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William Tyndale: Bible Translator & Martyr

William TyndaleTYNDALE (tin’dal), WILLIAM: Biblical translator and martyr; b. most probably at North Nibley (15 miles s.s.w. of Gloucester), England, in 1484; d. at Vilvoorden (6 miles n.e. of Brussels), Belgium, Oct. 6, 1536. He was descended from an ancient Northumbrian family, went to school at Oxford, and afterward to Magdalen Hall and Cambridge, and about 1520 became tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh, at Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire.

He was in orders; but the record of his ordination has not yet been verified. Having become attached to the doctrines of the Reformation, and devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures, the open avowal of his sentiments in the house of Walsh, his disputes with Roman Catholic dignitaries there, and especially his preaching, excited much opposition, and led to his removal to London (about Oct., 1523), where he began to preach, and made many friends among the laity, but none among ecclesiastics. He was hospitably entertained at the house of Sir Humphrey Monmouth, and also pecuniarily aided by him and others in the accomplishment of his purpose to translate the Scriptures into the vernacular. Unable to do so in England, he set out for the continent (about May, 1524), and appears to have visited Hamburg and Wittenberg; but the place where he translated the New Testament, although conjectured to have been Wittenberg, can not be named with certainty. It is, however, certain that the printing of the New Testament in quarto was begun at Cologne in the summer of 1525, and completed at Worms, and that there was likewise printed an octavo edition, both before the end of that year. From an entry in Spalatin's Diary, Aug. 11, 1526, it seems that he remained at Worms about a year; but the notices of his connection with Hermann von dem Busche and the University of Marburg are utterly unwarranted conjectures; and, it being now an established fact that Hans Luft never had a printing-press at Marburg, the colophon to Tyndale's translation of Genesis, and the title pages of several pamphlets purporting to have been printed by Luft at Marburg, only deepen the seemingly impenetrable mystery which overhangs the life of Tyndale during the interval between his departure from Worms and his final settlement at Antwerp.

His literary activity during that interval was extraordinary. When he left England, his knowledge of Hebrew, if he had any, was of the most rudimentary nature; and yet he mastered that difficult tongue so as to produce from the original an admirable translation of the entire Pentateuch, the Books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First Chronicles, contained in Matthew's Bible of 1537, and of the Book of Jonah, so excellent, indeed, that to this day his work is not only the basis of those portions of the Authorized Version, but constitutes nine-tenths of that translation, and very largely that of the Revised Version. His Biblical translations appeared in the following order: New Testament, 1525-26; Pentateuch, 1530; Jonah, 1531. There is no general title of the Pentateuch; each book has its own title.

In addition to these he produced the following works. His first original composition, A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, is really a reprint, slightly altered, of his Prologue to the quarto edition of his New Testament, and had appeared in separate form before 1532; The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1527); and The Obedience of a Christian Man (1527-28). These several works drew out in 1529 Sir Thomas More's Dialogue, etc. In 1530 appeared Tyndale's Practyse of Prelates, and in 1531 his Answer, etc., to the Dialogue, his Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, and the famous Prologue to Jonah; in 1532, An Exposition upon the V. VI. VII. Chapters of Matthew; and in 1536, A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments, etc., which seems to be a posthumous publication. Joshua-Second Chronicles also was published after his death. All these works were written during those mysterious years, in places of concealment so secure and well chosen, that neither the ecclesiastical nor diplomatic emissaries of Wolsey and Henry VIII., charged to track, hunt down, and seize the fugitive, were able to reach them, and they are even yet unknown. Impressed with the idea that the progress of the Reformation in England rendered it safe for him to leave his concealment, he settled at Antwerp in 1534, and combined the work of an evangelist with that of a translator of the Bible. Mainly through the instrumentality of one Philips, the agent either of Henry or of English ecclesiastics, or possibly of both, he was arrested, imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorden, tried, either for heresy or treason, or both, and convicted; was first strangled, and then burnt in the prison yard, Oct. 6, 1536. His last words were, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes." Excepting the narrative of Foxe, which is very unsatisfactory, and the opportune discovery of a letter written by Tyndale in prison, showing that he was shamefully neglected, and that he continued his literary labors to the last, no official records of his betrayal, arrest, trial, and martyrdom, have as yet been discovered. Indeed, less is known of Tyndale than of almost any of his contemporaries, and his history remains to be written. If the unknown and the mysterious excite and sustain interest, no theme can excel that attached to Tyndale. His life must have abounded in incident, variety, and adventure; and it culminated in tragedy. That his precious life might have been saved can not be doubted; and, although neither Cromwell nor Henry has been convicted of planning and conniving at his death, it is impossible to exonerate them from criminal indifference and culpable neglect.

Tyndale's place in history has not yet been sufficiently recognized as a translator of the Scriptures, as an apostle of liberty, and as a chief promoter of the Reformation in England. In all these respects his influence has been singularly undervalued. The sweeping statement found in almost all histories, that Tyndale translated from the Vulgate and Luther, is most damaging to the reputation of the writers who make it; for, as a matter of fact, it is contrary to truth, since his translations are made directly from the originals.

Correspondence with Prof. Julius Caesar of Marburg (Hand-book, pp. 110 sqq.) proves that Hans Luft never had a printing-house in that town and that Tyndale had no connection with its university. The Prolegomena in Mombert's William Tyndale's Five Books of Moses show conclusively that Tyndale's Pentateuch is a translation of the Hebrew original. The full titles of these works are given in the footnote. (J. I. Mombert, William Tyndale's Five Books of Moses called the Pentateuch, being a literal Reprint of the Edition of 1530, compared with Tyndale's Genesis of 1584, and the Pentateuch in the Vulgate, Luther, and Matthew's Bible with various Collations and Prolegomena (New York, 1884; this book is out of print); idem. English Versions of the Bible, a Handbook with copious Examples illustrating the Ancestry and Relationship of the several Versions and Comparative Tables (London, 1907)).

As an apostle of liberty, he stands foremost among the writers of the period, whose heroic fortitude and invincible love of the truth were heard with a force superior to royal and ecclesiastical injunctions; and the very flames to which fanaticism and tyranny consigned his writings burnt them into the very hearts of the people, and made them powerful instruments in attaching and converting multitudes to the principles of the Reformation. It is not exaggeration to say that the noble sentiments of William Tyndale, uttered in pure, strong Saxon English, and steeped in the doctrines of the Gospel, gave shape to the views of the more conspicuous promoters of that grand movement, who, like himself, sealed their convictions with their blood.

A monument commemorating the life and work of Tyndale has been erected on the Thames Embankment, London. By J. I. MOMBERT.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Besides the treatises on the history of the English Bible given in ii. 141 of this work, consult: R. Demaus, William Tyndale, 2d ed., London, 1886; John Fox, Acts and Monuments, ed. G. Townsend, vols. i.-v. passim, London, 1843-49 (consult Index); C. Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography, i. 187 sqq., London, 1810; J. Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials, i. 2. pp. 363-367, London, 1822; J. Stoughton, The Pen, the Palm, and the Pulpit, London, 1858; H. Morley, English Writers, pp. 226-229, London, 1864; W. H. D. Adams, Great English Churchmen, London, 1879; F. L. Clarke, The Life of W. Tyndale, London, 1883; C. E. Heisch, William Tyndale, London, 1884; G. B. Smith, W. Tyndale and his Translation of the English Bible, London, 1896; C. Tyler, The Story of William Tyndale, London, 1898; I. M. Price, The Ancestry of our English Bible, chap. xxi., Philadelphia, 1907; DNB, lvii. 424-430.

From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge... New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.

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