Key Players in The Reformation
It is not an exaggeration to say that William Tyndale changed the course of history. If you own a copy of the Bible in English, you can thank Tyndale. While Luther was leading a reformation in Germany and Calvin was leading a reformation in Switzerland, Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible was changing Christianity in England.
Tyndale was born in 1494, in Gloucestershire, in rural western England. At the age of 14, Tyndale entered Magdalen College, where he learned grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. He excelled in the study of languages under the finest classical scholars in England. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1512 and a master’s degree in 1515.
While at Cambridge University, Tyndale learned of, and embraced the teachings of Martin Luther and gathered regularly with other scholars at the White Horse Inn to discuss religion and theology. It was in these debates as well as his meetings with local Catholic clergy that Tyndale felt the deep desire to give the common man the Word of God in their own language.
“During one meal, he fell into a heated argument with a Catholic clergyman, the latter asserting, 'We had better be without God’s laws than the pope’s.' Tyndale boldly responded: 'I defy the pope and all his laws.' He then added these famous words: 'If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.'" (Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 77).
To translate the Bible, Tyndale needed permission from the church, so he traveled to London to meet with the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. Tunstall would not give permission for fear of the upheaval in England that he saw in Germany.
While Tyndale wanted to obey the authorities, he knew he was forced to choose between man’s word and God’s Word, so he became an exile and a fugitive for the last 12 years of his life as he began work on his unauthorized English translation. In 1525, he finished his translation of the New Testament in Cologne and found a printer to print six thousand copies of his New Testament, the first copies ever printed in English.
Those copies were smuggled into England and were in high demand. After years of failed attempts at arresting Tyndale, his enemies tried another strategy. In early 1534, Tyndale moved into a house in Antwerp as the guest of Thomas Poyntz, a wealthy English merchant who was sympathetic to the reformation. Back in England, a man named Harry Phillips, who had racked up many gambling debts, was offered a large sum of money to find, befriend, and betray Tyndale. In his desperation, Phillips accepted the offer. Phillips lured Tyndale into a narrow passage, where soldiers arrested him. After twelve years as a fugitive, Tyndale was finally captured.
Tyndale was executed on October 6, 1536. He was strangled, burned, and his body blown apart by gunpowder, but at some point before his death, he cried his famous last words: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes” (Tyndale, cited in Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 83). We will forever owe a debt of gratitude to William Tyndale every time we memorize scripture, read a passage, or share the gospel from an English translation of the Bible.
Bill Itzel has been a worship leader and singer/songwriter for over 30 years and is based in Westminster, MD. His family tours and leads worship around the country. Bill and his family attend Belcroft Bible Church in Bowie, MD. This is a blog about congregational worship and the latest news in the The Itzel's ministry.