The life and times of William Tyndale, the Bible translator.


On the road from Gloucester city to Bristol the traveller today should spy a monument to the valiant Englishman William Tyndale. But the sixteenth century hero has bequeathed to the nation and indeed to all the English-speaking world a legacy that in itself is more enduring than a monument of brick and mortar. Upon opening and reading the English Bible today, to a large measure we are indebted, under God, to Tyndale the scholar and indefatigable worker to further the Kingdom of Christ among his own countrymen.

Tyndale’s early life

Tyndale was probably born in Slymbridge. Bishop Stokesley, of London, mentioned the parish in this connection, and refers to Tyndale as the arch-heretic, being obviously annoyed at his efforts to translate and publish the Bible into English.

John Foxe, the celebrated author of the Book of Martyrs, speaks of Tyndale as “a blessed martyr of Christ, who was born about the borders of Wales.”

Like that of the great predecessor, John Wycliffe, the early life of Tyndale is shrouded in mystery for lack of documentation. No one who knew him as a child imagined that they had before them one who would take his place among that cloud of witnesses that have changed the status quo of this world.

Religious background

Wycliffe had been dead for almost a century. What had happened to his writings, and especially to his translation of the Holy Scriptures? Lollardy had taken its birth from the Morning Star of the Reformation but the poor preachers were hounded mercilessly and burnt at the stake. So much so that the movement was constrained to go underground. There is no doubt that many continued to read Wycliffe’s Bible in secret.

In the year 1408 a Convocation at Oxford had enacted a law which forbade any translation of Scripture into English, and warned all persons against reading such a book under the dread penalty of excommunication.

We have good reason to suppose, nevertheless, that a good number of persons held the Bible dear to their hearts, read it and believed it. A few years ago no less than one hundred and seventy copies of Wycliffe’s Bible had survived the fierceness of Romish persecution and the ravages of time. These copies must have been used and searched by Christ’s disciples.

So Tyndale was born into a country which, though the witnesses of the Truth were not altogether wanting, yet they were in distress and had suffered much for their faith and convictions.

Tyndale’s studies

The first historical notice we have of Tyndale is in the year 1512, as a graduate of the University of Oxford, apparently attached to Magdalene College.

His next step was to move to Cambridge, a busy centre for early English Protestantism. There he most probably met such men as Latimer, Cranmer and Bilney. These had embraced the truths of the evangelical faith, or, as it was known then, the New Learning, and were intent to expound the Gospel to all were would lend them a listening ear.

John Foxe tells us that it was his practice to “read privily to certain students and Fellows of Magdalen College some parcel of divinity, instructing them in the knowledge and truth of the Scriptures.” He graduated B.A. in 1512 and M.A. in 1515.

His conversion

In 1520 Tyndale accepted the post of chaplain to Sir John Walsh’s household. Presumably he became tutor to his young children. At frequent intervals it was the custom of Sir John Walsh to invite to his home various church dignitaries. During these conversations at dinner the names of Luther and Erasmus came up more than once, for the former had but recently published his three most important works on the Reformation. Erasmus, on his part, had published his Greek and Latin New Testament (1516). The study of these publications most likely had brought the budding scholar Tyndale to an experiential knowledge of the Lord Jesus, as his Redeemer and Master for life and eternity.

To his character and ability at this time, no less an authority than Sir Thomas More bears strong witness. “Tindale,” he says in his Dyaloge, “was well known for a man of right good living, studious, and well learned in the Scriptures.”

Ministry at Little Sodbury

In Little Sodbury, he applied, as everywhere, his knowledge of Scripture to the common events and experiences of everyday life. His soul was stirred within him as he saw the pride, ignorance, and worldliness of Romish dignitaries of the region. He mourned over the depths of superstition in which the common people were sunk.

From 1516 and for the next ten years in England the topical subject for discussion was the Bible. Such important questions were raised: for instance, it was asked whether the Bible belonged to the hierarchy of the church or was it meant for the average Christian as well.

Though Tyndale was rendering good service to Sir John Walsh, his mind was elsewhere. Due to his godly ambitions, besides the danger that encroached upon him, finally he had to leave the place and move on. But not before translating a book, the title of which might be put into English as “The Pocket-dagger of a Christian Soldier.” It contained much truth about Christian living and the Christian faith.

