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Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Tyndale on screen

MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546) ALWAYS COMMANDS CENTER STAGE when it comes to the Protestant Reformation, and it is right that he does. The applause he gets is well earned. Luther was, after all, the Big Bang of reform. And there was a lot of Big Bang in Martin Luther. It was the taste of freedom that charmed him, that infused all Luther said and did. “Keep hands off my liberty!” he wrote. You’ve got to love him for that, for planting such a thought in our brains. Lady Liberty herself owes a debt to Martin Luther.

But this article is not about Luther. I want to turn the spotlight for the moment on another reformer, an Englishman, of a quieter breed than the Saxon, but who was no less a major contributor of reform in his own country. William Tyndale (1494-1536) is as inescapable to the English as Luther is to the German (present tense). The English you are reading at this moment is Tyndale English. Scholars still refer to that Tyndale-Shakespeare English we speak to this day. He introduced words into the stream of the English language that we use daily. Spoiler and network are Tyndale innovations. The word evangelical was introduced through Tyndale. Thanksgiving, broken-hearted, castaway, Passover, Jehovah, scapegoat, brotherly, sorcerer, and Godspeed all find their first usage in Tyndale. There are hundreds more.

Tyndale’s most significant contribution to the English language and the English conscience was his translation of the New Testament (1526), where many of the above words enter the language. But before itemizing the effect of Tyndale’s bible or his impact on English refashioning and reimagining, a little context will be helpful, that is, an overview of the culture and the conditions into which Tyndale introduced his great work, and into which his effects blossomed.

On the eve of the Protestant Reformation, when Tyndale was still a student at Oxford, western culture was showing signs of weariness. The old world was slowly coming undone. Many of the grand pretensions that held it together for so long were beginning to unravel and lose their teeth. The Roman Catholic Church enjoyed rule and possession among western kingdoms, being, as it was, the government among governments. It seemed less church and state as it was church as state. She was the Holy Mother. And at her head, the Holy Father, the Pope. No metaphor unaccounted for, the rest of us were her “children.” Attendance was not optional. Holy Mother Church permeated every possible franchise of daily life, public and private. Your life was not your own. Hardly anything escaped her attention, or the necessity of her blessing.

Obscured by the Latin and by an old, deep, and ill-informed prejudice, was the Scripture. Throughout the middle ages, and particularly after 1408, it was against the law of both church and state for anyone to translate a bible in the common tongue, or to even quote a vernacular scripture. For the Holy Mother, it was a control issue. She would not give up that control or possession without a fight, a bloody one at that.

Enter William Tyndale.

Beginning with John Wycliffe in the 14th century, reform had maintained a brooding presence in England. A brilliant scholar, and poet by instinct, around 1515 Tyndale earned an MA at Oxford, having received his BA two years earlier. He also spoke eight languages. But ignition came at the table of Sir John Walsh and his wife back in Gloucestershire, where, upon graduation, the young Tyndale curiously became tutor to the Walsh sons, perhaps six and eight years old.

It was not uncommon for local clergy to dine with the Walsh family, nor was it uncommon for their young houseguest to dine with them. On one occasion, at table were the Walshes, Tyndale, and a small group of bishops. An argument arose over the authority of the Pope against the authority of Scripture. One of the clerics, having had enough of the upstart young man, cried out, “We were better to be without God’s law than the Pope’s.” The upstart young man returned fire, saying, and with magnificent backbone, “I defy the Pope and all his laws, and if God spare my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scripture than you do.”

“If God spare my life” is a telling phrase. To defy the Pope out loud and before a gaggle of his ambassadors was a criminal offense, punishable by death. From there, Tyndale returns to London, asks for permission to translate an English Bible, is denied that permission, and leaves for the continent to pursue his dream of an English Bible. In 1526, in the town of Worms, Germany, where five years earlier Luther made his famous “Here I stand,” declaration (Diet of Worms), that dream was realized. Born in defiance, this new bible had to be smuggled into England. And appetite was waiting on it when it arrived. For the first time, the English were introduced to phrases like:

Give us this day our daily bread

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever

In him we live and move and have our being

Behold, the lamb of God

I am the way, the truth, and the life

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light

Seek, and ye shall find

Much of England began to feed on this grand and audacious little book. They were wild for it. Its outlaw status only heightened the effect. The result was emancipation. No longer translated as charity (Wycliffe New Testament, 1382), for the first time, God is love. Not only precise, this redefining of deity represented a great leap in the evolution of thought.

A friend of reform, Anne Boleyn kept a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament on a lectern in her chambers for her ladies to read. Mistress Anne also gave the love-struck Henry VIII a copy of Tyndale’s OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN, of which Henry said, “This is a book for me and all kings to read.”

With the fresh bloom of reform, Tyndale’s New Testament began to reshape the English conscience, even as it did the English language itself, raising it from a yokel “bottom of the pond” tongue to one from which a Shakespeare might arise. Even the monstrously Roman Catholic Sir Thomas More could do little to stop Tyndale (though he tried). The deeply vexed Sir Thomas saw the inevitable in the man, something unstoppable. Either way, England was changed forever. Old world Catholicism lost its prized lamb.

Unlike Luther, Tyndale did not live to see old age, enjoy the protection of his prince, marry, have children, or suffer any corruption of mind. After twelve years on the continent and after translating the entire New Testament and two-thirds of the Old, he was captured, cast in a dungeon near Brussels for five-hundred days, then burned for his trouble on 6 October 1536.

Invisible as he may remain to most of us, unheard of and underprized, William Tyndale’s influence and presence remains with us to this day. It is something you hear. The English-speaking world owes a debt to William Tyndale that most of us are unaware of, much less that we could ever repay. Like Luther, like Shakespeare, like reform itself, he is inescapable.

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