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The Tyndale New Testament of 1525 was the first English translation based on the Greek and the first English Bible to be printed. (The Wycliffe Bible was based on Latin and published only in hand-written manuscripts.) The King James Bible is an edition of Tyndale’s masterly translation.
William Tyndale is therefore the most important one name in the history of the English Bible and one of most important names in history of the English people.
Tyndale was born to a time of great change and turmoil. It was a time of international travel and discovery. When he was eight years old, Columbus discovered America. When Tyndale was fourteen, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India, and the great era of world exploration had begun.
It was also a time of great persecution. Just three years before Tyndale was born, the Spanish Inquisition was established, and by the time Tyndale was fifteen years old, 8,800 had been burned to death and 90,000 imprisoned under the pope’s Inquisitor General in Spain, Thomas de Torquemada. As Tyndale grew to manhood, terrible persecutions were being poured out upon the Christians in Bohemia and Moravia and against the Waldensians in Italy and France. For example, when Tyndale was four, an army of 18,000 Catholics made war against the Waldensian Christians of Piedmont in Northern Italy, destroying entire towns and villages.
It was also a time for printing. In 1453, just 41 years before Tyndale was born, Constantinople was overrun by the Muslims and the Greek scholars had fled to Western Europe with their valuable manuscripts, including the Byzantine Greek New Testament, which had been preserved for 1,000 years through the Dark Ages.
The first book on movable type, a Latin Bible, had been printed in 1456, less than 40 years before Tyndale’s birth. Only eight years before Tyndale’s birth, a printing press had been set up in England by William Caxton, and by the time he was born printing presses had been set up in more than 120 cities of Europe.
Bibles in the common languages had begun to be printed in 1488 with the publication of the Bohemian Bible, just a few years before Tyndale was born.
When Tyndale entered this world, England was greatly bowed down by Romanism.
Roman Catholicism was the state religion, and in those days, England was heavily taxed by Rome. In 1376 the English Parliament noted that the taxes paid in England to Rome amounted to five times as much as those levied by the king (Hassell, History of the Church of God, 1886, p. 457).
The citizens of England were largely given over to idolatry, honoring the mass wafer as god and worshipping Catholic images that were set up at famous pilgrimage sites such as Our Lady of Walsingham and St. Anne of Buxton. Another image, the Rood of Grace at Boxley in Kent, was cleverly rigged to impress the worshippers by bowing its head, rolling its eyes, smiling and frowning! The people journeyed to these sites, kissed the feet of the idols, burned candles before them, and made offerings of money.
The Catholic priests controlled the people’s lives from cradle to grave, claiming the power to save infants through their baptism and to redeem souls from purgatory through their masses.
Salvation was a commodity to be bought and sold. “The people relied ‘on the merit of their own works’ toward their justification, such as pilgrimages to images, kneeling, kissing, and cursing of them, as well as many other hypocritical works in their store of religion; there being marts or markets of merits, full of holy relics, images, shrines, and works of superstition, ready to be sold; and all things they had were called holy: holy cowls, holy girdles, holy pardons, holy beads, holy shoes, holy rules” (Evans, Early English Baptists, I, 1862, p. 28).
The hypocrisy of the ecclesiastics was great. “Decency was thrown aside, and morality unknown. Brothels were kept in London for the especial use of the priesthood. The confessional was abused, and profligacy was all but universal” (Evans, pp. 28, 29).
The intellectual and moral state of the people under such conditions was almost beyond conception. “Ignorance, vice, and immorality of the worst kind, reigned all but universally” (Evans, p. 33).
The Catholic authorities forbade the translation and distribution of the Bible in English. The priests declared it to be heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English” (Eadie, History of the English Bible, I, p. 81). A Catholic authority, Knyghton, a canon of Leicester, complained that to translate the Scriptures into English and thus lay it “open to the laity and to women who could read” was casting the Gospel pearl under the feet of swine. This was what Rome thought of providing the common man with the Word of God.
By Tyndale’s day, it was still a crime to translate or read the Bible in one’s mother tongue.
The popes of Tyndale’s day were very powerful and very wicked.
Sixtus IV (1471-1484) established houses of prostitution in Rome.
Innocent VIII (1484-1492) had seven illegitimate children, whom he enriched from the church treasures.
Alexander VI (1492-1503) lived with a Spanish lady and her daughter, and reveled in the grossest forms of debauchery. “The accounts of some of the indecent orgies that took place in the presence of the pope and [his daughter] Lucrezia are too bestial for repetition” (William Kerr, A Handbook on the Papacy, pp. 228,29). This pope had five children, and his favorite son, Caesar Borgia, murdered his brother and his brother-in-law.
Just a few years before Tyndale’s birth, work had begun on the fabulous St. Peter’s Basilica and parts of the 1,000-room Vatican palace, under the reign of Pope Nicholas V.
In spite of Rome’s dominion over England, there were Bible-believers.
There were Waldenses, Lollards, and other dissident believers in England prior to and during the days of John Wycliffe (1324-1384), the man who gave England her first Bible. We have seen this in the studies on Wycliffe’s life.
This Bible movement in England stemming from before the days of Wycliffe lasted until the time of Tyndale and laid the groundwork for the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. “In spite of the opposition, however, Lollardy made the Bible familiar to the people of England in their mother tongue” (Hassell, History of the Church of God, p. 466).
(For more about the Lollards and the Waldenses see the Way of Life Advanced Bible Studies course on Church History, which is available from Way of Life Literature, http://www.wayoflife.org, 866-295-4143, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
TYNDALE’S EARLY LIFE
William Tyndale was born about 1490, though the exact date is not known.
His family was well to do and was involved in the cloth business. Some of the branches of the Tyndale family had adopted the name Hitchens or Hutchens, and William Tyndale was also known by this name.
He was born in Gloucestershire in western England toward Wales. It is a lovely area with rolling hills covered with sheep pastures and forests, with bubbling streams and gentle flowing rivers. Even today the area is rural and quaint, and many of the houses are ancient, and it is not difficult to imagine what it was like in Tyndale’s day.
This was a place filled with Lollard and Waldensian teaching, and it is probable that the Tyndales were influenced. We know that by the time William Tyndale arrived at college, or soon thereafter, he had faith in Christ.
The Severn River runs through this area, and it is the depository of the River Avon, which in turn is the depository of the little River Swift. The latter is the river into which the ashes of John Wycliffe’s bones were thrown in 1431 after they were disinterred and burned by the Roman Catholic authorities.
TYNDALE’S EDUCATION AND LIFE’S GOAL
Tyndale had a good education. He attended Magdalen College in 1506. Magdalen was one of the dozen colleges that made up Oxford University at that time.
Tyndale was a brilliant student and obtained a BA in 1512 and an MA in 1515. He mastered 7 languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Italian) in addition to English and had partial knowledge of others, including Welsh. He was as much at home in these seven languages as in his native tongue.
Oxford University was then steeped in paganism and Romanism. No theology was studied until after the MA. Tyndale later testified that “in the universities they have ordained that no man shall look in the Scripture until he be nursed in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of scripture.”
After Oxford, Tyndale went to Cambridge (according to John Foxe). It is possible that Tyndale studied under Richard Croke, who returned to Cambridge from Germany to lecture on Greek in 1518.
Tyndale was converted to Christ either before or during his student years.
Foxe tells us that while there “he read privately to some of the students and fellows of Magdalen college, in divinity; instructing them in the knowledge and truth of the scriptures; and all that knew him reputed him to be a man of most virtuous disposition, and of unspotted life” (Foxe, abridged, 1830, p. 252).
