William Tyndale - Hero of the English Reformation

It may be that William Tyndale gave more to the English Reformation than any other Reformer, for without his translation of the New Testament into the clear English of his day, so that the common man could read and understand, such great preachers as John Colet, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and others could have preached until doomsday, yet there would have remained little understanding of the Scriptures.

The following post has been taken from Heroes of the Reformation by By Gideon & Hilda Hagstotz, c1951. The book is available for free in PDF form. The link is at the bottom.


Table of Contents

Tyndale, the fulcrum of the English Reformation

Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was the fulcrum on which balanced the entire English Reformation. He was the kingpin, as it were, that held together the framework of spiritual advancement in England during the sixteenth century. And with his translation, furnishing the chief source material for the Authorized Version of 1611, Tyndale’s influence upon English literature likewise became greater than that of any other man.

William Tyndale’s early life and ministry

Born sometime between 1483 and 1495 in the western part of Gloucestershire, near the border of Wales, he early applied his mind to acquiring an education. As a boy he entered Oxford, where it is thought he gained a love for Bible study from Colet; at least he demonstrated a peculiar bent toward spiritual things. He likewise studied other liberal arts, and he acquired the mastery of seven languages — Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, and French — so that he spoke in each with a degree of native fluency. He took his M.A. degree in 1515, and then he went to Cambridge, where he fell under the influence of Erasmus.

One of his first appointments was that of tutor-chaplain at Little Sodsbury in the family of Sir Thomas Walsh. He was apparently already ordained at this time. Later…he preached at Bristol. Disturbed in heart and mind by the gross ignorance and sordid living of the priests and monks, Tyndale sought advice from an old chancellor, and in return this man told him that the pope was the antichrist of the Scriptures. This startled the young priest so much that he prayed and studied anew, taking Erasmus’s Greek New Testament still closer to heart.

Tyndale’s determination to translate the New Testament into English

He soon began to be convinced as to what his lifework was to be. Realizing that the church would rather have thousands of books written against its teachings than to have the common people have access to the Bible, he determined to translate the New Testament. As his mission in life became clearer to him, he remarked,

I perceived by experience how that it is impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except that the Scriptures were plainly laid before their eyes, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text. — Quoted by Luke S. Walmsley in Fighters and Martyrs for the Freedom of the Faith, page 73.

Defiance against the Pope

To one of his opponents who had expressed the thought that the pope’s laws were better than God’s, Tyndale replied, “I defy the pope and all his laws; and if God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” — Quoted by J. F. Mozley in William Tyndale, page 35.

So Tyndale began looking around as to who might help him with his task. He felt that surely the bishop of London would do so; but when he appealed to him in 1523, the bishop would have nothing to do with it.

Another on whom he thought he could count opposed it, namely, Sir Thomas More, who advocated that only a group of responsible scholars, and not an individual, should undertake such a task, furthermore, that the ignorant man of the street should not have access to the Bible, lest some fanciful interpretations result. However, one day as Tyndale was preaching at St. Dunstan’s, a wealthy cloth merchant and London alderman, Sir Humphrey Monmouth, heard him, became his friend, and offered him his London home to write in. Here for a year Tyndale found shelter where he could work to his heart’s content.

Life on the run

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Then the priests were after him. As a consequence he came to the conclusion that there was not a place in all England where he could translate the Scriptures; and he sailed in May, 1524, for the Continent, and he never saw his beloved country again.

For the next twelve and a half years Tyndale lived the life of a persecuted, hunted, and disappointed man, as he fled from one city to another to evade his oppressors. He moved frequently among the cities of Wittenberg, Cologne, Hamburg, Worms, Strasbourg, Marburg, and Antwerp. He is supposed to have visited Luther in Wittenberg in 1524, where he stayed nearly a year, working at his translating. In Cologne in 1525 the printing started, but a careless word to the effect that England would soon rub her eyes caused the news to travel to the bishops of England. Tyndale fled to Worms, taking what precious sheets he could with him.

The first printing in 1526

Here his New Testament was printed in 1526, and six thousand copies were said to have been sent to England in the winter of 1526-27, in spite of the fact that the bishops were zealously watching the ports. It was the small size of the edition which made it possible to pack the copies in cases, sacks of flour, bales of merchandise, and barrels.

It is recorded that in the four years following, some fifteen thousand copies passed into England. The Roman Catholic Church immediately seized one thousand copies and had them burned in 1527, and later the bishop of London bought up all he could find. He also called on Sir Thomas More publicly to expose the errors in the translation. To have the old edition disposed of by purchase was all to Tyndale’s favor, for it enabled him to publish a revised edition, much better than the first. And the second soon came out “thick and threefold,” as well as did seven more editions during the next ten years.

Tyndale’s Bible immediately corrected wrong teachings used against the people

The bishops were incensed. One reason was that Tyndale’s translation had lost for them some of their choice Christian words. He had used repentance for penance, acknowledge for confess, favor for grace, image for idol, elder for priest, love for charity, congregation for church, to give a few examples. For his text he had taken Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, and he had doubtless followed Luther’s German translation, which had been completed at the Wartburg a short while before.

