Brave William Tyndale

And what he did for England In 1525 A.D.

There is a store related concerning the late Lord Fisher, one of Britain's most capable and popular Admirals in the Great War, to the effect that one day, when walking through London, he arrived at the foot of Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square. Lord Fisher stood for a moment looking up at the statue of his heroic predecessor. He was on the point of resuming his journey, when he observed a rather poorly-clad woman standing near to him and also looking up at the monument. As the Admiral was in plain clothes the woman had no idea who he was and the following conversation ensued:

The Woman: 'Who's that up there?'
The Admiral: 'Oh! that is Nelson ... Lord Nelson, you know.'
The Woman: 'and who was he?'

Lord Fisher, always known as a man of ready utterance, endeavoured to give the necessary information without any sign of the irritation which he assuredly must have felt. His biographer, however, does not inform us as to the success, or otherwise, of his attempt to enlighten the lady who was thirsting for knowledge.

Now there are many well-educated and most excellent Christian people in our land today who would be horrified at the mere suggestion that they might not know who Lord Nelson was, but who would blandly plead ignorance as to the life of a still greater benefactor of our Nation, namely, the one to whom reference will be made in, this pamphlet -- William Tyndale. Indeed, the majority of British people know little or nothing about this quiet but intrepid saint and scholar who did so much to advance the cause of true learning arid liberty in this land in the grave and dangerous days of old. And yet his biography is one of the most interesting that we could choose to read.

William Tyndale was born probably in the year 1484 [sic], in the County of Gloucester, and either at North Nibley or Slymbridge. We know very little about the early years of his life: like Elijah of old he suddenly comes on the scene equipped for a colossal task by the Spirit of God. A clever, capable student with extraordinary ability as a classical scholar, Tyndale took his B.A. degree at Oxford in 1512, and eventually went to study at Cambridge, where he would meet such celebrated scholars and future martyrs as Cranmer, Bilney and Hugh Latimer.

In 1520, he accepted a post as tutor to Sir John Walsh' children and lived with this Christian family at the manor house at Little Sodbury, in his native county. Here we find him speaking a word in season as to the truths of Holy Scripture, and quietly correcting the unscriptural opinions of certain distinguished clerical visitors to Sir John's hospitable table. These conversations, however, eventually him to be cited to appear before the Chancellor of the Diocese, and it was asserted that Tyndale was 'spreading heresy in and about the town of Bristol.' He managed to regain his freedom but was soon engaged in another discussion with a Romish scholar who thought that ordinary folk could live better without a Bible than with one! To this strange idea Tyndale gave a warm reply and concluded:

If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause that the boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.

Such a remark in those days was 'heresy', and rather than endanger his kind host, Tyndale departed to the City of London. He saw quite plainly that the much-needed Reformation in Church and State could never be introduced without an open Bible, and he forthwith devoted himself to the gigantic task of providing an English Bible for the people. The Bishop of London in these days was Cuthbert Tunstall, who was generally supposed to favour the advancement of sacred learning. And yet when Tyndale, after the custom of that period, asked for hospitality and the Bishop's assistance that he might translate the Greek New testament into English, the Bishop curtly refused. Nevertheless, God raised up friends among the Christian business people of London, and these enabled Tyndale to proceed with his work of translating. Let it he remembered that the publication of such a translation was as yet illegal, and Tyndale's chief supporter, Humfrey Munmouth, was imprisoned for assisting a 'heretic'. Sick at heart that the Church of his day should not welcome the Word of God, Tyndale declared: '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 doth now openly declare.'

And so, in May 1524, he left his native land, to which he was destined never to return, and set sail for Hamburg. In due course we find him at Cologne, where the type was rapidly being set tip, when two printers, having drunk too freely, boasted of their work and almost ruined the project. Away the Translator went taking as much of the precious work with him as he could. Sailing, up the Rhine he arrived at the famous city of Worms, for ever associated with the name of brave Martin Luther, with which intrepid Reformer he doubtless conversed many times. Here, with the help and hospitality of generous friends of the Reformation, Tyndale concluded his English New Testament in peace -- in the year 1525.

The publication of such a work was a wonderful performance. It required genius to produce such a translation and patient hard work to get it printed: but even then there were obstacles of other kinds to be surmounted. Neither King Henry VIII. nor the Church authorities desired the free circulation of the Bible, and Tyndale's work had, as a matter of fact, almost to be smuggled into this country. It became necessary, for example, to change the size and the style of the book, and to disguise the packages in which the precious treasure was transported from the Continent to England, since the coming of the 'nefarious book' was watched for at the East Coast ports and elsewhere.

People for the most part read this new English Bible with the most extraordinary interest, but it is sad to relate that the Bishops generally were strongly opposed to it, and with a prodigious ignorance of the law of supply and demand, the Bishop of London bought a huge quantity of the first edition and caused them to be burnt publicly, outside of St. Paul's Cathedral. This fearful error of judgment had a twofold good effect. It aroused a curiosity as to the Bible itself and, best of all, put Tyndale in a position to print an improved second edition, thus illustrating the saying of St. Paul, 'We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.' Edition followed edition in the most rapid succession and the students of the Word soon were numbered by tens of thousands.