Initial conflicts

At this time he busied himself in preaching the Word which had become dear to him, and yet as a fire in his bosom he could not hold it for himself. Such courage brought him into trouble: he was arrested for ministering the Word. The charge against him was “for spreading heresy in and around the town of Bristol.”

The bishop’s chancellor eventually released him with the stern admonition not to preach publicly anymore.

Further conversations continued to take place in the dining-hall at Little Sodbury, and one of the clerical guests asserted that people were “better without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale would not consent to such blasphemies. He replied defiantly: “If God spare my life, before many years I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do.”

The dissemination of Scripture truth was not only the godly ambition of Tyndale. Others on the continent entertained similar sentiments. Erasmus, though never identifying himself fully with the Reformation, wished that “even the weakest woman should read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul; that they might be translated into all languages so that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough; that the weaver should hum them to the tune of the shuttle, and that the traveller should beguile with their stories the weariness of his journey.”

The man fitted for the task

A worthy wish indeed, but Tyndale now realised that the work, as far as the English language was concerned, fell upon his shoulders. He was chosen and fitted by the Lord of the harvest to put into practice the mission statement that loomed before his mind. He was convinced that it was his sacred duty to translate the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular, something the Papacy hated to see done (for Scripture witnessed against the grievous errors of Rome).

It appeared to him that Sodbury was not the proper place in which such a task should be accomplished. It would be dangerous to his kind patron, for anybody who harboured dissenters would be liable to punishment too.

Furthermore Tyndale thought of furthering his scholastic capabilities elsewhere. He did so, but at a great price: that of voluntary exile and eventual martyrdom.

Singleness of heart in front of seeming impossibilities

In his great resolve, Tyndale involved himself in self-denial, strenuous labour, exile, base betrayal and martyrdom. But he never wavered. By labour, and patience, and perseverance, he achieved what God implanted in his heart to achieve. In his Preface to the Pentateuch, printed at Marburg in 1530, he reveals the motives under which he acted. The experiences at Bristol and Little Sodbury had completed his education. His study of Scripture, his application of it to the daily experiences and necessities of life, his sympathy with the common people, had set him free from the tyranny of custom and from bondage to the conventionalities of life.

With a pure heart and a single eye he looked out upon life. Its sorrows and sins burdened his soul. And thus he entered into the true secret. “I perceived by experience,” he tells us, “how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scriptures were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother-tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text; for else, whatsoever truth is taught them, these enemies of all truth (referring to Romish priests) quench it again, partly with the smoke of their bottomless pit, whereof thou readest in Apocalypse ix, that is, with apparent (seeming) reasons of sophistry, and traditions of their own making, founded without ground of Scripture, and partly in juggling with the text, expounding it in such a guise as is impossible to gather of the text, if thou see the process, order and meaning thereof.”

The attitude of the prelates, priests, and teachers, who ought to have been the leaders of the people in this study, he thus describes, only too accurately: “In this they be all agreed, to drive you from the knowledge of Scripture, and that ye shall not have the text thereof in the mother-tongue; and to keep the world still in darkness to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people through vain superstition and false knowledge, to satisfy their filthy lusts, their proud ambition, and insatiable covetousness, and to exalt their own honour above king and emperor, yea, and above God Himself. A thousand books had they rather to be put forth against their abominable doings and doctrine, than that the Scripture should come to light. For as long as they may keep that down, they will so darken the right way with the mist of their sophistry, and so tangle them that either rebuke or despise their abominations with arguments of philosophy, and with worldly similitudes and apparent reasons of natural wisdom, and with wresting the Scripture unto their own purpose clean contrary unto the process, order, and meaning of the text; and so delude them in descanting upon it with allegories, and amaze them, expounding it in many senses before the unlearned lay people, when it hath but one simple, literal sense, whose light the owls cannot abide, that though thou feel in thy heart, and art sure how that all is false that they say, yet couldst thou not solve their subtle riddles. Which thing only moved me to translate the New Testament” (italics and brackets mine).

His move to London: disappointment

Tyndale set out for London with the plan of joining the bishop’s staff. This may seem strange to our ears, but Tyndale had a recommendation from Sir John Walsh, and the bishop himself had been praised as a noble patron of learning by the celebrated Erasmus. Tyndale thus calculated of obtaining his support.