At Cambridge Tyndale enjoyed sweet fellowship with certain student friends who shared his faith in Christ, chiefly Thomas Bilney and John Fryth. At Cambridge “these three young men associated themselves together, and strengthened each other’s hands in the work of reading the New Testament and preaching the Gospel of repentance to their fellow students” (Condit, History of the English Bible, 1881, p. 96). Fryth was led to Christ by Tyndale, and Bilney was saved through reading the Erasmus Greek New Testament.
The historian John Foxe tells us that Tyndale was “singularly addicted to the study of the Scriptures.”
He yearned to see the Scriptures translated into English directly from the original Hebrew and Greek and to see the English Bible printed and made available to the common man. He knew that this was the only spiritual hope for England.
The Greek N.T. had been printed in 1516 and was translated and printed in German by Martin Luther in 1522.
Upon leaving Cambridge in about 1521, Tyndale got a job as a tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor in the lovely Cotswold’s region of western England. He resided there for almost two years. It is a beautiful rural area with grass- and tree-covered rolling hills. It is sheep country.
The wealthy, well-connected Walshes (John and Anne) were friends with Tyndale’s influential brothers Edward and John. John Walsh had been High Sheriff and had spent time at the king’s court. King Henry VIII spent a night at Little Sodbury with his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Tyndale did some translation work at Little Sodbury and it is possible that he started work on the translation of the English Bible here.
Tyndale’s students were very young and he doubtless had much time for study. It is thought that he lived in the attic room, which would have been a quiet retreat. (I saw this room on a visit to Little Sodbury Manor in March 2003. Some parts of the ancient manor are still much in the same condition as in Tyndale’s day. The Great Room, for example, has the same ceiling and fireplace and the large wooden table there might be the same one that was in the house when Tyndale lived there. The current owner of Little Sodbury Manor graciously allowed us to take photos of the Great Room. It is here that Tyndale had discussions over dinner with visiting Catholic priests and prelates. It is perhaps in this room that the famous discussion was carried on, in which a priest said, “We only need the pope’s laws,” and Tyndale replied that he defied the pope and all his laws and that he intended to make the plowboy to know the Scriptures.)
While at Little Sodbury Manor Tyndale translated one of the works of Erasmus, the Christian Soldier’s Manual (Enchiridion Militis Christiani). (“His writings Tyndale admired, but saw through the defects in his [Erasmus’] character” --Christopher Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, p. 38).
The English people of Tyndale’s day were bowed under the yoke of Romanism and kept in darkness without the light of the Gospel and of the Scriptures.
Ordinary people could not read Latin and therefore had no access to the official Catholic Latin Vulgate.
Even the priests were ignorant. During one test of a group of priests in the early 1500s, nine did not know how many commandments were written on stone at Sinai; 33 did not know where these commandments were located in the Bible; and 34 did not know the author of the Lord’s Prayer!
The Scriptures in the common languages were not allowed. The law made by Thomas Arundel in 1408 had forbade the translation of the Scriptures “into English or any other tongue” without permission of the Catholic authorities.
What Rome did allow to be translated into English was filled with heresy. For example, the “Mirror of the Life of Christ” by Nicholas Love, which was supposed to contain excerpts from the N.T., actually contained Catholic mythology and exalted Mary above Christ!
While at the Little Sodbury Manor, Tyndale preached the Word of God. He preached in the St. Adeline’s Church as well as in a common place “called Saint Austen’s Green” in Bristol. (The church was originally located on the ridge above Little Sodbury Manor, with a great view of the land for miles around. The church building was moved a couple of miles away in the 1800s to its current location. On a visit there in 2003 a church member showed us around the building. When I asked him if he was born again, he replied in the negative and said that the church does not preach that message today.)
There is some indication that Tyndale influenced the Walshes to turn from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism.
Because of his preaching, Tyndale was called before a Roman Catholic tribunal in 1522 and charged with heresy.
Tyndale later described this scene: “When I came before the Chancellor, he threatened me grievously, and reviled me, and rated me as though I had been a dog; and laid to my charge whereof there could be none accuser brought forth, as their manner is not to bring forth the accuser; and yet, all the Priests of the country were there the same day.”
The Chancellor who persecuted Tyndale was Thomas Parker, who later displayed his unreasonable fury against the truth by digging up the bones of William Tracy and burning them to ashes. This was done in 1531. Tracy had been condemned after his decease “because in his last will he had committed his departing Spirit to God, through Jesus Christ alone, and left no part of his property to the priests, to pray for his soul” (Christopher Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, pp. 296, 97).
The Cardinal who had appointed Parker was Thomas Wolsey, who himself had been appointed Cardinal by Pope Leo X, the pope who persecuted Martin Luther. Thomas Wolsey would continue to persecute God’s people in England throughout his life. Later Wolsey lamented to the Pope that the printing press had made it possible for “ordinary men to read the Scriptures.”
The Bishop of Worcester, who oversaw the area in which Tyndale was first persecuted, was Julio di Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). As Pope he issued a proclamation condemning the writings of Erasmus.
Tyndale debated Catholic priests who visited Little Sodbury. One thing that was debated was the translation of the Scriptures into English. Many years later Tyndale described the way the Roman Catholic authorities looked upon this work: “Some of the papists say it is impossible to translate the Scriptures into English, some that it is not lawful for the layfolk to have it in the mother-tongue, some that it would make them all heretics” (William Tyndale, preface to The Five Books of Moses, cited from Schaff, Church History, VI, p. 726).
One day a priest replied to Tyndale, “We are better without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Hearing that, Tyndale exclaimed: “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou doest.”
Looking back on his experiences with the Catholic priests in England, Tyndale later testified that he knew that the people would never make progress in the truth unless they had the Bible in their language: “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 Scriptures 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 . . . that though thou feel in thine heart, and art sure, how that all is false that they say, yet couldst thou not solve their subtile riddles. WHICH THING ONLY MOVED ME TO TRANSLATE THE NEW TESTAMENT. BECAUSE I HAD PERCEIVED BY EXPERIENCE, HOW THAT IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO ESTABLISH 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: for else, whatsoever truth is taught them, these enemies of all truth quench it again . . . that is with apparent reasons of sophistry, and traditions of their own making; and partly in juggling with the text, expounding it in such a sense as is impossible to gather of the text itself” (Tyndale, preface to The Five Books of Moses).
Thus as a young man Tyndale dedicated his life to the fulfillment of the noble goal of producing an English Bible based on the Hebrew and Greek. To this end he suffered great privations, surrendered up to God the blessing of marriage and a settled family life, wandered from place to place in Europe to avoid the persecuting Roman authorities, all for the objective of endowing the English-speaking people with the eternal Word of God.
Though there is no evidence that William Tyndale was a member of a Baptist church at any point in his life, he did hold many Baptist doctrines. Baptist historian John Christian summarizes these as taken from the 1831 edition of Tyndale’s Works:
1. What Tyndale believed about the church
* He always translated the word ecclesia by the word congregation and held to a local conception of a church (Tyndale, Works, London, 1831, II, p. 13).
* There are only two offices in the church, pastor and deacon.
* Elders should be married men (Tyndale, Works, 1831, I, p. 265).
* True churches consist of believers.
* There are no popes or priests in the church but a priesthood of believers. “Peter in the Greek signifieth a stone in English. This confession is the rock. Now is Simon … called Peter, because of his confession. Whosoever then thiswise confesseth of Christ, the same is called Peter. Now is this confession come to all that are true Christians. Then is every Christian man and woman Peter” (Tyndale’s note on Matt. 16:18 in the first printed edition of Matthew).
2. What Tyndale believed about baptism and the Lord’s Supper:
* Baptism does not wash away sin. “It is impossible that the waters of the river should wash our hearts” (Tyndale, Works London, 1831, I, p. 30).
