William Tyndale: Reformer, Translator, Martyr

William Tyndale Statue
William Tyndale (1494-1536) dedicated his life – and eventually gave his life – to the cause of translating the Word of God into the English language.

Tyndale was a Protestant Reformer, a Bible translator, and a martyr for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, we know little about his childhood, early life, or even his conversion. We do know that Tyndale received his master’s degree from Oxford in 1515. Although he was just 21 years old, he was already fluent in 8 languages!

Addicted to Scripture

William Tyndale

William Tyndale (1494-1536)

John Foxe offers this description of Tyndale, “[He] increased as well in the knowledge of tongues and other liberal arts as especially in the knowledge of the scriptures, where-unto his mind was singularly addicted.”[1]

Tyndale was active in studying and teaching Scripture. Through it he came to see that people of England could not be reached using a Latin Bible, a language they did not speak. Tyndale said, “It was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.”

However, it was illegal to have a “vernacular Bible,” or a Bible in the common language. You could be put to death for producing, reading, or even memorizing Scripture in English.

One day in 1519, a woman and 6 men were publicly burned at the stake for teaching children the Lord’s Prayer and the 10 Commandments in English!

As he continued to devour Scripture in the original Greek, Tyndale came to see that much of what the church taught did not line up with the Bible. And although he was an ordained priest himself, he was not shy about letting people know.

“I defy the Pope and all his laws”

In 1521 he became the tutor of a wealthy Englishman by the name of Sir John Walsh. Walsh would often entertain local clergymen, and Tyndale would also be at these dinners.

During an argument, one Catholic clergyman said to Tyndale, “We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale replied, “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![2]

That comment was not well received.

But Tyndale was determined to make good on his word. He went to London in 1523 to seek official authorization from the Bishop to begin work on an English translation of the Bible out of the original Greek and Hebrew – something that had never been done before.

But the potential of Luther-like ideas spreading in England was far too great a risk, and the idea was opposed. Tyndale would not be dissuaded. A wealthy cloth merchant approached Tyndale and offered to underwrite his expenses, and he set sail for the European continent in 1524.

The Work Begins

And so, William Tyndale began his life as an outlaw. God’s outlaw. For every word of Scripture which he translated into English he translated illegally. He would never see England again, and for the next 12 years of his life he would be a fugitive.

Tyndale made his way to Germany, where it is possible that he spent some time sitting under the teaching of Martin Luther. He found a printer in Cologne who would print the work, which would take place under cover of darkness.

Things were going well, initially, and the work progressed quickly. But after an inebriated printshop worker let the secret out, the print shop was raided. Tyndale managed to escape with his life and the pages already printed (they had gotten as far as Matthew chapter 22).

Tyndale Print Shop Raided

Image Credit: David Price, Art Reformation Project

He made his way to the city of Worms – yes, the same city where Luther made his stand just five years earlier – where he had somewhere between 3-6,000 copies of his New Testament translation printed.

Tyndale’s NTs were smuggled in bales of cotton and distributed across England. People could purchase a copy for just a week’s wages – which was actually remarkably affordable.

Burning the Tyndale New TestamentThe bishops were furious, as was King Henry VIII. In an effort to control the spread of Tyndale’s work, they burned every copy they could get their hands on.

They had a ceremonial book burning as a warning under the direction of Bishop Tunstall – the same man who refused to allow Tyndale to begin an English translation years earlier. They even threatened to burn those caught with a Tyndale Bible.

And then in May of 1527, they came up with a plan to put a stop to the spread of these Tyndale translations: they would purchase every single copy they could find.

They would of course destroy these, but the proceeds went back to Tyndale and helped him begin his revised 2nd edition! Meanwhile he also produced other writings about the nature of God, Scripture, and salvation in Christ.

The Threat of Tyndale

If they were going to stop the flood of Bibles coming into England, they would have to cut them off at their source. Tyndale’s opponents began sending agents from England to the continent in order to track him down and arrest him. Tyndale was careful. He moved from place to place. He took on assumed identities. He only took trusted people into his confidence.

Why such threat against Tyndale? Why was he deemed so dangerous? Among other things, because his translation of the Greek text into English undermined the Roman theology built upon the Latin Vulgate.

This chart shows the medieval understanding of savlation taught by the Roman church.

Medieval View of Salvation

Medieval View of Salvation, Ryan Reeves

Among other translation decisions, where the Latin called for Christians to “do penance,” Tyndale rightly translated this Greek word as “be penitent” or “repent” – which means to turn away from sin rather than perform works to undo the guilt of sin. Furthermore, he taught against the existence of Purgatory, and denied that we needed priests to mediate on our behalf. Clearly, Tyndale was undermining the teachings of the church. And so the church authorities decided that Tyndale had to be stopped.