But human nature is bizarre and complex. Men will see their duty but concoct excuses for not doing it. The prospect or the hope of further promotion has kept thousands from taking the nobler line of following Jesus Christ whithersoever He leads them. Men prefer the base and the sordid to the noble and glorious. They take the line of least resistance. Bishop Tunstall, in actual fact, refused to corroborate with Wycliffe and thus lost his unique opportunity to help in providing the English what they needed most of all: the Bible in their own tongue.

Preaching and contacts

While in London, Tyndale found opportunity to preach at the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West. There a certain merchant, Humphrey Monmouth, met him. He was also an Alderman of the City, a Christian who had come to a knowledge of the truth through the preaching of Dean Colet of St. Paul’s. Their chief common attraction was their love for gospel truth. When Monmouth had heard Tyndale preach he approached him and discovered that Tyndale was almost destitute. He took him home and attended to his wants for over a year.

In this environment Tyndale laboured with John Frith, another Protestant martyr and mathematical scholar. Frith was a good Greek scholar, and joined Tyndale’s cause at this time in helping him to translate the New Testament. Thus they did for about six months.

Then a storm of persecution burst forth upon them. His friends sent him away without delay, and sorrowfully Tyndale remarked: “I understood at the last not only that there was no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England, as experience not openly declares to me.”

Tyndale had to flee, for anyone identified with the budding Reformation, or possessed of Luther’s books, could be arrested as a “heretic.” When he left England’s shores, little did he think that he would never return...but his English Bible, still partly in his thoughts and partly on paper, would return and eventually gain the upper hand. England would become a Protestant nation!

On the Continent

Tyndale left for Hamburg. Meanwhile Monmouth was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. He only managed to obtain his release by an abject appeal to Cardinal Wolsey. In those days assisting a nonconformist was the most dreadful of charges.

On the continent Tyndale soon found friends among Christian people. They offered him hospitality and set him on his God-appointed task. At the same time, he strove to improve in Hebrew. We can scarcely imagine the mental capacity of this man, who heroically persevered in the midst of trails, difficulties and set-backs to give to his nation the highest and dearest possession of all. His acumen must have been of the highest order to continue with his critical studies and all the world set against him...except for a few friends.

After a while, in following the chronicle of his eventful life, we find him at Cologne. There he still busied himself in the work. He caused the manuscript to be set up in type. It was his resolute intention not to leave the famous city until he had concluded his mission and sent the English Bible abroad to his beloved country.

A narrow escape

But it so happened that two of his printers, who were engaged in setting up the type, went to a local tavern and indiscreetly talked about their unusual task, little knowing how much there endangered their master’s work and bringing the project to ruin.

Their boasting was overheard by John Cochleus, a Romanist who opposed the advance of the Reformation both by his vigorous voice and by his fast-flowing pen. He was nicknamed “the scourge of Luther,” indicating how unsparing he was of the Reformer’s work.

All happened with speed, and Tyndale barely had time to gather his precious printed pages and depart before the pope’s hounds were released against him.

His mission was not yet completed. God, in His wise providence, spared his life, and led him to Worms. He arrived there as a man still undaunted by his mission, impossible as it seemed to be. He was impelled by one idea, one purpose: to do the will of God in publishing His Word.

Worms was the city associated with the name of the German Reformer, Martin Luther, the dauntless champion of the free gospel of grace, of justification by faith alone. According to the statements of contemporary writers the two giants of the Faith seems to have met occasionally. Tyndale would have every reason to find shelter under the protection of the large-hearted monk-turned-reformer.

Not yet finished!

There Tyndale saw with his own eyes the effects of Scriptural doctrine when preached with power and without compromise. There he saw how the shackles of Rome were being broken, and he longed to see similar blessings being poured all over his nation. But what Luther had already done - translating the Bible into German - he had not yet finished.

Only then could he hope for true and lasting reformation in England, where, just as in Worms, he would see indulgences withering away, convents abandoned by their inmates, people relinquishing superstitious vows in favour of pious and worthy Christian discipleship. Only with the knowledge of Scripture would men be motivated the take away the objects of their idolatry.

