William Tyndale—A Man of Vision
William Tyndale was born in England “on the borders of Wales,” likely in Gloucestershire, although the exact place and date cannot be determined. In October 1994, England celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of the man who “gave us our English Bible.” For this work Tyndale was martyred. Why?
WILLIAM TYNDALE excelled in the study of Greek and Latin. In July 1515, when no more than 21 years of age, he received a Master of Arts degree at Oxford University. By 1521 he was an ordained Roman Catholic priest. At that time Catholicism in Germany was in turmoil because of Martin Luther’s activity. But England remained a Catholic country until King Henry VIII finally broke with Rome in 1534.
Though English was the common tongue in Tyndale’s day, all education was in Latin. It was also the language of the church and of the Bible. In 1546 the Council of Trent reiterated that Jerome’s fifth-century Latin Vulgate was to be used exclusively. However, only the educated could read it. Why should the people of England be denied the Bible in English and the freedom to read it? “Jerom[e] also translated the bible into his mother tongue: why may not we also?” was Tyndale’s contention.
A Step of Faith
Following his time at Oxford and possibly additional studies at Cambridge, Tyndale tutored the young sons of John Walsh for two years in Gloucestershire. During this period he nurtured his desire to translate the Bible into English, and doubtless had opportunity to develop his translating skills with the aid of Erasmus’ new Bible text with Greek and Latin in parallel columns. In 1523, Tyndale left the Walsh family and traveled to London. His purpose was to seek permission for his translation from Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London.
Tunstall’s authorization was necessary because the provisions of a 1408 synod at Oxford, known as the Constitutions of Oxford, included a ban on translating or reading the Bible in the vernacular, except by permission of a bishop. For daring to contravene this prohibition, many itinerant preachers known as Lollards were burned as heretics. These Lollards read from and distributed John Wycliffe’s Bible, an English translation from the Vulgate. Tyndale felt that the time had come to translate the Christian writings from the Greek into a new, authentic version for his church and for the people of England.
Bishop Tunstall was a man of learning who had done much to encourage Erasmus. As evidence of his own skills, Tyndale had translated for Tunstall’s approval one of the orations of Isocrates, a difficult Greek text. Tyndale had fond hopes that Tunstall would extend friendship and patronage and accept his offer to translate the Scriptures. What would the bishop do?
Although Tyndale had a letter of introduction, Tunstall would not see him. Tyndale therefore had to write seeking an interview. Whether Tunstall eventually deigned to meet Tyndale is not clear, but his message was, ‘My house is full.’ Why did Tunstall so deliberately snub Tyndale?
The reforming work by Luther on the continent of Europe was causing great concern to the Catholic Church, with repercussions in England. In 1521, King Henry VIII published a vigorous treatise defending the pope against Luther. Out of gratitude the pope conferred on Henry the title “Defender of the Faith.”* Henry’s Cardinal Wolsey was also active, destroying Luther’s illegally imported books. As a Catholic bishop loyal to the pope, the king, and his cardinal, Tunstall was duty-bound to suppress any thinking that might be sympathetic to the rebel Luther. Tyndale was a prime suspect. Why?
During his stay with the Walsh family, Tyndale had fearlessly spoken out against the ignorance and bigotry of the local clergy. Among them was John Stokesley who had known Tyndale at Oxford. He eventually replaced Cuthbert Tunstall as bishop of London.
Opposition to Tyndale is also evident in a confrontation with a high-ranking clergyman who said: “We were better be without God’s law than the pope’s.” In memorable words, Tyndale’s reply was: ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I shall cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou doest.’
Tyndale had to appear before the administrator of the Worcester diocese on trumped-up heresy charges. “He threatened me grievously, and reviled me,” Tyndale later recalled, adding that he had been treated like “a dog.” But there was no evidence to convict Tyndale of heresy. Historians believe that all these matters were secretly conveyed to Tunstall to influence his decision.
After a year spent in London, Tyndale concluded: “There was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the new Testament, but also . . . there was no place to do it in all England.” He was right. In the atmosphere of repression caused by Luther’s work, what printer in England would dare to produce a Bible in English? So in 1524, Tyndale crossed the English Channel, never to return.
To Europe and Fresh Problems
With his precious books, William Tyndale found refuge in Germany. He brought with him £10 that his friend Humphrey Monmouth, an influential London merchant, had kindly given him. This gift was almost enough in those times to enable Tyndale to print the Greek Scriptures he planned to translate. Monmouth was subsequently arrested for assisting Tyndale and for allegedly sympathizing with Luther. Interrogated and thrown into the Tower of London, Monmouth was released only after petitioning Cardinal Wolsey for a pardon.
Exactly where Tyndale went in Germany is not clear. Some evidence points to Hamburg, where he could have spent a year. Did he meet Luther? This is uncertain, even though the charge against Monmouth says that he did. One thing is certain: Tyndale was hard at work translating the Greek Scriptures. Where could he get his manuscript printed? He entrusted the task to Peter Quentell at Cologne.
All was going well until opposer John Dobneck, otherwise known as Cochlaeus, learned what was happening. Cochlaeus immediately reported his findings to a close friend of Henry VIII who promptly obtained a prohibition against Quentell’s printing of Tyndale’s translation.
