Townsend was born in Canton, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Ohio, Kansas and Missouri. Townsend studied at the University of Missouri. He came to Salt Lake City in 1872 to try and improve his health. While there he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Townsend later served as a missionary for the church in the Southern States Mission.
Townsend ran a drugstore in Payson, Utah for 15 years. He then taught for two years at Brigham Young Academy, the predecessor of Brigham Young University. After this he taught at Salt Lake City High School. He died at Payson, Utah .
His hymns that are in the 1985 Latter-day Saint hymnal are #52 The Day Dawn is Breaking, #99 Nearer, Dear Savior, to Thee, #185 Reverently and Meekly Now, #232 Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words To Each Other, #239 Choose the Right, #258 O Thou Rock Of Our Salvation, #259 Hope of Israel, #271 Oh, Holy Words of Truth and Love, #274 The Iron Rod and #286 Oh, What Songs of the Heart.