On October 6, 1536, in Vilvoorde, Belgium, officials bound an Englishman to a cross of wood in the yard of a castle used as a prison.
After strangling the man, they lit him on fire.
When his form was consumed to ashes, those were scattered—to prevent any known resting place of his remains.
What dreadful crime had he committed to be killed in this way?
He had translated books of the Bible into English.
* * *
For centuries, authorites of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) had suppressed the reading and preaching of Scripture without their express permission and guidance.
In 1215, Pope Innocent III, with the Fourth Lateran Council, forbid individual study of Scripture. “The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places...For such is the depth of divine Scripture, that not only the simple and illiterate but even the prudent and learned are not fully sufficient to try to understand it.”
Scripture strikes down this notion:
- “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” Jesus, Matthew 11:25b
- “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Jesus, Mark 16:15
- “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery...” Paul, Ephesians 3:8-9a
- “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” 1 Cor. 1:28
The RCC also dictated: “[A]ll those prohibited or not sent who, without the authority of the Apostolic See or of the Catholic bishop of the locality, shall presume to usurp the office of preaching either publicly or privately, shall be excommunicated and unless they amend, and the sooner the better, they shall be visited with a further suitable penalty.” [“Further suitable penalty” could be prison, torture, or death.]
That is to say, anyone who preached, publicly or privately, whom the RCC had not sent or expressly prohibited would be excommunicated and perhaps penalized further.
Scripture rebuts this cliquishness as well. Luke 9:49-50 reads:
And John answered and said, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us.” 50 And Jesus said unto him, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.”
In the 1380s, John Wycliffe bucked the establishment and published a translation of the New Testament into English. In retaliation, the Third Synod of Oxford declared in 1408: “No one shall henceforth of his own authority translate any text of Scripture into English; and no part of any such book or treatise composed in the time of John Wycliffe or later shall be read in public or private, under pain of excommunication.”
None of this would hinder William Tyndale, born in England in the early 1490s (1494 is a widely-accepted birth year) from obeying God rather than man, and translating His word.
Little is certain about his childhood. Tyndale enrolled in school in 1506, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1512, and a master’s in 1515, at Oxford. Among these studies, he learned several languages, and would later learn more. In 1526, an emiment German, Herman Buschius, described Tyndale to Georg Spalatin (ally of Luther, secretary to the Elector of Saxony) as:
“so skilled in seven languages, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, French, that whichever he spoke you would suppose it is his native tongue.”
(Tyndale knew German also; why Buschius omitted German from the list is unknown. And the Hebrew Tyndale learned was ancient, that of Old Testament manuscripts, not modern Hebrew; so he may well have exaggerated in his assessment of Tyndale’s speaking fluency therein. Notwithstanding, Tyndale certainly excelled linguistically.)
The spirit of reformation had reached England, and Tyndale absorbed it. He wanted the Bible to be translated into English for English-speaking people. He knew the opposition against this; the status quo had made fatally clear their position.
In one exchange early on, a priest told him, “We are better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Tyndale rejoined: “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spares my life ere many years I will cause a boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”
“The History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century” provides this similar discussion:
Tyndale occupied the humblest place, and generally kept Erasmus’s New Testament within reach, in order to prove what he advanced. [...] The priests grew impatient when they saw the terrible volume appear. “Your Scriptures only serve to make heretics,” they exclaimed.
“On the contrary,” replied Tyndale, “the source of all heresies is pride; now the Word of God strips man of everything, and leaves him as bare as Job.” –“The Word of God! Why even we don’t understand your Word, how can the vulgar understand it?” —“You do not understand it,” rejoined Tyndale, “because you look into it only for foolish questions, as you would into our Lady’s Matins, or Merlin’s Prophecies. Now, the Scriptures are a clue which we must follow, without turning aside, until we arrive at Christ; for Christ is the end.”
“And I tell you,” shouted out a priest, “that the Scriptures are a Daedalian labyrinth, rather than Ariadne’s clue—a conjuring book wherein everybody finds what he wants.”—“Alas!” replied Tyndale; “you read them without Jesus Christ; that’s why they are an obscure book to you. What do I say? A den of thorns where you only escape from the briers to be caught by the brambles.”
