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1494 – 1536
On the surface there would have been little reason to think that the birth of a child in Slimbridge, Gloustershire, England in 1494 would change English history. However, that child, William Tyndale, would later translate and print the Word of God in the English vernacular and the impact of that translation is still felt today.
A brief review of the religious situation at the close of the fifteenth century will enable us to place the birth of Tyndale in perspective. The followers of John Wyclif (1330 - 1384), known as the Lollards, continued his work through the distribution of the Scriptures. Although the Constitutions of Oxford, which banned vernacular copies of the Scriptures, had been passed in 1408, the intrepid Lollards were adamant in their determination to make the Word of God available to the English people. On the international horizon, the Papacy had sunk to its lowest level when Alexander VI ascended to the chair of Saint Peter. His conduct and morals, even by the abysmal standards of the MiddleAges, had brought great moral outrage and calls for reform.
Although few recognized it at the time, the dawning of a new day began with the recovery of the Greek language and its application to Biblical studies. In 1499 Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist, arrived at Oxford University. Although Erasmus enjoyed an international reputation as a scholar, it appears that when he landed in England he was still ignorant of the Greek language. At Oxford were Thomas Linacre and John Colet who urged him to undertake its learning. Colet himself was lecturing on the Epistles of Paul and his studies brought a vibrancy to the text that contrasted sharply with the sterility associated with the Scholastic method of teaching.
After his time at Oxford, Erasmus departed for the European continent to pursue the study of Greek. That pursuit reached its climax in 1516 when the pages of the Novum Instrumentum, the first published Greek New Testament and edited by Erasmus, were issued from the press of Johannes Froben of Basle, Switzerland.
THE TIME OF PREPARATION
Many of the events of Tyndale's early years are unknown. Even the exact date of his birth has not been determined definitively. Little is known about William's parents except they appeared to have been a godly family and interested in securing a good education for their son.
With this background, Tyndale entered Oxford in 1508. While there, he studied the courses preparatory to taking orders as a priest in the English Church. In his Bachelor's studies he would have studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In the Master's course he would have added music, geometry, astronomy, and arithmetic. All of this would have been preparatory for the study of theology. We are certain that he graduated with his Bachelor's in 1508 and Master's in 1512. He was reticent about what he had learned at Oxford except to say that while he appreciated the study of Greek, he did not care for the theology.
Tradition tells us that after he finished at Oxford, Tyndale studied at Cambridge University. Unfortunately no matriculation records exist that would settle this question once for all. However, Tyndale's knowledge that Erasmus had recently taught at Cambridge and a desire to improve his understanding of Greek would have been sufficient motives to enroll. The source for this knowledge of Tyndale's activities, John Foxe, also informs us that Tyndale formed part of the group that met at the White Horse Inn to discuss the reforming events that were shaking Germany at the time. This group had been brought together by Thomas Bilney who had been converted by reading a copy of the second edition of Erasmus' Greek New Testament.
From 1521 to 1523 he acted as tutor to the children of Sir John and Lady Anne Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor. His duties in teaching the Walsh children would not occupy all of his time and he would be free to pursue other studies. Some are convinced that at Little Sodbury Manor, Tyndale determined to translate and print the Scriptures in the English language.
While at the Walsh home, Tyndale soon acquired a reputation as an excellent preacher and student of the Word of God. This became apparent when he was able to refute the friars when they taught contrary to Scripture. As a result the Walsh family declined to invite the neighboring clergy to their home for banquets and theological discussions. Foxe relates that one of the ecclesiastical officials was so angry with Tyndale for this loss of entertainment and good food that he attempted to bring charges of heresy against him!
An incident that took place during the time Tyndale was in the employment of the Walshes gives us insight into his character. While involved in a heated theological dispute with a priest, his opponent is reported to have retorted, "We would be better off without God's law than the Pope's." The conclusion of this statement was that what the Bishop of Rome said carried more authority and was more needful than the words of God Himself.
Tyndale replied to him in no uncertain terms, "I defy the Pope and all his laws, if God spare my life, before many years I will make a boy that driveth a plow know more of the Scriptures than you do." One may think that this was a statement made in bravado but it goes much deeper than that. Tyndale expressed his desire that every person, no matter what rank they occupied in society, would have the opportunity to know what the Word of God taught.
However, it was impossible to translate and print the Bible while at Little Sodbury Manor so Tyndale departed for London. He secured an interview with Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, whose sponsorship he hoped to attain. The interview was inconclusive as Tunstall explained that, at that time, he had more scholars living in his house than he could accommodate. He counseled Tyndale to seek a place where he could preach and assured him that he would eventually come by some means of support.
Bitterly disappointed by this brusque rejection, Tyndale did manage to secure a temporary preaching position at Saint Dunstan's Church. While there he met Humphrey Monmouth, an English merchantman who took an interest in Tyndale. This was a fortuitous contact because Monmouth was actively engaged in trading with merchants on the European mainland. He would prove to be a loyal friend of Tyndale, even at great cost to himself, by giving him financial support and aiding in the smuggling of Bibles into England.
With Tunstall's rejection, Tyndale realized the freedom to translate and print the Scriptures in England was closed. Perhaps he experienced for the first time the deep-seated antipathy of the church officials against having the Scriptures in the vernacular. As a result he decided to leave England and take up the task of translation and printing on the European mainland and smuggle the completed copies back into England.