“Scripture is a light, and showeth us the true way, both what to do and what to hope for, and a defense from all error, and a comfort in adversity that we despair not, and feareth us in prosperity that we sin not...Suck out the pith of the Scripture and arm thyself against all assaults.” - William Tyndale
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the instrument God used to bring the Bible to the common man. He was the first person to translate the New Testament into English. “William Tyndale was possessed of one overwhelming passion: to see that God’s words in Scripture be conveyed to the hands and into the ears of the common people, that they might know the freedom of life in Christ and the joy of obeying God’s gospel law of love” (Jules Grisham, IIIM Magazine Online, Feb. 2001). He did not die solely for his belief in Jesus Christ, as some martyrs do; he died for rejecting papal supremacy (the church as the final authority in all things) and for translating the Bible into the common language.
William Tyndale was a gifted academic and linguist, but “his life story reads like an evangelical James Bond novel—exile from his native land, living in the shadows, near-escapes, shipwreck on the open sea, and eventually betrayal and execution for his relentless efforts to give the world an English Bible” (https://tinyurl.com/ya8e3j5k). He was born in Gloucestershire, the emerging center of the wool and cloth trade, in 1494. He studied at Magdalen College, at the University of Oxford, earning a B.A. in 1512 and an M.A. in 1515. He was allowed to study Theology, but not the systematic study of the Scriptures. He explains: “They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.” He became fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, along with his native tongue, English. He was ordained as a Catholic priest around 1521.
In 1521, he left his academic pursuits behind and become tutor and chaplain in the home of Sir John Walsh of Little Sodbury. Many esteemed guests and church officials dined with The Walshes, and Tyndale sat at the dinner table with them. He discussed theology with church officials defeating them over and over by appealing to Scripture. In one debate a clergyman suggested to Tyndale, “We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” Never was a truer word spoken.
Over time, the churchmen grow to resent him. They set a meeting to accuse him of heresy. Tyndale recalled, the Chancellor “threatened me grievously, and reviled me, and rated me as though I had been a dog”. He decided to seek permission to translate the Bible into English. Historian Jules Grisham remarks “Tyndale was then firmly resolved to translate the Scriptures into the common tongue in order that people might gain access to the riches of God’s Word directly, and no longer be kept in the dark by corrupt and ignorant men” (J. Grisham, 2001).
Translation of the Bible was illegal. British clergy fearing an educated populace strictly “forbade anyone to translate, or even read, any parts of vernacular versions of the Bible, without express episcopal permission” (David Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament, 1995). The Catholic Church motivated and corrupted by politics and finances kept the people from reading the Bible for themselves. One sentence from The Lord’s Prayer found scrawled on a scrap of paper could send a man to prison for life. He was the lucky one. Others were burned at the stake.
Exile in Europe
In the Summer of 1523, Tyndale applied to Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, for help to make an English translation of the Bible. Tunstall says there is no room in his household for Tyndale, so Humphrey Monmouth, a wealthy cloth merchant, gave Tyndale room and board, and also supported his work financially allowing him to study, preach, and lecture. Tyndale, knowing his work carries a potential death sentence, realized he could not find the safety required to translate the Bible in England.
He went to Hamburg, Germany, in 1524, and then Wittenberg, where Martin Luther had confronted the Roman Catholic Church, and translated the New Testament into German in 1522. In 1525, he succeeded in translating and printing the book of Matthew up to Chapter 22. Then the authorities, alerted by Cardinal Wolsey (a Cardinal of the Catholic Church), raided the print shop employed to make these copies with the purpose of destroying the precious translations. Tyndale escaped with his completed works.
In 1526, in Worms, Tyndale published 6,000 copies of the Worms Edition, a pocket-sized rendition of The New Testament, his first complete version including all 27 books.
