Religious Reformer William Tyndale Burned at the Stake for Trying to Make the Bible Available to Common People

William Tyndale, 12 years after he left England, was led from prison to the stake where he was strangled, then his body burned. He had time to utter one last cry: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Tyndale had suffered for the cause “poverty, … exile out of my natural country and bitter absence from my friends, … my hunger, my thirst, my cold, the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed, … and hard and sharp rightings which I endure.” He insisted that death would be more pleasant than life if it were really true that men could not endure truth and that knowledge of the scriptures would bring more harm than good.

No one knows precisely when Tyndale decided on his life’s course, but at one point, during an encounter with a learned gentleman, Tyndale was provoked to exclaim that if God would spare his life, before many years the boy who guided the plough would know more scriptures than those who were supposedly learned.

And so Tyndale embarked on a mission to open the scriptures to the people. Like so many before him he nurtured a hope that his work could be done with the church’s blessing. This was difficult, however, because there were powerful laws against vernacular translations unless previously approved by a bishop. Since Erasmus had written highly of Tunstal, bishop of London, as one who supported the new learning, Tyndale hoped to obtain a position with Tunstal and his support for the work. To help pave the way, Tyndale took with him a letter of introduction and samples of his translative skills. Tunstal’s disappointing and abrupt reply was that he had no room in his house for him, that he should seek employment elsewhere.

Still, Tyndale’s trip to London was not without success. While waiting for his interview with Tunstal, he preached a few times at a local church. There he impressed a wealthy merchant named Monmouth who befriended him, and, after Tyndale’s rejection by Tunstal, made a place for him in his household. Tyndale remained there for six months, quietly working, obtaining information and making useful acquaintances among Monmouth’s business associates, who brought back news from the Continent about Luther’s work there and of the printing capabilities in Germany. Fortified by these reports and supported by his new friends, in the spring of 1524 Tyndale sailed for Germany. He would never return.

Tyndale’s life abroad has been difficult to trace because he felt it necessary at times to travel and live under assumed names, but it is now believed he traveled first to Wittenberg, where Luther resided, possibly because Luther had already made a vernacular translation of the New Testament into German.  The spread of Lutheranism in Europe had moved the Roman church to constant watchfulness and strong action, and so Tyndale found it wise to work in secret, and several times to quietly disappear for safety’s sake. Indeed, after a year in Wittenberg, growing danger forced him to move to Hamburg.

William Tyndale wanted to use the same 1516 Erasmus text as a source to translate and print the New Testament in English for the first time in history. Tyndale showed up on Luther’s doorstep in Germany in 1525, and by year’s end had translated the New Testament into English. Tyndale had been forced to flee England, because of the wide-spread rumor that his English New Testament project was underway, causing inquisitors and bounty hunters to be constantly on Tyndale’s trail to arrest him and prevent his project. God foiled their plans, and in 1525-1526 the Tyndale New Testament became the first printed edition of the scripture in the English language. Subsequent printings of the Tyndale New Testament in the 1530’s were often elaborately illustrated.

We know little of the difficulties Tyndale faced in preparing his manuscript for printing, but we would be mistaken if we assumed it had come easily. Luther, relating the struggles in making his translation, observed: “Sometimes for three and four weeks we have sought and asked for a single word and sometimes we have not found it even then. In working at the book of Job, [my associates] and I could sometimes scarcely finish three lines in four days.”  Tyndale, working alone, surely did not find translating any easier. For obvious reasons, the printing had to be done in secret.

However difficult the work had been, by August 1525 Tyndale was in Cologne, a city well known for its printing presses, with a nearly completed manuscript. Unfortunately, the printers were not always circumspect. One commented to a friend that a certain work they were printing would make all of England Lutheran. The remark was noted by a man with strong Roman sentiments who, through trickery, obtained from the printers a description of the work. This information was relayed to authorities in Cologne and England, and the Cologne authorities immediately prevented further printing of the book.

Tyndale again fled, taking the printed sheets with him. His destination this time was Worms, where Lutheran sympathies were much stronger and the printing safer. Knowing that the English authorities had been forewarned and thus expected his work, Tyndale tried to outmaneuver them by printing two editions, neither of which would bear his name nor the correct names and places of the printing houses.

The first edition off the presses was a translation of the New Testament in English. It carried a simple, unsigned postscript begging the readers to come to the scriptures with pure minds and with eyes single to the truth, that they might harvest spiritual blessings. Tyndale further pleaded that they not be overly critical of defects, for it was his first attempt at translating the sacred books. Not yet totally satisfied with his rendering, he vowed that if God would permit, he would in the future perfect this initial offering. “Count it as a thing not having his full shape, but as it were born before his time, even as a thing begun rather than finished.”

Once the printing was completed, the help of the merchants Tyndale had met in England became particularly valuable. English authorities were on the alert, and strict instructions had been given to prevent Tyndale’s New Testament from entering England. But the testaments entered anyway—six thousand copies of them, hidden under bales of innocent-appearing imported goods. There were many eager hands waiting to receive them.

