Of all the crimes you could imagine a believer could commit against the Christian church, what would be at the top of the list? Murdering another Christian? Burning down the church building? Forcing other believers to sin? How about translating the Bible into the language the people understand so that they could read it? Does that sound like something that would be considered a crime? Well, William Tyndale was a man guilty of the ‘crime’ of translating the Bible into English so people could read it. Tyndale is the first in our monthly look at key Reformation figures.
When William Tyndale came on the scene in England, the country was completely engulfed in spiritual darkness. While there were thousands of churches and priests, the spiritual ignorance of the people and the priests was probably at an all-time high. The Bibles they had were all in Latin, and the average person could not read Latin. In fact, even the priests themselves could not translate something as simple as the Lord’s Prayer into English. Church ceremony, religious ritual, and superstition had taken the place of Bible study and Tyndale sought to change that.
The Church of England had decreed it to be illegal to translate the Bible into English. One can understand the motive behind this decree: they didn’t want the message of the Bible to get changed. But, since the average person couldn’t read Latin, what good was a Bible anyway? The Church went so far as to even make it illegal to teach the Bible in English! In 1519, seven men were burned at the stake for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English. This shows how dangerous Tyndale’s mission would be.
William Tyndale was the perfect man for God to use to bring His Word to the average people of England. Tyndale was proficient in eight languages and he was committed to the truthfulness of the Bible. He had heard of the Reformation starting in places like Germany, but for any change to come to England, the people would have to be able to read the Bible. But, his desire to bring the Word of God to people in their own language was a crime and Tyndale was forced to leave his home of England and do his work while on the run throughout Europe. The Church even hired spies to try to track him down and catch him for his translating work. Tyndale would spend the last 12 years of his life as a condemned heretic and a hunted fugitive.
His work was entirely unique because he translated directly from the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into English. His desire would be that “a plowman would sing a text of Scripture at his plow and the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle.” Early in his work he was confronted by a Catholic priest who told him it was better to have the Pope’s law than God’s law. This revealed to Tyndale how ignorant the Church was in the Scripture and set a fire under Tyndale to pursue and finish his work. Tyndale said if God gave him the years to do this work, then, “a boy that drives the plow would know more of the Scripture than the Pope does.”
In 1535, the Church paid a large sum of money to a man named Henry Phillips to find and capture William Tyndale. Phillips went to Belgium where Tyndale was supposedly working, asked around, made the necessary contacts, and found William Tyndale. He pretended to be his friend until he lured Tyndale into an alley where Tyndale was arrested and brought back to England.
On October 6, 1536, Tyndale was strangled to death and his body then burned at the stake, by the Church, for his ‘crime’ of translating the Bible into English. It is said that his last words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” It would seem that his prayer was answered because less than a year after his death, Christians convinced Henry VIII to approve this English Bible to be printed. The King agreed and an English and Latin Bible would be placed in every church in England.
You sit at your desk or table with the Bible in your own language thanks to William Tyndale. It is amazing to think of the things we take for granted in this life. Today, there are still people in the world with no Bible in their own language, yet there are Christians who do have one but never read it. Open your Bible, read it, and know God more and more each day.
-Pastor Mark Scialabba