At his new home Tyndale settled to continue his translation from the Greek to the English tongue. From this one objective he hardly swerved at all. He was fully qualified and competent enough for such a task: Tyndale was a linguist, having a sure command of several languages, namely, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish. He was so proficient in them that anybody who heard him would think it to be his native tongue, according as it was reported of him both by friend and foe alike.

Tyndale must have used Erasmus’ third edition of the Greek New Testament, with occasional looks at the German version of Luther. He must have worked unceasingly, for after leaving England in May, 1524, he was despatching the earliest copies of his work across the Channel sometime in 1525.

Thus the first great section of his work was completed. The publication of it was a wonderful performance, for he worked without the aid of books, grammars, and lexicons, such as we count to be indispensable today.

First dispatch to England

What about the reception of the English Bible in the land where it naturally belonged? Neither Henry VIII nor the ecclesiastical authorities desired the free and unfettered circulation of the Bible among the common people. Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into England. The East Coast ports were all being watched for the arrival of the objectionable Book. The copies were hid in different packages among items of merchandise.

Thus the first edition arrived more or less safely, but there is an interesting story told about its reception. The fulminations of the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with the protestations of the bishop of London, did not manage to hinder the purchase of the New Testament. The Archbishop offered the equivalent of today’s fifty thousand sterling to get his hand on Tyndale’s New Testament. Packington, a merchant, was approached, and informed Tyndale of the archbishop’s proposal. Tyndale observed that he desired to own the Scriptures in order to burn it, but he continued: “You should be glad for two benefits with come out of the whole deal. I shall get the money to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world will cry out against the burning of God’s Word; and the surplus of the money shall make me more studious to correct the said New Testament, and so newly print the same once again, and I trust the second will be much better.”

So the bargain was struck: the Bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the large sum of money with which to commence his Second Edition.

Antichrist withstanding the free access of the Word

This is simply one instance of the historic stand of Rome against the open dissemination of the Gospel in its printed form. The church of Rome exposed itself to the same criticism of the Roman emperors who fought with might and main against the early church, attempting to deprive it of its indispensable possession, the Holy Scripture. The popes became the successors of pagan emperors in their resistance to Scripture!

It was on the 11th of February, 1526, that the great burning of the Testament took place in public. Cardinal Wolsey went to St. Paul’s attended by thirty-six bishops, abbots and priors. John Fisher (canonized by the pope in 1935) preached on the occasion and fully approved of this burning. Thomas More was of the same opinion.

The charge against Tyndale was that his work was inaccurate, but time has proved that such a charge was absurd. It was their beliefs, as weighed against Tyndale’s New Testament, that were inaccurate.

Considering the materials at his disposal and the conditions under which he laboured, Tyndale must be classed as an excellent translator. Indeed a greater and more talented translator is not to be found, at least as far as the English translation is concerned. During his short lifetime many fresh editions followed the first and the brave translator now turned his attention to the Old Testament. He translated the earlier books from the Hebrew, but never lived to see the work brought to a fitting close.

Further labour in ministry

Meanwhile friends in England, sympathetic with the Protestant Reformation, disseminated Tyndale’s translation among friends and those who desired to own a personal copy of the New Testament, something of a commodity in those days.

Tyndale, still on the continent, engaged himself in writing Christian literature. His books show him to be a competent theologian and a worthy religious teacher. “The Obedience of a Christian Man” is a brilliant defence of the Reformation. It naturally roused the ire of Romish dogs whom the apostle warned that Christians should beware of, for they preach a gospel indeed, but a gospel that cannot save, for upon it is the anathema of God. The popish clergy could do nothing but raise their senseless chorus of mocking and contradicting, just as the crowd in apostolic days cried for hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.”

Tyndale’s book was consigned by the Archbishop to Sir Thomas More, suggesting that the latter write a polemic against it. Sir Thomas, who has since then been reckoned as a popish saint, proved very unkind in his attack on Tyndale. He describes him as “a drunken brute and a servant of Satan.” But even his enemies knew of Tyndale’s sober, busy and godly life. Tyndale was enduring exile for the sake of his convictions.

Setting the snare

And his convictions cost him his life. While staying with a good man named Thomas Poyntz, in 1534, Tyndale was betrayed into the hands of the enemy. The papal spies were continually on his track and finally one Philips managed to point the victim and deliver him into the hands of the officers from Brussels, where were waiting on this scandalous business.

