William Tyndale was born around 1494 and died as a martyr in 1536. He is mainly remembered for his contribution to the Reformation in England and, in particular, his translation of the Bible into the common language.
In 1526, Tyndale found a printer, Peter Schoeffer, who agreed to complete the printing of his English New Testament. This was the first portion of the Scriptures to be translated into English from Greek and to be mechanically printed. Some six thousand copies were printed in clear, common English.
Later that year, Tyndale began to smuggle his English New Testaments into England in bales of cotton. Demand quickly outstripped supply.
By the summer of 1526, this underground circulation of Tyndale’s New Testament became known to church officials.
Both the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London were enraged.
The Catholic church wanted all copies of William Tyndale’s New Testament destroyed because they believed that Tyndale’s translation contained many errors and heretical teachings that could lead people astray from the established teachings of the Catholic Church.
Tyndale’s translation was made from the original Greek and Hebrew texts rather than the Latin Vulgate, which was the official Bible of the Catholic Church at that time. This made the translation of the New Testament more accessible to the common people, who could now read and interpret the text for themselves.
The archbishop ordered the destruction of all the copies of Tyndale’s New Testament that they could find and declared it a serious crime to buy, sell, or even handle it. But this only increased demand, and as more and more people got their hands on a copy, Tyndale’s translation became more and more difficult to find and destroy.
Tyndale himself was also very good at hiding, and they had a great deal of trouble finding him. As irony would have it, Tyndale is said to have once disguised himself as a Catholic friar and smuggled a shipment of Bibles into Antwerp by pretending to be a seller of rosary beads.
When at last he was found, he was imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorde, six miles north of Brussels.
There, Tyndale suffered for nearly a year and a half as preparations were made for his trial. But his suffering, like his labour, was not in vain.
John Foxe writes that Tyndale “was affecting even his very enemies” because, during the time of his imprisonment, he converted not only his jailer, but his jailer’s daughter, and the other members of the jailers’ household” (Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 127).
Finally, in August 1536, Tyndale stood trial. A long list of charges was drawn up against him, and he was condemned as a heretic. He was handed over to the secular powers for punishment and the death sentence was pronounced.
Tyndale was executed on October 6th, 1536. So desperate was the church to rid the world of this man that he was first strangled, then burned, and then his body blown apart by gunpowder.
And this is what we, in Christian circles, call a victory.
Like his body, the word of God which he translated for the sake of the common people has been blown by the Spirit to the four corners of the Earth.
The majority of English Bible translations today, indeed, a good part of the English language itself, is based on Tyndale’s work. Common expressions such as fight the good fight, my brother’s keeper, the salt of the earth, break the ice, and eat drink and be merry, are just a few of the hundreds of idioms created by Tyndale and used by us today.
He also gave us words like Atonement, Jehovah, passover, scapegoat, beautiful, long-suffering, peacemaker, betrothed and mercy seat. Not to mention, casual, comprehend, harass, integrity, jeopardise, jubilee, prohibit, and vandalise.
And, at the cost of his own life, William Tyndale gave us, the common people, a book you can now get on Amazon for around twenty bucks. A book that we can read and understand, and in which are the very words of life.