Meanwhile, Tyndale was teaching himself Hebrew – a language that was completely unknown in England – and he began to work at translating the Old Testament into English. The Pentateuch – the first 5 books of the OT – was completed in January of 1530 and smuggled into England from Antwerp, Belgium.

Thanks to the English Bible and the many other works that Tyndale was producing, the cause of the Reformation was beginning to take root in England. People were doing just as he had said in his writings: “Get thee to God’s word, and thereby try all doctrine, and against that receive nothing.”

But Tyndale could not hide forever. An agent of the King eventually found Tyndale and offered him a salary and safe passage back to England.

Tyndale agreed, but on one condition: He would cease his own translation work and serve the king, if the king would commission a translation of the Bible into English. He said that if the king would agree, he would cease writing immediately and come at once to England, “offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained.”[3]

The king refused, and so did Tyndale.

Betrayed & Ambushed

Something had to be done. As Tyndale began a revision of his first translation of the New Testament, a man by the name of Henry Phillips was appointed to track down Tyndale. Phillips had gotten into a great deal of debt and he was offered a lot of money if he could locate Tyndale.

In 1535, Phillips began making contacts with the merchants in Antwerp, and after a great deal of deception worked his way to finding out where Tyndale was living. Not only did he discover Tyndale’s wherabouts, he worked his way into the inner circle and befriended William Tyndale himself.

One day, after Phillips borrowed 40 shillings from Tyndale, he invited him to dinner. While walking through a narrow alley William Tyndale was ambushed by imperial officers and arrested.

Before his rooms were ransacked, his most recent work of OT books was secured by his good friend John Rogers (who would go on to become the first martyr put to death under the reign of Bloody Mary).

Imprisonment & Execution

Tyndale would be imprisoned for over 500 days. He was kept in a cold and dark prison cell in a castle near Belgium. He wrote to his captors, begging them for warmer clothes, and a candle at night, for “it is tiresome to sit alone in the dark,“ he wrote.

But after these necessities, he wrote “But above all, I beg and entreat your clemency earnestly … to allow me the use of my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Lexicon, and that I might employ my time with that study.” [4]

Above all, Tyndale wanted to continue his labors even while in prison awaiting his execution. At the end of 18 months, he was declared a heretic by the church and turned over to the civil authorities to be sentenced to death.

The charges against Tyndale were: He had maintained that faith alone justifies. He maintained that to believe in the forgiveness of sins and to embrace the mercy offered in the Gospel, was enough for salvation. He denied the existence of purgatory. He denied that men should pray to Mary or the saints.

The Martyrdom of William Tyndale

William Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

On October 6, 1536, he was brought out to the place of his execution. The crowd watched as he was placed up against a stake, wood and straw piled around his feet. Gunpowder was sprinkled on top. A chain and rope were placed around his neck.

Just before he was killed, Tyndale gave his last words: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” The noose was tightened, and Tyndale was no more. His body was burned, and the spectacle was made more gruesome by the fact that the gunpowder exploded. God’s outlaw, William Tyndale, met with a martyr’s death for the crime of bringing the Word of God to England.

Just two years later Tyndale’s dying prayer would be answered. Henry VIII decreed that a copy of the Bible in English and Latin should be made available in every church in England.

The Legacy of William Tyndale

Tyndale’s translation work is found in every English translation since his own. When King James arranged for a new translation of Scripture, 50 of the finest scholars were commissioned. Yet they could not improve on Tyndale’s work. Roughly 84% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament in the King James Version is the work of Tyndale!

If you own any English version of the Bible you are indebted to William Tyndale. In fact, if you read or speak English at all you are indebted to him. His work standardized the English language and gave us a number of phrases that we continue to use today: “The powers that be”; “eat, drink, and be merry”; “the salt of the earth”; “the sign of the times”; “it came to pass”; “fight the good fight.” When an English word did not exist, he invented it: “scapegoat, atonement, Passover, peacemaker” and many others.

William Tyndale was, in many ways, the father of the modern English language just as he was the father of both the English Bible and the English Reformation.

How many times might Tyndale have saved his life had he simply ceased from his work? Yet his heart was held captive to the Word of God.

William Tyndale gave his life for the cause of making God’s Word known to the people – from the king of England all the way down to the humble plow boy.

[1] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
[2] Steve Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale, 9.
[3] David Teems, William Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice, 222.
[4] Tyndale’s Letter from Prison.

Clayton Kraby
Written by Clayton Kraby
I'm a Pastor in North Dakota and created ReasonableTheology.org to help make theology accessible for the everyday Christian. You can find me on Twitter @ClayKraby.