Reformer, Martyr, God’s Smuggler
“William Tyndale gave us our English Bible.” So begins one of the most authoritative biographies of this great and extraordinarily gifted saint. He loved the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength; and he loved the Word of God, the Bible knowing that it is the Bible alone which gives us the way of salvation through faith in Christ. William Tyndale poured out his life, and ultimately gave his life that the English people would have and know God’s Word.
William Tyndale lived during the tumultuous period of the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. That event started a wildfire of demands for much needed reform in the church, not only in Luther’s Germany, but all across Europe. Tyndale’s life is a major part of the story of how God brought reformation to the English speaking people.
Luther began the Reformation by writing books and pamphlets, preaching, and teaching. The printed word was an especially powerful way to influence many people in his day, as the printing press was making books much cheaper to produce, print, and buy.
But Luther soon realized that the most important book to put into the hands of the people was the Bible. The only Bible translation available was the Latin Vulgate, which most people could not understand. Even many Roman Catholic priests could not read it or explain it. Following the Diet of Worms in 1521, while Luther was in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, he translated the New Testament into the German language. The common people were now able for the first time, to hear and read Scripture in their own language.
Reformation came more slowly to Tyndale’s native England. Henry VIII was king at the time. He was a strict Roman Catholic in doctrine, though in fact he did not care for the pope. In the England of Henry the VIII, it was illegal to translate the Bible into English. The church authorities believed that it would be dangerous for people to read the Bible themselves. How would they know how to interpret it without the Roman church to tell them what it meant? One English bishop complained that placing the Bible in the hands of the people would cause “the pearl of the gospel to be scattered on the ground and trodden in the mud by swine.” But the real problem was that the Roman Catholic church was not teaching the Bible to their people. They were happy to let the people live in ignorance and superstition, so long as the church was able to keep its position of privilege.
John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English over a hundred years before Luther. But he was declared a heretic by Rome. Even years after he died, the authorities had his body dug up and burned, and the ashes thrown into the river. Though a few of Wycliffe’s old Bibles still survived in secret, people could be arrested and put to death just for having one. The Bible was still a closed book for the English but God was preparing a man to change this.
William Tyndale was born in the year 1494 in Gloustershire, England. The Tyndales were a wealthy and important family in that part of England and many of his ancestors and relatives were lords and knights. We know very little about his early life, except that at the age of 18 he went to Oxford University and began study at Magdalen College. That same year he was also made a deacon, which was the first step to becoming a priest.
Tyndale was an excellent student, and was especially gifted in languages. In addition to English he also learned Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and of course, Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of the Bible.
In three years of study he had earned his Master’s degree and was ordained as a priest. He then began his doctoral study in theology, which had long been his goal. But when he began his coursework he was shocked and disappointed. He discovered that study of the Bible was not included in the theology program! So Tyndale began to organize small groups of students to study the Bible together. Though we don’t know for sure, most historians think that Tyndale first understood the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ during this time. It probably happened as he was studying the Bible. He may also have read some of Luther’s books at this time.
After his studies were completed, Tyndale left Oxford to become a chaplain in the home of Sir John Walsh, a wealthy English knight. His primary duty in the Walsh home was to tutor Sir John’s children. As part of their instruction, he used Erasmus’ Enchiridion Militi Christiani (The Christian Soldier’s Handbook) which he translated into English. This short treatise was a handbook of Christian life and faith and one of the duties prescribed for Christians in that book was the reading and study of the Word of God. Some of the other priests in Tyndale’s area were very disturbed that these sorts of things were being taught to children. .He was even brought before the local bishop on charges of heresy, but he was released with a warning.
But William Tyndale would not be silent about the Word of God. He began to preach from the Scritpures in the villages around the Walsh home. He was insisting that the Bible should be given to the people in English, that it should be explained to them, and that they should learn how to read it. One bishop named John Bell told Tyndale that it would be better for the people to be without God’s law, as long as they had the pope’s law. This was Tyndale’s famous response: “I defy the pope and his laws! If God spares my life, in a few years a plow boy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.”
