A History of the English Bible (William Tyndale)

Wyclif died in 1384.  The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards were presented to parliament in 1395 and simultaneously hung on the gates of St. Paul’s Church and Westminster Abbey.  With a sympathetic King Richard II on the throne, it looked like England’s break from Rome was imminent along with a reformation in religion.  But the Archbishop Arundel of York had forseen the political winds. He brought Duke Henry Lancaster back to England and stirred up the malcontents against King Richard II who was not yet 30 years old.  The Archbishop recognized Henry Lancaster as king of England – Henry Lancaster would be King Henry IV, a Roman Catholic. Arundel said, “To consolidate your throne, conciliate the clergy, and sacrifice the Lollards.”  Lancaster replied, “I will be the protector of the church.”

In 1399 Henry IV became king of England and in 1401 the first execution of a “heretic” was carried out in Smithfield at the beginning of March.  The “heretic” was William Sawtre and he was burned alive. Along with this the “Constitutions of the Archbishop Arundel” were drawn up which forbade the reading of the Bible and called the Pope “not a mere man, but a true God.”  By 1409 the Roman Catholic Church had regained control of the law to purge, prosecute, and execute many of the publishers of English scriptures. But the seeds of awakening among the English speaking people had been planted.

The Roman Catholic Church was so furious at Wyclif that 44 years after his death the Pope ordered Wycliff’s body exhumed and his bones crushed to powder and thrown in the Swift River that runs through Lutterworth in England.

Oxford years

  • William (Hutchins) Tyndale was born in 1484, a century after Wyclif died.  His parents fled to Gloucestershire during the War of the Roses and were called Hutchins before they took the name Tyndale.
  • William became a student at Oxford as a teenager and was quickly attracted to scriptures that he could read in Latin and Greek.  The scriptures, though in Latin and Greek, consumed him. He said, “I have found it!”
    • Like Andrew and Philip when they found Jesus Christ they said, We have found him!  That was Tyndale when the scriptures that spoke of Jesus Christ found him.
    • Jeremiah 20:9 Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.
    • Tyndale could not keep the scriptures to himself.  He found a treasure that he had to share.
    • His zeal, purity of life, and conversation attracted several other students at Oxford who all began to read Greek scriptures together.  It wasn’t long before Willian Tyndale had a teaching position at Oxford lecturing in “Greek Literature.”
    • The Catholic monks were alarmed that this “Greek Literature” class was in reality a New Testament class.  They said, “A barbarian entered the pulpit and violently abused the Greek language.”
      • That sounds like what the news media might say about someone they didn’t like.  They’d use words like violence and abuse to stir the emotions of thoughtless people.
      • Like when Jesus Christ was accused of being a domestic terrorist by false witnesses – Mark 14:57-59 And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, 58  We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. 59 But neither so did their witness agree together.
      • Tyndale said this of the Catholic priests. “These folk wish to extinguish the light which exposed their trickery…”
  • Facing this opposition, Tyndale took literally the apostolic instruction from the Lord Jesus Christ to go to another city if they will not hear.  He fled the persecutors in Oxford and went to Cambridge.

Cambridge years

  • In Cambridge Tyndale met two young men who were equally fired up for the Lord.
    • Thomas Bilney was just recently saved by reading a Greek New Testament.  Bilney prayed, “O thou who art the truth, give me strength that I may teach it; and convert the ungodly by means of one who has been ungodly himself.”  The arrival of William Tyndale brought him a new courage and the fire burned hotter within him.
    • John Fryth was the other young man Tyndale met at Cambridge.  Fryth was 18 and well read in mathematics. Fryth said this comparing math to learning the scriptures, “These things are not demonstrated like a proposition of Euclid… mere study is sufficient to impress the theories of mathematics on our minds; but this science of God meets with a resistance in man that necessitates the intervention of a divine power.  Christianity is a regeneration.”
    • These three men were so fired up for the Lord they became more public in declaring that priests couldn’t absolve sins nor could any other religious rite from the Catholic Church.  The only assurance of forgiveness is obtained by faith alone, and that faith purifies the heart. They began to preach exactly what Paul preached in Acts 20:20-21 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, 21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.  This infuriated and offended the monks.
    • Thomas Bilney, page 735.  Famous orator maligns the preaching of these men by asking how a person with so much sin behind them in such a short time pay for that sin?  Meaning Jesus Christ’s payment for sin is nothing and only a sinner can pay for his sin. Bilney responds, “Is that preaching repentance in the name of Jesus?  Does not this priest tell us: Christ will not save thee. Alas! For so many years that this deadly doctrine has been taught in Christendom, not one man has dared open his mouth against it!”  Many of the Cambridge fellows were scandalized at Bilney’s language: Was not this man ordained by the bishop? Bilney replied, “What would be the use of being a hundred times consecrated, were it even by a thousand papal bulls, if the inward calling is wanting?  To no purpose hath the bishop breathed on our heads if we have never felt the breath of the Holy Ghost in our hearts!”

