Articles

William Tyndale: Father of the English Bible

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Sir John Walsh’s home in Gloucestershire, Little Sodbury Manor, where William Tyndale served as a private tudor to Master Walsh’s young sons

The full book shelves that most Christians have today contain several copies of the Bible. Digital copies of the Bible in many different translations and dramatic readings of the biblical text can be easily found on many websites. But, this has not always been the case. At the beginning of the Reformation, during the early 1500’s, the Bible was only in the possession of a few wealthy individuals and educated church leaders. Those who did not know how to read or who were unable to translate the text of the Latin Vulgate produced by Jerome in the fourth century, hired private scholars to read and interpret the Bible for them. If it were not for the diligent and pioneering efforts of the pre-Reformer John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384), the German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), and finally the Reformation scholar William Tyndale (1494-1536), the English Bible would have been much later in coming about. As it was, Tyndale’s version of the New Testament was first printed in 1526. Because of this he is recognized as the “Father of the English Bible” and it is his work which is the basis for all modern English translations—even up to this century. Below is a quotation of Romans 12:1-2 from Tyndale’s text (with the original words and spelling retained).

I beseeche you therefore brethren by the mercifulness of God, that ye make youre bodyes a quicke sacrifise, holy and acceptable unto God which is youre reasonable servynge off God. And fassion note youre selves lyke unto this worlde. But be ye changed (in youre shape) by the renuynge of youre witts that ye may fele what thynge that good, that acceptable and perfaicte will of God is.

William Tyndale was born in the year 1494 near the Welsh border in western England. Little is known of his early life, however he had an innate gift for languages and it is said that over the course of his life he became fluent in seven different languages—Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, Dutch, French, and Spanish. He attended Magdalen Hall at Oxford University where he received a Bachelor of Arts in 1512 and a Master of Arts in 1515. While interacting with his fellow students, he became disturbed by their complete lack of biblical knowledge. Driven by his love for theology he studied through the major themes of the Bible and entered into discussions with other students about the meaning of various texts. He reflected at this time,

In the universities they have ordained that no man shall look on Scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years, and armed with false principles he is clean shut out of the understanding of Scripture.

All around Oxford Tyndale became known as a man with a vociferous passion for proclaiming the Bible. This ability was not well received by leaders within the English Church who became jealous of Tyndale’s gifts. Eventually, he fled the controversy and sought a quiet corner at Cambridge University in order to continue his studies. During this time of intense contemplation Tyndale became well acquainted with the writings of Martin Luther. He deeply appreciated Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith” and recognized it for what it was—biblical truth. He also spent many hours mastering the Greek (1516) edition of the New Testament produced by the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466-1536). After completing his studies at Cambridge, Tyndale took a position as a private tutor to the children of an English knight—Sir John Walsh of Glouchestershire.

At Master Walsh’s table at Little Sodbury Manor Tyndale had many opportunities to enter into scholarly debate with visiting clergy and scholars. It was Tyndale’s practice to quote the Bible as his only source of authority and to exhort those who were in ignorance or who had gone astray from biblical truth. It is reported that Tyndale once responded to an argumentative clergyman who questioned the reasonableness of giving the Scriptures to the common people with these words, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” With such fiery words it is not surprising that the leaders of the English Church sought to have him tried as a heretic.

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William Tyndale was a persistent and indefatiguable worker at Bible translation

Eventually it became Tyndale’s goal to get the Bible into the hands of the common man. He realized that if the people had the Bible in their own language, that many of the false doctrines of Roman Catholicism would be repudiated. He became convinced that, “It was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.” He also reasoned that translating the Bible into English would become a great motivation for the average person to learn to read and write, thereby improving the literacy rate in England. His arguments, however, for an English translation fell on deaf ears. He received no encouragement from the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, or any other ecclesiastical officials. He lamented, “…not only was there no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but there was also no place to do it in all England.” Discouraged, yet still determined to complete his project, Tyndale left for continental Europe never to return to the land that he loved.

With the financial backing of several sympathetic English merchants in Antwerp, Tyndale finished the first edition of his New Testament in 1525. He found a willing printer in Cologne, but before it could be printed the local police made a raid and prevented the work from being completed. Eventually, Tyndale was able to find another printer and had his version published at Worms (1526). With the help of an enterprising merchant Tyndale sold most of the first edition at a very high price to the Bishop of London. However, the Bishop did not purchase the New Testament for public distribution, but for public burning. Providentially, an entire second edition was financed by the Bishop’s purchase so that Tyndale was able to flood England with even more copies of the second edition than the first.

