“Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes”
HE WAS condemned as a heretic in August 1536. But it was not until October of that year that he was brought to the stake. Just before he was strangled and his body burned, his last words uttered with a loud voice were: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
The man was William Tyndale. Why was he condemned as a heretic and his body burned at the stake? What had the king of England failed to see? And could there be a valuable lesson for us to learn from what happened to Tyndale? For the answers, let us first examine Tyndale’s background.
Tyndale’s Early Life
Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire, England, around 1494. He entered Oxford University and received his Master of Arts degree in 1515. Shortly afterward, he spent some time at Cambridge University.
By 1522 Tyndale had returned to Gloucestershire, becoming tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh. Using the Scriptures to support his ideas, he soon came in conflict with the prominent Catholic clergymen and doctors who visited the manor. Lady Walsh became concerned, asking him why “we should believe you before them so great, learned and beneficed men.”
At this, Tyndale decided to translate into English The Manual of a Christian Soldier, a work by scholar Desiderius Erasmus. It condemned many of the prevailing religious practices and teachings. For example, Erasmus wrote: “It is always a source of amazement to me that popes and bishops so indiscreetly wish to be called lords and masters when Christ forbade His disciples to be called either. . . . The expressions apostle, shepherd, bishop, are terms denoting office or service, not dominion or rule.” In this work Erasmus also encouraged more Bible study.
Before long, Tyndale’s incensed opponents charged him with heresy. Although he realized the danger he was in, he became more and more convinced that the only way to banish ignorance was to translate the Bible into the English vernacular of his day, thus making it available for the common people to read.
Soon he was involved in another discussion with a cleric, who finally said: “We [had] better be without God’s law than the pope’s.” Shocked by this, Tyndale replied: “I defy the pope and all his laws. . . . If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.” Tyndale would prove true to his word. Determined to make the Bible understandable for ‘a boy that drives a plow,’ he left for London in 1523 to seek out Catholic Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, for he felt that this friend of Erasmus would help him.
His Translation Meets Opposition
Tunstall, however, would not venture to assist in a project so much discouraged by the Church. But Tyndale won the friendship of a rich merchant, Humphrey Monmouth, with whom he stayed for some months. Aware of the mounting dangers that confronted him, Tyndale soon concluded not only that there was “no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.” So with help from Monmouth, Tyndale sailed for Germany in 1524. There he set about translating the Christian Greek Scriptures (commonly called the New Testament), not from Latin, as Bible translator John Wycliffe had done, but from the original Greek.
Although the printing was begun with much secrecy, it was soon discovered by Johann Dobneck (Cochlaeus), who has been described as “the most virulent enemy to the Word of God being translated into any vernacular tongue, who ever breathed.” Dobneck aroused the authorities, and Tyndale had to flee to the city of Worms with the 10 or more sheets then completed. In 1526 an edition of at least 3,000 copies of his translation was successfully completed and smuggled into England to dealers known as ‘New Testamenters.’ The risks involved in buying them increased as Bishop Tunstall and other clergymen began hunting for copies and burning them at St. Paul’s Cross in London.
In 1527 William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, discovered a way of buying up Tyndale’s translation before it reached the people. Tunstall also became involved in a similar scheme, and in this way many volumes were destroyed. But what was the real result? “I shall get money to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world will cry out against the burning of God’s Word, and the overplus of the money that shall remain to me shall make me more studious to correct the said New Testament,” declared Tyndale. Thus he ended up with money with which to print more copies and to work on a revision. Nothing the clergy did could prevent the spreading of the Word of God!
But why were the eyes of the clergy and even the king of England, Henry VIII, closed to a translation in the vernacular, such as Tyndale’s? Well, noted Catholic scholar Erasmus offered the following as one of the reasons: “In many places in the sacred volumes the vices of pastors and princes are reproved, and if the people were to read them, they would murmur against those set over them.” However, it was not just the idea of a translation in the vernacular that aroused their objections. The king was opposed to the “pestilent glosses,” the marginal notes, in Tyndale’s translation. The clergy, too, objected to the marginal notes, which they viewed as subversive of the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, their opposition was keeping the eyes of the common people from being opened to the truth of God’s Word.
In his translation, Tyndale proved true to his word, using terms that ‘a boy that drives a plow’ could understand: “elder” or “senior” instead of “priest”; “congregation” instead of “church”; “love” instead of “charity”; “repentance” instead of “penance.” But using such words instead of old ecclesiastical terms was heretical in the eyes of such orthodox Catholics as Sir Thomas More.
Meanwhile, Tyndale wrote a number of other ‘anticlerical’ publications. For example, his Obedience of a Christian Man challenged the pope’s authority, condemned the wealth of the clergy and exposed other abuses and bad practices. In it he said the following in defense of a translation into the English vernacular: “They say it cannot be translated into our tongue it is so rude. It is not so rude as they are false liars. . . . This threatening and forbidding the lay people to read the scripture is not for the love of your souls . . . inasmuch as they permit . . . you to read Robin Hood, . . . and fables of love and wantonness . . . as filthy as heart can think, to corrupt the minds of youth.”
Thus Tyndale came to be viewed as heretical and his translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures as a heretical publication.
The Hebrew Scriptures
Tyndale had also been learning Hebrew and, as soon as he could do so, he started to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into English. He began translating the Pentateuch and set out by ship from Antwerp, Belgium, to get it printed in Hamburg, Germany. But he suffered shipwreck on the Dutch coast, losing all his books and writings. At last reaching Hamburg in 1529, he met an old acquaintance, Miles Coverdale, who helped him to translate the entire Pentateuch. It was finally printed in 1530. However, the eyes of the clergy and the king were to be closed even tighter to this translation!
