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William Tindale: Biographical Sketch

by C. G. McCrie

William TyndaleSomewhere in the wide-spreading Cotswolds of Gloucestershire, in or about 1484, was born William Tindale or Hutchins. Uncertainty attaches to the University career of the great English translator, as well as to the place and time of his birth. Probably he became an Oxford student in 1503, when John Colet was attracting eager listeners by his fresh, evangelical expositions of the Pauline writings. He proceeded from Oxford to Cambridge, possibly attracted by the teaching of Erasmus. After taking his degree, Tindale returned to his native county, and for two years taught the family of Sir John Walsh. At the open, well-spread table of Little Sodbury there were often beneficed clergy from the countryside, and there was much talk—talk about the  New   Learning, about  Erasmus, the Dutch Humanist, and Luther, the German Reformer, and about the teaching of Scripture, in all of which the tutor took a part. Tindale's grand purpose of translating the Bible was formed at this period of his life. In the course of one of the table-talks a learned man, hard pressed by the eager disputant, committed himself to the monstrous position, 'We were better being without God's law than the Pope's.' 'I defy the Pope and all his laws,' was the tutor's retort; '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 doest.'

Such outspokenness rendered it neither convenient for the head of the house nor safe for the speaker that he should continue longer in his present employment. Unsuccessful in an application to the Bishop of London for literary work, Tindale was kindly entertained by an alderman and cloth merchant of the City, and, being by this time in holy orders, he preached from some of the London pulpits. But, before twelve months had passed, it was borne in upon him that not only was there no room in the Bishop's palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England. And so, in May, 1524, Tindale left his native country; and he never returned.

Of his movements during the Continental portion of his life we have scanty and uncertain information. His first place of refuge was the free city of Hamburg, and his next was Cologne, where he superintended the printing of his English New Testament, the translation of which he had by that time completed. After it became known that three thousand copies had been printed for secret distribution through England, and the authorities had interdicted further operations, Tindale and his amanuensis made their way from Cologne up the Rhine to Worms. There they prepared two editions of the New Testament instead of one. Both issues reached England in 1526, and were eagerly bought to be read, and eagerly sought out to be burned. By 1530 six editions were dispersed.

While the battle of Bible circulation was being fiercely fought in England the work of Bible translation was being quietly prosecuted on the Continent. The translator found it necessary to leave Worms, and removed to Marburg. There he devoted his time and energies to the Old Testament. The Pentateuch was printed at Marburg in 1530-31. After spending the greater part of four years in Hesse-Cassel, Tindale seems to have left for Antwerp. There the Book of Jonah was translated and printed, as also in 1534, a revised edition of the New Testament, with the addition of 'the Epistles taken out of the Old Testament which are read in the Church after the Use of Salisbury upon certain days of the year.' No more of Tindale's Bible translation work was published in his lifetime, although there is reason to believe that during his fifteen months of imprisonment he wrote a translation of Old Testament books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles.

The touching details of the Englishman's treacherous betrayal, his dreary confinement, and his death by strangling cannot be entered upon here. While residing with his good friend Thomas Poyntz at Antwerp, Tindale was trapped and incarcerated in the Castle of Vilvorde near Brussels. Special commissioners were appointed to conduct his trial on a charge of heresy. Notwithstanding the efforts of friends in England and the Low Countries to save his life, he was condemned to death. On October 6, 1536, he was led from the cold, dark and lonely prison, was strangled at the stake, and his body burnt to ashes. His last prayer displayed unshaken faith in God, unfaltering loyalty to his earthly sovereign—'Lord! Open the King of England's eyes.'

It is for Biblical critics to estimate and express the value of Tindale's services as a scholar and a translator. No one who looks at his unselfish life and his magnificent devotion to his life-purpose will find it possible not to admire and reverence what John Foxe fitly styles the 'worthy virtues and doings of this blessed martyr, who, for his painful travails and singular zeal to his country, may be called an Apostle of England.'

From Contemporary portraits of reformers of religion and letters... with intro. and biographies by C. G. McCrie. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1906. At head of title: Beza's "Icones".

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