Yet it was still against the law of the king and the church to have the Word of God in English. At about this time, an English couple were arrested for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and the 10 commandments in English. They were found guilty and burned to death. Such things infuriated Tyndale, causing him to begin in earnest to work on his own translation of the Bible. But he also tried as best as he could to respect the church and the law. He traveled to London to meet with church officials. He asked for their permission to publish the translation that he was working on. They refused. After trying again and again, and failing again and again, Tyndale realized what he needed to do.
He left England for the European continent. He would finish his translation there, then have it printed and sent back to England. In 1525, Tyndale’s completed New Testament was printed in Worms, Germany, with additional copies being printed in Antwerp, Belgium. A number of Christian merchants from England were supporting Tyndale and paying for the printing. They also figured out a way to get the Bibles back to England. These men owned their own ships and they traded with other merchants who lived in Germany, Belgium, and Holland. When a ship was ready to sail for England, they would hide Bibles in the cargo. Bibles would be mixed with wheat, with clothing, and with other books. In this way, Bibles began to pour into England. This is why Tyndale soon became known as “God’s Smuggler.”
When these New Testaments started showing up in England, they were condemned by the church and the state. The authorities would try to find as many copies as possible and then they would burn them publicly. Booksellers were warned that if they sold these Bibles, they too would be burned. Cardinal Woolsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the most powerful churchman in England, declared Tyndale a heretic and a criminal He issued orders that Tyndale be arrested.
Back on the European continent, Tyndale lived a life of constant difficulty and danger. King Henry of England, and his councilor, Sir Thomas More, sent many spies throughout Europe searching for Tyndale. They were ordered to arrest him and take him to England. Thomas More especially hated Tyndale and called him “a hell hound in the kennel of Satan…a devil worshipper and idolater.” Henry and More wanted to stop the spread of the English Bible.
It is believed that at this time, Tyndale probably hid for several years in Hamburg, Germany. Even his friends did not know where he was. He had already translated the New Testament. But he knew that was not enough. God’s people must have the whole Bible. So he began the work of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to English. He also wrote other books during this time. The Practice of the Prelates is a book dealing with the corruption and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. His book, The Obedience of the Christian Man is a wonderful explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the life of sanctification that every Christian is called to live. These books were also secretly printed and smuggled to England where they were a great help to Christians there.
Even while he was engaged in this great work, he was never safe. He knew he was a wanted man and he constantly moved from place to place. Because he was so secretive, we don’t know much about his life at this time. He was probably living in very poor run down area of whatever city he was living in at the time; or in barns out in the country. Of course, he couldn’t afford to attract attention. Tyndale lived on very little food and had almost no possessions, except for the books and papers he needed for his translations.
While working on the Old Testament, he feared that spies might find him in Hamburg. He decided to go to Antwerp in Belgium where he thought it might be safer. Tyndale got on a ship to cross the North Sea to Antwerp. During the trip, a fierce storm drove the ship onto the rocks and destroyed it. Many men drowned and Tyndale almost lost his life. He was just able to shore, but all of his papers were lost. He had already translated the first five books of the Old Testament and it had taken him three years, but all this work went down with the ship.
Never one to let discouragement defeat him, when he got to Antwerp, he started the Old Testament over and redid all the work he had lost. In 1530, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were printed in English at Antwerp. They also were smuggled into England.
In 1535, as Tyndale was still working on the Old Testament books, he met a young Englishman staying in Antwerp by the name of Henry Phillips. Tyndale had to be very careful about who he trusted, because he was a wanted man with a price on his head. But Henry Phillips seemed very encouraging about the work Tyndale was doing. He seemed like a good Christian man who could be trusted. One day, Tyndale accepted an invitiation to Henry Phillips’ home for dinner. When he arrived, there were other men waiting who grabbed Tyndale and tied him with ropes. Henry Phillips was a spy working for the king of England, and he had betrayed William Tyndale.
He was taken to a huge medieval fortress in Antwerp, and cast into a filthy and rat infested dungeon. He was beaten and mistreated and was held there for a year and a half. While there, Tyndale wrote a short paper in defense of his faith. It was called Faith Alone Justifies Before God. It is a wonderful explanation of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of salvation given to us in Jesus.
