William Tyndale – Father of the English Bible

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A few years ago, Michael Wilcox stood behind a small, wooden pulpit in Little Sodbury, England where a young man named William Tyndale spoke words of truth – divine words that caused a mighty stirring in many souls.  Wilcox says, as he stood in that place, he “felt a spiritual tug of holiness.”  Tyndale was “the unknown disciple, the forgotten apostle, the father of the Testaments, the creator of the prophetic and apostolic voice, the Elias of the European wilderness whose persistent cry finally triumphed and placed in our hands the bread of heaven, the manna of the Word” (xvi).  It was there, in that small English village, that this 16th century priest gave ear to the whisperings of heaven.  “God kindled the fire in his bones, knowing that a boy prophet, who would not be born for three centuries, would need the gracious words of James” (5).  Wilcox reflected on his love for the two great testaments and admits that he felt “a certain blush of soul” that Tyndale had not been part of his conscious memory.

Principal translator of the English Bible, William Tyndale, created a work that is read and loved by millions.  Yet his name remains largely unknown.  Wilcox laments, “For many years I had been lifted and inspired by the voices [Tyndale] gave to prophets and apostles and to Jesus himself, and yet, he stood unacknowledged in the tablets of my mind.”  Wilcox claims that Tyndale’s life is “still shrouded in the mist of secrecy in which he moved while he lived, always one step ahead of the heresy hunters, until he had safely captured the sacred words in the black ink of the printer’s craft” (5).

“It is hard for us today, with our Bible comfortably resting in the fold of our hands, to understand the sacrifices required to bring it out of the darkness … to the light of modern eyes” (4).  Yet, Wilcox knows how crucial it is that we understand the price paid for every commoner, even the ploughboy, as Tyndale prophesied, to read the Bible in their own tongue – especially those of us who recognize that we are recipients of Reformation workings that gave way to Restoration occurrences.  Without Tyndale and others who fought this desperate conflict, the shadow of the apostasy might still darken the world.  Tyndale’s life reads “like a novel of greater fact than fiction could imagine” (6).  Heroes, villains, enemies, confidantes, the smuggler’s secret marks, shipwreck, lost manuscripts, aliases, bribes, imprisonment, loneliness.  All were painfully etched into the life of this most valiant Christian martyr of the 16th century.

Fire in the Bones is unlike anything Wilcox has ever done.  It is a step beyond current LDS non-fiction.  It is eye opening, critical in its importance, and absolutely heart-rending.  Wilcox has discovered a story that Christians everywhere need to know.  With stirring, passionate, and poetic language, Wilcox adopts a style superlative to his other work.  He is determined to give Tyndale a voice because this man’s story brings to light a portion of history pungently pivotal for God’s work in the latter-days.  It is unfortunately novel that Mormon audiences would study the life of a reformer.  It should be more common, more understood.  Nothing could be more pointedly appropriate; a more worthy story could not be told. 

Reformation and Restoration

Tyndale lived in a time when the standard question was, “Have you read or do you own the scriptures in the common tongue?” (4). The “common tongue,” or English language, was considered to be rude and coarse.  England was known as a backwards country – no significant writing was done in English.  The scriptures, particularly, were forbidden translation into English.  As a result, most Europeans had very little access to the word of God.  Tyndale felt and knew differently.  “The one constant in William’s young life was the desire that farmers, milkmaids and other commoners who worked in the villages of his homeland know the scriptural narratives his own Latin education had allowed him to read and ponder” (20-21).

Encircling Tyndale, were many who had been killed for their attempts to translate or even read the Bible in “the common tongue”.  Men and women risked their lives, often unsuccessfully, by going against clergy of the Catholic Church – high officials who raged relentlessly to silence the rumblings of truth and reformation.

In 1523 Tyndale made this comment to a cleric: “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” (47).  Tyndale’s words proved to be precisely prophetic.  Because of his work, in 1820, the young Joseph Smith, a boy who “drove the plough,” read captivating words about prayer and faith from Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament.  Soon after, this young boy was called as a prophet of God.

Wilcox juxtaposes William Tyndale with Joseph Smith frequently, yielding a strong comparison between the two martyrs, allowing times of Reformation to intersect with times of Restoration in smooth, salient ways.  One necessarily preceded the other.  The Reformation created Christian diversity and paved the way for tolerance.  Wilcox explains that it fought battles for Joseph Smith. “He did not need to fight the battle of infant baptism; the Anabaptists fought and died to challenge that doctrine.  He did not need to fight the battle of a lay priesthood; Luther and Calvin accomplished that.  Frith died for the sacrament, which Christ gave as a simple ceremony…Tyndale fought the battle of the ploughboy with a Bible in his hand” (146). 