Beside the difficulties and dangers attached to the importation of the forbidden book there was another, namely, that of local distribution. Despite the risk attached to the work of selling, there were many young men who boldly faced it, not counting the cost, for Jesu's sake. These men were known as the 'Christian brothers', and the story is told of one named Garret, who sold a number of copies of Tyndale's New "Testament in Oxford, after which he made his way by road to Bristol. still selling his precious wares, and knowing all the time that he was taking his life in his hands. On arrival at Bristol the police were waiting for him, and he was imprisoned and put to death. Others met with a similar fate, while many more suffered terrible floggings and imprisonment.

Returning, however, to our narrative of Tyndale's life, the question may naturally arise in our minds, 'What was his reward for labours which can fairly be described as colossal?' The reply is that there is scarcely a sadder story in history. From 1525 to 1535 he went from place to place in danger of his life, but still working on an improved translation, King Henry VIII. and Cardinal Wolsey had spies watching assiduously to capture him, but friends protected him, among whom was a godly merchant named Thomas Poyntz, an Englishman trading in Antwerp. Eventually a villain, named Henry Phillips, was hired to act as betrayer and this man, pretending to invite Tyndale to dinner, with the most awful treachery, handed him over to the continental police. The translator was taken to Filford [sic] Castle, 18 miles from Antwerp, and imprisoned in a damp, dark dungeon for one hundred and thirty-five days. His sufferings there seem to have been very much like those of St Paul. We read of him wanting his cloak, his books, and a little human comfort! Alas I Rome knows no doctrine of kindness or liberty. On the 6th of October 1536, this faithful servant of God and the Church was taken frorn prison, tied to a stake and strangled, his dead body being forthwith burnt to ashes, at which point those who hated the truth could do no more, for his soul had gone, like the martyrs of former generations, to be 'for ever with the LORD.' His last words were a prayer, 'Lord! open the King of England's eyes.' Within a year an English Bible received Royal recognition, and in 1538, a Royal injunction ordered that every Parish Church in the land must have a Bible set up in a prominent place.

A monument to the memory of William Tyndale may be seen in the gardens on the Thames Embankment and there is another on the Cotswold Hills, but the best and most enduring monument is that of our English Bible, which. even now after so many years, is chiefly as it left the pen of our distinguished translator 'who, for his notable pains and travail', says Foxe, 'may well be called the Apostle of England.'

It should be understood that beside being one of the greatest translators of his own or any other day, Tyndale was a deep thinker and a first-class theologian. As we read through some of his leading works such as A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, or The Obedience of a Christian Man, we may well be forgiven if in this day of error and superstition we find ourselves quoting words used by Milton in another connect ion, but applying them to Tyndale: 'Thou shouldest be living at this hour: England hath need of thee ... we are selfish men. Oh' raise us up, return to us again, And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.'

Many useful lessons may be learned from any the study of Tyndale's life story*, but perhaps the most important of all is that of his guiding principle. He frequently exhorts as follows: 'Whosoever readeth compare this teaching unto Scripture.' Were he living amongst us in these days he would assuredly appeal to us and say, 'Test all the teaching you receive by the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. All sermons, all lectures, all books, all periodicals, all daily newspapers, all wireless talks, all the opinions of your friends; test them all by the teaching of the God-given Word.'

Applying such a rule to the teaching and practices of the Church of his day, Tyndale emphatically rejected the Romish and unscriptural tenets of:

  1. Transubstantiation and the Sacrifice of the Mass
  2. Confession of sins to priests
  3. Prayers for the dead
  4. Adoration of the Lord's Mother and the Saints.

It should be carefully noted that, by reason of his guiding principle of appealing to the Word, lie taught the true Scriptural doctrine of the Holy Communion, viz., that Christ does not come into sacramental bread and wine. but into the hearts of his true, faithful and loyal disciples, who are thereby spiritually refreshed. He also taught men to confess their sins to God directly - for 'to him all hearts are open, and from Him no secrets are hid' - and he explained that salvation is a free gift of God to mankind in Christ Jesus. It cannot be purchased by so-called 'good works'. Tyndale further taught that the faithful dead are with their Lord, and need not the imperfect prayers of the living. He was strongly against the worship of our Lord's Mother and of the various and numerous Saints; worship must be addressed directly to God in Christ Jesus (S. John 4. 24. and 14, 6).

This Reformation principle of the Authority of the Bible is still the bulwark of our Protestant Church of England. See Article VI. in the Prayer Book; 'Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to Salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of the Faith or be thought requisite or necessary to Salvation.' We must study the Bible more; otherwise we may make the huge mistake of accepting the unscriptural teachings which abound in the days of an unread Bible, thus counting the blood of our martyred Protestant forefathers an unholy thing. Eternal vigilance is still the price of Liberty.

Whenever wc read the Bible let us remind ourselves that here may be found,

  1. The mind of Christ and His Apostles
  2. The inspired word that leads to the Life Eternal
  3. The Book that always guides aright and never guides us wrongly.

Do not forget to pray for the Holy Spirit's guidance as you read: 'Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.' And remember, now and again, with gratitude, that this sacred Book, in its English form, we owe, under God, more to William Tyndale, as Translator and Martyr, than to any other human being.

Rev. F. G. Llewellin. B.D. (Durham); D. Litt.; F. R. Hist. S.
Vicar of Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent

(Author of Reformers and the Reformation, The Lamp of God, etc.)

*In Reformers and the Reformation, I have devoted a chapter to the Life and Teaching of William Tyndale.

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