A Sixteenth century philosopher translates Christian books into the common vernacular so that everyday people could learn from their own study & without any gatekeepers. He meets resistance.
“I defy the pope and all his laws; and if God gives me life, ere many years the ploughboys in England shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.”
William Tyndale. 1477—1536.
NO subject is more interesting and instructive than the history of Biblical Literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We have before spoken of the claims of John Wiclif to our lasting gratitude, for having given us the first English version of the Bible. But that was made, not from the originals, but from the Latin Vulgate. Wiclif died 1384. About twenty-four years after his death, Archbishop Arundel, in a convocation of the clergy of his province assembled at Oxford, published a constitution, by which it was decreed, “that no one should thereafter translate any text of Holy Scripture into English, by way of a book, a little book, or tract; and that no book of this kind should be read that was composed lately in the time of John Wiclif, or since his death.”
The Latin Bible, or Vulgate, was first printed on the continent in 1462; the Old Testament in Hebrew, 1488, and the New Testament in Greek about 1518. When these sacred oracles were brought into England, with the introduction of printing, the illiterate and terrified monks declaimed from their pulpits, that there was now a new language discovered, called Greek, of which people should beware, since it was that which produced all the heresies: that in this language was come forth a book called the New Testament, which was now in everybody’s hands, and was full of thorns and briers: that there was also another language now started up, which they called Hebrew, and that they who learned it, were termed Hebrews. One of the priests declared, with a most prophetic wisdom, “We must root out printing, or printing will root out us.” But, notwithstanding the clamors of the monks, and the persecutions of the secular clergy, William Tyndale, in the reign of Henry VIII., undertook to translate the Scriptures from the original Hebrew and Greek into English, though he knew it would be done at the hazard of his life.
Tyndale was born about the year 1477. At an early age he entered the University of Oxford, and while there was a most diligent student: thus he laid the foundation of that skill in the learned languages essential to the successful accomplishment of that enterprise which he was soon to take upon himself.
Soon after leaving the University, he became tutor and chaplain in the family of Sir John Welsh, a knight of Gloucestershire, whose liberal table was sure to procure him the frequent visits of the neighboring prelates and clergy. On one occasion, being in company with a popish divine, he argued so conclusively in favor of a vernacular translation of the Bible, that the divine, unable to answer him, exclaimed, “We had better be without God’s law than the pope’s.” This fired the spirit of Tyndale, and he indignantly replied, “I defy the pope and all his laws; and if God gives me life, ere many years the ploughboys in England shall know more of the Scriptures than you do;” —a pledge which, in a few years, he most nobly redeemed.
Finding that he could not accomplish his plans at home, Tyndale, in the year 1523, became a voluntary exile from his native land, which he was never more to revisit. He went to Antwerp, and there, with great assiduity, prosecuted his design of translating the Scriptures into English. The New Testament was finished in 1526. It sold so rapidly that the following year another edition was published, and the year after another, each consisting of five thousand. Great numbers of these were imported into England and speedily sold, though the importers were prosecuted with great rigor.
His retreat at Antwerp was hidden for some time from those who had marked him for their prey. But at length, in 1534, he was betrayed by the spies employed by Henry VIII, and imprisoned. Every thing was done by the English merchants at Antwerp to release him, and one of them, by the name of Thomas Pointz, was so ardent in his cause, that he went, to England in person, to exert what influence he could in his favor. In the mean time the noble martyr was not inactive, but while in prison prepared another edition of the Testament, peculiarly adapted to the agricultural laborers; thus fulfilling his pledge that the “ploughboys” should have it for themselves.
But his invaluable life was now drawing to a close. The formalities of a trial were gone through; he was condemned for heresy; and in September, 1536, he was brought out of prison to suffer the dreadful sentence,—burning at the stake. In that appalling moment he exhibited the firmness and resignation only to be found in the certain confidence of having his portion with those “shining ones” (in Bunyan’s phrase) who had come out of great tribulation, and who had
—for Jesus’ sake,
Writhed on the rack, or blacken’d at the stake.
While the horrid preparations of death and of burning were going on in fall view around him, his last thoughts were turned upon the welfare of that country which had driven him forth a fugitive; and his dying voice was that of intercession for his royal persecutor. “0 Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” were his well-known last words at the stake.
Rome thunder’d death, but Tyndale’s dauntless eye
Look’d in death’s face and smiled, death standing by.
In spite of Rome, for England’s faith he stood,
And in the flames he seal’d it with his blood.
It rests on indubitable evidence that Tyndale’s voice was hardly hushed in death, before his last prayer was answered in a remarkable manner; for that capricious tyrant soon issued an injunction, ordering that the Bible should be placed in every church for the free use of the people.
Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament is admirable both for style and accuracy; and our present version has very closely followed it through out. To use the words of a profound modern scholar,1 “It is astonishing how little obsolete the language of it is, even at this day; and, in point of perspicuity and noble simplicity, propriety of idiom, and purity of style, no English version has yet surpassed it.” The following is a fair specimen of this translation.2
1 Dr. Geddes.
2 See a beautiful edition of Tyndale’s Testament, by Rev. T, P. Dabney, with an interesting memoir, published at Andover, Mass.
And marke’3 A Certayne Lawere stode vp’ and tempted hym sayinge: Master what shall I do’ to inheret eternall lyfe? He sayd vnto him: What ys written in the lawe? Howe redest thou? And he answered and sayde: Thou shalt love thy lorde god’ wyth all thy hert’ and wyth all thy soule’ and with all thy strengthe’ and wyth all thy mynde: and thy neighbour as thy sylfe. And he sayd vnto hym: Thou hast answered right. This do and thou shalt live. He wiliynge to iustifie hym sylfe’ sayde vnto Jesus: Who ys then my neighbour?
Jesus answered and sayde: A certayne man descended from Jerusalem into Jericho’ And fell into the hondes of theves’ whych robbed hym off his rayment and wonded hym’ and departed levynge him halfe deed. And yt chaunsed that there cam a certayne preste that same waye’ and sawe hym and passed by. And lyke wyse a levite’ when he was come neye to the place’ went and loked on hym and passed by. Then a certayne Samaritane as he iornyed cam neye vnto hym and behelde hym and had compassion on hym and cam to hym and bounde vppe hys wondes and poured in wyne and oyle and layed him on his beaste and brought hym to a common hostry4 and drest him.5 And on the morowe when he departed he toke out two pence and gave them to the host and said vnto him, Take care of him and whatsoever thou spendest above this when I come agayne I will recompence the. Which no we of these thre thynkest thou was neighbour unto him that fell into the theves hondes? And he answered: He that shewed mercy on hym. Then sayd Jesus vnto hym, Goo and do thou lyke wyse.
5 Made provlslon for him.
—Charles D. Cleveland, A Compendium Of English Literature (1849).