Dr. Herbert Samworth
BIRTH AND THE END OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
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 vernacular and
the impact of that translation is still felt today.
review of the religious situation at the close of the fifteenth
century will enable us to place the birth of Tyndale in perspective.
The followers of John Wyclif (1330 1384), known as the Lollards,
continued his work through the distribution of the Scriptures. Although
the Constitutions of Oxford, which banned vernacular copies of the
Scriptures, had been passed in 1408, the intrepid Lollards were
adamant 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 MiddleAges, had brought great moral outrage and calls for
few recognized it at the time, the dawning of a new day began with
the recovery of the Greek language and its application to Biblical
studies. In 1499 Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist, arrived
at Oxford University. Although Erasmus enjoyed an international
reputation as a scholar, it appears that when he landed in England
he was still ignorant of the Greek language. At Oxford were Thomas
Linacre and John Colet who urged him to undertake its learning.
Colet himself was lecturing on the Epistles of Paul and his studies
brought a vibrancy to the text that contrasted sharply with the
sterility associated with the Scholastic method of teaching.
time at Oxford, Erasmus departed for the European continent to pursue
the study of Greek. That pursuit reached its climax in 1516 when
the pages of the Novum Instrumentum, the first published
Greek New Testament and edited by Erasmus, were issued from the
press of Johannes Froben of Basle, Switzerland.
TIME OF PREPARATION
the events of Tyndales early years are unknown. Even the exact
date of his birth has not been determined definitively. Little is
known about Williams parents except they appeared to have
been a godly family and interested in securing a good education
for their son.
background, Tyndale entered Oxford in 1508. While there, he studied
the courses preparatory to taking orders as a priest in the English
Church. In his Bachelors studies he would have studied grammar,
logic, and rhetoric. In the Masters course he would have added
music, geometry, astronomy, and arithmetic. All of this would have
been preparatory for the study of theology. We are certain that
he graduated with his Bachelors in 1508 and Masters
in 1512. He was reticent 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.
tells us that after he finished at Oxford, Tyndale studied at Cambridge
University. Unfortunately no matriculation records exist that would
settle this question once for all. However, Tyndales knowledge
that Erasmus had recently taught at Cambridge and a desire to improve
his understanding of Greek would have been sufficient motives to
enroll. The source for this knowledge of Tyndales activities,
John Foxe, also informs us that 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 the second edition of Erasmus Greek New Testament.
to 1523 he acted as tutor to the children of Sir John and Lady Anne
Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor. His duties in teaching the Walsh
children would not occupy all of his time and he would be free to
pursue other studies. Some are convinced that at Little Sodbury
Manor, Tyndale determined to translate and print the Scriptures
in the English language.
the Walsh home, Tyndale soon acquired a reputation as an excellent
preacher and student of the Word of God. This became apparent when
he was able to refute the friars when they taught contrary to Scripture.
As a result the Walsh family declined to invite the neighboring
clergy to their home for banquets and theological discussions. Foxe
relates that one of the ecclesiastical officials was so angry with
Tyndale for this loss of entertainment and good food that he attempted
to bring charges of heresy against him!
that took place during the time Tyndale was in the employment of
the Walshes gives us insight into his character. While involved
in a heated theological dispute with a priest, his opponent is reported
to have retorted, "We would be better off without Gods
law than the Popes." The conclusion of this statement
was that what the Bishop of Rome said carried more authority and
was more needful than the words of God Himself. Tyndale replied
to him in no uncertain terms, "I defy the Pope and all his
laws, if God spare my life, before many years I will make a boy
that driveth a plow know more of the Scriptures than you do."
One may think that this was a statement made in bravado but it goes
much deeper than that. Tyndale expressed his desire that every person,
no matter what rank they occupied in society, would have the opportunity
to know what the Word of God taught.
it was impossible to translate and print the Bible while at Little
Sodbury Manor so Tyndale departed for London. He secured an interview
with Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, whose sponsorship
he hoped to attain. The 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 assured him that he would eventually come by
some means of support.
disappointed by this brusque rejection, Tyndale did manage to secure
a temporary preaching position at Saint Dunstans Church. While
there he met Humphrey Monmouth, an English merchantman who took
an interest in Tyndale. This was a fortuitous contact because Monmouth
was actively engaged in trading with merchants on the European mainland.
