Reach the Isles
6. The History of British Christianity – William Tyndale (1494-1536)
Once Wycliffe had opened the door to the English-speaking people to read the Bible in their own language, no force on earth could close it. And forces on earth, particularly political and religious leaders, wanted that door closed. People who could read the Bible for themselves could not so easily be deceived or manipulated.
For nearly a century anyone found with a copy of Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English faced the death penalty. This was the world into which William Hychyns, better known as William Tyndale, was born. Many are familiar with these words of Tyndale,
“I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
These famous words have encouraged many and challenged others. As great as they are, the context gives further proof of the courage and wisdom of the man who spoke them. For while the quote is well-known, the first statement about the pope is often left off.
Tyndale was born around 1494 in Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire. Under the family’s other name of Hychyns the young William enrolled at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, when he was about 12, and received his B.A. from there in 1512. He studied at Cambridge for his Master of Arts and this provided the opportunity to study theology. During his studies, Tyndale became fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. This was in addition to his other areas of expertise including grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy.
When William began his studies he noticed something odd. His Master’s level studies in theology did not include a systematic study of theology. Later Tyndale would see this as a foolish approach for students of the Scriptures:
"They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture."
During his time at Cambridge, and just three years after Luther had posted his Ninety-Five Theses, Tyndale regularly met with a group of other scholars at the White Horse Inn to discuss this new theology put forward by Luther. Many of the future leaders of the Reformation in England were a part of this group.
After graduating from studies at Oxford and Cambridge Tyndale, the First English Puritan, the Captain of the Army of Reformers, went to the home of Sir John Walsh and served as chaplain to the home and tutor to the children. Convictions that had formed as a student had deepened as a graduate and soon led to heated disagreements with other members of the clergy.
A record of the charges made against Tyndale by the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester describes Tyndale as “learned” but “blasphemous”. Why was he considered blasphemous? The key truths that brought him trouble were the beliefs in the supremacy of Scripture, salvation by grace alone, the necessity of Biblical reformation, and that the Pope was anti-Christ. He also denounced the practice of praying to the saints. During his lifetime Tyndale would repeatedly be accused of being the servant of Antichrist because of his desire to make the Word of God available in English. Such was the confusion and iniquity that controlled the Roman Catholic Church.
Tyndale had been inspired to bring the Word of God directly to the masses when he read the Greek edition of the New Testament by Erasmus. Erasmus explained his goal, which became Tyndale’s passion, with these words:
“Christ desires his mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I would that [the Gospels and the epistles of Paul] were translated into all languages, of all Christian people, and that they might be read and known.”
As is always the case, God’s Spirit working through God’s Word brought about God’s work to reveal God’s Son so that men may be renewed to fellowship with God. Armed with knowledge, conviction, faith, and courage then, Tyndale fell into many disagreements and arguments. During one of these conflicts a fellow clergyman, John Bell, declared, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” The battle between Roman Catholicism and those outside its bounds fuelled more than words in those days, many faced death. It was to this statement that Tyndale bravely responded with his famous words.
In 1523 Tyndale went to London to begin his work of translation. Finding no support or patronage within the church, he relied on the help of businessman, Humphrey Monmouth. As at many other times in British history, the compromised church of the state was the greatest opponent to a true work of God. Tyndale worked at preparing a translation, but the actual translation did not begin until 1524, by which time he had moved to Wittenberg, Germany. His translation of the New Testament was completed in 1525. This first edition was nearly thwarted when authorities raided the press. However, Tyndale had been warned and he gathered the precious leaves and fled at night.
Due to the invention of Gutenberg’s movable-type press, 6000 copies were printed in 1526 and smuggled into England and Scotland. Here we can clearly see the providence of God in the timing of this translation and invention. But take a moment to let it sink in that copies of the Bible in the people’s language had to be smuggled in, like contraband. By October of 1526, it had been condemned by Bishops and booksellers were warned against selling them. Copies were burned in public. On one occasion the Archbishop of Canterbury joined Bishop Tunstall at St. Paul’s in London to ceremonially burn copies of the Bible Tyndale had translated.
