Tyndale

Tyndale

On the surface there would have been little reason to think that the birth of a child in Slimbridge, Gloustershire, England in 1494 would change English history. However, that child, William Tyndale, would later translate and print the Word of God in the English language and the impact of that translation is still felt today.

A brief review of events taking place at the close of the fifteenth century will help to place the birth of Tyndale in perspective. The followers of John Wycliffe (1330–1384), known as the Lollards, continued his work through the distribution of the Scriptures. Although the Constitutions of Oxford, which banned the Scriptures in the language of the common people, had been passed in 1408, the courageous Lollards were unwavering in their determination to make the Word of God available to the English people. On the international horizon, the Papacy had sunk to its lowest level when Alexander VI ascended to the chair of Saint Peter. His conduct and morals, even by the abysmal standards of the Middle Ages, had brought great moral outrage and calls for reform.

Many of the events of Tyndale’s early years are unknown. Little is known about his parents except they appeared to have been a godly family and interested in securing a good education for their son.

With this background, Tyndale entered Oxford in 1508. While there, he studied the courses preparatory to taking orders as a priest in the English Church. He graduated with his Bachelor’s in 1508 and Master’s in 1512. He was silent about what he had learned at Oxford except to say that while he appreciated the study of Greek, he did not care for the theology.

Tradition tells us that after he finished at Oxford, Tyndale studied at Cambridge University where, according to John Foxe, Tyndale formed part of the group that met at the White Horse Inn to discuss the reforming events that were shaking Germany at the time. This group had been brought together by Thomas Bilney who had been converted by reading a copy of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.

From 1521 to 1523 Tyndale acted as tutor to the children of Sir John and Lady Anne Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor. Sir John Walsh had made a fine showing in the tournaments of the court and by this means had gained the favor of the king. Many men of note and learning as well as church dignitaries, found a welcome at their home.

Behind their mansion was a small chapel where Tyndale would preach on Sundays. There he explained the Scriptures so clearly that his hearers felt as though they were listening to the apostles themselves. Soon, however, the small church became too small for the interest that was aroused, and Tyndale began to preach from place to place. No sooner would he leave one place, however, than the priests would follow him, seeking to undo all that he had done, threatening to expel from the church anyone who dared listen to him. When Tyndale returned, finding the field laid waste by the enemy, he exclaimed; “ ‘What is to be done? While I am sowing in one place, the enemy ravages the field I have just left. I cannot be everywhere. Oh! If Christians possessed the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue, they could of themselves withstand these sophists. Without the Bible it is impossible to establish the laity in the truth.’ ” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 18, chap. 4. From that point on, Tyndale began to dream of giving the Bible to England in the common language of the people.

The first triumph of the truth was in the home of Lord and Lady Walsh. As Sir John and his wife began to accept the gospel, the clergy were not so often invited to Sodbury, and when they did come, they no longer met with the same welcome. Soon they could think of nothing but how they might drive Tyndale from the diocese.

A storm was beginning to build. A formal complaint was filed, but a judicial inquiry into Tyndale’s conduct presented some serious problems. Sir John Walsh, the king’s champion-at-arms was a patron of Tyndale’s and Sir Anthony Poyntz, Lady Walsh’s brother, was sheriff of the county. It was, therefore, decided that the most prudent thing that could be done would be to call a general conference of the clergy. Tyndale obeyed the summons to appear. Recognizing what was planned for him, he sought the strength and help that could come from God alone.

When his turn came to speak before the assembled church dignitaries, Tyndale, in a calm and Christian manner, administered the chancellor a severe reprimand. This so exasperated the chancellor that he gave way to his passion, treating Tyndale as though he were a dog, whereupon Tyndale, required of him that he produce witnesses to support the charges. Not one of those assembled dared to come forward. Tyndale was, therefore, allowed to quietly return to Sodbury.

When the priests saw that their plot to silence the Reformer had failed, they commissioned one of the celebrated members of the clergy to undertake the task of converting Tyndale. The Reformer answered his opponent so well from the Greek Testament that the latter was left speechless. He then exclaimed: “ ‘Well then! It were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.’ Tyndale, who did not expect so plain and blasphemous a confession, made answer: ‘And I defy the pope and all his laws!’ and then, as if unable to keep his secret, he added: ‘If God spares my life, I will take care that a ploughboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.’ ” Ibid.

Tyndale translating the Bible

For some time, the position of Lord and Lady Walsh had been as a barrier protecting the Reformer from the malice of his enemies, but the enmity of the clergy was so great that Tyndale realized they would stop at nothing to interrupt his work of translating the Scriptures. Sorrowfully, he bade his host and hostess farewell and left to search for a safer retreat from which to pursue his work.

Departing to London, Tyndale secured an interview with Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, whose sponsorship he hoped to attain. Tonstall, a learned man, was a friend of letters and the gospel and for a time, he had managed to walk a thin line between the two sides. Though learned, Tonstall lacked courage; and when forced to choose between the ignorant and bigoted priests and learning, clerical interests prevailed.

Tyndale’s interview was inconclusive as Tunstall explained that, at that time, he had more scholars living in his house than he could accommodate. He counseled Tyndale to seek a place where he could preach and bade him depart while assuring him that he would surely eventually find some means of support.

Bitterly disappointed by this unexpected rejection, Tyndale did manage to secure a temporary preaching position at Saint Dunstan’s Church. While there he met Humphrey Monmouth, an English merchantman who took an interest in him. This was a fortuitous contact because Monmouth was actively engaged in trading with merchants on the European mainland. He would later prove to be a loyal friend of Tyndale, even at great cost to himself, by giving him financial support and aiding in the smuggling of Bibles into England.

With Tunstall’s rejection, Tyndale realized the freedom to translate and print the Scriptures in England was closed. From London, the Reformer made his way to Hamburg, and eventually to Cologne, France, where he continued his work. At last he took his prepared manuscripts to a printer and the actual printing was begun. Before the work had progressed far, Tyndale’s secret became known to the clergy and he was forced to flee, taking with him his precious manuscripts.

Gathering what sheets he was able to secure, Tyndale fled to Worms. Finally, in 1526 the first printing of the entire New Testament in English was completed. It is known as the Worms New Testament. The New Testaments were then bundled in bolts of cloth or hidden in barrels of flour and smuggled into England. Willing workers distributed the books to colporteurs who in turn sold them throughout the country.

Tyndale's Death

Tyndale was eventually betrayed into the hands of his enemies and after suffering many months of imprisonment, on October 6, 1536 he was led outside of the Vilvorde Prison where was chained to the stake and a cord passed around his neck. At the signal of the officer he was strangled and his body burned. However, before his death Tyndale’s uttered his last words. They were a prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

In a most unusual way, that prayer was answered. In 1538, Henry VIII signed an order appointing that a copy of the Bible was to be placed in every parish church, available for all to read. That edition become known as the Coverdale Bible, but it was largely the result of Tyndale’s work. Within two years the edition was sold out and another one was printed. How different things were than they had been just two years before when anyone who had a Bible could only read it in secret, hidden from prying eyes.

Though Tyndale did not live to see the event, he had prepared the weapon that enabled others to carry forward the standard of truth, changing for all time the course of history. Tyndale’s legacy continues down to the present day. In 1611, King James of England authorized a new translation of the Bible (Now known as the King James Bible). 90% comes directly from the Tyndale translation. The later “Revised Standard Version” was still 75% a product of Tyndale's work. Many of his phrases are still evident in the NIV translation of today. (In him we live and move and have our being) It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every English New Testament is merely a revision of Tyndale translation.

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