Recently, I gave some talks to my Sunday School about the life of William Tyndale and I thought I should share something of that amazing story here in the Ulster Bulwark – Editor.
If you have a Bible in English, as I’m sure most of us have, you should be thankful for William Tyndale, for he is rightly known as the “Father of the English Bible”.
William was born in Gloucestershire in 1494. His father was involved in the woollen industry and William grew up in beautiful countryside. Living in a country which was Roman Catholic – the Reformation had yet to begin – William would have heard about John Wycliffe and the Lollards, who had been active in England about a century before he was born and who had faithfully preached the Gospel, often under threat of imprisonment or death. In those days, the Bible was only in Latin, so ordinary people could not read it, and the Roman Catholic Church was keen to keep it that way. But Wycliffe had wanted to make it available in English, and Tyndale was influenced by what Wycliffe and the Lollards had done.
In 1506 when he was 12, William was sent to Magdalen College School in Oxford and then to Magdalene College itself where in 1512 he received his BA and in 1515, his MA.
As a young man, William showed signs of saving faith in Jesus Christ, and his main interests were theology and languages. He was brilliant at both, and both were to prove vital gifts in the years that lay ahead.
From 1517-1521, he was at university in Cambridge, where he came under the influence of Erasmus, who had translated the New Testament from Latin into Greek. He also met up with men such as Thomas Bilney and John Frith, both of whom would later die for their Protestant faith. During his time at Cambridge, news came through about Martin Luther and the spread of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England, ordered the burning of Luther’s books, and King Henry VIII was also strongly opposed to Luther. All this deeply affected William.
Although ordained a priest, William left Cambridge in 1521 to become a tutor to the two young sons of Sir John Walsh in Little Sodbury Manor in Gloucestershire. There he had time to pursue his translation of the New Testament into English. He also had opportunities to meet with influential church people, and they were becoming alarmed at his pro-Reformation sympathies. It was in Little Sodbury that a friar told him it was better to obey the pope’s laws than God’s. Tyndale replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do”.
Tyndale also preached at that time in the thriving city of Bristol. He declared, “If you repent and believe the promises, then God’s truth justifies you – that is, forgives your sins and gives you eternal life through what Christ has done for you”.
Questioned about his “heretical views” but acquitted of any charges, William realised it was no longer safe for him to remain in Little Sodbury. An elderly priest told him, “Do you not know that the pope is the very antichrist which the Scripture speaks of? But beware what ye say, for if ye shall be perceived to be of that opinion, it will cost you your life. I have been an officer of his, but I have given it up, and defy him and all his works”.
In 1523, William set off for London with letters of commendation from Sir John Walsh. He sought employment with the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, but the bishop was not willing to be associated with the young upstart. William became involved with St Dunstan-in-the-West, a church that supported Reform, and he stayed with a member of St Dunstan’s, Humphrey Monmouth, a wealthy wool merchant. Monmouth said that Tyndale was “a Gospel man”. Monmouth was later questioned by the church about what Tyndale was doing in his house and spent some time in the dreaded Tower of London. London was awash with the spies of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey.
William then decided that his translation work would be best furthered in mainland Europe. He landed in Germany, first at Hamburg and then Wittenberg, where he spent several months and met with Martin Luther. Both men compared notes on their Bible translation work. In spring 1525, he went to Cologne to make use of the printing facilities there, but spies got word about what was going on, so William had to suddenly gather up his papers and flee by boat along the Rhine to the city of Worms which was supportive of the Reformation. There, he continued his work, and soon copies of the New Testament in English were being smuggled into England.
Reformers in England were glad to see these New Testaments arrive, but the cause of the Reformation was under severe threat in England, and several Reformers were being arrested, tortured and put to death. It would be unsafe for William to return home. Bishop Tunstall, who had refused William employment, organized a public burning of the New Testaments at St Paul’s Cross in London.
King Henry VIII, although opposed to the Reformation, was keen to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, as she had not produced a son who had lived. The Pope was totally opposed to divorce and thus began a battle which would eventually lead to Reformation in England. Anne Boleyn, who became Henry’s second wife, was supportive of Tyndale, and encouraged her husband to read William’s book “The Obedience of a Christian Man”. Henry seemed to be leaning towards Tyndale, but his heart still lay against Reformation theology.
Thomas Cromwell, who became the King’s chief minister after the fall of Sir Thomas More, was in favour of Reformation and was keen to allow William back home, but the King did not agree.
Meanwhile, William was moving around in Europe and was in Antwerp in Belgium in 1535. He had been translating the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, into English, and this had also been smuggled into England. He had several friends whom he trusted, but that was to prove his downfall, for one of them, Henry Phillips, betrayed him and set him up for arrest. He was taken to Vilvoorde castle near Brussels and held for several months before being found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death.
Sometime previously, William had written to his friend, John Frith to say, “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honour, pleasure, or riches, might be given me”.
He was tied to the stake, strangled and then burned on 6 October 1536. His last words were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes”. God answered that prayer, for Henry became a supporter of the Reformation and ordered the printing of the Great Bible in 1539.
Today, the legacy of William Tyndale is still very much with us. Much of his New Testament was adopted by the Authorised Version of the Bible, which is still widely read and loved today.
When you open your Bible, give thanks to the Lord that you have it in English, and remember William Tyndale, who devoted his life to that great work, and who was put to death by those who were the enemies of the Word of God and the Gospel.