William Tyndale was born around 1494 in Gloucestershire, most probably in Stinchcombe. In the English-speaking world he is arguably one of the most influential men since the apostles.
He was a Christian, preacher, theologian, translator and Reformer, yet was executed for heresy by strangulation, and then his body was burned.
Not much is known for certain of Tyndale’s early life. He was thought to have been converted as a child and then attended Magdalen Hall, Oxford University, where he graduated in May 1512 and followed on with an MA in theology. Here he was shocked that reading the Scriptures did not form any part of his theological studies. Erasmus, the humanist, published a Greek translation of the New Testament in 1516 and soon Tyndale obtained a copy and taught himself Greek so that he could read it.
Some time later, Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire to become the live-in tutor of the children of Sir John and Lady Walsh, at Little Sodbury Manor. While there, Tyndale started preaching.
He was a popular and sought-after preacher and soon much in demand in the area. His emphasis on salvation as a gift of God led to him being charged with heresy.
Nothing resulted from this charge, but Tyndale continued to face opposition. One cleric stated, ‘We were better without God’s law than the pope’s’. Tyndale, on hearing that, answered, ‘I defy the pope and all his laws’, and, ‘If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost’ (Foxe).
Tyndale approached Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, for permission to translate Erasmus’ Greek New Testament into English, but was refused. Committed to translation work, Tyndale travelled to Cologne in Germany to translate and publish.
Opponents of his labours were not far away and soon he was forced to flee to Worms when the print shop was raided and books destroyed. By this time Tyndale had translated and printed probably up to Mark’s Gospel.
Arriving at Worms in 1525, Tyndale brought the New Testament to a printer to be published in its entirety. This was the first time a whole New Testament had appeared in English. The religious authorities in England were worried, alarmed and angry. Bishop Tunstall held a special ceremony to burn all the copies of the New Testament translation he could find and preached a sermon against Tyndale.
Justification by faith
Tyndale continued to work and wrote a tract entitled Prologue or preface unto the epistle of Paul to the Romans. This small work was an exposition of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone — a core truth that Tyndale emphasised throughout his ministry.
Moving to the safer city of Antwerp, Tyndale continued to write. Labouring in Bible translation as well as in books to help believers, Tyndale focused on the major truths of the Scriptures.
His most influential book, apart from Bible translation, was The obedience of a Christian man (1528). This described the life of a believer and emphasised the supreme authority of Scripture in the church and of the King in the state. Anne Boleyn gave a copy to her husband, Henry VIII, who considered it an admirable work. Around this time, Tyndale learnt Hebrew, so he could translate the Old Testament as well.
Meanwhile, Sir Thomas More, English lawyer, philosopher and statesman, and soon to become the second most powerful man in England, was given permission by the Catholic hierarchy to purchase and read Tyndale’s ‘heretical’ works so that he could refute them.
More, as a zealous Catholic, was obsessed with silencing Tyndale and stopping any Reformation truths taking hold in England. To that end, he sent out agents to seek and capture Tyndale. He published over half a million words, in various works, attacking the translator’s character, work and theology.
Despite all opposition, Tyndale continued to emphasise the most important doctrines of Scripture in his books. In A pathway to the holy Scripture, he expounded the key doctrines of the apostle Paul in Romans, especially justification by faith. In An exposition upon the first epistle of John, he emphasised the need for righteous love. In John’s command ‘Little children, beware of images’, Tyndale mocked the worship of saints and their statues.
Then, in 1533, Tyndale published An exposition upon the V, VI, VII chapters of Matthew (Sermon on the Mount), where he contrasted the words of Christ in restoring the true meaning of God’s commandments as good works resulting from faith with the many corrupt practices of the Catholic church.
Betrayal and martyrdom
For nine years Tyndale translated, preached and wrote in Antwerp. During this time, he visited the sick, supported the poor and preached and witnessed to as many as he could.
He made a number of friends during his exile and was betrayed by one of them: Henry Phillips, a man who had been accused of robbing his father and gambling himself into poverty. Phillips became Tyndale’s guest at meals and one of the few privileged to look at Tyndale’s books and papers.
In May 1535, Phillips lured Tyndale down an alley where he was captured by awaiting imperial soldiers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, the great state prison of the Low Countries, and accused of heresy. He was kept there for 500 days in damp and dark conditions, but continued to witness to the truth. Both the prison jailer and his daughter were converted, as well as some guards.
On 6 October 1536 Tyndale was convicted of heresy and treason. He was put to death by strangulation and then his body was burnt at the stake. Tyndale’s last reported words were the prayer, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’.
Within three years, Henry VIII had commanded that an English translation of the Bible be placed in every church. The translation used was based largely on Tyndale’s work! Since that time Tyndale’s translation has had a profound impact upon the English-speaking world.
Jean-Marc Alter is a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Swansea