The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) is a curious hybrid: part serious linguistic research institution, part evangelical Christian missionary organization. In this well-written and meticulously researched monograph, Todd Hartch details the emergence of the SIL in the revolutionary Mexico of the 1930s and its steady growth over the next four decades in an improbable alliance with the Mexican state.

Mexico in 1934 may seem an unlikely time and place for “a conservative evangelical from the United States,” Cameron Townsend, to make common cause with “the leading revolutionary nationalist in Mexico,” president Lázaro Cárdenas (p. 14). But Townsend, an astute politician in his own right, saw that the Mexican state would be an inescapable partner in realizing his dream of translating the Christian Bible into the tongues of the “wild tribes of Latin America” (p. 2), and he cultivated close personal ties with Cárdenas and key figures in Mexico’s official indigenista...

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