* Baptism is “a plunging into the water” (Tyndale, Works, I, p. 25).
* Baptism, to avail, must be preceded by repentance, faith and confession (Tyndale, Works, III, p. 179).
* Baptism is a memorial that signifies the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. “The plunging into the water SIGNIFIETH that we die and are buried with Christ as concerning the old life of sin which is dead. And the pulling out again SIGNIFIETH that we rise again with Christ in anew life full of the Holy Ghost which shall teach us, and guide us, and work the will of God in us; as thou seest Rom. 6” (Tyndale, “The Obedience of All Degrees Proved by God’s Worde,” imprinted by Wyllyam Copland at London 1561; cited from Ivimey, History of the English Baptists, I).
* The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are memorials only.
TYNDALE’S LIFE AND CHARACTER
We have only one description of Tyndale’s daily habits, and that is what John Foxe wrote about his last years in Antwerp.
“First, he was a man very frugal, and spare of body, a great student, and earnest labourer in the setting forth of the Scriptures of God. He reserved or hallowed to himself two days in the week, which he named his pastime, Monday and Saturday. On Monday he visited all such poor men and women as were fled out of England, by reason of persecution, into Antwerp, and these, once well understanding their good exercises and qualities, he did very liberally comfort and relieve; and in like manner provided for the sick and diseased persons. On the Saturday, he walked round about the town, seeking every corner and hole, where he suspected any poor person to dwell; and where he found any to be well occupied, and yet over-burdened with children, or else were aged and weak, those also he plentifully relieved. And thus he spent his two days of pastime, as he called them. And truly his alms were very large, and so they might well be; for his exhibition that he had yearly, of the English merchants at Antwerp, when living there, was considerable, and that for the most part he bestowed upon the poor. The rest of the days of the week, he gave wholly to his book, wherein he most diligently travailed. When the Sunday came, then went he to some one merchant’s chamber, or other, whither came many other merchants, and unto them would he read some one parcel of Scripture; the which proceeded so fruitfully, sweetly and gently from him, much like to the writing of John the Evangelist, that it was a heavenly comfort and joy to the audience, to hear him read the Scriptures: likewise, after dinner, he spent an hour in the same manner” (Foxe, quoted from Christopher Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, pp. 520, 21).
As a further testimony to Tyndale’s life and character we will quote from a letter by his friend John Frith, which he wrote in 1534 to Sir Thomas More: “And Tyndale, I trust, liveth, well content with such a poor Apostle’s life, as God gave His Son Christ, and His faithful ministers in this world, which is not sure of so many mites as ye be yearly of pounds; although I am sure that, for his learning and judgment in Scripture, he were more worthy to be promoted than all the Bishops in England. ... And as for his behaviour, it is such, that I am sure no man can reprove him of any sin; howbeit, no man is innocent before God, which beholdeth the heart” (cited from Christopher Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, vol. 1).
As to his fear of God and zeal for the Scriptures and his fear of corrupting them in translation, Tyndale testified in his communication with Sir Thomas More: “For I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience; nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honor, or riches, might be given me.”
TYNDALE’S TRANSLATION WORK
Tyndale first attempted to do the Bible translation work in England. He left Gloucestershire in 1523 and traveled to London to seek the help of Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of the city.
As we have seen, the Constitutions of Oxford of 1408 forbade translation of the Scriptures into English. Tyndale was hoping to find protection for the work under the wing of the highest authorities.
As Tunstall had helped Erasmus with the first edition of Greek N.T., having consulted manuscripts for him, it appears that Tyndale was under the impression that the man might be receptive to the translation of the Bible into English.
Tyndale quickly learned, though, that it was not possible to complete the work in England.
The authorities were not supportive. Tyndale said, “I understood that not only was there no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also there was no place to do it in all England.” Further, no English printer would dare print a forbidden vernacular Bible.
King Henry VIII, who sat on the throne, had been awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope for his rigorous defense of Roman Catholic doctrine. Though Henry later broke from the Pope and founded the Church of England in 1534, he held to Catholic doctrine all his life. “Henry continued to defend the principal teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, required all people in England and Wales to adhere to the Roman creed, and was quite willing to put to death men and women who opposed his will by embracing Protestant doctrine” (Houghton, Sketches from Church History, p. 113).
In London, a wealthy businessman, HUMPHRIE MUNMOUTH, a dealer in cloth draperies, befriended Tyndale. He invited Tyndale to live with him, and Tyndale stayed there for about a year studying, supported by Munmouth.
He helped pay Tyndale’s way to Europe in about January 1524. Tyndale could not have known then that he would never see his beloved England again.
Munmouth continued to support Tyndale for at least the next 15 months as the translation was completed.
Tyndale settled in Hamburg, Germany, to complete the translation, and in May 1525 he traveled to Cologne to carry out the printing.
A Catholic spy named Cochlaeus learned about Tyndale’s efforts to contract a first printing of his New Testament in Cologne. Cochlaeus had heard certain whisperings that led him to believe that such a printing in English was ongoing, but he did not know the details. While visiting a printing establishment with the goal of printing something of his own, Cochlaeus heard some of the printers boast about a revolution that might shortly be coming to England. Inviting some of these printers to his lodging, Cochlaeus loosened their tongues with wine and learned where the 3,000 copies of Tyndale’s first edition were being printed and made ready for clandestine transport to England.
Cochlaeus quickly reported this information to the authorities, and they forbade the printers to proceed with the work.
Tyndale was forewarned of this matter and was able to get away with most of the completed sheets of Matthew and escaped by boat up the Rhine River to the city of Worms, where the printing was completed.
The first edition of the Tyndale New Testament was printed in late 1525 and began to be distributed in England in early 1526. It is probable that 6,000 copies of the first edition were printed in Worms. Martin Luther’s friend Spalatin says in his diary: “Buschius told me, that, at Worms, six thousand copies of the New Testament had been printed in English. The work was translated by an Englishman.”
The New Testament was small so that it could be smuggled easily. All of the small Scriptures that were copied or printed in the centuries when Rome ruled Europe and England are immediately identified as missionary Bibles. The Waldensian Bibles were small, allowing preachers to transport them more clandestinely in those dark days when Rome’s sought to destroy all dissident missionary work.
The first Tyndale New Testament contained cross-references and was intended for study.
The original prologue printed at Cologne was not included with the completed New Testament, but was printed separately as a doctrinal tract, “The Pathway to Holy Scripture.” It had three parts: (1) An explanation of why the Bible should be translated into common languages, (2) an explanation of the law and the gospel, faith and works, (3) and teaching on the sinful nature of man. Following are some excerpts from this tract:
The Bible should be translated into the common tongues of the people: “… for who is so blind to ask, why light should be showed to them that walk in darkness, where they cannot but stumble, and where to stumble, is the danger of eternal damnation; either so despiteful that he would envy any man (I speak not his brother) so necessary a thing…”
Men are sinful and condemned: “Yet are we full of the natural poison … our nature is to do sin, as is the nature of a serpent to sting…”
Salvation is through God’s grace and the blood of Christ: “...when the gospel is preached to us, he openeth our hearts, and giveth us grace to believe and putteth the spirit of Christ in us, and we know him as our father most merciful … the blood of Christ hath obtained all things for us of God.”
Salvation by grace results in self-condemnation and all glory to God: “With the law he condemneth himself and all his deeds, and giveth all the praise to God.”
Almost immediately, copies of this Tyndale’s treasure began to be smuggled into England from the European continent, hidden in bales of merchandise, and then distributed clandestinely.