Home again in Gloucestershire

  • Tyndale leaves Cambridge in 1519 and he shows back up in his hometown.
  • He was given a pulpit in the home of John Walsh, a boyhood friend of the family.  A church began in that home that the priests quickly began to persecute.
  • During this time Tyndale became inspired by this thought, “…shall not the gospel speak the language of England among us?  Christians must read the New Testament in their mother tongue.” It was 130 years since the Lollards had attempted to get the scriptures into the hands of the English people and not much remained of those scriptures.  The common man was subject to the explanations of the priests and doctors about what the Latin and Greek scriptures. Tyndale asked why do the people have to pick from which doctor or priest they like? Let them have the scriptures to read for themselves.  This would become his life work.
    • The friars and monks and priests were furious at Tyndale and treated him like Jezebel treated Naboth.  They destroyed his character in the public eye and intimidated anyone who had anything to do with Tyndale.  Tyndale was brought before the bishop, falsely accused, but there were no witnesses willing to come forward.  Tyndale, much like Stephen before the Pharisees, would say to his accusers, “Take away my goods. Take away my good name, yet so long as Christ dwelleth in my heart, so long shall I love you not a whit the less.”
    • The priests saw their plot failed, they hired a more notable priest to “convert” Tyndale.  The priest failed to convince Tyndale that the Pope was God manifest in the flesh and finally exasperated said honestly, “Well, better to be without God’s law than without the Pope’s law.”  Tyndale didn’t expect that honesty from that priest but responded with, “I defy the pope and all his law,” then added the famous words, “If God spare my life, ere many years will I cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more scripture than thou dost.”


  • Tyndale flees to London in hopes to find sympathetic friends.  There he reconnected with John Fryth from Oxford and the two began in earnest translating the New Testament in English.
  • Henry the VIII who was King of England had no use for Tyndale, neither did the Roman Catholic judges and bishops.
  • He’s soon harassed and hunted down again and forced to flee the country.


  • When Tyndale began publishing the book of Matthew in the New Testament he was forced to flee England.  He ended up in a town called Worms in Germany where Luther had done the same thing Tyndale was doing except in German.  He would do his translating work in Germany and smuggle the scriptures into England.
  • Germany was pivotal.  Luther had just caused a stir there.  And 60 years earlier Wittenberg had made the printing press available to the public.  (Saying Wittenberg invented the press is like saying Steve Jobs invented the computer.  He didn’t invent it, he just took technology and made it accessible to the public.) England did not have as many printing options as Germany did, so Germany was strategic.

First mass publication

  • Tyndale finishes the New Testament in 1525 in Cologne, Germany and hires Peter Schaeffer to publish it.
  • Tyndale ordered 6000 copies printed, but backed off to 3000 for fear that they would be burned when found.  Henry VIII had already burned Luther’s books that were translated into English. He could not contain his joy upon seeing the scriptures printed in English.  Tyndale said, “Whether the king wills it or not, erelong all the people of England, enlightened by the New Testament, will obey the gospel.”
  • But the Bishop of Cologne found out about the printing and ordered Peter Schaeffer to stop printing.  BUT what had been printed was collected by Tyndale before it could be confiscated. Tyndale and his manuscripts got on a boat and went to Worms where Luther had made such a big splash 5 years before.

Tyndale’s English scripture legacy

  • Tyndale’s manuscripts had these characteristics:
    • Tyndale produced an entire English New Testament in 1525, but only parts of the Old Testament thereafter.
    • Tyndale’s scriptures were “pocket sized” for common use.
    • Tyndale manuscripts were violently opposed because even the king, Henry VIII, was against Tyndale’s translating the scriptures into English.  Wyclif did not face the same government harassment that Tyndale did.
  • Tyndale is betrayed by Henry Phillips who pretends to have an interest in translating the scriptures.  Tyndale had been on the run, living in friends’ houses, trying to complete the entire Bible in English when he confided in a friend of “the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed because I hoped with my labours to do honour to God.”
  • William Tyndale was arrested and the wealthy friend he was staying with was ransacked; his friend was later arrested as well.
    • John the Baptist was imprisoned at 30 years old by Herod and he asked for some evidence, some encouragement that Jesus was the Christ who God promised and who John preached. In prison, Tyndale would be similarly discouraged.  First, that no one would speak English; jailors, officials; he would hear no English for sixteen months. After all of his life’s work labouring for the people to have the Bible in English he would face the harsh prospect that people weren’t speaking English. Whatever that does to a mind in a prison cell for months is immeasurable.  The second part of that is Tyndale’s work have been confiscated and in his lifetime 6000 copies he produced were burned. He faced another demoralizing prospect that none of his work had even survived. At his death, Tyndale had no idea whether he made progress or not.
    • Tyndale faced inquisition by the Roman Catholic Church and after 16 months in prison he was publicly strangled to death and burned.  His famous last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes,” speaking of Henry VIII.
    • Tyndale led several people to the Lord while in prison according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
    • Two years after king Henry the VIII has Tyndale killed, Henry HIRES a man to produce an English Bible for his own selfish reasons.  Mainly to prop himself up as the pope of the new Church of England. Miles Coverdale is the publisher and he will essentially reprint Tyndale’s New Testament without the king’s knowledge.