He would 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.
rejection, Tyndale realized the freedom to translate and print the
Scriptures in England was closed. Perhaps he experienced for the
first time the deep-seated antipathy of the church officials against
having the Scriptures in the vernacular. As a result he decided
to leave England and take up the task of translation and printing
on the European mainland and smuggle the completed copies back into
that Tyndale went abroad sometime in 1524 or 1525. Foxe reports
that he first went to Hamburg but our first definitive information
concerning his activities places him in Cologne. With the aid of
William Roye, Tyndale set about printing the New Testament in English
at the print shop of Peter Quentell. The layout and format of the
book followed Luthers September Testament that had been printed
in a quarto format in 1522. Tyndale also included a long prologue
emphasizing the doctrine of justification by faith. We are not exactly
sure how far the printing had proceeded before the print shop was
raided, and Tyndale and Roye were forced to flee. From that initial
printing of the New Testament in English only one fragment, known
as the Cologne Fragment, survives. It is Matthew chapters one to
twenty-two and is located in the Grenville Collection at the British
what sheets they were able to secure, Tyndale and Roye 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
and was printed in an octavo format rather than the quarto size
of the Cologne Fragment. It is believed that the press run was three
thousand copies, only three of which survive today.
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 sold them throughout the country. It
was not long before Bishop Tunstall learned of what was taking place
and intercepted a number of them. In November 1526 Tunstall preached
at St. Pauls against Tyndales translation and copies
of it were burned.
later Tyndale shifted his activities to Antwerp to continue the
work of Bible translation and printing. During this time he learned
Hebrew and translated the first five books of the Old Testament
into English. It remains a mystery how Tyndale was able to acquire
his skill in the Hebrew language but there remains no doubt that
his translation was magnificent. Much of it is carried over into
the Bibles of today. Like the New Testaments, these books were also
smuggled into England.
an amusing story connected with the printing of the revised New
Testament of 1534 that merits telling. Bishop Tunstall was busy
in London seeking to intercept and destroy the Bibles as they entered
England. As part of his official duties, King Henry VIII sent him
to the continent on state business. To accomplish this it was necessary
for him to pass through Antwerp where he learned that copies of
the New Testament were for sale. Reasoning that if he could purchase
and destroy them in Antwerp, he could slow the flood of Bibles entering
England. In the course of events, he met Augustine Pockington, an
English merchant, who reportedly knew where copies of the Scriptures
could be located. Pockington, known for his shrewdness, agreed to
sell the New Testaments to the Bishop for four times the normal
rate. Thinking, as Foxe states it, " that he had God by the
toe when he had the devil by the fist," Tunstall agreed. He
bought the Bibles and had them burned in Antwerp. What the bishop
did not know was that Pockington had secured these Bibles from Tyndale
himself who was revising the New Testament for a second edition.
Thus the story goes: the Bishop got the Bibles, Pockington got the
thanks, and Tyndale got the money. With the Bishops money,
Tyndale was able to finance the printing of his revised edition.
Such a story seems too pat to be true except we have it on the authority
of John Foxe and with supplementary evidence provided by no less
a person than Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England.
time that Tyndale was occupied with the translation and printing
of the Scriptures, he was also involved in writing theological treatises.
Tyndale has primarily received fame for his translation work, and
deservedly so. However, he was just as concerned that the Scriptures
be applied to the doctrines and practices of the church to bring
about a true reformation.
One of his
first productions, which had originally been part of the Cologne
fragment, was revised and printed under the title of A Pathway
into Scripture. The reader will remember that the Prologue dealt
with the doctrine of justification by faith, in Tyndales understanding,
the key doctrine to understand the Word of God.
treatise written by Tyndale was entitled The Parable of the Wicked
Mammon. This was an exposition, loosely based on a parable found
in Luke 16 that dealt with a wicked and slothful servant whose actions,
although unrighteousness in themselves, were commended by his master.
The tract was another defense of the doctrine of justification by
faith. Tyndale denied that the doctrine of justification by faith
led to a life of unbridled licentiousness as charged by Sir Thomas
More and others.
Obedience of a Christian Man, written in October 1528, Tyndale
defended the reformers from the charge of being rebels against lawful
authority. The Peasant Revolt in Germany in 1525 had lent substance
to this accusation. Tyndale demonstrated from the Scriptures that
lawful obedience was enjoined on every person in his proper relationships.
Tyndale went so far as to state that even the Bishop of Rome and
his officials were to be in obedience to the King. It is no wonder
that Henry VIII, when shown a copy of the book, exclaimed, "This
is a book for me and for all princes to read!" However, when
Henry VIII learned that Tyndale wrote it, it was placed on the list
of prohibited books.