The first copies arrived in England in January 1526. It was the dead of winter but this volume was destined to warm many hearts. Condit tells us that the way having been prepared by the Wycliffe Scriptures, “the people received these newly printed Testaments joyfully, but, from necessity, secretly” (Condit, The History of the English Bible, p. 104).
The New Testaments were smuggled inside of bales of cloth, in barrels or casks of wine or oil, in containers of grain, in flour sacks, in the false sides or bottoms of chests, and in other ingenious ways.
The Catholic authorities were quick to label Tyndale’s translation heretical and ordered all copies confiscated and burned.
Cardinal Wolsey demanded that a diligent search be made for copies of it in London, Cambridge, and Oxford. Those who were found to have copies were arrested.
On February 11, 1526, the first pile of Scriptures was burned in London, under the approving eye of Cardinal Wolsey. A description of this scene reminds us of the seventeenth chapter of Revelation: “The Cardinal had a scaffold made on the top of the stairs for himself, with six and thirty Abbots, mitred Priors, and Bishops, and he, in his whole pomp, mitred, which [Robert] Barnes [in a sermon] had denounced, sat there enthroned! His Chaplains and Spiritual Doctors, in gowns of damask [SCARLET-colored silk or linen] and satin, and he himself in PURPLE! And there was a new pulpit erected on the top of the stairs, for Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, to preach against Luther and Dr. Barnes; and great baskets full of books, standing before them within the rails, which were commanded, after the great fire was made before the Rood of Northern, (or large crucifix at the north gate of St. Paul’s), there to be burned; and these heretics after the sermon, to go three times round the fire, and cast in their faggots” (Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, p. 106).
The Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, was very zealous against the Tyndale N.T. In a proclamation issued on October 24, 1526, he said that this New Testament was created by “many children of iniquity” who were “blinded through extreme wickedness,” and he predicted that if the spread of the New Testament among the people were not stopped “without doubt” it would “contaminate and infect the flock committed unto us, with most deadly poison and heresy.”
Diligent search was made from house to house for copies of the source of this “deadly poison and heresy.” Writing in January 1527, the ambassador of King Henry VIII to the Netherlands said that copies of the Tyndale N.T. were being burned “daily” in England (Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, p. 122).
Thousands of copies of Tyndale’s work were burned. So thorough and fierce were these persecutions, that only two complete copies of the first edition of the Tyndale New Testament exist today of the 3,000-6,000 that were printed.
By 1528, the prisons were filled with those whose only “crime” was that of reading the New Testament in English.
One of those who were arrested was Humphrie Munmouth, the man who had assisted Tyndale. He was imprisoned in the infamous London Tower “on suspicion of heresy” and charged with assisting “those who are translating the Scriptures into English,” of “subscribing to the said New Testament,” and of “having said that faith alone is sufficient to save a man” (D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, V, p. 386). From this it appears that Munmouth was still assisting Tyndale financially.
Munmouth was later released, and when he died in November 1537, he left a large gift for three gospel preachers, refused to leave any of his inheritance for the saying of Catholic masses, and commended his soul unto Christ Jesus, “my Maker and Redeemer, in whom, and by the merits of whose blessed passion, is all my whole trust of clean remission and forgiveness of my sins.” Upon the authority of this scriptural testimony, we look forward to seeing Munmouth in glory.
Another of those arrested was Tyndale’s own brother, John. He was charged with distributing Tyndale’s Testaments and books in London and was fined heavily and forced to ride through the city sitting backwards on a horse, with pages from the New Testament pinned to his clothes.
In February 1529, the first religious dissident was burned for importing a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament. Thomas Hitton was captured in Kent and charged with preaching and with importing a copy of the Tyndale N.T. He was burned at the stake at Smithfield.
In those days, as the name suggests, Smithfield was a large field and it was a popular gathering place for commerce and amusement. Many believers were burned here up unto the days of King James I.
Today Smithfield is covered with buildings, and a small park marks the place where the English government burned nonconformists. There is a plaque on a wall that mentions this. Smithfield was bordered on one side by St. Bartholomew the Great church, where some say that Tyndale was ordained. The arched entrance (c. 1300) called the Smithfield Gate, which still exists today, can be seen in ancient martyrologies in the background of some of the old drawings of the Smithfield burnings. In Tyndale’s day it was Catholic, but it is an Anglican church today.
Not being satisfied with the destruction of Tyndale’s New Testaments in England itself, Thomas Wolsey and others resolved to search for his books in Europe.
In February 1526, King Henry VIII and Wolsey addressed letters to various authorities in Antwerp, urging them to pursue and destroy all copies of Tyndale’s New Testament. Princess Margaret of Antwerp “pointedly commanded her officers to search the country for these books, intending to proceed in all rigour against those whom they found culpable” (Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, p. 124).
John Hackett, an agent of the English crown, was instructed to seek out these Scriptures in various cities, and we are told that in this capacity he visited Antwerp, Barrow, Zealand, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, Louvaine, and elsewhere, all in obedience to Cardinal Wolsey’s instructions.
Printers were threatened, and at least one, Christopher Endhoven, was arrested in Antwerp.
Richard Harman and his wife were imprisoned on July 12, 1528. One of the charges was that he had “received books from a German merchant (viz., New Testaments in English without a gloss), and sold them to an English merchant who has had them conveyed to England.” They languished in prison for seven months and suffered great harm to their business. (The term “gloss” refers to explanatory notes appended to words or phrases. The glosses commonly added to the Latin Vulgate by the Catholic Church, which claimed to be the only authentic interpreter of Scripture, were for the purpose of encouraging “the faithful” to read Roman doctrine into the text through the process of isogesis. The Catholic glosses included myths and quotations from the writings of Augustine, Jerome, and “pope” Gregory “the great.”)
About this time an attempt by the Catholic authorities in England to destroy Tyndale New Testaments backfired and resulted in the publication of even more copies. A plan was devised to purchase great quantities of the Tyndale New Testament in Europe and then destroy them before they entered circulation. Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, already mentioned, played a key role in this. Knowing how eagerly Tunstall yearned to destroy Tyndale’s work, an enterprising merchant named Augustine Packington conceived of a plan that would meet Tyndale’s financial needs while increasing the publication of more New Testaments. After gaining Tyndale’s approval of the plan, Packington approached Bishop Tunstall when he was on a visit to Antwerp and offered to sell him an entire printing of Tyndale’s New Testaments for a large sum of money. Tunstall fell right into the little “trap.” Though that batch of unbound New Testament leaves was destroyed, the money paid by Tunstall ended up in Tyndale’s hands so that he was able to pay off his debts and have enough left over to print more even copies than those that were burned! It was one step backwards, but two steps forward. When Tunstall later inquired as to where Tyndale got the money to print so many more New Testaments, he was told that it was from himself!
Tyndale settled in Antwerp by 1528 and began work on the Old Testament. He was assisted now by his friend John Frith, who he had led to Christ during his student days at Cambridge. Frith had been forced to flee England in about 1527 because of the persecution.
In late 1528, Tyndale sailed to Hamburg and lost all of his books and writings in a shipwreck (Foxe, second edition, 1570).
Tyndale lived in Hamburg through most of 1529 in the house of a widow and completed the five books of Moses.
After this Tyndale returned to Antwerp.
TYNDALE’S OTHER WRITINGS
Tyndale wrote many profitable books, including “The Revelation of Antichrist,” “The Supplication of Beggars,” “The Obedience of a Christian Man,” “and “How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern.”
In 1528 Tyndale published his masterly defense of justification by faith without works titled “A Treatise of Justification by Faith Only, otherwise called, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon.” This was a direct assault upon Rome’s false gospel.
