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William Tyndale, 1494?-1536: Translator of the Bible into English

©1996 Heath Christian Bookshop Charitable Trust. Used with permission.

William Tyndale

In an age when new versions of the Bible appear in profusion and when all the resources of modern technology are used to translate it into other languages, it is instructive to reflect upon the life and work of William Tyndale whose profound scholarship and personal devotion to the Word of God made the Bible generally accessible in English for the first time. Although the exact date and location are not known, it is usually assumed that Tyndale was born in October 1494 in Gloucestershire, close to the Severn estuary either at Slimbridge or North Nibley where there is a monument commemorating him. Little is known either, about his early life except that by 1512 he had graduated at Oxford after studying at Magdalen College. He showed particular ability in languages, and then went to study theology at Cambridge where he was ordained as a priest.

Like many of his fellow scholars, he found the quality of theological teaching very unsatisfactory, largely due to the church's insistence upon the use of the old Latin versions of the Bible. The translation into English made by John Wycliff and his associates over a hundred years earlier was not officially recognised, and had not been revised. Also when the Dutch scholar Erasmus produced his Greek version of the New Testament in 1516, that too was frowned upon by the church, but it was eagerly welcomed by the learned classes. At Cambridge Tyndale joined a group of scholars and students including Hugh Latimer, Thomas Bilney and Robert Barnes who read and discussed the doctrinal content of the Greek New Testament and it is most probable that it was during this period that Tyndale came to embrace the truth of the gospel for himself. From statements in his later works, such as, "Christ is our head" and "God's Word is that wherein our life rests" and "Scripture is nothing else but that which the Spirit of God hath spoken by the prophets and apostles,": it is evident that his study of the Bible had brought him to saving faith. Before long Tyndale was to devote all his energy and indeed his very life to bringing that precious Word of God to his own countrymen in their native language.

In 1521 Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire where he became tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh in the Manor House of Little Sodbury, besides conducting services at the nearby parish church of St. Adeline. It is clear that he was greatly influenced by the ideas of the reformers since he translated into English a study by Erasmus based on Ephesians chapter 6 entitled "The Manual of the Christian Soldier" and soon afterwards he incurred the wrath of the church hierarchy by preaching to crowds outside Bristol cathedral. He was charged with "spreading heresy" and summoned to appear before the chancellor of the diocese of Worcester (acting in place of the Bishop who was the absentee Italian Guilio de Medici, soon to become Pope Clement VII). Tyndale was warned not to preach in public any more but he continued to contend for the faith at every opportunity. When a priest visiting Little Sodbury openly condemned Tyndale's beliefs, Tyndale replied, "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest." This remark was to be one of great consequence, and it is likely to have been derived from a similar statement by Erasmus that the Scriptures should be translated into all languages so that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough; that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, and that the traveller should beguile with their stories the weariness of his journey."

The concept of biblical truth being made easily accessible to people in their everyday life and work had so gripped Tyndale's mind that he could not delay in setting about the task, and in 1523 he set out for London where he hoped he could take advantage of the new printing methods then being introduced from Europe. Tyndale sought the favour of Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, who had given patronage to Erasmus, but this was not forthcoming and it was due to Sir Henry Guildford, a friend of Sir John Walsh, that Tyndale was allowed to preach at St. Dunstan-in-the-West. His sermons brought him to the attention of Humphrey Monmouth, a merchant and City Alderman who was sympathetic towards the reformers and who offered Tyndale a place in his household where he could devote himself to his translating work. Together with John Frith, another scholar and reformer, Tyndale prepared his manuscripts until news of his activities reached the church authorities, and he was warned by his friends that he faced imminent arrest if he remained in London. As a result he left England in May, 1524 and sought refuge in the German states where his work could continue. He went first to Hamburg since his extensive command of languages (in addition to Greek, Latin and Hebrew he knew German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish) enabled him to settle amongst the trading community and by 1525 he was preparing the first manuscripts for printing by Martin Quentel in Cologne. The authorities in that city were not so amenable towards reformers and Tyndale hastily had to move all his material to Worms where Martin Luther had recently made his great defence of his "protests" against the corrupt abuses tolerated by the church in his day.

Working with very few resources but with unceasing energy, Tyndale completed the translation of the New Testament and the first copies were printed and secretly shipped to England by 1526. It is known that some were confiscated and burned along with other works by reformers in London in February and that Tyndale produced a second, revised edition later that year. Despite the efforts to suppress it, there was a great demand for his translation of the New Testament and it had a profound effect on the expansion of the Reformation in England. The chief reason for its remarkable impact was its faithful adherence to the original texts. Tyndale was so concerned to achieve accuracy in his translation that he stated "I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus Christ to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God's Word against my conscience" and it is worth noting that later scholars relied so heavily upon his translation that almost all of it was retained in the Authorised Version of 1611. The second reason why his translation was so widely used was the clarity of expression that Tyndale achieved. Apart from individual words that have since changed their meaning or fallen out of general usage, his style had a simplicity that has stood the test of time and left an indelible mark not only on biblical scholarship but on the English language as a whole.

Meanwhile the task of translating the Old Testament was immediately taken up by Tyndale who left Germany and moved to the Netherlands, where he lived in Antwerp, a convenient place for transporting his Bibles to other countries. Even when the complete Bible was translated he did not regard his work as finished, since he produced at least two revised editions in 1534 and 1535. By this time the flames of persecution had already claimed a number of fellow reformers both in England and on the continent, and Tyndale's life was obviously at risk. However he took little thought for his own safety and even found time to write several theological works which roused the religious authorities to fury. For example in "The Obedience of the Christian Man," he put forward a resounding exposition of the true gospel stating that as God's Word is faithfully proclaimed, "the hearts of them which are elect and chosen begin to wax soft and melt at the bounteous mercy of God and kindness showed of Christ." In another treatise entitled "A pathway into the Holy Scripture" he emphasised that through Christ alone was salvation to be found. "When the law hath passed upon us, and condemned us to death, which is its nature to do, then we have in Christ's grace...promises of life, of mercy, of pardon, freely by the merits of Christ; and in Christ we have verity and truth in that God for His sake fulfills all the promises to them that believe." A third work was called a "Parable of the Wicked Mammon" and in it Tyndale revealed his reliance upon the Bible as the absolute authority in matters of faith and conduct stating "Believe not every spirit suddenly but judge them by the Word of God, which is the trial of all doctrine, and lasts for ever." It was in this treatise also that he made the prophetic observation that just as his books had been condemned to the bonfire, he too was likely to receive the same treatment.

In fact the enemies of Tyndale were already plotting his downfall, and in May, 1535 he was betrayed by Henry Phillips as he left the house of Thomas Poyntz, the merchant who had given him shelter in Antwerp. He was arrested by Imperial officers and taken to Vilvorde castle near Brussels where he remained in prison in wretched conditions for eighteen months. During this time he was charged with various offences in maintaining the doctrines of justification by faith in Christ alone, and denying that salvation came by human merit or religious indulgences. Eventually in August, 1536 Tyndale was declared to be a heretic and two months later he was executed by strangulation and his body publicly burned. It was recorded that his last words were in the form of a prayer, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes," and within two years Henry VIII gave orders that Miles Coverdale's Bible should be used in every parish in the land. This was based very largely on Tyndale's translation, and in 1539, Tyndale's own editions of the Bible became officially sanctioned for printing. Tyndale's life and labours had not been in vain—the Bible had been given to his own countrymen, and to generations to follow throughout the English-speaking world.

Used with permission of Heath Christian Bookshop Charitable Trust, United Kingdom, ©1996.

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