During the early spring of 1524, a young priest slipped away from London and, without the king’s leave, made his way to the European continent. He was never to see his homeland again, and for the next eleven years his life was an elaborate hide and seek as he was pursued, at one time, by four government agents. His crime and his life’s ambition were one and the same: to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek and present it, printed and bound, so that even the boy who drove the plough could understand God’s Word.
By the constitutions of Oxford of 1408, it was illegal—on pain of death—to read the Scriptures in English without a bishop’s licence. To reinforce this, in April 1519 one woman and six men were burned to death at Coventry for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed in English.
William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire, England, studied at Oxford and later Cambridge and spent two years teaching the children of Sir John and Lady Walsh in their small manor house at Little Sodbury. Here he began to translate the New Testament, and by the time he arrived on the continent it was complete. The first ever printed New Testaments in English were smuggled back into England early in 1526. Though the bishops burned the Bibles and often their owners, the Word of God became an unstoppable force across the land—England had the Bible in the vernacular at last.
Tyndale’s Old Testament from the Hebrew and New Testament from the Greek was a masterpiece of brilliant translation, and all early copies of the Bible: Coverdale’s (the first to be endorsed by Henry VIII), Matthew’s (officially licensed by the king to be distributed across the land), the Geneva Bible (the Bible of the Pilgrim fathers and Shakespeare), and even the Authorized Version were largely the work of Tyndale. Professor David Daniell, a leading Shakespearean scholar, claims that Tyndale’s translation, and not the plays of Shakespeare, molded the English language as we know it.
After eleven years of constantly escaping government agents, writing long letters and tracts for the suffering church in England, refining and revising his translations, William Tyndale was cruelly betrayed. However, his legacy continues within the pages of every English Bible.