In 1530 Tyndale published “The Practice of Prelates: Whether the King’s grace may be separated from his queen because she was his brother’s wife,” in which he boldly described the pope as ivy, which climbs up a tree and gradually saps the strength of the tree and kills it. The tree was the English nation. “Practice” here refers to the older meaning of scheming and trickery. This tract shows Tyndale’s excellent understanding of church history. Consider an excerpt:
“Even so the Bishop of Rome, at the beginning, crope along upon the earth, and every man trod upon him in this world. But as soon as there came a Christian Emperor, he joined himself unto his feet, and kissed them, and crope up a little with begging,—now this privilege, now that,—now this city, now that … St. Peter’s patrimony,—St. Peter’s rents,—St. Peter’s lands,—St. Peter’s right; to cast a vain fear and superstitiousness into the hearts of men … And thus, with flattering and feigning, and vain superstition, under the name of St. Peter, he crept up and fastened his roots in the heart of the Emperor; and with his sword climbed up above all his fellows; and brought them under his feet. And as he subdued them with the Emperor’s sword, even so, by subtility and help of them, after that they were sworn faithful, he climbed above the Emperor and subdued him also; and made him stoop unto his feet, and kiss them another while. Yea, Celestinus crowned the Emperor Henry the Fifth, holding the crown between his feet. And when he had put the crown on, he smote it off with his feet again, saying—that he had might to make emperors and put them down again. … And as the pope played with the Emperor, so did his branches and his members, the bishops, play in every kingdom, dukedom, and lordship … And thus,—the Ivy tree hath under his roots, throughout all christendom, in every village, holes for foxes, and nests for unclean birds, in all his branches,—and promiseth unto his disciples all the promotions of the world” (Tyndale, “The Practice of Prelates”).
In light of the boldness and plainness by which William Tyndale exposed Rome’s error, it is no wonder that he was a special target.
It is also no surprise that King Henry VIII hated Tyndale for his writings, which reproved his wicked life and rule.
Interestingly, even though Tyndale had opposed Henry’s marriage to ANNE BOLEYN, she loved the Tyndale New Testament and had a keen interest in Tyndale’s writings.
Cardinal Wolsey testified that Anne Boleyn was “tainted by the Lutheran heresy” (D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, V, p. 317). Condit, in his History of the English Bible, says that Anne headed up “the New Testament party” in the royal house in England (Blackford Condit, The History of the English Bible, 1886, p. 133).
After Tyndale’s New Testament began to be smuggled into England in January 1526, Anne obtained a copy. “Anne Boleyn, notwithstanding her smiling face, often withdrew to her closet at Greenwich or at Hampton Court, to study the gospel. Frank, courageous, and proud, she did not conceal the pleasure she found in such reading; her boldness astonished the courtiers, and exasperated the clergy” (D’Aubigne, V, p. 324).
Before becoming queen, Lady Anne, in 1529, possessed a copy of Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man; and a very interesting thing happened in connection with this book.
We must remember that to own such a book in England at that time was illegal and dangerous. Consider one of the “heretical” statements made in the book: “If thou believe the promises, then God’s truth justifieth thee; that is, forgiveth thy sins and sealeth thee with his Holy Spirit.” This is the priceless Bible doctrine of justification by faith.
Cardinal Wolsey had ordered the members of the royal court to be on the lookout for “heretical” books.
Ignoring these instructions, Anne had lent the book to one of her female attendants, who was found reading it by her suitor, George Zouch, one of the men in the royal household. He playfully snatched the book away and refused to give it back. After he began to read it, he became fascinated by it, and soon thereafter he was reading it during a sermon at the royal chapel. The dean of the chapel confiscated the book and delivered it to Cardinal Wolsey.
In the mean time, Lady Anne, learning of the loss, approached the king, desiring his help in retrieving the book. A short while after Anne left the royal apartment Wolsey approached the king about the matter, hoping perhaps to bring charges against Anne. Henry, though, had determined that Anne was to get her book back, and the matter was closed! Noting the state of the king’s mind on the subject, Wolsey quickly excused himself from the royal quarters.
Upon regaining possession of the book, Lady Anne brought it to the king and requested that he read it, and he did so, and even commented to her that it was a good book, commenting, “This book is for me, and all kings, to read.” Thus, we see the hand of God in providing a witness to the haughty king upon the throne. He was maneuvered into reading a sermon by the very man he was persecuting. That the fickle Henry soon changed his mind about Tyndale’s “Obedience of a Christian Man” is to his discredit.
Anne helped many of the Bible believers who were being persecuted. Thomas Crosby describes her as “being a special favourer of the gospel” (Crosby, History of the English Baptists, I, p. 32). The English historian John Foxe was seventeen years old when Anne was beheaded, and he later interviewed many of her acquaintances. He testified that Anne “without all controversy was a special comforter and aider of all the professors of Christ’s Gospel” (Foxe, unabridged, 1641, II, p. 332).
A year after her coronation, she helped one of the persecuted Bible believers, Richard Harman, to regain his liberty and the possession of his house and business privileges in Antwerp, which had been taken from him five years earlier for his efforts in smuggling New Testaments. Anne Boleyn’s letter to Thomas Crumwell in behalf of this Christian man is still in existence and is evidence of her love for the Word of God.
Signed “Anne the Queen,” the letter said: “Trusty and right well beloved, we greet you well. And whereas we be credibly informed that the bearer hereof, RICHARD HERMAN, merchant and citizen of ANTWERP, in Brabant, was, in the time of the late Lord Cardinal, put and expelled from his freedom and fellowship, of and in the English house there, for nothing else (as he affirmeth,) but only for that he, still like a good Christian man, did both with his goods and policy, to his great hurt and hinderance in this world, HELP TO THE SETTING FORTH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ENGLISH: We therefore desire and instantly pray you, that, WITH ALL SPEED AND FAVOUR CONVENIENT, YE WILL CAUSE THIS GOOD AND HONEST MERCHANT, BEING MY LORD'S TRUE, FAITHFUL, AND LOVING SUBJECT, TO BE RESTORED TO HIS PRISTINE FREEDOM, LIBERTY, AND FELLOWSHIP, aforesaid, and the sooner at this our request, and at your good leisure to hear him in such things, as he hath to make further relation unto you in this behalf. Given under our signet, at my Lord’s manor of Greenwich, the xiiii day of May. To our trust and right well beloved, Thomas Crumwell, Squire, Chief Secretary unto my Lord the King’s Highness.”
Christopher Anderson makes a potent observation on this letter: “Whatever may be said, whether to the praise or disparagement of Anne Boleyn, it should not now pass unnoticed that no MAN, either of influence or office in all England, EVER SO EXPRESSED HIMSELF WHILE TYNDALE LIVED” (Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, p. 411).
Anne also helped Thomas Garret, who was one of the first men, if not the first, to distribute the smuggled Tyndale New Testaments in England. Garret had been imprisoned in a foul dungeon at Oxford in 1526. In 1535, Queen Anne attempted to help this man obtain a position that was vacant at the time (Anderson, I, p. 120). (In 1540, Garret was martyred for his love for the Word of God.)
