Quote: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” (William Tyndale)
Remembered as the father of the English Bible, William Tyndale (c. 1494 – 1536) was a scholarly cleric who sacrificed his career and his life for the cause of the Reformation. Cambridge educated, he sought to bring knowledge of the Bible to his fellow Englishmen, most of whom were utterly ignorant of its content. The Catholic Church insisted that only clerics could be trusted with Scripture, but they, according to Tyndale, were not preaching it to their parishioners. “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough [to] know more of the Scriptures than thou dost,” he once warned a priest. He was convinced that biblical faith would be dispersed more effectively by laity than by those trained in theology: “In the universities they have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture until he be nozzled in heathen learning eight or nine years, and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.”
The Wycliffe Bible, translated into English from the Latin Vulgate, was available, but only in scarce hand-copied editions distributed against the law by the Lollards. Tyndale was determined to translate the New Testament from the Greek text and distribute it widely, ideally with the blessing of the church. He would be stymied, however, by Henry’s fear of Lutheranism, “the German plague.”
When authorities began to harass him, Tyndale in 1524 moved his translation project to Germany. With help from others he completed the New Testament translation in 1525, the first to be printed in English. The first six thousand copies were then smuggled back into England. So threatened were church officials that they confiscated as many copies as they could find and burned them in a public ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral, at the same time turning the hidden copies into priceless treasures. Realizing that he had been outsmarted, the archbishop of Canterbury devised a new plan. He would purchase copies before they were publicly sold and immediately destroy them—a financial windfall for Tyndale, who used the money to fund a corrected revision.
Tyndale published the first five books of the Old Testament in 1530 and planned to follow through with the rest of the Old Testament. In 1529, Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More attacked Tyndale, accusing him of heresy. Besides criticizing his translation for bad word usage, he resorted to name-calling, describing Tyndale as a devil, a fraud, and one “puffed up with pride and envy.” Tyndale responded publicly on specific doctrinal issues, including justification by faith.
On orders of Henry VIII, Tyndale became a hunted man. Thomas More, the legal scholar, argued for his burning at the stake. While hiding out in Belgium, Tyndale was turned over to authorities by a fellow Englishman who had feigned friendship. Arrested and incarcerated in a prison near Brussels for more than a year, he penned a plea for mercy from the governor, asking for warmer clothes and, more significantly, “the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.”
Above all else he desired to finish the translation of the book he so loved. That wish did not come true. He was put on trial, found guilty, and strangled, his body burned at the stake. His last words reportedly are: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”