William Tyndale (c. 1494—1536) was an English Reformer who is sometimes called the “Captain of the Army of Reformers” due to his pioneering work to advance the truth of God in the face of much resistance. A scholar fluent in eight languages, Tyndale is best known today for his English translation of the Bible.
Tyndale was influenced by the works of John Wycliffe, Desiderius Erasmus, and Martin Luther. Like Wycliffe and Luther, Tyndale was convinced that the way to God was through His Word. The problem in Wycliffe’s time had been that the Bible was available only in Latin, a language most people could not read. Wycliffe remedied that problem by translating the Bible into English, using the Latin Vulgate as his source. Wycliffe’s Bible was promptly banned in England, and many copies of it were destroyed.
One hundred, fifty years later, Luther and Tyndale began their reforms. These men, like Wycliffe before them, believed that Scripture should be available to everyone. To that end, Luther made a German translation of the Bible, and Tyndale began to translate the New Testament into English—but, for these translations, they bypassed the Vulgate and used Erasmus’s Greek and Hebrew texts as their source.
For his work on the English Bible, Tyndale drew the ire of the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and other powerful entities. The established church taught that they alone were the conservators and interpreters of God’s Word and that the laity had no business reading it for themselves. Tyndale worked tirelessly to make the Bible accessible to all, even if the church opposed him. Tyndale famously said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”
Tyndale was forced to flee England, where English-language Bibles were illegal, and he found a short-lived haven in Cologne, Germany, in 1524. Officials of the Holy Roman Empire raided Tyndale’s printing press in Cologne in 1525, and Tyndale fled to Worms, where he continued his work. Taking advantage of Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable-type press, Tyndale succeeded in printing 6,000 copies of the entire New Testament in 1526. Revisions followed in later years. Tyndale eventually moved to Antwerp, Holland, where, in 1530, he published his translation of the first five books of the Old Testament.
Tyndale’s new English Bibles had to be smuggled into England. But the Church of England waged war against them. The Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, preached against Tyndale’s Bibles and publicly burned them at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, tried to buy up all the copies of Tyndale’s New Testament in order to have them burned.
Tyndale produced other works, as well. He is the author of the books The Parable of Wicked Mammon and The Obedience of a Christian Man—the latter work spoken of favorably by Queen Anne Boleyn. Later, Tyndale published The Practice of Prelates, in which he condemned divorce—even for kings—incurring the wrath of King Henry VIII (who was divorced). Tyndale thus became an enemy of the state as well as an enemy of the established church.
In 1535 Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips, who had feigned a friendship with him. Tyndale was imprisoned near Brussels, Belgium, for nearly a year and a half for the crime of producing a Bible in the vernacular. Then, on October 6, 1536, Tyndale was led outside to a stake where he was strangled and burned alive. His last words were reported to be “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
Tyndale’s dying prayer was answered. By 1539 every parish in England was required to have a copy of the Bible in English and to make it available to every parishioner. Over the next seventy years, two million copies of the Bible were sold in England. And when the translators of the King James Version produced their Bible in 1611, they relied heavily on Tyndale’s wording. In fact, about 90 percent of the phrasing of the KJV matches Tyndale’s.
Tyndale’s legacy is the Bible he gave to the English-speaking people. His translation, the first in English to come directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, was also the first English translation to be mass-produced as a result of advances in the art of printing. Tyndale and others like him, who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11), helped pave the way for our having a Bible today.