Anne also rescued some Englishmen who had been consigned by the Inquisition in France to slavery on board the galley ships. This is described by Foxe: “They were put on board the galleys [oar-powered ships], where they were subjected to the absolute control of the most inhuman and barbarous wretches who ever disgraced the human form. The labor of rowing, as performed in the galleys, is described as being the most excessive that can be imagined; and the sufferings of the poor slaves were increased many fold by the scourgings inflicted on them by their savage taskmasters. The recital of their miseries is too horrible to be dwelt upon: we shall therefore pass to that period when the Lord, of his infinite mercy, gave ear to the cries of his afflicted servants, and GRACIOUSLY RAISED THEM UP A DELIVERER IN ANNE, QUEEN OF ENGLAND, who, filled with compassion for the unhappy fate of so many of her fellow-protestants, ordered her ambassador at the court of France, to make a spirited remonstrance in their favor, which Louis, whose affairs were then in a very critical situation, was under the necessity of complying with; and he accordingly dispatched orders to all the seaports for the immediate release of every galley slave condemned for his religion. … A deputation of those who had been released by the interposition of queen Anne, waited upon her majesty in London, to return their most grateful thanks, on behalf of themselves and their brethren, for her Christian interference in their favor. SHE RECEIVED THEM VERY GRACIOUSLY, AND ASSURED THEM THAT SHE DERIVED MORE PLEASURE FROM THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF HAVING LESSENED THE MISERIES OF HER FELLOW-PROTESTANTS, THAN FROM THE MOST BRILLIANT EVENTS OF HER REIGN” (Foxe, Book of Martyrs, one-volume abridged, 1830, pp. 180, 181).
It was “in recognition of her protection to the friends of the New Testament” that William Tyndale, in 1534, had a special copy of his New Testament printed for the Queen (Condit, History of the English Bible, p. 133).
It was beautifully printed on vellum (made from the skins of lambs or young calves), with illustrations, and bound in blue morocco. The cover contained, in large red letters, the words ANNA REGINA ANGLIAE or ANNE QUEEN OF ENGLAND.
It is very telling that this volume contains no dedication to the Queen. Christopher Anderson observes: “Tyndale was no sycophant. There is no dedication,--no compliment paid, as there never ought to be, to any human being, along with God’s most holy Word.”
This invaluable New Testament ended up in the private library of Clayton Cracherode and after his death in 1799 it became the property of the British Museum. Today it resides in the British Library.
Anne had a direct role in Henry VIII’s proclamation in 1535 that the Bible should be printed and deposited in every church. Archbishop Parker, chaplain to the Queen, testified of this: “His royal Majesty was petitioned by the whole Synod, to give commandment that the Holy Scriptures might be translated into the English tongue; for so it could be more easily discerned by all, what was agreeable to the Divine Law. To this, Stephen Gardiner--the King’s most secret counsellor--made resistance as covertly as possible. But through the grace and intercession of our most illustrious and virtuous mistress the Queen, permission was at length obtained from the King, that the Holy Scriptures should be printed and deposited in every church, in a place where the people might read them; which grant of the King did not go into effect, because this most illustrious Queen soon after suffered death” (emphasis added) (Strype, Life and Acts of Parker, p. 7).
Anne also encouraged Miles Coverdale in his translation of the English Bible. “Before the close of this same year , Coverdale had completed and carried through the press a translation of the whole Bible, which owed much to her patronage, and was dedicated to her, conjointly with the King” (emphasis added) (Conant, Popular History of the English Bible, p. 282).
When Anne’s son died shortly after childbirth in January 1536, the fickle and cruel monarch connived to have his young wife put to death. He had wooed her and used her and now he would discard her like a piece of garbage. She was falsely charged with adultery and beheaded on May 19, 1536, less than five months after miscarrying. At the moment of her execution, just before noon, artillery was fired as a predetermined signal to Henry, who was out in the fields hunting. Those present said he responded thus: “Ah! Ah! It is done; the business is done! Uncouple the dogs, and let us follow the sport!” The very next morning he married Jane Seymoure, with whom he had become infatuated some months earlier (Wylie, History of Protestantism, III, p. 404; Fuller, Church History of Britain, II, p. 69). Having read extensively about the life of Anne Boleyn, I am convinced that Henry disposed of her for two reasons, for his lust toward another woman and for his hatred of the favor she showed toward the “protestants.”
Anne Boleyn has been much criticized by some historians, and it is certain that she had serious faults; but I believe the old British historian Thomas Fuller was correct when he summarized her life in this way: “In a word, she was a great patroness of the Protestants, protector of the persecuted, preferrer of men of merit (among whom Hugh Latimer,) a bountiful reliever of the poor, and the happy mother of queen Elizabeth” (Fuller, Church History of Britain, 1837, II, p. 66).
TYNDALE’S IMPRISONMENT AND DEATH
Tyndale had been hunted the entire time he was in Europe.
These attempts were increased in 1531, at which time Henry VIII was fiercely desirous of capturing and destroying Tyndale. Various individuals were commissioned to seize the Translator, or to attempt to entice him back to England. “His anxiety to seize the man, or allure him into the kingdom, will be found to harmonise with the growing ferocity of his character” (Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, p. 267).
In spite of these diligent efforts to capture Tyndale, God continued to hide him from his persecutors. His work on earth was not finished, and nothing can destroy the child of God unless and until God allows it.
An interesting thing occurred in April 1531, four years prior to Tyndale’s arrest. Stephen Vaughan, one of the men hired to spy on “heretics” among the English merchants in Europe, was in Antwerp; and Tyndale, learning of this, decided to confront his enemy. He contacted Vaughan by a middleman and requested that Vaughan accompany this man to meet “a certain friend, unknown to the messenger, who is very desirous to speak with you.” Vaughan inquired as to the mystery friend’s name, but he was told that the messenger did not have this information. He agreed to accompany the man, anyway, to satisfy his curiosity.
One evening soon thereafter Vaughan was brought outside the gates of Antwerp into a field, where he found himself face to face with William Tyndale, the very object of his inquisition. What a surprise this must have been to the king’s agent! Following is the dialogue as recorded by Vaughan himself in a letter to the English authorities:
Tyndale: “Do you not know me?”
Vaughan: “I do not well remember you.”
Tyndale: “My name is Tyndale.”
Vaughan: “But, Tyndale, fortunate be our meeting!”
Tyndale: ”Sir, I have been exceeding desirous to speak with you.”
Vaughan: “And I with you; what is your mind?”
Tyndale: “Sir, I am informed that the King’s Grace taketh great displeasure with me, for putting forth of certain books, which I lately made in these parts; but specially for the book named ‘The Practice of Prelates,’ whereof I have no little marvel,—considering that in it, I did but warn his Grace, of the subtle demeanour of the Clergy of his realm, towards his person; and of the shameful abusions by them practised, not a little threatening the displeasure of his Grace, and weal of his realm: in which doing, I showed and declared the heart of a true subject, which sought the safe-guard of his royal person, and weal of his Commons: to the intent, that his Grace thereof warned, might in due time, prepare his remedies against their subtle dreams. If, for my pains therein taken,—if for MY POVERTY,—if for MINE EXILE out of mine natural country, and BITTER ABSENCE FROM MY FRIENDS,—if FOR MY HUNGER, MY THIRST, MY COLD, THE GREAT DANGER WHEREWITH I AM EVERY WHERE COMPASSED;—and finally, if for INNUMERABLE OTHER HARD AND SHARP FIGHTINGS WHICH I ENDURE, not yet feeling of their asperity, by reason (that) I hoped with my labours, to do honour to God, true service to my Prince, and pleasure to his Commons;—how is it that his Grace, this considering, may either by himself think, or by the persuasions of others, be brought to think, that in this doing, I should not show a pure mind, a true and incorrupt zeal, and affection to His Grace? … AGAIN, MAY HIS GRACE, BEING A CHRISTIAN PRINCE, BE SO UNKIND TO GOD, WHICH HATH COMMANDED HIS WORD TO BE SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE WORLD, TO GIVE MORE FAITH TO WICKED PERSUASIONS OF MEN, WHICH PRESUMING ABOVE GOD’S WISDOM, AND CONTRARY TO THAT WHICH CHRIST EXPRESSLY COMMANDETH IN HIS TESTAMENT, DARE SAY, THAT IT IS NOT LAWFUL FOR THE PEOPLE TO HAVE THE SAME, IN A TONGUE THAT THEY UNDERSTAND; because the purity thereof should open men’s eyes to see their wickedness? … As I now am, very death were more pleasant to me than life, considering man’s nature to be such as can bear no truth.”