“No!” exclaimed another clerk, heedless of contradicting his colleague, “nothing is obscure to us; it is we who give the Scriptures, and we who explain them to you.”
“You would lose both your time and your trouble,” said Tyndale; “do you know who taught the eagles to find their prey? Well, that same God teaches His hungry children to find their Father in Hiw Word. Far from having given us the Scriptures, it is you who have hidden them from us; it is you who burn those who teach them; and if you could, you would burn the Scriptures themselves.”
In 1523, Tyndale approached the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, seeking authorization for an English translation of the Bible. Tunstall rejected the request.
Tyndale reciprocated the rejection. He left England—never to return— in 1524 in order to begin, for the first time in history, translating the New Testament from the original Greek into English (Wycliffe’s publication had been a translation from a translation— Latin). At some point after leaving England, he began teaching himself Hebrew—unknown in his mother country.
Tyndale published the New Testament in 1525.
Several thousand copies were printed and smuggled into England, alarming and angering the status quo.
Bishop Tunstall fumed in this publication issued October 24, 1526: “[M]any children of iniquity, maintainers of Luther’s sect, blinded through extreme wickedness, wandering from the way of truth and the Catholic faith, craftily have translated the New Testament into our English tongue, intermingling therewith many heretical articles...of which translation there are many books imprinted, some with glosses and some without, containing in the English tongue that pestiferous and most pernicious poison, dispersed all throughout our diocese of London in great number...” [Emphasis in original]
In his October prohibition, Tunstall ordered all copies to be confiscated within thirty days under pain of excommunication and suspicion of heresy to the owners.
Brian Moynahan detailed what followed in “God’s Bestseller”:
[T]he bishop did not wait a month. Rumours that there was to be a grand conflagration of Tyndale’s work had been current since early September... The burning took place at St. Paul’s Cross, most probably on Sunday 28 October 1526. Tunstall preached a fiery sermon, dismissing the Testament’s doctrinam peregrinam, strange doctrine, and denouncing it for containing ‘errours three thousand or more.’ When he had finished, every copy of Tyndale’s translation that had been seized was burnt.
Today, even a secular expert in manuscripts and translations has no such condemnation for Tyndale’s translation skills. For Professor Harold Bloom testifies in his Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible:
The New Testament is frequently an awkward body of work in the original, since its authors thought in Aramaic while writing in demotic Greek. Nearly everything memorable in the English New Testament is the achievement of the matchless (except by Chaucer and Shakespeare) William Tyndale...I have been reading the Greek New Testament incessantly since taking a course on it as a Cornell undergraduate more than sixty years ago, and have just reread it side by side with Tyndale’s New Testament.[...] Since the KJB New Testament is well over 85 percent Tyndale his pioneer transformation of the text into an eloquent plain style remains beyond praise.
In July 1528, English ambassadors were sent to the Low Countries to find Tyndale. For the next several years, Tyndale evaded his pursuers, moving from city to city, and continued translating. During these years he finished learning Hebrew and began translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into English—again, the first man to make this endeavor.
From 1527 to 1529, clear evidence of his location is lacking. From March to December 1529, he worked on translating the Pentateuch. This he did despite the severy of the RCC and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, as recorded by Stef van Gompel in “Formalities in Copyright Law&rdqou;:
By Imperial Edict of 14 October 1529, Charles V introduced a strict regime of pre-publication censorship. No book was allowed to be printed or published unless it was officially approved by the censor. Moreover, a book privilege needed to be obtained. Disobedient printers were threatened with rigorous penalties. They could be condemned to the scaffold or stigmatized with a burning iron cross, have an eye stuck out or a hand cut off, at the judge’s discretion.
Charles V also decreed in 1529 that the “reading, purchasing, or possessing any proscribed [forbidden] books, or any New Testaments prohibited by the theologians of Lovain; attendance at any meeting of heretics, disputing about Holy Sripture, want [lack] of due respect to the images of God and the Saints,” were to be treated as crimes for which “men were to be beheaded, women buried alive, and the relapsed burnt.”
