THE LIFE AND WORK OF WILLIAM TYNDALE
By: Michael Hobbis
Part 1 (of 3)
The enemy is at the gates
As I write, a Roman Catholic Cardinal has, after almost five centuries and with full permission of Her Majesty the Queen of England, engaged in a vespers service in the very chapel at Hampton Court where Henry VIII worshipped. The same Henry who, in the wonderful providence of God, dismissed Cardinal Wolsey from office as his advisor and confidant and repudiated the Pope of Rome and all his ways. Some would say that this was merely in a fit of pique because he desired a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, however, as we study the life of our subject, William Tyndale, we shall see that he had more than a little influence in this breach with Papal authority, by the grace of Him who turneth the heart of Kings; whithersoever He will (see Proverbs 21:1).
This then is surely a fitting time to remind ourselves of the goodness of God in raising up such a one as William Tyndale, now that we appear to have come to a period in our contemporary history when, once more, the darkness of ignorance, superstition and false religion threatens to envelop us again.
That the Authorised Version of the Bible, referred to by some as the King James Bible, has been that great work which has had more influence upon the religious life of this nation than any other translation of the Word of God, is surely a matter beyond dispute. This nation owes much to the work of this one man who, in his service for Christ and in the strength of His grace, brought back to this nation the pure Word of God and so laid the foundation for the prosperity of its people all over the British Empire.
It is also a generally accepted fact that 80 % (some would claim 90%) of the King James Bible rests on the original translating work of William Tyndale from 1525 – 1535.
A poor wise man raised up
What is truly amazing – and this probably says much about the self-effacing character of Tyndale – is that until the Annals of the English Bible written by Anderson in 1845 – and apart from the Acts and Monuments of John Foxe – little was known or written about him. “The poor wise man” of the little city in Ecclesiastes chapter nine delivered the city by his wisdom and no man remembered him. In comparison with the mighty effects of the grace of God through him, how little is this 16th century English poor man William Tyndale regarded either. Yet possibly no man had a greater effect for good in the spiritual life of this nation than Tyndale.
When we study his life we can trace the finger of God in providentially using his Godly servant to give to the people of this nation – and we may say the English speaking world – the Words of life and salvation in their common tongue. By means of the diligent work of mainly one man, this country in the 16th century was brought into the light by the Holy Spirit of God spreading the truth of Holy Scripture throughout the land and bringing soul- refreshing views of Jesus and His Word to the hearts of thousands, dispelling the darkness of a fetid and soul-destroying religion and also bringing the Reformation of the Christian religion in Europe to these islands.
To build up again “the waste places”
As this blessed and green and pleasant land is again turning back into pre-Reformation darkness, let us in the same spirit as Tyndale seek to do what we can to remind our fellow citizens of that great Christian heritage, which came about through the mercy of God in turning back a floodtide of impiety and spiritual falsehood and bringing that Word of light and life, the Bible, to the common man. Tyndale was “a repairer of the breach, a restorer of paths to dwell in”; so by the power and grace of God may we too seek to “raise up the foundations of many generations”. Perhaps this account of Tyndale’s life of self-sacrificing service for Jesus may be an encouragement to us to go and do likewise. To fight in the might of Christ against all the powers of darkness, alone as far as human agency is concerned: but always with Jesus who said: “I am with you alway”. Isaiah 58: 12; Matthew 28: 20
Let us then examine the life of this Christian martyr for Christ and His Word: who though “being dead yet speaketh.”
The early years
Much of Tyndale’s early life is shrouded in the mists of time. However, we do know from Foxe and other researchers that he was born in Gloucester around 1490 – 1495 and there is documentary evidence that he lived at one time in the village of Slymbridge with his brother Edward, who was fined by the Star Chamber in 1530 for assisting William in the circulation of the translated New Testament with two other brothers.
Tyndale was born at a time when the priests were entrenched in their hypocritical forms of religion e.g. relics, masses, the kissing of St Thomas’s shoe, pilgrimages, worshipping the image of “Our Lady of Walsingham” and other abominations.