Tyndale published a scathing attack against the clergy entitled
The Practice of Prelates. At this time the question arose
whether or not Henry VIII was lawfully married to Catherine of Aragon.
She had been married to Henrys brother, Arthur, and when he
died, Henry received a special dispensation from the Pope to marry
her. In the book Tyndale directly addressed this question. He believed
the marriage was legitimate on the basis of Deuteronomy 25:5 because
Henry had married Catherine after the death of his brother and,
therefore, had no grounds to divorce her. This was an unpopular
position because it agreed with neither the King, who wanted to
divorce Catherine and marry Anne Bolyn nor the Church officials
who had issued the dispensation on financial, not Scriptural, grounds.
became involved with a dispute with Sir Thomas More. In an uncharacteristic
manner, More attacked Tyndale with charges of heresy. More was especially
incensed with Tyndales translations where he used words such
as congregation, love, and senior rather than the ecclesiastical
words of church, charity, and priest. Tyndales reply, An
Answer to Sir Thomas More, was moderate in tone and sought to
disprove Mores charges. In an even more virulent reply, More
expended nearly three quarters of a million words in invective and
abuse of Tyndale. Tyndale did not even acknowledge or answer Mores
It was during
this time that attempts were made to have Tyndale return to England.
Although the exact details may never be known, Stephen Vaughn was
commissioned to accomplish this task. Vaughn carried out his instructions
and even secured an interview with Tyndale. During their conversation,
Tyndale offered to return to England if Henry VIII would permit
the Scriptures to circulate freely and Henry could do with Tyndale
whatever he pleased. This offer of Tyndale was summarily rejected
and Tyndale recognized that he would face certain death if he returned.
In the midst
of these activities Tyndale finished a revision of the New Testament
that was published in 1534 and continued his work on the translation
of the Old Testament. We know that he translated and published Jonah
and was working on a third edition of the New Testament at the time
of his arrest.
BETRAYAL AND DEATH
time, the story of William Tyndale grows dark; he was betrayed by
Henry Philips. There is little information extant about Philips.
He was the son of a wealthy official who sent Henry to London with
a sum of money to liquidate a debt. Rather than paying the debt,
Henry gambled away the money. Faced with disgrace, he put himself
in the employment of persons who desired the eradication of Tyndale.
Exactly who those persons were remains a mystery to this day.
went to Antwerp and over a period of time befriended Tyndale. Although
Tyndale was an astute person, it appears that he had no misgivings
regarding Philips. In the outcome, Philips betrayed Tyndale into
the control of the imperial forces. Tyndale was taken to the Vilvorde
Prison where he was to spend the remaining fifteen months of his
time of imprisonment numerous attempts were made to have Tyndale
released. However, he was too well-known to be given his freedom.
Details of his imprisonment are sketchy at best but we know that
he was interrogated by Ruard Tapper and Jacob Latomas of Louvain
University in an attempt to win him back to the Catholic faith.
Nothing written by Tyndale survives of these interviews but Latomas
wrote three books that outline his arguments and Tyndale's rejoinders.
From these documents it is clear that Tyndales profound knowledge
of the Scriptures was more than sufficient to rebut the scholastic
arguments put forth by the Louvain professors.
was a foregone conclusion. Tyndale could expect no help from Henry
VIII who was embroiled in the controversy surrounding his divorce
from Catherine, marriage to Anne Bolyn, and subsequent excommunication
by the Pope. In August of 1536, he was formally degraded from the
priesthood. The only thing that remained was the setting of the
date for his execution.
we must not think that Tyndale was inactive during this time. There
is just one piece of correspondence in his hand that survives but
it gives us insight into his character. In a letter, Tyndale asked
for a warmer cap, a candle to dispel the darkness of his cell, and
his Hebrew books to continue the study of Gods Word. We have
no way to know if any of these requests were granted. Possibly the
first two were given to him, but there would be little chance that
a convicted heretic would be given access to the Scriptures.
relates that Tyndales conduct during his imprisonment was
instrumental in the conversion of the prison warden and his family.
This would be characteristic of Tyndale whose reputation for integrity
and loyalty was of a sterling degree.
on October 6, 1536 Tyndale was led outside of the Vilvorde Prison.