The Genesis of Tyndale’s Old Testament translation bore the imprint of the Marburg printer, Hans Luft, dated January 17, 1530. The Pentateuch was not printed as a whole, but was issued, apparently, at intervals. These books were smuggled into England and distributed.
Dr. Harold Bloom also highly esteemed Tyndale’s Hebrew translation: “Tyndale, the authentic genius of English Bible translation, invented a new prose vernacular in his quest for a ‘literal’ rendering of Hebrew into English.”
In 1534, Thomas Poyntz, an English merchant in Antwerp, provided logding to Tyndale. While still translating the Old Testament, Tyndale also revised and improved his New Testament, and published a second edition. Meanwhile, in England, an embezzler named Henry Phillips accepted a lucrative deal to go to the Continent and find Tyndale. After tracking Tyndale down, he established a friendship. In 1535, he lured Tyndale into a narrow passage, where he was arrested and subsequently imprisoned. The authorities raided the home of Poyntz, but somehow the translation of Joshua to II Chronicles survived.
A thorough biographer of Tyndale, Robert Demaus, found in the Archives at Brussels the formal entry of the payment to the Lieutenant of the Castle of Vilvoorde, Adolph Van Wesele, of the expenses incurred during Tyndale’s imprisonment “of a year and a hundred and thirty-five days.” (This document Demaus printed in the Appendix to the biography.) Tyndale was martyred on October 6th; thus, Demaus calcuated that he must have been arrested on the 23rd or 24th of May, 1535.
Six miles from Brussels, in the castle-turned-prison of Vilvoorde, they imprisoned Tyndale for 500 days. Demaus wrote, “[S]carce a vestige now remain: it was demolished at the end of last century [the 1700s].”
How did Tyndale comport himself in prison? John Foxe testified, “Such was the power of his doctrine and the sincerity of his life, that during the time of his imprisonment, which endured a year and a half [very nearly], it is said, that he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household. Also the rest that were with Tyndale conversant in the castle, reported of him that if he were not a good Christian man, they could not tell whom to trust.”
A letter Tyndale penned, presumably to the Governor of Vilvoorde, during the 16 months in captivity, wrings the heart of anyone possessing human sympathy. He wrote it in Latin, but Demaus provides the translation:
I believe, right worshipful, that you are not ignorant of what has been determined concerning me [by the Council of Brabant]; therefore I entreat your Lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here [in Vilvorde] during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in the cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat has been worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woolen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a candle in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark.
But, above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And, in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if any other resolution has been come to concerning me, that I must remain during the whole winter, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God, to the glory of the Grace of my Lord Jesu Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen. W. TYNDALE.
The Methodist Quarterly Review, Vol. 66, of 1884, describes Tyndale’s court hearing:
In August, 1536, he was arraigned before the ecclesiastical court for having infringed the imperial decree forbidding any one to teach that faith alone justifies. The accusation was true, and Tyndale’s doctrine was also true. The imperial decree was utterly unchristian and indefensible. Tyndale defended himself with such scriptural logic and touching eloquence to win the minds and hearts of the court that tried him. “Truly,” exclaimed the procurator-general, “truly this was a good, learned, and pious man!” But that was the very reason why the Romish priests, like the murderers of our Lord, thirsted for his blood. Tyndale was declared guilty, was solemnly deprived of his clerical character, expelled from the Church of Rome, and delivered to the secular powers for capital punishment.
Biographer Demaus ascertained the exact date of Tyndale’s condemnation “from the dispatch of John Hutton, one of Cromwell’s envoys the Low Countries. Writing from Antwerp on the 12th of August, he informs the Secretary, ‘So it is that on the tenth day of this present the Procureur-General, which is in the Emperor’s attorney for these parts, dined with me here in the English House, who satisfied me that William Tyndale is degraded and condened into the hands of the secular power, so that he is very like to suffer death this next week.’ ”
Tyndale’s execution indeed came—a few weeks later on October 6.
