William Tyndale: God’s Outlaw

How many bibles do you have in your house?  If you’re a Christian you’ll likely to have at least three or four.  If you dug around, you might find you have double that number.  Imagine having none.  Imagining not even having access to any bible (in your own language), anywhere in your city or even your country.  That was what it was like in England in the sixteenth century .  The bible was not in the hands of the people.  The Catholic Church forbade it, fearing the rise of “Lutheranism” in England.

Luther had been condemned by the Pope and his books were publicly burned.  That only increased interest.  Public censorship never really works.  I remember when the infamous rock band the Sex Pistols was banned from being played on public TV because they used the “f” word and said naughty things about the Queen.  Record sales sky rocketed, and EMI was laughing themselves all the way to the bank.  It was a bit like that with Luther’s books.  Popularity tripled, and they were smuggled through the ports in their thousands, fuelling a network of underground Lutheran groups.

One such group was known to gather in Cambridge in a little pub at King’s College called the White Horse Inn.  Among them was William Tyndale.  Tyndale was a brilliant linguist (he could speak seven languages) and wondered what good it was for people to hear Biblical readings and church liturgies in Latin when they only spoke English. “The only way to lead the people to God’s truth,” Tyndale said, “is to lay before their eyes the Scripture in their mother tongue.”[1]  He set about translating the Bible into simple English that the common people of England could understand.  But first he had to have that approved by the authorities.  So, in 1523 he travelled to London to seek official authorization for the translation project.  The Bishop (Cuthbert Tunstall) flatly refused.  But Tyndale wasn’t so easily deterred.  If he couldn’t translate the Bible in England, he would go elsewhere.

In 1524 he sailed for Hamburg, Germany.  He found a printer in Cologne who would print his work.  However, news of what he was up to got back to England and the press was raided.  He travelled to the city of Worms where he was able to publish a complete edition of the New Testament.  Six thousand copies were smuggled back into England in bales of cloth – an incredible feat at a time when the population of England at that time was at the most two and a half million.  The Bishops burned as many as they could find and even purchased more so they could destroy them.  The money made its way back to Tyndale who then used it to print improved editions!

The Gospel of John – William Tyndale 1525

Few today are aware of the sheer brilliance of Tyndale’s work.  It was a masterpiece of English prose.  It’s breadth, eloquence, rhythm and flow were equalled only by works such as Shakespeare and other masters.  The high honour often given to the King James Bible (which came 400 years later) really ought to be given instead to Tyndale, for the scholars of that great translation often took their cues from Tyndale’s earlier work.  We know this, because certain ringing lines and phrases made their way to the KJV and are retained in many modern translations today.  “God had found a voice,” one modern historian noted, “and the voice was English.”[2]

Have a look at some of these examples, which have become familiar to so many of us:

I am the light of the world
Rise, take up thy bed, and walk
So then faith cometh by hearing
For the just shall live by faith
Let this cup pass from me
Take, eat, this is my body
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Father glorify thy name
Christ in you the hope of glory
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
I am not ashamed of the Gospel
A man after God’s own heart
Death, where is thy sting?
The glory of the Lord
Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might

Meanwhile, Tyndale, hunted like an outlaw, lived in hiding under false names and moved from city to city across Germany and the Low Countries—staying one step ahead of his pursuers. With the New Testament completed, he started translating the Old Testament into English.

Tyndale’s Strangling and Burning at the Stake – 1563

In May 1535, an English spy who had befriended Tyndale led him into a trap and turned him over to the authorities.  In October 1536, guards led William Tyndale out of the castle and tied him to a stake where he was strangled and burned.  Just before they put him to death, Tyndale said aloud, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Enter – Henry VIII

The “King” he was referring to was Henry VIII, who was known for his fearsome and often lethal temper.  He was also deeply religious, attending mass three times a day awarding himself the “Golden Rose” from the Pope.

Then came the problems with his marriage.  His first wife was Catherine of Argon who was not very successful with childbirth.  After many years she finally gave birth to a daughter, Mary.  But that was not much good to Henry.  He needed a son.  The obvious solution was to get another wife.  That meant finding a fault with the marriage and getting it annulled.  But the Pope wasn’t playing dice.  Henry decided that was good enough reason for England to break with Rome, which he accomplished through a lot of legal wrangling, with the help of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the year 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed, and Henry became supreme head of the church of England.  Soon after, Henry begins the process of dissolving the monasteries and stripping England’s churches of what he called ‘Romish abuses’ – pilgrimages and relics and images.  Protestantism was now in fashion in England, though not for theological, but solely political reasons.  Henry could now do what he wanted – which he always did, quite successfully.

A Sovereign greater than Henry

Yet God uses even rogues like Henry VIII to accomplish his purposes.  In the year 1538, just two years after Tyndale had died crying, “Lord, open the King’s eyes” Henry VIII required every parish church in England to make a copy of the English Bible available to its parishioners.  Churches were packed with people who came just to hear the Bible read.  So great was the excitement that priests complained of how, during their sermons, laypeople were reading the Bible aloud to each other (a modern pastor’s dream).  At a gathering of English churchmen, one bishop declared, “The people now know the Holy Scripture better than many of us.”

Turbulent years followed with England swinging from being Protestant to Catholic (under Queen Mary) and back to Protestant again.  Finally, things settled under the reign of Queen Elizabeth who managed to find a “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism.  The 39 Articles were instituted – the founding document of the Anglican Church.

What England lacked was a spiritual leader – a Luther or a Zwingli or a Knox.  Had Tyndale arrived on the scene just two years later he might have been that man.  Instead the Reformation was led politically, from the top down, rather than theologically, from the bottom up.  It would be the Puritan’s – the John Owen’s and Richard Baxter’s and John Bunyan’s who appeared on the scene later who would take the Reformation to its desired course.

William Tyndale really was God’s outlaw.  The beliefs he died for became the foundation for Protestant churches around the world. His example of unflinching faith in Christ, undying love for the Scriptures and unwavering work for the kingdom of God will never be forgotten.

For a bit of fun, have a look at this video from Rose Publishing on this quite remarkable period in history:


[1] Hannula, Richard M. . Heralds of the Reformation: Thirty Biographies of Sheer Grace (Kindle Locations 2290-2291). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Scruton, England: An Elegy, 99.



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