Tyndale and his assistant, William Roye, fled for their lives, taking with them the pages of Matthew’s Gospel that had been printed. They sailed up the river Rhine to Worms, where they finished their work. In time, 6,000 copies of the first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament were produced.*
Translating and printing was one thing. Getting the Bibles to Britain was another. Church agents and secular authorities were determined to prevent shipments across the English Channel, but friendly merchants had the answer. Hidden in bales of cloth and other merchandise, the volumes were smuggled to the shores of England and up into Scotland. Tyndale was encouraged, but his fight had only begun.
On February 11, 1526, Cardinal Wolsey, accompanied by 36 bishops and other church dignitaries, assembled near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London “to see great basketfuls of books cast into a fire.” Included among them were some copies of Tyndale’s precious translation. Of this first edition, there are now just two copies extant. The only complete one (lacking just the title page) is in the British Library. Ironically, the other, with 71 pages missing, was discovered in St. Paul’s Cathedral Library. How it got there, nobody knows.
Undaunted, Tyndale continued to produce fresh editions of his translation, which were systematically confiscated and burned by English clerics. Then Tunstall changed tactics. He struck a bargain with a merchant named Augustine Packington to buy any books written by Tyndale, including the New Testament, in order to burn them. This was arranged with Tyndale, with whom Packington had made an agreement. Halle’s Chronicle says: “The bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money. Afterward when more New Testaments were imprinted, they came thick and threefold into England.”
Why were the clergy so bitterly opposed to Tyndale’s translation? Whereas the Latin Vulgate tended to veil the sacred text, Tyndale’s rendering from the original Greek for the first time conveyed the Bible’s message in clear language to the English people. For example, Tyndale chose to translate the Greek word a·gaʹpe as “love” instead of “charity” in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. He insisted on “congregation” rather than “church” to emphasize worshipers, not church buildings. The last straw for the clergy, however, came when Tyndale replaced “priest” with “elder” and used “repent” rather than “do penance,” thereby stripping the clergy of their assumed priestly powers. David Daniell says in this regard: “Purgatory is not there; there is no aural confession and penance. Two supports of the Church’s wealth and power collapsed.” (William Tyndale—A Biography) That was the challenge Tyndale’s translation presented, and modern scholarship fully endorses the accuracy of his choice of words.
Antwerp, Betrayal, and Death
Between 1526 and 1528, Tyndale moved to Antwerp, where he could feel safe among the English merchants. There he wrote The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, The Obedience of a Christian Man, and The Practice of Prelates. Tyndale continued his translating work and was the first to use God’s name, Jehovah, in an English translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The name appears over 20 times.
As long as Tyndale stayed with his friend and benefactor Thomas Poyntz in Antwerp, he was safe from the intrigues of Wolsey and his spies. He became well-known for his care of the sick and the poor. Eventually, Englishman Henry Phillips cunningly inveigled himself into Tyndale’s confidences. As a result, in 1535, Tyndale was betrayed and taken to Vilvorde Castle, six miles north of Brussels. There he was incarcerated for 16 months.
Who hired Phillips cannot be determined with certainty, but the finger of suspicion points directly at Bishop Stokesley, who was then busy burning “heretics” in London. On his deathbed in 1539, Stokesley “rejoiced that in his lifetime he had burned fifty heretics,” says W. J. Heaton in The Bible of the Reformation. Included in that number was William Tyndale, who was strangled before his body was publicly burned in October 1536.
Three prominent doctors of divinity from the Catholic Louvain University, where Phillips had enrolled, were on the commission that tried Tyndale. Three canons from Louvain and three bishops along with other dignitaries were also present to see Tyndale condemned for heresy and stripped of his priestly office. All rejoiced at his demise at the probable age of 42.
“Tyndale,” said biographer Robert Demaus over a hundred years ago, “was at all times conspicuous for his fearless honesty.” To John Frith, his colaborer who was burned in London by Stokesley, Tyndale wrote: “I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honour, or riches, might be given me.”
So it was that William Tyndale gave his life for the privilege of giving to the people of England a Bible they could easily understand. What a price he paid—but what a priceless gift!
Fidei Defensor was soon struck on coins of the realm, and Henry asked for this title to be conferred on his successors. Today it appears around the head of the sovereign on British coins as Fid. Def., or simply as F.D. Interestingly, “Defender of the Faith” was subsequently printed in the dedication to King James in the King James Version of 1611.
This figure is uncertain; some authorities say 3,000.
[Box on page 29]
TYNDALE’S appeal for a translation of the Bible into the tongue of the common people was not unreasonable or without precedent. A translation into Anglo-Saxon was made in the tenth century. Printed Bibles translated from the Latin had freely circulated in Europe in the late 15th century: German (1466), Italian (1471), French (1474), Czech (1475), Dutch (1477), and Catalan (1478). In 1522, Martin Luther published his New Testament in German. All Tyndale asked was why England should not be permitted to do the same.
[Picture Credit Lines on page 26]
Bible in the background: © The British Library Board; William Tyndale: By kind permission of the Principal, Fellows and Scholars of Hertford College, Oxford