Vaughan attempted to persuade Tyndale to return to England, promising him safety, but the Lord gave the man wisdom enough to ignore these entreaties that he might remain free somewhat longer and continue his work.
At this point Tyndale draw away from Vaughan and departed into the night so as not to be apprehended.
The king of England ignored Tyndale’s plea to allow the Bible in English to be freely distributed without fear of persecution.
The last thing that Tyndale wrote and published prior to his imprisonment was his second address to the Christian reader that was appended to the new edition of his New Testament that was published in 1534:
“Moreover, I take God, which alone seeth the heart, to record to my conscience, beseeching Him that my part be not in the blood of Christ, if I wrote of all that I have written, throughout all my books, aught of an evil purpose, of envy or malice to any man, or to stir up any false doctrine or opinion in the Church of Christ; or to be author of any sect; or to draw disciples after me; or that I would be esteemed, or had in price, above the least child that is born; save only of pity and compassion I had, and yet have, on the blindness of my brethren, and to bring them into the knowledge of Christ; and to make every one of them, if it were possible, as perfect as an angel of heaven; and to weed out all that is not planted of our heavenly Father; and to bring down all that lifteth up itself against the knowledge of the salvation that is in the blood of Christ.
“Also, my part be not in Christ, if mine heart be not to follow and live according as I teach; and also, if mine heart weep not night and day for mine own sin, and other men’s--beseeching God to convert us all, and to take His wrath from us, and to be merciful as well to all other men, as to mine own soul--caring for the wealth of the realm I was born in, for the King, and all that are thereof, as a tender-hearted mother would do for her only son.
“As concerning all I have translated, or otherwise written, I beseech all men to read it for that purpose I wrote it: even to bring them to the knowledge of the Scripture. And as far as the Scripture approveth it, so far to allow it; and if in any place the Word of God disallow it, then to refuse it, as I do before our Saviour Christ and His congregation. And where they find faults, let them shew it me, if they be nigh, or write to me, if they be far off; or write openly against it and improve it; and I promise them, if I shall perceive that their reasons conclude, I will confess mine ignorance openly.”
Tyndale was arrested in May 1535 in Antwerp. By that time he had completed a portion of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch, the book of Jonah, and probably Joshua to 2 Chronicles).
For about a year prior to May 1535 Tyndale had been staying in the home of an English businessman named Thomas Ponytz, a friend of the Word of God. He was the son of Sir Robert Ponytz of Iron Acton, Gloucestershire, where Tyndale grew up; and the Lady of Sir John Walsh, where Tyndale had been tutor, was from another side of Ponytz family that resided in Essex.
A young Catholic man named Henry (also called Harry) Phillips, who was hired, probably by Catholic bishops in England, to entrap Tyndale, had met and befriended the translator. A Catholic Cistercian monk named Gabriel Donne (or Dunne), of Stratford Abbey near London, was posing as Phillips’ servant and was probably the actual leader of the little entrapment party. (Some biographers have claimed that Donne did not assume this position of servant to Phillips, but John Foxe, contemporary with those events, said Donne took this position, and Christopher Anderson’s research on this, at least in the mind of this writer, is conclusive. Foxe got his information about Tyndale’s betrayal directly from Thomas Ponytz, in whose house Tyndale had been staying prior to his arrest. Ponytz was Tyndale’s true friend and got himself into deep trouble for trying to help Tyndale after his imprisonment.)
Just hours before the betrayal, the wicked Phillips borrowed forty shillings from Tyndale, knowing he would not have to repay it. Phillips lied to Tyndale, claiming that he had lost his purse during a journey.
That afternoon Phillips invited Tyndale to be his guest for dinner that evening, but the gracious Tyndale protested that he, instead, would provide the meal at his expense and that Phillips should be his guest. Phillips agreed and at the appointed time he arrived to meet Tyndale, but he had officers stationed outside the house awaiting his signal to arrest the man of God. Phillips met Tyndale at the door and pretended that he was ready to go to dinner. When they left the house, they had to walk down a little pathway to the road. The taller Phillips insisted on walking behind Tyndale, and as they reached the road Phillips pointed down to the Bible translator. This was the prearranged signal for Tyndale to be seized by the officers of Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and a bitter opponent of the Reformation.
Tyndale was first held at Antwerp and then transported about 24 miles away to Vilvoord, a few miles from Brussels, and imprisoned in the castle there. He was convicted of heresy and condemned to die under the laws of the inquisition.
Tyndale’s friend Thomas Poyntz made a diligent effort to help him, even though he knew that by these actions he was endangering himself.
He wrote letters and spoke to the authorities on Tyndale’s behalf. He neglected his own business for two months, traveling with letters and even crossing over to England to bring the matter before English authorities.
Poyntz was imprisoned in Brussels for his efforts and fined a large amount of money; he was kept in confinement for 13 weeks.
Realizing that he might be put to death as a heretic, he made a daring escape at night; and eluding those who pursued him on horseback, he made his way to England.
It is probable that Poyntz’s suspicions were correct, because the man responsible for overseeing Poyntz’s imprisonment was fined a very large amount of money by the Brussels city council for permitting the escape of “a prisoner accused of Lutheranism.”
Poyntz was banished from the Netherlands and lost his goods and his occupation. His wife, a native of Antwerp, refused to join him in England, and for many years he did not see his children. “In a worldly way his life was ruined by his generous championship of Tyndale: but the lustre of his deed is his perpetual possession” (Mozley, William Tyndale, p. 319).
The Latin epitaph on Poyntz’s grave describes him as a man who had an “ardent profession of evangelical truth.”
And what happened to the two men who entrapped Tyndale?
Conspirator Henry Phillips did not prosper from his ill deed. He was later charged with treason against the king of England and was pursued from city to city on this account. In the end he was destitute and friendless. “We take our leave of him, disowned by his parents, cast aside by his friends, denounced by his country, shunned by the very party for whose sake he had marred his life, mistrusted by all, valued only as a tool, friendless, homeless, hopeless, destitute, fated to go down to history as the author of one perfidious deed” (James Mozley, William Tyndale, 1937, p. 323). Christopher Anderson adds this: “Reduced to extremities, Phillips begged for money from all parties to assist him to return to Flanders, but, suspected and avoided by all, none would afford him the least aid, till, driven by necessity, he sold his clothes, and is supposed to have entered the army of some one of the powers that were then at war in the south of Europe. No more is heard of him. Thus sunk into oblivion one of the betrayers of our Translator” (Annals of the English Bible).
Conspirator Gabriel Donne had dedicated his life to Mary, and after the business in Europe pertaining to Tyndale, he was well rewarded in this life. He returned to England and was appointed Abbot of Buckfastleigh, in Devonshire, by which he received great wealth amounting to a thousand marks a year. He was given a generous retirement and died in 1558, was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and went out into eternity either to his reward or punishment. He remained a Catholic and a subject of Mary all his days and there is no evidence that he ever repented of his part in the betrayal of William Tyndale.
Tyndale was imprisoned in a lonely, inhospitable prison cell for 16 months, which encompassed a full winter.
The winter was cold and difficult, and the translator was sick. He wrote the following pitiful letter from the prison (discovered in Belgian archives in the 19th century), beseeching an authority to allow him to have some warm clothes:
“I entreat your lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings. My overcoat is worn out, as also are my shirts. He has a woolen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark.
“But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.
“And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always that it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if, before the end of the winter, a different decision be reached concerning me, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen” (Andrew Edgar, The Bibles of England, 1889, pp. 66-69).