His last words are recorded as, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” Then he was strangled and burned, and his ashes scattered.
“They do all things of a good zeal, they say,” Tyndale wrote in 1528. “They love you so well, that they had rather burn you, than that you should have fellowship with Christ. They are jealous over you amiss (as saith St. Paul Gal. iv.). They would divide you from Christ and His holy Testament, and join you to the Pope, to believe in his testament and promises...In burning the New Testament they did none other thing than that I looked for, no more shall they do if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall so be.”
In “Obedience of a Christian Man,” he proclaimed, “[T]here is none other way into the kingdom of life than through persecution, and suffering of pain, and of very death, after the ensample of Christ: therefore, let us arm our souls with the comfort of the Scriptures.”
Five centuries later, sadly, many Americans do not arms their souls thus. Nor do they appreciate the blessing and privilege of the Bible in the English language, which Tyndale worked so tireless to bequeath to English-speakers.
Indeed, few Americans could appreciate or relate to many aspects of Tyndale’s life and work. How many Americans know more than one language? How many Americans can read and write that one language well? How many Americans make spelling and grammar mistakes in the simplest of matters? How many Americans have spent the time and effort to learn a second language, (much less eight in all)? How many Americans would defy federal law in order to translate manuscripts in an ancient tongue, a dead language, into English? How many Americans would translate anything if it meant living in hiding, and moving from country to country?
Professor and researcher David Daniell pens a moving tribute to Tyndale in the introduction of his biography:
Very many of the treasures which have enriched the lives and language of English speakers since the 1530s were made by Tyndale: a long list of phrases like ‘the powers that be’ or ‘let there be light’ or ‘the spirit is willing’; the haunting phrasing in parables like the Prodigal Son, ‘this thy brother was dead, and is alive again: and was lost, and is found’; the gospel stories of Christmas (‘there were shepherds abiding in the field’) through to the events of the Passion in Jerusalem and the Resurrection: in the Old Testament, the telling of Creation and of Adam and Eve, right through the history told there to the Exile in Babylon. All these things came as something new to the men and women of Tyndale’s time in the 1520s and the 1530s. That was because Tyndale translated them, for the first time, from their original texts in Greek and Hebrew, into English; and then printed them in pocket volumes for everyone to own. Apart from manuscript translations into English from the Latin, made at the time of Chaucer, and linked with the Lollards, the Bible had been only in that Latin translation made a thousand years before, and few could understand it. ...His unsurpassed ability was to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs, and chapters, and to do so in a way that, again unusually for the time, is still, even today, direct and living: newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare. At the centre of it all for him was his root in the deepest heart of New Testament theology, a faith of the sort that can, and did, move mountains. Tyndale as conscious craftsman has been not just neglected, but denied: yet the evidence of the book that follows makes it beyond challenge that he used, as a master, the skill in the selection and arrangement of words which he partly learned at school and university, and partly developed from pioneering work by Erasmus. [...] A weak translator goes for paraphrase, or worse, for philological purity, and hang the sense (as the Authorised Version did often with the Prophets, for example, in those books lacking Tyndale as a base). Tyndale is clear. With a difficult word or phrase, he understand the alternatives presented by technical semantics, or changes of tone or feeling, and goes for what makes sense... In doing all this, he made a language for England. [...] That Book was made by Tyndale in the language people spoke, not as the scholars wrote. At a time when English was struggling to find a form that was neither Latin nor French, Tyndale gave the nation a Bible language that was English in words, word-order and lilt. He invented some words (for example, ‘scape-goat,’) and the great Oxford English Dictionary has mis-attributed, and thus also mis-dated, a number of his first uses.
Thank William Tyndale for being willing to be God’s instrument; for disboeying tyranny of the church and state; for giving up home, comfort, security, to translate the living word of God, so that its Light could shine into the hearts and upon the paths of many whom spiritual darkness had bound for so long.
We all owe him so much.
Had he not submitted himself to God’s will, how many others would have died without knowledge of God’s will? How many others would have lacked the armor of God, the sword of His Word, the shield of faith, so that they could, in turn, overcome secular and religious tyranny?