A Character Sketch: William Tyndale

from Issue #1, April 2016, page # 22

by Alice I. Brewer

This article is located at www.tyndalearchive.com and adapted for use here. -AV

To a 15th-century farmer, the Bible was just a big book full of unreadable words and made-up rules. This was because priests in those times insisted on the Bible being in Latin. They said the Bible was a holy book, and not just any peasant should be allowed to read it. Really, they wanted it to be in a language only they could understand so they could make up a bunch of laws to suit themselves. In that way they could get away with it by saying “It says so in the Bible.” They thought no one would ever know different, and no one would ever try and reveal the truth. Then God raised up William Tyndale.

William Tyndale was born in October 1494, roughly 500 years ago. He was born in Gloucestershire, near the Severn estuary, where a monument stands commemorating him. Little is known about his early life, except that by 1512 he had graduated at Oxford, after studying at Magdalen College. It was obvious to his tutors he had a great ability for languages. After graduating, he went to study theology in Cambridge. There he was appointed a priest.

Like many fellow scholars, he found teaching theology a big drag. In 1521 Tyndale returned to his birth place, Gloucestershire. Here he became a tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh in the manor House of Little Sodbury.

Besides this, he was conducting services at the nearby parish church of St. Adeline. Soon, his sermons aroused the anger of the church hierarchy, especially when he was found preaching to a crowd outside the Bristol Cathedral. They charged him with “spreading heresy,” and he was summoned before the chancellor of the diocese of Worcester (who was standing in for the bishop at the time.) He was warned not to preach in public anymore. Even so, Tyndale continued doing this at every opportunity.

One day a priest visiting Little Sodbury openly attacked Tyndale’s beliefs. He replied, “If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!” This was not an idle boast. Tyndale knew how he was going to put an end to the priests’ evil ways. He was going to translate the Bible into English, so everyone would be able to read the Bible for themselves. He thought the priests, who had probably never read it once in their life, would then be for it.

Tyndale was so gripped by the idea of the Word of God being so easily accessible to the public that he couldn’t wait to get started. But he didn’t want to translate his Bible from the Latin version, because it was likely it had mistakes and alterations, so he decided to go to the original source. He wanted to use the original Greek and Hebrew texts

So he got to work. Then news of his work reached the church authorities. They were furious! Tyndale’s friends warned him his life was in danger if he remained in London. They told him the only way he would be safe would be to give up the work.

Tyndale didn’t want his life threatened, but he also didn’t want to give up his work. Therefore, in May 1524 he moved from England and went to hide in Germany, where his work could continue in peace. He was able to blend into the background easily and was able to go unnoticed because of his great ability for languages. He could speak Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish as well as English. This meant if someone was looking for an Englishman in a crowded market full of people speaking different languages, they wouldn’t even glance in his direction.

Tyndale was able to get on with his work really well in Germany, and by 1525 [the same year the Anabaptist Movement began in Switzerland] he was preparing his first manuscripts for printing by Martin Quentel in Cologne, Germany. Sadly, the authorities in Cologne were not so friendly towards reformers, and poor Tyndale had to pack up his work again and run away to Worms.

In Worms, an uneasy Tyndale hurriedly finished his translation and sent it to be published. In 1526 the finished books were shipped secretly to England in barrels and merchant ships. That February, some of his books along with other reformers’ works were confiscated and burned in London. This did not stop Tyndale, for despite the desperate efforts to put it down, Tyndale’s Bible was in great demand. It was making a great impact on people, not only because it was in English but also because it was so close to the original text. He was so concerned to keep his New Testament translation accurate that he said, “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus Christ to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience.”

While his New Testaments were being shipped to England, Tyndale immediately took up translating the Old Testament. The Cologne authorities were beginning to become a threat to Tyndale, so he moved to the Netherlands, where he lived in Antwerp. This was a convenient place for sending his Bibles to other countries. Here Tyndale translated the complete Bible, Old and New Testament, but he still did not consider it finished. He produced at least two revised editions in 1534 and 1535. By this time the church authorities were getting very angry, and also pretty worried. If Tyndale’s Bible continued to be shipped into England, everyone would know the officials had been lying to them. They knew they couldn’t stop them once they were in England. Burning hadn’t worked; there were just too many of them. The authorities had even tried buying them for a while, but that just gave Tyndale more money so he could make even more Bibles. They had decided there was only one thing left, they were going to KILL Tyndale. No more of these silly threats, they were going for the real thing!

Books about William Tyndale: 

1. Thrilling Escapes by Night. – Albert Lee

A fictionalized account of parts of William Tyndale’s life using him as the hero.

2. William Tyndale: A Biography. – David Daniell

A readable biography that traces the dramatic life of William Tyndale, the first person to translate the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew. It discusses the profound religious, literary, intellectual and social implications of his immense achievement.

3. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice. 

David Teems

It was an outlawed book, a text so dangerous “it could only be countered by the most vicious burnings, of books and men and women.” But what book could incite such violence and bloodshed? The year is 1526. It is the age of Henry VIII and his tragic Anne Boleyn, of Martin Luther and Thomas More. The times are treacherous. The Catholic Church controls almost every aspect of English life, including access to the very Word of God. And the church will do anything to keep it that way.

Enter William Tyndale, the gifted, courageous “heretic” who dared translate the Word of God into English. He worked in secret, in exile, in peril, always on the move. Neither England nor the English language would ever be the same again.

Translating the Bible was considered a terrible error in William Tyndale’s day. Authorities strangled and burned him for his labors.24 | Enduring Phrases from Tyndale’s Bible

4. The Obedience of a Christian Man. – William Tyndale

One of the key foundation books of the English Reformation, The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528) makes a radical challenge to the established order of the all-powerful Church of its time. Himself a priest, Tyndale boldly claims that there is just one social structure created by God to which all must be obedient, without the intervention of the rule of the Pope. He argues that Christians cannot be saved simply by performing ceremonies or by hearing the Scriptures in Latin, which most could not understand, and that all should have access to the Bible in their own language – an idea that was then both bold and dangerous. Powerful in thought and theological learning, this is a landmark in religious and political thinking. ~

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