing through us. All we need to do is step out in faith and be willing to let God use us for his glory. And that’s exactly what Florrie and Eunice did.