He was chained to the stake and a cord passed around his neck. At
the signal of the officer, the cord was tightened and Tyndale was
strangled. Immediately the fire was lit and Tyndales body
was consumed by the flames. However, before his death Tyndales
uttered his last words. They were a prayer, "Lord, open the
King of Englands eyes." It was noted that many marveled
"at the patient sufferance of Master Tyndale at the time of
How is it
possible to put into words the legacy of a man, who at the cost
of his life, translated the Word of God so that his fellow countrymen
could have access to the Scriptures? That legacy could be enforced
by the various editions of the Scriptures that he translated, by
his theological treatises, and by the example of his own life.
the most fitting tribute could be the impact that he made on countless
numbers of people. He desired that even the plowboy would know and
love the Word of God; that the plowboy would not be in spiritual
bondage to church officials who had no concern for his soul and
could not teach him the way of salvation. He gave the plowboy the
Scriptures in a language he could read and understand for himself.
a story that illustrates the impact that Scripture can have on people.
During some of the darkest days of the Second World War, the British
Army was trapped at Dunkirk with little possibility of being rescued.
A message was sent from the beleaguered army telling of their plight
but also of their determination to hold out against the enemy at
all costs. The message expressed the hope that they would be rescued
but ended with these three words, "but if not." When the
message was relayed back to England and broadcast, it galvanized
a host of small boats, including pleasure craft, towboats, ferries,
and every imaginable type to head for Dunkirk Harbor in an attempt
to evacuate the trapped army. In the outcome over three hundred
thousand British and French soldiers were taken off the beach. Although
dark days remained as the German military machine continued its
advance, the British Army, and indeed Britain itself, had been rescued.
poses an interesting question. How could three words make such a
dramatic effect on the British people? The words themselves are
taken from Daniel, chapter three verse eighteen where the three
young men refused to bow down and worship the statue that Nebuchadnezzar
had erected. They were confident that God could rescue them from
the fiery furnace but they also were aware that He might choose
not to do so. With full knowledge of what could happen, they determined
to resist Nebuchadnezzars threatenings. By these words, "but
if not" they stated their resolve to remain faithful to God.
These same three words, used by the British Expeditionary Force,
expressed their determination to remain faithful despite overwhelming
odds. It was those words that mobilized the force that was responsible
for the saving of the British Force from certain defeat.
of God has the identical power to transform lives today. Perhaps
this is the greatest legacy of William Tyndale as manifested in
the lives of the countless people that his work has influenced.
Who's Who in the Life of William Tyndale
The followers and successors of Wyclif who continued
to copy the manuscript Wyclif Bible and preach throughout
England. During the fifteenth century, they were persecuted
by Church officials and a number were burned at the stake.
of Rotterdam The greatest scholar and humanist
of the Middle Ages. He refused to break with the Church although
he desired a reform on a moral and scholarly basis. Perhaps
his greatest contribution was the editing of the first printed
and published Greek New Testament in 1516 known as The
Foxe English reformer and martyrologist.
The author of Acts and Monuments that gives an account
of martyrdom throughout the ages. Although his work has frequently
been discounted, the latest evidence gives Foxe high marks
Tunstall Bishop of London who rejected
Tyndales petition to translate and print the New Testament
in English. Although a kindly and learned man himself, Tunstall
became a resolute opponent of vernacular translations.
Monmouth English merchant who aided Tyndale
on numerous occasions. Later charged with heresy by English
officials and was ruined financially for his help to Tyndale.
Roye A helper of Tyndale who assisted with
the printing of the Worms New Testament. Roye was headstrong
and brash, separated from Tyndale and reportedly died as a
martyr in Portugal.
Quentell Printer in Cologne, Germany where
Tyndale first began to print the New Testament.
Pockington English merchant who sold copies
of the New Testament to Cuthbert Tunstall. An ally of Tyndale
in the smuggling of Bibles into England.
More The Lord Chancellor of England. An
urbane, cultured person who wrote Utopia. He took a
violent dislike to Tyndale and his translations of the Scriptures
into English. He wrote two violent books against him. One
has estimated that More wrote twenty words to every one of
Tyndale. Later More was executed by Henry VIII because he
would not recognize Henry as the Head of the Church of England
and he disapproved of the Kings divorce from Catherine.
VIII King of England whose divorce from
Catherine of Aragon precipitated the English Reformation as
an ecclesiastical movement.
Philips Son of an English gentry man, Henry
befriended and betrayed William Tyndale.