1401 A.D. London, England: King Henry IV declared that religious heretics would be burned at the stake. Seven years later, the Roman Catholic Church, at that time England’s official church, used its considerable influence to have a law passed that made it a crime to translate the Bible into English. For more than 11 centuries the Bible had been written and read in Latin, and the Church was determined it would remain that way.
William Tyndale was born in Gloucester, England, in 1494. A brilliant student, he earned Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts degrees from Oxford University in 1512 and 1515, respectively. He mastered seven languages including Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Later while studying theology at Cambridge University, he took issue with the staunch religious teaching of the day because what he read in the Latin Bible did not line up with what he read in the original Greek. In particular, Tyndale took strong issue with man having to go through the Church to have a relationship with God.
In 1522, after preaching for a few months at a church in the little town of Sodbury Manor, Tyndale was reprimanded by the Church for heretical preaching. He was infuriated. On April 22, 1523, he took his case to the Catholic Bishop of London. He asked for approval to translate the Bible into English so his parishioners could understand it and was sternly warned that it was against the law. In an act of defiance, and knowing full well the consequences of his decision, Tyndale went into hiding in London and began his translation. It was a decision that would define his life and change the world.
A year later, Tyndale sought refuge in Cologne, Germany, where the first 3,000 copies of a partial English New Testament were printed in the summer of 1525. The Bibles were wrapped in bales of cloth and smuggled into England. Many of the copies were confiscated by Catholic Cardinal Wolsey and burned at Paul’s Cross Church in London. Anyone caught in possession of a copy was excommunicated.
According to the Church, Tyndale had “profaned the hitherto undefiled majesty of holy scripture with cunning perversities and heretical depravity,” and he was now a hunted man with a bounty on his head. He fled to Wittenberg, Germany, where he sought out fellow religious heretic, Martin Luther, who ten years prior, in October 1517, had defiantly nailed his “95 Theses” on the Wittenberg Castle Church door.
In Wittenberg in 1534, after almost ten years of translation time, Tyndale printed a complete English Bible. Back in England, King Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church because the Church refused to grant him a divorce from Queen Catherine so he could marry Ann Boleyn. Henry proceeded to marry Boleyn over the Church’s strong objection.
With the King’s break with the Church, Tyndale mistakenly assumed it was safe to come out of hiding and moved to Antwerp, Belgium. A few months later, he was arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon of Vildoore Prison. On October 6, 1536, in a mock trial, William Tyndale was convicted of heresy and treason. After uttering his final words, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” he was strangled and burned at the stake in the prison courtyard.
Queen Ann Boleyn kept a copy of Tyndale’s English Bible along with his book The Obedience of a Christian Man in her chamber. She discretely supported the importing of Tyndale’s Bibles and books into England and influenced Henry to read Tyndale’s translation. Three years after Tyndale’s death, Henry commissioned the printing of “King Henry’s Great English Bible” and had a copy placed in each parish church.
In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was printed in England and more than 400 years later, it remains the most read translation. Bible authorities estimate that 80% of the King James Version was taken from Tyndale’s Bible.
“The ability of God is beyond our prayers, beyond our largest prayers. We have asked for a cupful, and the ocean remains.” John Henry Jowett