During the first months of his imprisonment, Tyndale was challenged by the Catholic authorities and scholars at the University of Louvain, and an extensive discussion was conducted through meetings with Tyndale at the castle and by letter. Foxe says, “There was much writing, and great disputation to and fro, between him and them of the University of Louvain; in such sort, that they all had enough to do, and more than they could well wield, to answer the authorities and testimonies of the Scripture, whereupon he, most pithily, grounded his doctrine.”
One of the subjects was the translation of the Scripture into the vernacular languages, to which Rome was bitterly opposed.
Another of the disputed subjects was justification by faith without works, and there was probably not another man then living that was more qualified to defend this doctrine against Rome’s errors.
During his imprisonment, it is said that Tyndale converted the jail keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and other members of his household. The rest that were in the castle, and conversant with Tyndale, reported of him, “that if he were not a good Christian man, they could not tell whom to trust: and the Procurator-General, the Emperor’s attorney, being there, left this testimony of him, that he was ‘Homo doctus, pius, et bonus’—a learned, pious, and good man” (Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, I, pp. 517,18).
The old castle is no longer in existence. It was torn down long ago and some of the stones were used to construct the (now abandoned) prison that stands in its place. On a visit there in March 2003 I saw the site of the old castle. The River Seene, into which Tyndale’s ashes were thrown following his execution, is a narrow and very polluted body of water that flows in front of the prison. That this is the actual site of the old castle is witnessed by the fact that Castle Street (“Kasteel Straat”) dead-ends at the river just across from the prison. The modern bridge over the river is a little ways from this street. There is a small museum in Vilvoord dedicated to the memory of Tyndale, attached to the oldest Protestant church in the town, and it contains a large model of the castle and a near life-size model of a prison room.
Though Tyndale was bound, the Word of God was not. Even during his imprisonment, three editions of his New Testament were printed, as well as editions of some of his books. It is also possible that he continued to work on the English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
On the morning of October 6, 1536, Tyndale was led forth to the place of execution.
He was taken outside the walls of the castle near the river. “On arriving at the scene of punishment, the reformer found a numerous crowd assembled. The government had wished to show the people the punishment of a heretic, but they only witnessed the triumph of a martyr” (J.H. Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation).
Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and his body was burned.
His suffering was over. For more than 460 years, he has been enjoying his reward in Glory in the presence of his Savior in the most complete comfort imaginable! And yet his suffering continues to bear sweet fruit in this world.
Tyndale was condemned and burned on the authority of the Roman Catholic clergy. Hall’s Chronicle of 1548 contained the following information (we have modernized the spelling): “This year in the month of September William Tyndale otherwise called Hitchens was by the cruelty of the clergy of Louvain condemned and burned in a town beside Brussels in Braband called Vilvorde” (cited from Westcott, History of the English Bible, p. 172).
This statement on Tyndale’s end from Christopher Anderson is fitting: “Standing above all his contemporaries, with only one man by his side, his companion Fryth, he had never temporised, never courted human favour, never compromised or sacrificed one iota of Divine truth; but with his face to the foe, and dying on the shield of faith, he was called to quit the well-fought field, for his mansion near the throne; to refresh himself, after the dust and turmoil and heat of the day, in the paradise of God, to exchange contention with the votaries of darkness and superstition, for the harmony and the light of heaven; the solitude of his dungeon, for the presence of his Redeemer, in the city of the living God” (Annals of the English Bible).
At his death, Tyndale prayed, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Though we have no evidence that Henry VIII was ever converted, we do know that the Tyndale Bible received official recognition under Henry.
Henry was convinced by his Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, to authorize the printing of the Matthew’s Bible just months after the death of Tyndale.
The Matthew’s Bible (edited anonymously by John Rogers, who, like Tyndale, was martyred for his faith) was at least two-thirds the work of Tyndale. In fact, the Matthew’s Bible even featured a prologue to the book of Romans written by Tyndale. This Bible also had the initials of Tyndale nearly two and a half inches high, at the end of Malachi.
Tyndale’s Bible also gained royal approval under the form of the Great Bible.
It was ordered that a copy of the Great Bible be placed in every parish church in England.
This Bible even appeared at one point with the imprimatur of Cuthbert Tunstall, the very same Bishop of London who had condemned Tyndale and consigned his New Testaments to the flame! His imprimature appeared in editions of the Great Bible in 1541. After the Vicar General Thomas Cromwell was maligned, falsely charged, and then executed in July 1540 (something which happened regularly with friends and wives of Henry VIII), it was necessary from a political viewpoint that the names of bishops who had opposed Cromwell appear in the approved Bible rather than the name of Thomas Cranmer, who had been closely aligned with Cromwell in the past.
Thus it happened that Cuthbert Tunstall was one of the two names that newly appeared on the title page of the Great Bible, which was really the Tyndale Bible, in 1541.
Thus, by God’s sovereign hand, the fickle king unknowingly authorized the publication of the very Bible he had so hated and persecuted.
Tyndale’s translation was the basis for several revisions, including the Coverdale Bible, the Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, the Geneva Bible, culminating in the King James Bible of 1611.
A large percentage of Tyndale’s words remain in the KJV, including nine-tenths of the first epistle of John and five-sixths of the book of Ephesians. “These proportions are maintained throughout the entire New Testament” (Price, The Ancestry of Our English Bible, p. 251). “In the Gospel of St. Mark and the Epistle to the Hebrews [in Tyndale] there are not more than eighty words … which are not found in our Authorized Version of the Bible; that is to say, there are not more than four strangers in every thousand words, or nine in every hundred verses” (Moulton, The History of the English Bible, p. 70). Thus, every person who has been blessed by a sound English Bible during the past four and a half centuries owes a large debt to the humble translator who was faithful unto death.
He gave the English people a Bible that is not only accurate but also beautiful.
Consider the following example: “And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12).
It can be seen that much of the short, pithy, powerful language that characterizes the King James Bible can be traced back to William Tyndale.
Through his Bible translation, Tyndale standardized the English language and has had a greater linguistic influence than Shakespeare. “Tyndale gave to English not only a Bible language, but a new prose. England was blessed as a nation in that the language of its principal book, as the Bible in English rapidly became, was the fountain from which flowed the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest prose thereafter” (David Daniell, William Tyndale, p. 116).
Countless expressions that are common to the English language were coined by William Tyndale, such as “let there be light”; “fight the good fight”; “filthy lucre”; “eat, drink and be merry”; “a prophet has no honor in his own country”; “ye of little faith”; “signs of the times”; “a man after his own heart”; “am I my brother’s keeper”; “a law unto themselves”; “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”; “the powers that be”; and “the salt of the earth.”
The Tyndale Bible literally transformed the nation of England and made it, for a time, “a people of the Bible.”
Multitudes of commoners were driven to learn to read and were thus lifted out of illiteracy by their motivation to study the Bible in their own tongue.
The excitement and change that was wrought in British society by the distribution of the first printed English Bible is described by John Foxe. “Everybody that could, bought the book or busily read it or got others to read it to them if they could not themselves, and divers more elderly people learned to read on purpose. And even little boys flocked among the rest to hear portions of the holy Scripture read” (Foxe).
The Tyndale Bible had a large role in the creation of the United States of America.
The Bible brought to America by its first settlers in the early 1600s, settlers seeking religious liberty, was the Geneva, an edition of the Tyndale.
And the Bible that had such a great influence upon America’s unique founding political documents in the late 1700s was the King James Bible, another edition of Tyndale.
After Tyndale’s death, his translation work was picked up by two men, Miles Coverdale (the Coverdale Bible) and, more importantly, John Rogers (the Matthew’s Bible).
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