William Tyndale

The Dream of an English Gospel

The dramatisation by the BBC of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, has brought Tudor England and it’s characters into the forefront of the public’s conciousness at the moment. Figures like Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and Thomas More are having their reputations analysed in the public eye as the media seeks to explore the balance between fiction and history. One figure mentioned in those books, however, towers above the rest for me: William Tyndale.

When Elijah was on the run from the power crazed insanity of Jezebel, he cried out to God saying that he was the only believer left. “No,” replied God, “I have kept for myself a remnant who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” No matter how dark history had gotten at times, God had established a thread of His people throughout it all; a light that never went out. Tyndale was one such man; born at a time when the established church had pursued many false teachings and vain excesses, he was a passionate believer in the power of the gospel.

In the centuries before Tyndale the church had slipped to arguably it’s lowest ebb, many had departed from the gospel and used what should have been good as a way to oppress, judge and rob from the poor. The moneyed, educated class, had a monopoly on the bible and banned it from being translated into any tongue other than Latin – an already dead language that only they spoke. Verses were cherry picked from the text and used to manipulate and control rather than bring life.

Step out of the darkness John Wycliffe, whose family hailed from a village on the river Tees. Wycliffe’s heart for the word of God and the fact that people should be able to read it in their native tongue. He railed against the excesses and abuses of power of the Papacy and pursued His ideals of spreading the word in English. He spent his life battling the establishment for the cause.

Wycliffe’s views were considered so radical, so dangerous, that years after his death his opponents dug up his body, tied it to a stake, and burned it. His ideas were harder to kill. There was not enough kindling in the kingdom to stop the spread of the word of God in English.

A century later and into the fray comes William Tyndale, possessed of an all consuming passion to spread the gospel. His dream was for everyone to know the scriptures and he dedicated his whole life to spreading them. Upon getting into a discourse with a member of the clergy who believed that the pope’s law was more important than scripture Tyndale countered with what was to become his mission statement and reason for living.

“I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
– William Tyndale

Tyndale believed in the power of scripture to change lives, that the bible was not a dusty book to be read in Latin by the few but the living word of God to be on the tongues and the hearts of the many. To further this dream he decided to translate the whole bible into the English of the day. Forced onto the run by the pursuit of Thomas More, Tyndale fled to Europe and continued to translate with the constant prayer that he would live long enough to complete his work.

Alongside translating and organising the distribution of scripture Tyndale engaged in theological discourse with his opponents, not least of whom was Sir Thomas More, trying to show them the truth from the word of God. At the peak of his output Anne Boleyn owned a copy of his work, The Obedience of a Christian Man, that she requested Henry VIII read. Henry, however, soon joined the ranks of his opponents as Tyndale refused to compromise the truth of scripture to give arguments in support of Henry’s lifestyle.

Tyndale’s dream made him the first man to translate into the English of his day by consulting the original Greek and Hebrew, rather than just the 4th Century Latin vulgate. Knowing that many could not read he used the language in a way that was memorable and repeatable by everyone; rhythm, rhyme and metre all played an important part in making the word memorable and easily repeatable. Through him many phrases entered the English language, indeed it is to the two Williams, Shakespeare and Tyndale, that we owe much of the development of the English language.

In 1535 William Tyndale was betrayed in Antwerp and arrested. He had translated all of the new testament and a large proportion of the old. At the age of 42 he was taken out to be executed, though not before he had converted the jailer and his family. The practice of mercifully strangling failed and he was conscious as the fire was lit, letting out a last prayer of: “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”

William Tyndale was so dedicated to making God’s word available to all that he gave his life to that purpose. He gave up comfort and country to become a fugitive, staying a step ahead of the law in order to achieve his task. Within years of his death the first official English translations of the bible were made, drawing heavily on his work, and less than a century later came the King James Version.

In an age where we lionise Assange and Snowden for their courage behind a computer terminal, how much more important was a man like Tyndale with his courage in the face of being burned alive? Along with other early reformers, such as Luther, Tyndale helped to transform the faith landscape in Europe. God places dreams in the hearts of willing and determined people and uses them to affect the course of nations. What would our world be like if we had a fraction of the determination of this man to spread the gospel?

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Portrait of William Tyndale; Public Domain, taken from Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

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