Joseph Smith saw in vision the early Christian martyrs, including William Tyndale.  He wrote, “I have…seen those martyrs.  They were honest, devoted followers of Christ, according to the light they possessed.  They will be saved” (17).  In 1834, the Prophet Joseph Smith read a copy of John Foxe’s, Book of Martyrs.  (Wilcox uses this book for much of his supporting text.)  As Joseph read the chapter that retold Tyndale’s experiences, he must have felt a twinge of similarity, for their cause, persecution and eventual fate were much the same.  Wilcox expounds, “Both men were hounded and driven from place to place.  Both were sensitive, trusting, guileless, and susceptible to the weak or false friend.  Both never knew the security of a permanent home or the ambience of abiding peace.  Both died at an early age.  Both were betrayed, imprisoned, and killed…both were killed by satisfying men representing the condemnation of church or state” (17).

The Art of Translation

In addition to the tangible similarities noted between William Tyndale and Joseph Smith, Wilcox draws readers to a less tangible similarity – the art of translation.  For both Tyndale and Smith, translation was their life-giving work.  Wilcox looks into the skill and heart of translation, giving readers an appreciation for the difficulty and spirit of this labor.

  Although they differed in education and background, both men were guided in their translation efforts by the hand of God.

Unlike Joseph Smith (according to worldly standards), Tyndale was well-educated and fluent in seven languages.  Greek and Hebrew were essential to his work.  He drew his translation of the New Testament from the Greek rather than the Latin Vulgate (used by the Catholic Church) and did the same with Hebrew in his translation of the Old Testament, although he never completed the Old Testament.

Wilcox hones the reader’s ear to hear a “spiritual lift” in Tyndale’s phrasing, teaching that scriptural language has a musical quality.  Wilcox describes it as a lift that offers testimony in the phrases themselves.  Consider “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,” “seek and ye shall find,” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you,” and “In my Father’s house are many mansions”.  Using this last verse as an example, Wilcox compares it to other versions of the Bible.  The loss of spiritual lift is obvious.  “There are many rooms in my Father’s house” (Jerusalem Bible and the New International Version) or “There are many homes up there where my Father lives” (Living Bible).  They just don’t match the majesty of Tyndale’s Redeemer!  Tyndale strove tirelessly to choose the most perfect words that best represented the voices of the individuals speaking.  Wilcox concludes, “Tyndale was prepared to give voice to the Son of God” (22).

We enjoy many wonderful phrases and word combinations because of Tyndale’s ability to render a true translation of God’s words like atonement, still small voice, let there be light, and fire in the bones.  Of his integrity in translation, Tyndale wrote, “I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth…might be given me” (140).  Wilcox points out, “Luther would not even go that far, instead tweaking a verse here and there to lean it more favorable to his views” (140). 

With sufficient depth and detail, Wilcox magnificently improves our ear for scriptural language.  He gives readers a new set of eyes and ears with which to read the Holy Bible.  Tyndale set a standard that King James translators would follow, maintaining the musical bar he had raised – the fluidity, gliding, and repetition of sound that allowed him to “write with the pen of heaven” (82).

As I read Wilcox’s commentary, I realized how fragile God’s word really is; one mistake in translation can change the entire meaning of a doctrine, and in the past, it has!  We cannot expect the Bible to be taken literally for its exactness as the supreme and only word of God.  It is fallible, as its text has seen a litany of translations and revisions.  This insight directs us, once again, to the need for a Restoration, for expanding scripture and for living prophets who can give us God’s word, direct and undefiled.

In the Name of Christianity

The most disturbing aspect of the book is the unbecoming light it sheds upon the Catholic Church.  During this time, unnumbered atrocities and injustices secretly littered the church’s history.  William Tyndale was just one of many who lost his life flying in the face of traditional religious practices instituted by the church’s governing body.  He likely “emphasized the saving power of faith in Christ…void of the necessity of the confessional, indulgences, relics, appeals to the saints, pilgrimages, or other acts of penance that the clergy instituted upon and from which they received a large portion of their monetary gains” (39).  When in disagreement with others, Tyndale would show them plainly in the Bible the concepts that confounded their sayings.  As a result, church officials began to bear severe feelings against him. 

