William Tyndale`s life spanned a most important period in the history of Britain, when she moved out of the “Dark Ages” and entered a new age illuminated by the light of God`s Word shining upon God`s people. When he was born, the country was full of gross religious superstitions, and in bondage to a professedly “Christian Church” power which persecuted genuine Christians, and impoverished most of the people. Tyndale perceived that at the root of all the problems, both spiritual and social, lay ignorance of God, and of His truth revealed in the Holy Scriptures. The common people were forbidden to read them, and the clergy failed to study and communicate the teaching of the Bible, and the Latin language was unintelligible to most in the land. Seeing the squalor in which most of the working classes lived, and the injustices they suffered from church and state, Tyndale was convinced that it was necessary, “To establish the lay people in the truth”. He reckoned that this could only be accomplished when the Bible was available to them all, in an English translation. Well known is his statement, “If God spare my life I will, before many years have passed, cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than the clergy do!”
Little is known of William Tyndale`s early life, but it is very probable that he was born in 1494 on the edge of the Cotswold hills, halfway between Bristol and Gloucester. From grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge, Tyndale was sent at the age of 12 to Magdalene College in Oxford, to receive grounding in Latin. He obtained his B.A. when he was 18, and his M.A. at 21.
Scripture was studied at Oxford, but only after years of brainwashing ensured that nothing of spiritual value could be derived from it. Theology could not even be studied till the entire Arts course was studied first. Tyndale wrote, “In the universities they have ordained that no man shall look in the Scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning for eight or nine years, and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of Scripture.” This system of instruction ensured that Romish heresies would be taught, and that gospel light be extinguished, and thence the students would be denied spiritual blessings from the Word of God.
But in spite of his acute dissatisfaction with the place, Tyndale persevered at Oxford, and was most likely ordained in 1521 at the age of 27. Shortly after his ordination he took up an appointment as tutor to the two young boys of Sir John Walsh, a long standing friend of Henry VIII, and twice High Sheriff of Gloucestershire. He also did much preaching at this time in the Bristol area, and inevitably attracted the scornful attention of the local clerics, because of his biblical zeal, as had happened a century and a half before, under John Wycliffe.
Despite persistent efforts to find a commission for his work of translating the Scriptures, by 1524 he resigned himself to the fact that he would need to go abroad to take up this work. So Tyndale left London for Cologne where he would be able to find a printer who was willing to co-operate with him. He knew, however, that by leaving London, he was still by no means out of danger. It was clear that to press ahead with this commission would very probably mean living the rest of his life on the run, evading the Romish authorities, and enduring all manner of setbacks and discouragements.
Sir Thomas More who vehemently opposed Tyndale`s aims and convictions described him as, “a man of good living, studious and well learned in Scripture, and in divers places of England was very well liked and did great good with preaching.” But in a letter to his friend John Frith he wrote, “God hath made me evil-favoured in this world, and without grace in the eyes of men.”
Tyndale was not a man-pleaser: in answering his great calling, he knew he was signing his own death warrant. To translate the Scriptures into the English language was forbidden by the Romish authorities. It is likely that this was due in part to the irrepressible energy of Cardinal Wolsey, that miniature pope and formidable arch-enemy of the Gospel.
We may wonder why the 16th century English Church, while still under Rome`s rule, justified its suppression of the Scriptures, as if they had been something dangerous. Indeed, a law was passed in 1229, whereby the interpretation of the Bible was forbidden to the laity, and was still in force in Tyndale`s time, two centuries later. It is understandable that Rome would feel themselves so threatened by the propagation of Scripture, for it is their conviction that Scripture and tradition together were the Church`s supreme rule of faith, and it is their practice that where these two are in disagreement, it is Scripture that must give way, while tradition remains unchallenged. For Tyndale, however, Scripture alone must be the rule of faith.
In a sermon sixteen years after Tyndale`s death, Hugh Latimer attributed Tyndale`s translation to the providence of God, “Truly we are much bound to God that He hath set out this His will in our natural mother tongue, in English, I say, so that now you may not only hear it, but also read it for yourselves; which thing is a great comfort to every Christian heart.”
Latimer goes on to demonstrate that the Reformation, then making such swift progress, was directly and indispensably attributed to Tyndale`s sacrifice. He quoted Romans 15:4, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” He goes on to ask with reference to Ephesians 6:17, “How could the lay people have that sword of the Spirit, how could they fight with the devil, when all things were in Latin, so that they could not understand it? Therefore, how needful it is for every man to have God`s Word….only with the Word of God shall we avoid and chase the devil, and with nothing else”.
As knowledge of the Scriptures increased, many were converted. Rome`s falsehood was exposed for what it really was. The process was not immediate. It took thirteen years, after Tyndale`s martyrdom, before English replaced Latin in English Church services.
Seconds before he died, he prayed, “Lord, open the King of England`s eyes”, (Henry VIII). God answered. Within three years the King relented; Miles Coverdale, who had completed the remainder of the Old Testament was permitted to publish England`s first Authorised Version, the Great Bible of 1539.
This was enough. The great dam that Rome had built to stop up the flow of Gospel blessings, the waters of life, had been broken. This flow would be a raging torrent. It would be unstoppable. Praise God for William Tyndale!