A Brief History of the Wycliffe Global Alliance

“Missions always must unfold within the context of and the anticipation of, God’s work, which He alone initiated and which He alone can bring to final completion. This perspective if properly understood, should not render us passive or our work inconsequential. Rather, it puts all of our work within the larger and more ennobling context of God’s action and the certainty of final outcome.” (Timothy Tennant, Invitation to World Missions, A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century., p. 123.)

The privilege of participating in God’s mission also gives us the privilege of “the certainty of final outcome.”

“My name will be great among the nations, from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offering will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11

The Wycliffe Global Alliance exists to further spread His name and to bring Him glory. And, the Alliance exists because His name is growing among the nations. Tracing the history of Wycliffe gives us a glimpse of what God has been doing to bring the nations to Himself.

Another Garage Story

Amazon, Google, Apple, HP, Disney, Harley Davidson…and Wycliffe all have something in common. They each started in a simple garage.

Wycliffe began with a desire to serve the practical needs of Bible translation personnel and linguists working among minority peoples. In the 1940s, most of these personnel were from North America and were working in Central and South America under the auspices of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International). As their numbers grew, the need for a “home office” became apparent. This office could handle much-needed accounting services and also help engage people in the United States in prayer and other forms of involvement in Bible translation.

Leonard Livingston Legters and Edna Legters, summer 1939.

Cameron Townsend and L.L. Legters, the founders of SIL, had, in the 1930s, started a “Camp Wycliffe” (named after John Wycliffe, an early advocate for Bible translation into English) to train linguists and translators. But they had no idea how the name and work would grow and spread. Their original plan had been to train translators who would serve under other established missionary societies. But by the early 1940s, friends of the work strongly recommended the formation of a society specifically focused on Bible translation.

William G. Nyman and Etta Nyman at their home in Glendale, California. Bill Nyman was Secretary-Treasurer of Wycliffe and SIL from 1943-1960.

In 1942, Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. was created. Its headquarters was established in California, in the small garage apartment of Bill Nyman. Nyman, an experienced businessman, served as a volunteer and donated this apartment. All of the funds that came in for the ministry went directly to field locations, with the exception of the five percent that the personnel had agreed were needed for an office secretary’s salary and office supplies. As the translation teams multiplied, the office grew too and eventually moved into larger facilities. Soon, Wycliffe Bible Translators was not only meeting the needs of teams in the field but was also actively promoting the needs and work of Bible translation.

Expanding Beyond the USA

Britain, Australia and Canada

In the early 1950s, SIL began to offer linguistics training courses in England and Australia. These courses, with names like “Wycliffe Institute of Linguistics,” served mission organizations that were eager to access SIL’s knowledge and training. The courses also created interest among prospective missionaries who were attracted to Bible translation as a ministry.

Wycliffe UK: From tiny beginnings, like this phonetics class under canvas, Wycliffe has gone on to train cross cultural workers with many agencies working around the globe.

This interest gave rise to the formation of Wycliffe Bible Translators in these countries. Each organization was incorporated within its own country, but in the late 1950s and the 1960s, Wycliffe Bible Translators of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada were also accepted as “divisions” of the U.S. corporation.


In the early 1960s, the vision for Bible translation in the languages of minority peoples spread throughout Europe, and European churches began sending out a new workforce from Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, followed by the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

In the early 1990s as Eastern and Central Europe opened up, still more came. Those who had lived in the former Communist states knew what it was like to be without God’s Word, and they were eager to help others hear the Word in their own languages.


Through the 1980s, Asian countries began to join this worldwide movement for Bible translation. Japan, Singapore and South Korea led the way with others following. By the turn of the century, nine Asian nations were contributing to the worldwide Bible translation movement.

National Field Organizations

Campus of Bible Translation and Literacy (BTL) - Nairobi, Kenya, in 1984.

During the 1970s and ’80s, a number of national organizations (called at the time “National Bible Translation Organizations”) developed under the guidance of Wycliffe’s partner SIL. These organizations sponsored Bible translation and applied linguistics work in their own countries. Many also engaged with the Church in their countries, serving as advocates for mother-tongue Scripture use and recruiting personnel and prayer support for Bible translation work.

Wycliffe Bible Translators International

Until 1980, the Wycliffe organizations emerging around the world were all called “divisions.” They were subsidiary organizations of Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. in the United States. Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. served not only as the representative organization for the U.S. public but also as the umbrella organization for the worldwide family of “divisions.” Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. was the early face of Wycliffe International.

In 1980, Wycliffe Bible Translators International was incorporated as a separate corporation from Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. Organizations that had been divisions of Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. became divisions of Wycliffe Bible Translators International, and Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. (now also known as Wycliffe USA) went on to focus on its role of relating to the U.S. public.

In 1991, the decision was made to restructure Wycliffe International. The term “division” became obsolete, and the Wycliffe organizations became self-governing member organizations of Wycliffe International. Wycliffe International would be governed by its member organizations, meaning that each voting member organization was entitled to two votes on matters pertaining to Wycliffe International, irrespective of size or experience.

This restructuring had significant consequences. Member organizations became fully self-governing and responsible to develop and shape their organizations and their policies according to cultural and national concerns. Wycliffe International’s role became one of facilitating, of providing standards and guidelines, of making recommendations, and of giving global direction and support. Wycliffe International would no longer write policies governing the member organizations.

During this same era, the historic structure of Wycliffe International and SIL International’s interconnectedness also began to shift. Through much of their history, they had a shared board, and members of one organization were also members of the other. In 2008, Wycliffe International and SIL changed their structures to incorporate separate boards. They are now distinct organizations with separate boards. The organizations still share a close and highly valued partnership, but each is also exploring new partnerships with other organizations that work with or as a part of minority language communities. Each organization makes its own unique contribution while also working in unity with its partner organizations. Many Wycliffe organizations continue to second much of their personnel to SIL, and Wycliffe International and SIL work together on a number of strategies.

In 2008, Wycliffe International began a new journey with a new board, executive director and Global Leadership Team.  The new leadership began to look at how God was at work in his Church worldwide and how Wycliffe could best participate in His global mission.

Wycliffe Global Alliance

In February of 2011, Wycliffe International became Wycliffe Global Alliance. The new name represented what and who Wycliffe was becoming. Further restructuring continues as the Alliance seeks to be a welcoming community of reflective practitioners, good stewards, and participants in God’s mission through Bible translation movements and related ministries. Our desire is to create an environment for increasing partnerships and the participation of God’s Church worldwide so that all may have the opportunity to know Christ through His Word and His people.


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