Tyndale was immediately taken prisoner to the castle of Vilvorde, eighteen miles away from Antwerp. From May to October he remained in prison, where he endured a terrible trial, for the cells were damp, dark and windowless.

He used to ask the governor of the castle to permit him the use of a candle in the evenings, as well as his Hebrew Bible and some other books. He also requested to have his cloak, as he was suffering from recurrent chills. But the end of his misery drew near.

On October 6th, 1536, the courageous servant of God, who had staked his life for the welfare of God’s elect, was taken from prison, tied to the stake and strangled. Then his lifeless body was burnt to ashes.

England, my England!

His last prayer, which was mightily answered, was, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Within a year the English Bible received royal recognition and a year later every parish church in England was supplied with its own copy.

We enjoy the free use of our Bible today. Sometimes we take it for granted; we tend to forget the labours of our forefathers who have laboured and suffered so that we may have a table full and richly supplied. The English New Testament is available; Romanism could not withstand it. Thus, as Paul affirmed as he himself was awaiting martyrdom, God’s people may suffer in chains, but “the Word of God is not bound.”

Let us do justice to the Word, and read it with thankfulness, remembering that about five-sixths of it, even today, is as it left the pen of saintly and capable William Tyndale. A comparison of Tyndale’s work with the Authorized Version of 1611 will lead us to conclude how much the translators of the Authorized leant upon their worthy predecessor.

The Word of God is not bound

Tyndale was a pioneer. He was valiant, determined, and saw his ambition come true. He desired what the apostles themselves desired: to have everything, what we believe, to be checked against the measure of God’s infallible Word. “Whosoever reads let him compare this teaching with Scripture.” Such a comment, so often found in his own writings, is excellent advice. All sermons, lectures, literature, and information on the mass media, must be checked against the Bible. Tyndale gave the measuring stick to the Christian man.

And those who follow Tyndale’s rule will be saved from many wrong guides and kept in the path of wisdom, godliness and service in the kingdom of God.

A man for all seasons

Tyndale was a man evidently raised up and inspired by God for a high and noble task. As he tells us in the Address to the Reader, placed at the end of the 1525 octavo New Testament, he “had no man to counterfeit, neither was helped with English of any that had interpreted the same, or such like thing in the Scripture beforetime.” He gave to our English version once for all two incomparable things: its spirit and its vocabulary. It was scholarly. Tyndale knew all that was best in the available scholarship of his day.

But his version was something immeasurably more than a mere scholarly rendering. He himself had found the truth it taught precious to his own soul. To use his own phrase, he had “applied its medicine to his own sore.” Hence its English was clear, simple, transparent, saturated with the spirit of the Gospel.

His stature in church history

Dominated by one great passion, Tyndale lived, as such men must, a lonely life. He gave himself up to the noblest ambition that could sway and direct a strenuous personality. Alone and unaided he accomplished in unapproachable fashion the most difficult of tasks.

To do it he went into voluntary exile; he encountered the bitterest opposition of king, cardinal, prelates and the governing powers of the day; a life a splendid service for humanity was fittingly crowned by the martyr’s death.

If we search for his secret, it may surely be found in a note which he appended to Matthew 6:22 in the 1525 quarto: “The eye is single when a man in all his deeds looketh but on the will of God, and looketh not for laud, honour, or any other reward in this world, neither ascribeth heaven or a higher room in heaven unto his deeds; but accepteth heaven as a thing purchased by the blood of Christ, and worketh freely for love’s sake only.”

Tyndale himself worked freely for love’s sake only - love to God and love for his fellow-countrymen - and God greatly honoured him by enabling him to strike the blow that has effected vastly more in England’s struggle for religious freedom than any other. If “the pope hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England,” it is largely because Tyndale placed in the hands of the common people the all-conquering sword of the Word of God against Antichrist.

His name is not only on the roll of the sixteenth century, but upon that of noble Englishmen of every age. More importantly than that, his name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. His simple trust in Christ, his life’s work and his love for his neighbour evidence it.

His soul is honouring and worshipping Christ, the theme of the Bible he translated. Like another great Christian soldier, he “counted not his life dear unto himself” in the struggle to lead his countrymen into that freedom wherewith Jesus Christ sets men free.