Tyndale’s marginal notes on the Pentateuch were even more provocative than his notes on the Christian Greek Scriptures. He seized the opportunity to emphasize what he felt was a contradiction between some Church practices and God’s laws. Note the following examples: Numbers 23:8, “‘How shall I curse whom God curseth not’ [margin: The pope can tell howe]”; Deuteronomy 23:18, “‘Nether brynge the hyre of an whore nor the pryce of a dogge in to the housse of the Lorde thy God’ [margin: The pope will take tribute of them yet and bisshopes, and abottes desire no better tenants]”; Deuteronomy 11:19, “‘Talke of them (my wordes) when thou syttest in thyne housse’ [margin: talke of robynhod say our prelates].”
The circulation of Bibles and Tyndale’s and Luther’s writings in England reached such a level that in May 1530 King Henry VIII was induced to call an assembly of some 30 bishops and prominent clergymen, including More and Tunstall. As a result, a condemnation of these writings was incorporated in the king’s proclamation. They were described as “blasphemous and pestiferous English books” that perverted faith and stirred up sedition.
From that time on it was not just books that were burned. In the following two years 10 “heretics” were burned at the stake, some of them known to Tyndale. Others confessed to possessing his books, recanted and were fined.
By 1533 Tyndale was back in Antwerp. There he revised his edition of the Christian Greek Scriptures and worked on a further portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, completing the section Joshua to Second Chronicles in manuscript form.
Betrayal, Trial and Death
Many efforts had been made from England to find and arrest Tyndale, but all in vain until May 1535. While dining with merchants in Antwerp, Tyndale became acquainted with Henry Phillips. Unaware of any danger, Tyndale invited him back to the house where he was staying, although his host, Thomas Poyntz, was clearly suspicious. Having gained Tyndale’s confidence, Phillips informed the authorities. But it was not judicious to arrest Tyndale in the house. So Phillips called and invited him to be his guest for a meal. They left the house together and walked down a narrow passage, with Phillips walking behind Tyndale. As they emerged, Tyndale was pointed out and the officers grabbed him and arrested him.
Tyndale was imprisoned at Vilvorde Castle, about six miles (9.6 km) from Brussels, and he remained there for 16 months. His examination by a special commission gave him opportunity to testify to his beliefs, amply backed by the Scriptures. A long controversy ensued with theologians from the nearby Catholic University of Louvain. He was finally condemned as a heretic, and just before he was strangled and burned, he uttered the words, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
His Prayer Answered
Tyndale never knew just how soon his dying prayer was to be answered, and the Bible made available for common people to read. Then, also, the eyes of many persons would be opened to the truths it contained.
A year before Tyndale’s death the first complete printed English Bible was published by Miles Coverdale, part of which was based on Tyndale’s work. On the title page there is a woodcut border attributed to German painter Hans Holbein, with the name Jehovah in the form of the Hebrew tetragrammaton at the very top. It was Tyndale who first introduced the name “Jehovah” into the English language, in his translation of the Pentateuch at Exodus 6:3.
A further revision by John Rogers, using the name Thomas Matthew (and so known as Matthew’s Bible), was presented to King Henry VIII in 1537 and given the royal license. Yet, ironically, this Bible was mostly Tyndale’s translation, even incorporating his manuscript up to Second Chronicles. At the end of Malachi appear his initials, “W.T.” “Thus was [Archbishop] Cranmer led to approve of versions, published collectively and pseudonymously, which, when they appeared severally, had been condemned by Convocation: thus the King gave his license to works which by his former Proclamations he had condemned.”—History of the Church of England, by R. W. Dixon, Volume I, page 521.
One year later, an injunction was issued by Thomas Cromwell, vicar-general, charging the clergy to provide one Bible of the largest size in each church for the convenience of parishioners, securely fastened by a chain, and that they should “expressly provoke, stir and exhort every person to read the same, as that which is the very lively Word of God.” So much was this acted upon by the people that in 1539 another proclamation had to be issued to stop people from reading the Bible aloud in church while a service was in progress. Evidently the clergy were upset to find their sermons ignored while many preferred to gather around a Bible reading!
Have Your Eyes Been Opened?
As far as it related to making the Bible available for the common people to read, Tyndale’s dying prayer was answered. But, what about today?
‘I have a Bible,’ many would say. But is that all that is involved in having one’s eyes opened? “They have eyes, but they cannot see,” said God regarding his people in ancient Judah who had become unfaithful. (Jeremiah 5:21) So ‘seeing’ can refer to figurative sight, mental perception. While it is true that millions upon millions of people have a Bible in their homes, in many cases it is left on a shelf, collecting dust. Would you say that the eyes of such persons have really been opened to perceiving the Bible’s truth?
‘But I read my Bible,’ some may answer. Well, does just reading the Bible mean that your eyes have been opened? Not necessarily. Many who read the Bible view it merely as interesting literature. Yet the Scriptures tell us that we need to have the ‘eyes of our heart’ opened. (Ephesians 1:18) In order for our eyes really to be opened, we must understand what we read from the Bible, take it to heart and apply it in our lives.
What about you? Have your eyes really been opened? Well, are you convinced that what is in the Bible is worth reading and applying in your life? If you would like some assistance in doing so, Jehovah’s Witnesses will be glad to help you.
Once your eyes have been opened, you must keep them open. As it says in the Bible book of Proverbs: “My son, to my words do pay attention. To my sayings incline your ear. May they not get away from your eyes. Keep them in the midst of your heart.”—Proverbs 4:20, 21.
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“If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost”—TYNDALE
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Tyndale translating the Bible
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The strangling and burning of Tyndale