All of Tyndale’s books were pocket-sized so they could be carried and read anywhere: the pub or the field, and be easily hidden in a pocket. Rowland Phillips, a Catholic loyalist during the reign of Henry VIII, is said to have spoken these words: “Either we must root out printing, or printing will root out us (Foxe, Acts and Monuments, vol. III, 718-21, quoted in Hill, English Bible, 11. )
Wolsey continued to pursue Tyndale, all across Europe, ordering him to be captured at Worms, but once again, he evaded capture. He moved to Marburg, and then Antwerp where he completed the translation of the Torah, the first five books of Moses. In 1529, he boarded a ship to return to Hamburg, and like the Apostle Paul, he was shipwrecked (Acts 27:39-44). All his work was lost at sea, somewhere off the coast of The Netherlands. Undeterred, he began again. He re-translated the Torah from Hebrew to English finishing it in 1530. He says of the book of Deuteronomy, “This is a book worthy to be read in day and night and never to be out of hands … and a very pure gospel”.
In the next five years, Tyndale translated Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings 1 and 2 Chronicles, and the book of Jonah. “England was fortunate to have in William Tyndale the man who could do what was wanted, a man of sufficient scholarship to work from Hebrew and Greek, with genius to fashion a fitting English idiom and faith and courage to persist whatever it cost him” (https://tinyurl.com/y96beu9w). John Rogers, who himself was martyred for the Reformation, published the manuscripts and the first English Bible was completed in Antwerp, Belgium in 1537.
Tyndale wrote to his friend, John Frith, of how carefully and diligently he treated this responsibility: "I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God's Word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honor, pleasure, or riches, might be given me." (https://tinyurl.com/ydbsd923)
In 1530, he wrote The Practyse of Prelates opposing Henry VIII’s planned annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. King Henry asked Emperor Charles the V to find William Tyndale, arrest him and return him to England, but the Emperor refused requiring more evidence before extradition.
In 1535, Tyndale was betrayed by a man he believed to be a friend and supporter. He was living at the English House, in Antwerp, a little piece of England with the protection of an embassy. Henry Phillips turned up at the English House and convinced Tyndale that he was a friend. After some time he convinced Tyndale to come out to dine and then betrayed him to the authorities.
Tyndale was thrown into prison for 18 months in appalling conditions. It was dark, damp, and cold. The authorities took his clothing and he was denied access to his precious books. The darkness and cold, and constant visits by Catholic scholars trying to convict him of heresy wore on Tyndale. He wrote to the prison authorities asking for his books, his own warm clothes, and a light for the evenings as “sitting in the dark is wearisome.” Throughout this time he stood strong day after day. He did not recant. Tyndale’s life and doctrine inspired his jailer and his daughter, and they were converted to saving faith.
On October 6, 1536, at Vilvorde, in Belgium, William Tyndale, a man of great faith and obedience, was taken out of his cell and walked to the gallows. A ceremony was performed removing his status as a priest reducing him to a layman. He was tied to a stake and strangled as the grand church officials watch. Crying out fervently he prayed: “Lord! open the King of England's eyes." We now know that God would answer that heartfelt prayer sooner than Tyndale could have imagined.
One year after Tyndale was executed, Edward Fox, a bishop of Hereford, addressed an assembly of bishops saying, “Make not yourselves the laughing-stock of the world; light is sprung up, and is scattering the clouds. The lay people know the Scriptures better than many of us!” (John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, vol. III (1877). “Within two years... the King of England ordered that every parish church should receive its own copy of the English Bible. Within 75 years, King James authorized an updated English translation, of which 80 percent to 90 percent was directly carried over from Tyndale’s translation. For the next 450 years, the King James Bible became the most influential book in the English-speaking world.
Even today any English Bible you, or I, or any of the more than 600 million English speakers pick up, is unashamedly built on Tyndale’s foundation” (https://tinyurl.com/ybzfr6q8).
In 1866, a monument was built in Gloucestershire, England dedicated to Tyndale’s life and work. The placard on the monument reads:
ERECTED A.D. 1866 IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF WILLIAM TYNDALE TRANSLATOR OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE WHO FIRST CAUSED THE NEW TESTAMENT TO BE PRINTED IN THE MOTHER TONGUE OF HIS COUNTRYMEN BORN NEAR THIS SPOT HE SUFFERED MARTYRDOM AT VILVORDEN IN FLANDERS ON OCT 6 1536
William Tyndale was 42 years old when he died a martyr for the Christian faith and the Bible he loved. He gave his all so his fellow men could meet and love their Savior by reading the words of Jesus in their own language.
He knew, having read the word of Christ, their lives would never be the same.