Finally he was brought back to England to face trial. These are the crimes that he was charged with:
for teaching that sinners are made right with God through faith alone.
for teaching that Christians do not need to go through a priest to have their sins forgiven.
for teaching that people should be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language.
Tyndale refused to say that he was wrong. He defended his answers by quoting from the Bible, which he had given his life to study and translate. In October 1536, he was declared guilty and was sentenced to death.
On the day of his death he was taken to the place of execution. First he was chained to a wooden stake. Then he was surrounded up to his waist with straw and wood sprinkled with gunpowder. High government and church officials were sitting in their seats of honor to watch. Many hundreds of townspeople had also come. The order was given and the hangman first strangled Tyndale, and when he was dead started the fire that burned his body.
But Tyndale was not silent in his death. Just before his death he prayed in a loud voice, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Just as our Savior Jesus did, Tyndale prayed for his enemies at the moment of his death. The Lord answered the prayer of William Tyndale, raising up other men, who took up the task where Tyndale had left off. When he died, only a third of the Old Testament had been translated. Less than two years after he died, King Henry decreed that the Bible should be translated into English, and that every church in the nation be required to have a copy. Except for a few minor changes, the English version used was almost exactly like the one produced by Tyndale. Tyndale’s dying prayer had been answered.
William Tyndale was a courageous and faithful servant of Jesus Christ. He gave his life so that others could read and hear the word of God. Today, every church in the English speaking world has a Bible. And practically every home has at least one Bible and probably more than one. Unfortunately, for so many, the Bible is still a closed book. For the lost to hear the gospel, for the church to be faithful, for the Christian to be holy, the word of God must be proclaimed and heard. Thanks to the work of Tyndale and men like him, we have the precious gift of the Word of God.
Lasting Effects of Tyndale’s Translation
No one reads Tyndale’s translation today, and some of the expressions seem funny or odd to us, like:
“The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a lucky fellow”
But many of the words and phrases he used were quite powerful and wonderfully captured the meaning of the Biblical text. Many parts of Tyndale’s translation were taken up by later translators and are very familiar to us. About 80% of Tyndale’s work ended up in the Authorized Version. Here are some examples of his wonderful skill in translating:
“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name”
“You are the salt of the earth”
“Fight the good fight”
“the fat of the land”
“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
He also coined new words to translate words or concepts for which there was not suitable English word. A number of these are familiar to us and are found even in modern translations, such as “Passover,” “atonement,” and “scapegoat.” Even more controversially, he stuck to more a literal translation of certain words that had been previously mistranslated and had led to doctrinal errors. For instance, his translation read repentance instead of do penance, elder or presbyter rather than priest, love and not charity.
Tyndale wanted the Bible translated so the common man could read it. At the same time, he understood that it was still the Word of God, that it must be treated with care and reverence. We need to remember that again today, when the Bible is often treated as any other consumer product. It is often copyrighted, packaged, and sold in a way that does not show reverence for God or his message. Should the Holy Bible is made into a comic book in ways that cause people to think it is only a fable or a fairy tail. Should God’s Holy Word be packaged as a fashion or sports magazine to try to appeal to the youth culture. Or should it be designed to appeal to adults who are more interested in themselves than they are in the inspired message of the Lord.
As English speaking (and reading) Christians today, we should be thankful for the life and work of William Tyndale. He stands before us as a faithful example of a man who revered the Word of God. Tyndale’s life and sacrifice should spur us on to a similar reverence for the Bible. Not a false reverence that confines the Scripture to a bookshelf; But a reverence that brings us to the Word to hear, to read, to study, to believe, obey and proclaim. The Bible is the very voice, breath, and Word of Almighty God. It is through the Word and the Word alone that we can have saving knowledge of the only true and holy God through His Son, Jesus Christ. It is only through the Word that we can know the Lord’s will for our lives and that we grow and become mature in our understanding. Though Tyndale at the end of his life was chained, the Word of God that he translated into English can never be chained.
God’s Bestseller by Brian Moynahan, St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
History of the Bible in English by F.F. Bruce, Oxford University Press, 1978.
William Tyndale: A Biography by David Daniell, Yale University Press, 1994.