However, at this time of Tyndale’s early life, all forms of the pretence of reverence and faith had gone and now these evil clergy openly mocked both themselves and the credulous people for the empty rites they knew them to be. It is said that in this age when the Scriptures were virtually unknown that Gloucester was chief in England for this sham religion of deliberate hypocrisy.
From his early days Tyndale showed a remarkable gift for learning languages and it is said that he could think and converse in seven languages as if they were his mother tongue. He was also held in much esteem for his good character, even among his enemies. Sir Thomas More, no friend of his, said of Tyndale before he finally left England: Tyndale was well known for a man of right good living, studious and well learned in the Scripture. Like Daniel many years before him, men could find nothing against him – unless it be concerning his God.
We know that Tyndale went up to Oxford where he came under the influence of one John Colet, a man who, as friend of Erasmus, had travelled around Europe studying Greek and preaching the Gospel. Now imbued with the Reformers zeal, he began to teach the Epistles of Paul at the university.
By the time Tyndale attended Oxford in 1510, Colet had already left – in 1505; nonetheless his influence remained and had an effect upon the young Tyndale. What made Tyndale different from Reformers such as Latimer, Cranmer and others was his total understanding of the Gospel of grace. His spiritual perception of its truths were clear and undimmed, unlike many who came into the dawn of the Reformation with less clarity of thought – seeing “men as trees walking”. Others were cautious and conservative, whereas Tyndale was bold and valiant for the truth – and, while not careless, he was fearless. He was, it seems, greatly impressed by Erasmus and, just as this world famous scholar was, he began to have the burden on his heart that the Scripture of Truth must be given to the common man in his own understandable tongue.
It seems scandalous to us now that even the priests could not understand the Latin they intoned. And so it was too to Tyndale, who later wrote himself that many of these blind guides could not translate one line of the Lord’s prayer from the Latin. Such was the miserable darkness and captivity of mind that the ordinary man laboured under. If his teachers could not read or understand the Scripture, what hope for the common man!
Tyndale began to preach and promote the Gospel while at Oxford, instructing his fellow students in its truths. He then left Oxford for Cambridge at – it seems – the right time, for Foxe wrote that he went – spying his time. (It was quite dangerous at that time to engage in the promotion of the Gospel). At any event, arriving in Cambridge, he again came under the influence of Erasmus and Colet who had been there before him. He also made the acquaintance of Bilney who, as we know from his letters to Bishop Tunstall, was soundly converted. Both seemed to have a mutual love for the Word.
When he left Cambridge is unclear, but, it is believed to have been around 1521 and he took up the position of tutor/chaplain in the household of Sir John Walsh in Little Sodbury – not far from his own birthplace. Sir John was a comparatively wealthy man of some influence with court and in the nation. Consequently, many Abbots – and other men of renown – were visitors to the house. Tyndale, it seems, being under the wing of this powerful man, was fairly secure from his enemies – men were still being cruelly put to death for what was termed “heresy”. He lived almost as a family member and came into frequent contact with these men, often disputing with them and confounding their superstitious opinions and corruption of the truth from the Scriptures.
At this time – and as a defence of his own position – he translated the work of Erasmus – Enchiridion Militis Christiani – Manual of a Christian Soldier. Written by Erasmus in 1501, it ridiculed the ritual and superstitious observances current in religion and had become famous all over Europe.
This was the first of Tyndale’s translating efforts whereby he used his pen as his sword to bring to men an even sharper sword. He gave the book to his master John Walsh and his wife who, after reading it, closed their doors to all the monks and prelates who had been such frequent visitors and discouraged them from attending.
It appears that his master and mistress were won over by this means to Christ and true religion. He preached in and around the local villages the pure Gospel of Christ, as he had opportunity. However, his main desire to take the written Word to the populace in their own common tongue was becoming uppermost in his heart. This involved his self-imposed exile to Europe and his eventual martyrdom which we shall discuss in our next issues.
Statue of Tyndale in Victoria Embankment Gardens, London