Having failed in keeping the books from being printed and from entering England, the church took strong measures to at least prevent them from being read. To demonstrate their opposition, church authorities built a bonfire where they publicly burned any books they found. Tunstal and others, including Sir Thomas More, publicly attacked the accuracy of the translation itself, claiming it contained thousands of errors.  Tunstal also ordered that anyone coming into possession of these New Testaments must relinquish them for burning or face excommunication. The authorities felt their actions justified, insisting that “No burnt offering could be better pleasing to God.”

Tyndale later commented that “in burning the New Testament, they did none other thing than I looked for; no more shall they do if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall so be.”  Out of an estimated 18,000 copies printed between 1524 and 1528, fewer than a handful of copies have survived to modern times.  And yet, ironically, the burning actually helped provide resources for more printing. The story is told that Tunstal decided the policy of burning books would be more effective if the books could be confiscated before they reached England. While on a visit to Antwerp, he approached a merchant named Packington and expressed his desires to obtain and burn New Testaments because of their errors and evil influence. He offered Packington considerable money to buy all he could. Packington agreed to the bargain; but, sympathetic to Tyndale, he went immediately to him and described what Tunstal was doing.

Tyndale was quite pleased. He saw two advantages in such a bargain: the money paid would get him out of debt and provide the resources to continue his work, and the public burning of scriptures would outrage the public. The bargain was accepted.

Much of the money which Tunstal had paid to purchase the Bibles for burning had been raised by him from other clergymen. Thus, he unwittingly became Tyndale’s biggest single source of financial assistance. But the books also sold well on their own, in spite of the warnings and the burnings, in spite of arrests and imprisonments of sellers and buyers. Despite the fact that the cost of a New Testament was as much as a full week’s pay for a skilled laborer, the books were bought, secreted, and read. So good was the market for them, in fact, that enterprising businessmen in Holland printed copies of their own and sought to undersell those from Germany.

With the publication of the New Testament, Tyndale next translated the Pentateuch; but on his way to Hamburg to print it, his ship was wrecked. All his manuscripts were lost, all his labor destroyed. Fortunately, Tyndale was joined in Hamburg by Miles Coverdale, who assisted him in retranslating the work and who would in time make many significant contributions to the translation of the Bible. Together they worked, and in January of 1530 the Pentateuch was printed in English, again with its printing source disguised. The Pentateuch too was shipped to England—and there it, too, was sought for burning.

It was shortly after the Pentateuch arrived in England that certain individuals tried to persuade the king to bring Tyndale back to England in peace if he would agree to certain conditions. Tyndale was wary of the volatile situation in England but declared he would return if one condition was met—that the king would approve an English Bible of some sort for the people, if not his own. As a part of these negotiations, Tyndale revealed much of what he had suffered for the cause, including “poverty, … exile out of my natural country and bitter absence from my friends, … my hunger, my thirst, my cold, the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed, … and hard and sharp rightings which I endure.”  He insisted that death would be more pleasant than life if it were really true that men could not endure truth and that knowledge of the scriptures would bring more harm than good.

When negotiations failed, other attempts were made to bring Tyndale to England, though not so peacefully. Appeals were made to the German emperor to surrender him, and instructions were given to kidnap him. Living like a fugitive, he managed to elude his pursuers.

Despite his frequent uproofings Tyndale continued to work and even to rework that which he had already done. Nothing testifies so strongly of his desire to produce a faithful English version of the scriptures as do his efforts to improve his own previous translations. In 1534 there was printed “The Newe Testament dylyggently corrected and compared with the Greke by Willyam Tindale,” and in 1535 “The Newe Testament yet once again corrected by Willyam Tindale” as well as revised editions of the Pentateuch. The corrections he made on the New Testament alone numbered in the thousands. Scholars generally agree that the changes were indeed for the better, lifting the good work he had done into the realms of excellence.

But Tyndale’s pen was soon immobilized. In 1535 he lived in Antwerp in a house established by English merchants. There he developed a close friendship with another Englishman, not realizing the friendship to be treacherous. So trusting had Tyndale become that he lent his friend forty shillings—just hours before he was betrayed by him into the hands of the emperor’s soldiers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, just north of Brussels, where he was imprisoned.

He would never be freed from the dungeon there, suffering its isolated darkness and dampness for over sixteen months. While in prison, he wrote a touching letter which provides clues to his condition and state of mind.

“If I am to remain here during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, my Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.

Just two events brought Tyndale out of his dark dungeon. One was a bitter trial; another was an attempt to disgrace him by publicly stripping him of his ecclesiastical authority. Throughout his imprisonment he endured intense pressures to recant. Finally, on October 6, 1536, twelve years after he left England, he was led from prison to the stake. There he was strangled, then his body burned. He had time to utter one last cry: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

It is one of the ironies of history that Tyndale died not knowing the battle was nearly won.


More on Tyndale...
It was Tyndale who had the flash of inspiration that the term “Passover” was not only a good translation of the Hebrew “Pesach” but also sounded nicely similar as well. (Other European languages use “Pascha” or some similar meaningless quasi-transliteration, which of course also serve for the holiday known in English as “Easter.”) English speaking Jews use “Passover” all the time without realizing it’s Tyndale.

It’s more than just one word, of course: Tyndale leads directly to the King James Bible, which in one form or another forms the basis even of many Jewish Bible translations to this day.

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