Anyone can access the story of William Tyndale by doing a simple Google search or by reading Stephen J. Lawson’s book, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale. I’m quite confident that others can narrate his contribution to the Protestant Reformation more accurately, and certainly more eloquently, than I could.
Nevertheless, I want to offer a brief outline of Tyndale’s exploits, simply for the sake of showing you what the Reformers sacrificed in order to restore God’s Word to Christians.
Tyndale (b. 1494 – d. 1536) was an accomplished linguist, with impeccable credentials for any sort of translation work. As he grew in his exposure to the writings of Erasmus (a Roman Catholic who made the Greek New Testament available) and Martin Luther, he developed a desire to translate the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew into English.
Although such a translation would have been technically legal in England in the 16th Century, Catholic condemnation of the practice stemming from the struggle with Wycliffe two-and-a-half centuries earlier resulted in a law that such translation work could only take place under a bishop’s patronage. Obediently, Tyndale approached Bishop Cuthbert Turnstall, who had actually worked with Erasmus on his Greek New Testament. Turnstall flatly refused Tyndale’s request.
Tyndale believed that Scripture should be available to common Englishmen, rather than left to a Roman Catholic clergy that added their own doctrines to it and therefore amassed enormous political and ecclesiastical power. So he fled to Europe, where he lived incognito while he produced the forbidden translation.
Living in Brussels, Tyndale and his supporters smuggled English translations of the New Testament in bales of cotton that were shipped to England. Of course, this activity definitely violated English law. Tyndale knew that, if he was captured, he would face the death penalty. But he willingly took that risk, continuing to translate the Old Testament as he smuggled copies of the New Testament back to England.
In 1530, Tyndale wrote a pamphlet opposing King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. While Tyndale most assuredly was correct in denouncing the king’s actions as unbiblical, I’m baffled as to why he would do something that would obviously intensify England’s resolve to capture and execute him. As a result of the pamphlet, someone high in the king’s court engaged a profligate named Henry Philips to befriend Tyndale and ultimately deliver him to English authorities.
After an 18-month imprisonment, Tyndale was executed by strangulation (because his executioners respected him and wanted to spare him the 30-minute agony of being burned alive) and then burned at the stake. His last words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”
Was God’s Word worth such suffering and sacrifice? The indifference many professing Christians show it today makes it seem like William Tyndale would have done better to pursue an academic career, privately studying the Bible for himself. But he loved God’s Word and gave his life. As he once said to a prestigious clergyman, “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”