The prelates “railed upon Tyndale, denouncing him as a heretic, the one accusation, if they could make it stick, that was sure to silence the voice that probed too deeply into their own failings” (43).  Heretics were burned at the stake.  Despite this, Tyndale proclaimed, “I defy the pope and all his laws” (47). 

Tyndale moved to Germany to translate, looking for safer havens and the ability to print his translation in secret.  His doctrine consisted of a more “personal, individual experience based on faith in the atoning mercy of Christ, not on the sacramental rites of a concrete body” (78).  For Tyndale, the Word was dominant.  Wilcox describes Tyndale as teaching “civil disobedience in the spirit of Thoreau and Gandhi” (107).  His resistance was passive, never forceful.  If that resistance brought punishment, it was survived with meekness and a peaceful heart.

In 1529, Thomas Hitton, an ally of Tyndale’s, was martyred.  His death stung Tyndale sharply.  “It was one thing to suffer…persecution for oneself, another to know that friends whom he had influenced were suffering painful deaths” (114-115).  Other friends and allies were also executed.  At this point in the text, Wilcox begins to list the martyrs that preceded Tyndale.  Name after name, death after death.  With each individual fate, the provocation of the reader swells.  How could such injustices be tolerated or committed in the name of Christianity?  Most “heretics” were publicly degraded, then turned over to civil justice for further punishment, which usually meant death.  Wilcox points out that this was “technicality but [it] eased the conscience and left the church without blood on its hands” (118).   

Tyndale eluded authority for almost a decade but in 1535 he was betrayed, imprisoned and in 1536, burned at the stake.  Because he held the office of a priest, he was “unhallowed” before his burning – “his hands were scraped with a knife or a piece of glass, as a symbol of the loss of the anointing oil; the bread and the wine were placed in his hands and then taken away” (213-214).  Simultaneously bishops cursed him with the words, “O cursed Judas, because you have abandoned the counsel of peace…we take away from you this cup of redemption” (214).  He was then stripped of his vestments and given the clothing of a layman.  The final curse that followed was, “We commit your soul to the devil” (214).  Judgment, they had reserved as their own.

Years before his execution, as English clergy were burning his copies of the New Testament, Tyndale wrote the following: “Why I take the labour to make this work, insomuch as they will burn it, seeing they burnt the gospel?  I answer, In burning the new Testament they did none other thing than that I looked for: no more shall they do, if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall be so.  Nevertheless, in translating the New Testament I did my duty, and so do I now, and will do as much more as God hath ordained me to do” (94).

That is the burning testimony of God’s servant and mouthpiece.  Wilcox triumphs Tyndale on every page.  He acknowledges the man’s humanity, while illuminating his shameless devotion to God’s work and Christ’s teachings.

  Even while men and women were burning at the stake, another kind of fire burned inside them – the fire that Jeremiah speaks of while preaching to a wicked Jerusalem: “But [God’s] word was in mine heart, as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (Jeremiah 20:9).

That His Name Not Perish

A friend of Tyndale’s, Miles Coverdale, completed Tyndale’s Biblical translation.  In the winter of 1536, the King allowed Coverdale’s version to be sold in English bookshops.  With access to God’s word, public readings went on for hours.  “Crowds now gathered to the warmth of Tyndale’s English instead of the burning of his smuggled papers (224).  In 1611, King James translators took as their foundation and core Tyndale’s work.

The book concludes with this statement about Tyndale.  Wilcox declares, “We must not let his name perish from the conscious memory of those who love the Bible’s reverberating words, so melodiously rendered in the simple, plain speech of the common man – words that have lifted and inspired the English race for five centuries” (226).  This sentiment is a bold flame lit by men like John Foxe and now, Michael Wilcox.  It is up to us to pass it on.  Tyndale’s translation taught us that God’s word can be more than a flame – it can be like a fire shut up in our bones.

Wilcox has done a remarkable thing.  He has opened the door for Mormons to become better acquainted with the pivotal characters of the Reformation and the origin of the English Bible.  To say this is a “must-read” is not saying enough.  Our I.Q. demands the information Wilcox has to offer us.  Readers will find their testimonies of the Bible, of God’s true church, of Joseph Smith and the sayings of Christ, emboldened.  Fire in the Bones is spectacular, intriguing, and riveting.  We must do our part to see that “William Tyndale” does become a name that burns in every Christian’s heart for the treasure he has left us.