The Fearless Mission of William Tyndale (1494-1536) (1)


When we pick up our English Bibles and read them – whether it is at church in the worship service, or whether it is at home at the supper table or beside our beds at night – there are two things that we as English-speaking people probably take for granted every single time.  First, we probably take for granted that our Bibles are written in English, a language that we can actually read and understand.  Second, we probably take for granted that we have access to our own personal Bibles, and that we do not have to share one Bibles with every other member of our entire congregation.  There was a time when English-speaking people did not enjoy such rich privileges.  In this article, we will travel back to that time – to the time of William Tyndale at the beginning of the 16th century.

There is also a third thing about our English Bibles that perhaps none of us notices as we read.  And that is this: the words we read out of our English King James Bibles come almost word for word from the translation work of one man.  Every time we open our King James Bibles, and every time we memorize a verse or two from the scriptures, the English words that we are using and the ways in which the sentences flow off our tongues have been heavily influenced by the life and work of one man whom few of us know anything about, and who sacrificed his entire life in order to give a faithful, accurate, and beautiful translation of the Bible into the English language.  That man, of course, was William Tyndale.

Words that had never existed before in the English language – words like “scapegoat” or “Passover” – were words that William Tyndale coined.  Words such as “atonement” and “mercy seat” are familiar to us because of William Tyndale’s work.  The phrases “the twinkling of an eye,” or “filthy lucre,” or “a moment in time,” or “the powers that be,” – all these phrases (and many more!) come to us through the translation work of William Tyndale.

Our beloved Kings James version was commissioned by King James of England almost 100 years after William Tyndale lived.  47 scholars were assigned to the task.  These scholars spent 7 years doing their translation work, with the purpose that the King James Version would be the definitive, the trustworthy, and accurate translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into the English language.  And this is what happened: Those 47 scholars ended up borrowing 86% of their translation of the New Testament from William Tyndale, and they ended up borrowing 76% of their translation of the Old Testament (the first half of it) from William Tyndale.  William Tyndale was such an excellent translator of the English Bibles, he got things so right, so accurate, and at the same time, put it in such beautiful and dignified language, and yet also with such a simple and clear style, that what you have in the King James Version is due in large part to the work of this one man, William Tyndale.  It is no wonder that William Tyndale has gone down in history with the title, “the Father of the English Bible.”

It was through William Tyndale that God gave the English-speaking people a Bible they could read and understand for themselves.  And it was through William Tyndale that God gave the English-speaking people a Bibles they could personally afford and possess.  But all this work would cost Tyndale his life.  It would cost him his life at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church and the government authorities.


His Early Life:

William Tyndale was born in England around 1494.  He was born in a country that was covered in spiritual darkness.  England was under the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church was ruthless in its suppression of gospel truths.  The priests themselves were nearly entirely illiterate.  It is said that of the 20,000 priests in England, not one could translate a line from the Lord’s Prayer from Latin to English.[1]  Besides that, the priests were characterized by gross immorality and corruption in their personal lives and in church government.  The church played upon the superstition and ignorance of the common people, who were dreadfully being taken advantage of.  The people had no Bibles of their own, and had nothing to go off of but the word of the priests.  If the people wanted any hope of salvation, they had to pay their priests and submit to them.  It is hard for us to imagine living in this kind of bondage.

However, there had been glimmers of spiritual life and of reformation before Tyndale’s day.  Over one hundred years before Tyndale, there was a man by the name of John Wycliffe.  He was a professor at Oxford who was given the grace to see through the darkness of the Catholic Church, and who emphasized that the Bible needed to be given to the ordinary church member for him to read for himself.  Wycliffe translated the Bible into English from the Latin version, and had men who copied this English translation by hand, and spread these copies throughout England.  But so angry was the Roman Catholic Church with Wycliffe’s translation, and they felt so threatened by it, that the Roman Catholic Church in England made it illegal for anyone to translate the Bible into English without a license from a Roman Catholic bishop.  If anyone should translate the Bible into English, or make copies in English, they would risk being burned at the stake.  That law was still in effect in Tyndale’s day, so that when Tyndale was growing up, Bibles were very rare, and were not in a language that the people could understand.

Not much is known about Tyndale’s childhood.  When Tyndale was 12 years old, he went to Oxford University – the most prestigious university in all of England, where he received probably the best education in all of Europe and all the world.  Tyndale showed himself to be a very hard-working and gifted scholar, especially in the languages.  Throughout the course of his life, Tyndale would become fluent in no fewer than eight languages – Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, German, and French.  He was a linguistic genius.

After his time at Oxford, in 1519 Tyndale went to study at Cambridge University, which had recently become the center of the Protestant teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546), who had nailed his famous 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg only two years earlier.  On the campus at Cambridge, students of Luther-like convictions would meet together at a place called “the White Horse Inn”, and debate the ideas of Luther.  Some scholars believe that Tyndale was among this group of students.  It seems that it was during his time at Cambridge that Tyndale began to see the gospel more clearly and embraced it.

In 1521, Tyndale left Cambridge and became a tutor and the chaplain for a family in the countryside of England.  While living there, Tyndale saw just how ignorant the Roman Catholic priests were, and how they were taking such horrible advantage of the common people.  (Again, the common people did not have any access to the scriptures, so that it was easy for the priests to deceive them.  Tyndale, of course, could read the Bible for himself, and even read the original Greek New Testament for himself.)  In one conversation with a Roman Catholic priest, Tyndale got into an argument about how God saves his people.  And the Roman Catholic priest said, “We had better be without God’s laws than the pope’s” (Meaning it would be better to obey the pope rather than obey God).  In response, Tyndale said, “I defy the pope and all his laws.   If God spare my life, before many years, I will cause the farmer-boy who works with the plough in the fields to know more of the scriptures than you.”  And from this time forward, this became Tyndale’s mission in life: to get the Bible itself into the hands of the common people.  Not only was it his mission, it was the calling that God had given Tyndale in life.  God had given Tyndale the needed gifts, and had worked everything in Tyndale’s life for this purpose.

In order to carry out this work, Tyndale knew what the appropriate steps would be: first, get the approval of a bishop.  In 1523 Tyndale went to London and spoke to a bishop about getting permission to translate the Bible into English and publish.  However, the entire Roman Catholic Church was well aware of the kind of social and religious upheaval that was taking place in Germany because of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German only a year earlier.  The bishop refused to give Tyndale permission to translate the Bible.

There were only two things for Tyndale to choose from: either go home and ignore the great need that the people had for the gospel, or leave England, never to return again, to carry out his translation and publication of the Bible in English.  Tyndale chose the latter.  And like the patriarch Abraham, and like many others of God’s people throughout the years, Tyndale went out, not knowing where he was going.  But he went out, knowing that he had to obey God, and trust God.

Tyndale knew that the gospel would not come to England, and that reformation would not take place in England unless the people had the Bible in their own language, and could read it themselves.

Let us never take for granted the great privileges we have – to own our own copy of the scriptures (many copies, sometimes), and to be able to ready the scriptures whenever we want.


To be continued

[1] Steven J. Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust), xviii.  For those interested in a short biography of William Tyndale, I would recommend this book, upon which I relied heavily for my research.