Dr. John Theodore Bendor-Samuel, widely known as JBS, as a leading linguist and specialist in African languages, pioneered Bible translation and literacy work in Africa.
John was born on June 9, 1929 in Worthing, Sussex, England to Rev. Theodore Harold Bendor-Samuel and Dorothy Ruth who were both church ministers. John and his wife, Pamela Margaret, (née Moxham) have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.
He was educated at Fell Exhibitioner Christ Church, Oxford and London University, and earned a B.A. in History from Oxford in 1952, a diploma of Education in 1953 and a diploma of Theology in 1954 from London University, an M.A. from Oxford in 1955, and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from London University in 1958. He was converted as a boy and entered the ministry of Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in 1954. He speaks English, German, French and has a wide knowledge of the structure of African languages, and their classification.
In June 1960, in response to requests from several African church and mission leaders, John Bendor-Samuel visited Senegal, Portuguese Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana to assess the needs of Bible translation. While recognizing that there were language groups needing translation in all these countries, the most extensive needs were in northern Ghana where there were more than 15 such groups. Many of these groups with more than 100,000 speakers, have no access to Scripture.
The next year he returned to Ghana and also visited Nigeria, authorized by the International Board of the Summer Institute of Linguistics to make arrangements for the work. In December 1961 the University of Ghana approved a cooperative agreement between the newly established Institute of African Studies and SIL, and a month later the University of Nigeria (Nsukka) approved a similar cooperative agreement. Linguistic research began in the Kusal language of Ghana in November 1962, and an introductory training course in linguistics was held at Enugu, Nigeria, in November-December 1963 followed by the first work in the Ejagham language.
In October 1962, John Bendor-Samuel and his family took up residence and lived, first at Achimota (University of Ghana) and then in Nigeria (Enugu and Zaria) for the next 14 years. He directed SIL’s work in West Africa, which expanded to Togo (1967), Cameroon (1968) and Ivory Coast (1968). In the 1970’s as the Africa Area Director of SIL, he visited many countries, discussing with church and missions leaders the needs for future Bible translation work. He was responsible for starting work in Ethiopia (1974), Sudan (1975), Kenya, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, Zaire, Morocco, Congo Brazzaville, Central African Republic and Mozambique. He made the initial allocations of SIL teams to each language, guiding the teams in their linguistic research, setting up and supervising the development of SIL branches in each country.
He carried out linguistic research in a number of languages in the Gur and Benue-Congo language families and published a number of articles. He was one of the founding members of the West Africa Linguistic Society, participating in its annual conferences and serving on its council to this day. For many years (1982-94) he was the Editor of the Journal of West African Languages for which he continues to serve as a Consulting Editor.
Recognizing the need for Bible translation to be owned by the churches and Christians in each country, John Bendor-Samuel encouraged the formation of local organizations with their own governing bodies. He has vigorously promoted and fostered local partnerships with both governmental and non-governmental agencies, with University departments, with churches and church leaders, with mission agencies, and with local Bible Societies. In Nigeria SIL work was transferred to the Nigeria Bible Translation Trust in 1976, and in Ghana to the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation in 1979. In Kenya from the outset of SIL’s work, the Kenyan organization, Bible Translation and Literacy (East Africa) was in charge. These national Bible translation organizations cooperate with the local Bible Society, but exercise a complementary ministry, focusing on languages where no Bible translation has been undertaken. There are now local translation organizations in nine African countries.
The last 35 years have produced a wealth of linguistic materials on African languages. John Bendor-Samuel has had a special concern to encourage local scholarship, especially through the meetings of the West Africa Linguistic Society, through friendships with local scholars, and through both formal and informal facilitating and training. Bible translation as well as new literacy materials and programs have led to the establishment of churches, or the growth of existing ones. Though geographically and administratively removed from direct involvement with Africa, John Bendor-Samuel maintains a keen interest in all aspects of the work of God in Africa today, and maintains links and contacts with people working there.
Not only did he pioneer and lead the work in Africa, but for 25 years (1958-1983) he was the Director of the Summer Institute of Linguistics School in Britain, and from 1984 to 1991, was Wycliff’s Chief Executive Officer. He has served on many national and international committees. Dr. John Theodore Bendor-Samuel worked as the international President of Wycliffe Bible Translators International until his unexpected death on January 6, 2011.
Pam Bendor-Samuel, interview, Wycliffe Bible Translators-UK.
Ethel E. Wallis and Mary A. Bennett, Two Thousand Tongues to Go, [first published in U.S.A. by Harper and Row, 1959] (Hodder and Stoughton, 1966).
Edward O. England, “Forgotten Tribes” (Chap. 7), Adventurous Christianity (Victory Press, 1962).
Phyllis Thompson, Matched with His Hour, (U.K.: World Books, 1974).
Karen Lewis, and June Hathersmith, Harvest of Trust, (U.S.A.: Wycliffe Bible Translators, 1989).
Additional reading: John Theodore Bendor-Samuel, “Niger-Congo: Gur In Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa” in Current Trends in Linguistics, 7 (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), 141-78.
——–, “Ten Nigerian Tone Systems” in Studies in Nigerian Languages, 4, (Jos and Kano: IL and CSNL, 1974).
——–, Donna Skitch and Esther Cressman, “Duka Sentence, Clause and Phrase” in Studies in Nigerian Languages, 3, vii, (Zaria: IL and CSNL, 1973).
——– and Rhonda Hartell, eds., The Niger-Congo Languages: A Classification and Description of Africa’s Largest Language Family, xiii, (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1989).
——–, article Niger-Congo * is to be published in *Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1999.
——–, article on Esther in A Bible Commentary for Today, eds. F.F. Bruce and H. L. Ellison, (Pickering and Inglis, 1979).
Eveline Guering, SIL, email message dated March 15, 2011.
This story, submitted in 2000, was researched by Dr. Francis Manana, Professor of Evangelism and Missions and DACB Liaison Coordinator, Pan African Christian College, Nairobi, Kenya.