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Veteran Wycliffe leader George Cowan dies

February 14, 2017

Dr. George Cowan, a former Bible translator and president emeritus of Wycliffe Bible Translators, died on Feb. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. at the age of 100.

Born in 1916 in Kelwood, Man., Cowan was the first Canadian to take linguistic training in the U.S. offered by Wycliffe’s predecessor and key partner organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). In 1942, he and a Canadian couple, Herb and Hilda Whealy, became the first Canadians to join the U.S.-based Wycliffe Bible Translators (before the organization had an official presence in Canada.).

“No one exemplified Wycliffe and its commitment to reaching people with the Good News in a language and form they relate to best more than George Cowan,” says Bob Creson, president and CEO of Wycliffe U.S.A. “His passion and prayer life are legendary, and he will be missed greatly by the whole Wycliffe family.”

In his early years, Cowan earned a bachelor’s degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. He later moved to the United States, where he served on the staff of Young Life and pastored a church in south Texas. He also earned a master's degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary.

In 1942 he moved to Mexico, where he met Florence Hansen, a fellow North American who shared his passion for linguistics. They were married the following year.

In the mid-1940s, Cowan directed the SIL training for aspiring Bible translators in Canada, at what is now Briercrest Bible College, near Moose Jaw, Sask.

Cowan briefly worked among the Amuzgo people in Mexico. Later he and Florence settled in Huautla de Jiménez and published various technical papers about the Mazatec language and culture, including a description of the now famous “whistle speech” utilized by the Mazatec. They also collaborated with Mazatec colleagues to translate the New Testament into their mother tongue, completing the work in 1961.

Cowan directed SIL’s work in Mexico from 1951 to 1953. The couple’s three children, Paul, Esther and Ruth, were all born in Mexico and lived with them in the Mazatec area.

From 1956 to 1981, Cowan served as president of Wycliffe Bible Translators International (now called Wycliffe Global Alliance). In addition, he held the position of SIL area director for the Europe and Africa areas, extension director for fieldwork in Mexico, and was intimately involved in the development of SIL linguistic training programs. He founded the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), Wycliffe Canada's training program, as well as linguistic training programs in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.

Cowan sat on the board of directors for SIL, as well as JAARS (Wycliffe's partner for technical support) , Wycliffe Associates (mobilizing volunteers) and Wycliffe Bible Translators among others. In 1963, at age 47, he earned a second master's degree in linguistics from the University of North Dakota.

In recent years, Cowan continued to pour himself into the work of Bible translation as a volunteer with Wycliffe U.S.A. and the Seed Company. He served as a spiritual adviser to the two organizations and spent much of his time in prayer for the Bibleless peoples of the world.

“Dad considered his prayer ministry a joy and privilege, on par or higher than anything else he did in life,” said his daughter Ruth. “He loved to pray and enter the Lord’s presence.”

In a Wycliffe video he was featured in several few years ago, Cowan’s unwavering passion for Bible translation was clearly evident. “I’ve got more versions [of the Bible] than I know what to do with. But what about that poor guy out there? … He’s got nothing,” Cowan said, referring to those in Bibleless people groups.

“What should I pray for him? I can only ask that God give him the same as he’s given me.”

Cowan is survived by his daughters, Esther and Ruth. A memorial service will be held Saturday, Mar. 11, 2017 at the Wycliffe Volunteer Center in Orlando, Fla.


Video: George Cowan recounts history of  training initiatives in Canada