Tyndale used the money from the sale of these to print many more improved editions. Supply could not keep up with demand. The more the authorities sought to stamp out the translation of the Bible into English, the more in demand it became. Just as the desire of the regular British people for political and individual freedom birthed the mother of parliaments, a movement which laid the groundwork for the founding of the United States, the desire of the British people for God’s Word in their language birthed a movement that would impact the world forever after.
In 1529 Tyndale was condemned as a heretic by Cardinal Wolsey. Like Wycliffe, Tyndale’s Scriptural convictions brought him to the attention of royalty and others in power. When King Henry began his plans to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, Tyndale wrote “The Pratctyse of Prelates” in opposition to the king’s plans. Tyndale’s prolific writings focused on issues of theology, but like the prophets of old, he also brought Scripture to bear on current events. The King of England petitioned Emperor Charles V to arrest Tyndale and have him transported back to London. The Emperor refused on a technicality and Tyndale continued his translation work.
Eventually, Tyndale was betrayed, arrested, and charged as being a heretic. For many months the case went on. Tyndale lived the words he had written for the admission of others:
“Let it not make thee despair, neither yet discourage thee, O reader, that it is forbidden thee in pain of life and goods, or that it is made breaking of the king’s peace, or treason unto his highness, to read the Word of thy soul’s health—for if God be on our side, what matter maketh it who be against us, be they bishops, cardinals, popes.”
On October 6th, in 1536, having refused to recant, Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and as he struggled for breath the wood stacked under and around him were set alight. As his life drew a close Tyndale’s cried out a final prayer:
“Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”
Tyndale died with those words, but he did not lose his life, he invested it! All lives pass, some lose their lives, many spend their lives unwisely, a few invest them for eternity.
At the instigation of King Henry the VIII and the Church of England, and the cooperation of the Roman Catholic Church, Tyndale was martyred. Within four years of Tyndale’s death, Henry, King of England had commanded four different translations of the Bible to be printed. One of which was known as the Great Bible. All four were based on the work of the man burned at the stake for that very task. Tyndale’s translation laid the groundwork for all future translations. Nearly a century later, when the 54 scholars who translated the King James Bible gathered at the command of British King James, they relied heavily upon Tyndale’s work. Tyndale’s translation was the first English version to be drawn directly from the original Greek and Hebrew. When the King James Bible was complete up to 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament was Tyndale’s.
He has been referred to as the “Architect of the English Language”, surpassing even Shakespeare in his influence. This was recognized, to some degree, in 1948 when the British Museum paid $2 million for a copy of his translation of the Bible. For this reason, Joan Bridgman wrote:
“He [Tyndale] is the mainly unrecognised translator of the most influential book in the world. Although the Authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation.”
Tyndale’s desire to make the Bible easily understood by every member of society continues to inspire today. His courage, conviction, and confidence in God’s Word serve as an example to all true believers. Why did Tyndale give his life to get the Word to the ordinary men and women? Because he knew God’s Word is quick, powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. He knew it to be the revelation of God and His truth. He knew by it souls could read of the one true means of salvation, grace by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
“I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”
“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 honor, pleasure, or riches, might be given me.”
“Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy.”
“All that I do and suffer is but the way to the reward, and not the deserving thereof.”
“The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.”
“And as the circumcised in the flesh, and not in the heart, have no part in God’s good promises; even so they that be baptized in the flesh, and not in heart, have no part in Christ’s blood.”
“Christ is with us until the world’s end. Let his little flock be bold therefore.”
“Marriage was ordained for a remedy and to increase the world and for the man to help the woman and the woman the man, with all love and kindness.”
“There is no work better than to please God; to pour water, to wash dishes, to be a cobbler, or an apostle, all are one; to wash dishes and to preach are all one, as touching the deed, to please God.”
Martin Wickens is from West Berkshire, England and has worked in a variety of churches and ministries in England and Northern Ireland. He is married to Carrie and they have 4 children. Since 2018 Martin has lived in the US and pastors at Bedford Bible Church, PA. He has a strong focus on expositional preaching, family, fellowship, and spreading the Gospel to the community and around the world.