At the time Tyndale made his translation, there was no English Bible for the common people. Wycliffe’s Bible, which that Reformer had translated into the early Middle English, was largely obsolete, and it had been taken from the Latin Vulgate, itself a translation. Then, too, there was much opposition to Wycliffe’s doctrines.

An honest, simple, straightforward translation of the Scriptures into English

Tyndale said of his own translation, I had no man to counterfeit (imitate), neither was helped with English of any that had interpreted the same, or such like thing in the Scripture beforehand. His objective was to produce an absolutely honest, simple, straightforward translation of the Scriptures into English so all England could read it.

To the translator’s credit it can be said that he shunned the use of the overornate, euphuistic, or Arcadian stylistic devices so prevalent in the sixteenth century. Had he succumbed to the temptation, his translation would doubtless not have served as the basis for the Authorized Version of 1611.

Tyndale’s influence on the Authorized (King James Version) Bible

It has been said that at least 90 per cent of the King James Version may be attributed to Tyndale, thus establishing Tyndale’s position among the literary immortals of England. He is “the man whose choice of words has for four hundred years exercised supreme influence upon English prose.”

Froude is given credit for the following tribute to the translator’s literary faculty:

The peculiar genius which breathes through the English Bible, the mingled tenderness and majesty, the Saxon simplicity, the grandeur, unequaled, unapproached in the attempted improvements of modern scholars, all are here, and bear the impress of the mind of one man and that man William Tyndale. — Luke S. Walmsley, Fighters and Martyrs for the Freedom of the Faith, pages 77,78.

The question that will doubtless arise in the minds of many is, Why have not scholars discovered before now the great debt English Protestantism owed to Tyndale? The answer is that Tyndale published his translation when such translations were still forbidden by the English government.

For the four-hundredth anniversary of Tyndale’s death, in 1936, Great Britain honored her Reformation hero by publishing his New Testament for the occasion and asking the British people in thousands of churches and schools to read from his translation. Many of them, it is said, for the first time recognized the close resemblance between Tyndale’s version and that of the Authorized.

Tyndale amongst the most heroic Englishmen

That Tyndale is among the most heroic of English figures cannot be gainsaid. As a good humanist and a stanch defender of the principles of the Reformation during the days when kings championed the papacy, he brought his great learning to the service of a great cause. Besides the translation of the Bible he also wrote a number of treatises in which he scathingly and contemptuously held the clergy up to ridicule for their departure from the early simplicity of the church. In them he indicted the whole church, and in one of his pamphlets he expounded on the doctrine of justification by faith.

Sincerity and integrity

Tyndale’s life conformed to his preaching. From his first declaration of intention to make the plowboy know more than the priest, until his last words, Lord, open the king of England’s eyes, his life shone like a pure white light leading to his set goal. He was at the same time humble and heroic. He remained a celibate priest all his life.

The hatred of the bishops against Tyndale

It has already been mentioned that the bishops in England attempted to keep Tyndale’s translation out of the country; but when he succeeded to the extent he did, they smarted greatly under his victory. In spite of their efforts at repression, many thousands of copies eluded their vigilance and reached the common masses. The bishops had burned some of his books; now they resolved that he must be burned at the stake. Tyndale was not unaware of the fate awaiting him. Eight years before the end he wrote, If they shall burn me, they shall do none other than I look for.

Around the 1530’s Henry VIII lent his aid that Tyndale might be brought to trial, but when he attempted to gain possession of Tyndale’s person by asking Charles V to deliver him, the emperor refused. Sir Thomas Elyot, author of the Governor, was sent to trap him, but he was unsuccessful.

Papal intrigue in capturing Tyndale

The papal party did not give up. They were in league with the papal party in the Low Countries. They were likewise astute enough to realize that Charles V, whom Luther defied at Worms, would not stand in their way to take the life of an English Reformer, particularly with Henry VIII having treated Charles V’s aunt, Catherine of Aragon, the way he had. So it was a man by the name of Phillips who undertook the job of luring Tyndale from the house, where he was staying, on the pretext of taking him out to dine. On the way Tyndale was captured and taken to the castle of Vilvorde, a state prison of the Low Countries, in which dungeon he remained sixteen months.

Papal charges against Tyndale

Among the charges preferred against him were that he maintained that faith alone sufficed for justification, that conscience should not be established on human traditions, that there was no purgatory, and that neither the Virgin nor the saints interceded for human beings.

Tyndale’s execution

He was taken out of prison Friday, October 6, 1536. First he was strangled, and then he was burned at the stake. Some five years later a Bible purportedly translated by “divers excellent learned men” reached the desk of Henry VIII. He ordered that every church within his kingdom receive a copy. Thus Tyndale triumphed over the noose and the flames!

Entire post taken from Heroes Of The Reformation By Gideon & Hilda Hagstotz, c1951

Alec Satin
Alec Satin

Your editor is a Bible-believing Christian with no illusions about our darkening age. Keep reading your KJV. If you don’t have one, get a printed copy with good type and read it every day. May God bless you, keep you, and protect you.