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William Tyndale’s New Testament (1526)

Tyndale also became desirous of producing a copy of the Old Testament Scriptures in English. When he had finished translating the Pentateuch he sought to have it printed and traveled from Antwerp, where he was living, to Hamburg. While journeying on board ship, a great storm came up and sank the ship. All of his books, manuscripts, money, notes, and time were lost and the project had to begin completely over again! Such was the character of William Tyndale—he was a man of great perseverance.

While living in exile throughout Holland and Germany, he fled many times from one town to another seeking a printer who would be supportive of his cause. Oftentimes he had “secret agents” from the English clergy pursuing him and endeavoring to arrest him. In many respects he was “God’s Outlaw” as one recent biographer has called him. Because it was illegal to produce a copy of the Bible without the formal backing of the King, his text (six editions in all) had to be surreptitiously smuggled into England hidden in bales of merchandise and sold on the “black market.” Eventually, he was betrayed by a “false friend” and fellow Englishman, Henry Philips, and arrested. His imprisonment at Vilvorde (9 miles north of Brussels) lasted for seventeen months from which survives the following letter giving a brief view of the suffering that he underwent for the sake of the gospel. He plaintively writes,

I entreat your lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrah, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings. My over-coat is worn out, as also are my shirts. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always that it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if, before the end of winter, a different decision be reached concerning me, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen. W. Tyndale

Here is a pen and ink drawing of William Tyndale’s place of martyrdom. Before his death he shouted, “Lord open the King of England’s eyes!”

Before he was strangled and his body burned at the stake (October 6, 1536) he boldly proclaimed these prophetic words, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Unknown to Tyndale, his plea was in the process of being answered. The following verses from the Proverbs certainly shed new light onto the difficult and deadly circumstances of Tyndale’s suffering and death: “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4), and secondly, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). In essence, these verses teach the Christian that the sovereign God brings unexpected blessings out of the suffering and death of his servants. So that even while Tyndale was languishing in prison his associate, Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), was able to produce an English version of the Bible printed with King Henry VIII’s endorsement. Coverdale utilized Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch and New Testament as a foundation for his own translation.

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King Henry VIII – The “Lord opened his eyes” in answer to Tyndale’s prayer, and a year after Tyndale’s death The Great Bible was produced.

Again in 1537, with the help of Archbishop Thomas Cramner, King Henry VIII ordered that every parish should have its own copy of the Bible available for the clergy as well as the people to use. This version was called The Great Bible. Finally, seventy-four years later King James of England was used by God to fulfill the desire and longing of Tyndale in an even greater way by ordering the publication of the popular and prolific King James Version (1611) of the Bible. As you enjoy reading daily from the many Bibles in your possession, give thanks to God for the faithful life and work of William Tyndale.

Resources for Further Study: 

  • Christy-Murray, David. A History of Heresy. London, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • D’Aubigne, Merle J. H. The Reformation in England. Two volumes. Edited by S. M. Houghton. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962.
  • Douglas, J.D. ed. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.
    • “Bible (English Versions)”, by F. F. Bruce
    • “Coverdale, Miles”, by Harold H. Rowden
    • “Cramner, Thomas”, by Noel S. Pollard
    • “Erasmus”, by Robert G. Clouse
    • “Henry VIII”, by Robert Schnucker
    • “Reformation, The”, by Robert D. Linder
    • “Tunstall, Cuthbert”, by Joyce Horn
    • “Tyndale, William”, by G. E. Duffield
    • “Vulgate, The”, by J. N. Birdsall
    • “Wycliffe, John”, Robert G. Clouse
  • Douglas, J.D. ed. Who’s Who In Christian History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992.
  • Dowley, Tim ed., The History of Christianity. Revised Edition. Oxford, Great Britain: Lion Publishers, 1990.
  • Edwards, Brian H. God’s Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale and the English Bible. London, Great Britain: Evangelical Press, 1976.
  • Fox, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.
  • Houghton, S.M. Sketches from Church History. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980.
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity (Vol. 2). Revised Edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.
  • Lawson, Steven J. The Daring Mission of William Tyndale. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015.
  • Loane, Sir Marcus. Masters of the English Reformation. The Church Society, 1954. Reprint. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005.
  • O’Dell, Scott. The Hawk that Dare Not Hunt by Day. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1975.
  • Tyndale, William. Tyndale’s New Testament. Edited by David Daniel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • Woodbridge, John D. ed. Great Leaders of the Christian Church. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988.
  • Wylie, James A. The History of Protestantism. 3 Volumes. Kilkeel, N. Ireland: Mourne Missionary Trust, 1990.

Copyright August, 2017   Dr. Marcus J. Serven, ThM, DMin
Used by Permission.  All Rights Reserved.