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William Tyndale, God's Outlaw

Almost five centuries ago, William Tyndale changed how we need the Bible.

Updated Aug 23, 2023
William Tyndale, God's Outlaw

Almost five centuries ago, William Tyndale changed how we need the Bible. These articles look at different aspects of his life and work.

Table of Contents

What You Didn't Know about William Tyndale

The Bible continues to be the best-selling book in English year after year and we have literally dozens of versions readily available to us. But did you know that some Christians suffered horrible deaths to make it possible for us to have the Bible in the English language?

"Lord, open the King of England's eyes"-- many in the crowd heard William Tyndale's loud and earnest prayer just before the authorities strangled him and burned him to ashes. As the flames licked Tyndale's broken body it seemed his lifelong dream and dying prayer would die with him. But, as we will see, both were amazingly fulfilled only two years after he died.

William Tyndale was born near the Welsh border of England in 1494. Forty years earlier, two important events occurred in Europe which would have a great impact on Tyndale's life and work. In May, 1453, the Turks had stormed Constantinople, and the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Moslem invaders. Greek scholars fled westward and brought with them a scholarship which had been almost forgotten in the West. Greek language studies of the classics increased, and the Scriptures began to be studied in the original Greek, rather than the Latin Vulgate. The invention of the printing press in 1454 was a second important development. The printing press would eliminate copyist errors and make the Scriptures more easily available in quantity editions. But to have the Bible in English was illegal. In an attempt to restrain the influence of Wycliffe's followers, in 1408 Parliament had passed the "Constitutions of Oxford" which forbade anyone translating or reading a part of the Bible in the language of the people without permission of the ecclesiastical authorities. Men and women were even burned for teaching their children the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in English. William Tyndale, however, had an unquenchable passion to make the Bible available to every Englishman.

Even the Plowboy Should Have Bible

Tyndale studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, could speak seven languages, and became skilled in Hebrew and Greek. When the Renaissance scholar Erasmus published a Greek edition of the New Testament, Tyndale discovered the truths of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. He realized that the English people were in darkness, following errors and superstition, because of their ignorance of the Scriptures. Tyndale found his own purpose in life expressed in Erasmus' preface to his New Testament:

Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the gospel and the epistles of St. Paul, and I wish that they were translated into all languages of all Christian people, and that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scotch and the Irish, but even by the Turks and the Saracens. Tyndale exhorted that it was in the language of Israel that the Psalms were sung in the temple of Jehovah; and shall not the gospel speak the language of England among us?... Ought the church to have less light at noonday than at dawn?... Christians must read the New Testament in their mother tongue. Tyndale determined to give the English people a translation of the Bible that even a plowboy could understand.

Permission Denied

Tyndale went to the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to seek permission to translate the Bible into English. Tunstall refused. But while in London Tyndale came into contact with several merchants who were smuggling into England some of Martin Luther's writings from Germany. They encouraged Tyndale to go to Europe to translate. They would help smuggle the Bibles back into England.

On Press, On the Run 

Tyndale fled England to translate the Bible on the Continent. Even there he had to be careful to avoid English spies and informers, as well as European opponents of the Reformation. His whereabouts are often difficult to determine, but he spent time in Hamburg, Wittenberg, Cologne, Worms, and Antwerp. In 1525 his New Testament was printed and smuggled back into England. It was the first translation of the Bible from the original Greek into English --indeed, it was the first translation of a Greek book into English.

King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Sir Thomas More were furious at this unlicensed translation. Thomas More wrote a work attacking Tyndale's translation as a mistranslation full of heresy. However, the King's wife, Anne Boleyn, was an admirer of Tyndale (her copy of Tyndale's testament is now in the British Museum). She she was not able to persuade the King to approve such translation of the Scripture.

The King, Wolsey, and More all had agents on the Continent hoping to find and arrest Tyndale. In 1534 Tyndale was betrayed by a false friend near Brussels, arrested by imperial forces, and thrown into prison. He was accused of maintaining that faith alone justifies. He was found guilty and in 1536 was executed.

Opponents Finance Work

Tyndale's work received an amazing unintended boost when bishops bought as many copies of his translation as possible to destroy them. The price they paid provided Tyndale the desperately needed money to print even more improved and corrected editions.

("William Tyndale, God's Outlaw" published on on May 3, 2010)

William Tyndale for Kids: A Look at His Life

It is hard for us today to imagine not having a Bible in our own language, but it hasn't always been that way. When William Tyndale was a little boy growing up in England in the 1500s, ordinary people did not own Bibles. They had to go to church to hear what the Bible had to say. But there was one problem--the priest read the Bible in Latin, a language only the most educated people could understand.

As William Tyndale grew older and finished college, he felt that God was calling him to translate the Bible into English so that all people could read it for themselves. But--believe it or not--translating the Bible was against the law. Like many others during his time, William Tyndale was called a false teacher and was put to death for his beliefs. Based on historical sources, this is his story as he might have told it.

My Gift for Languages Lets Me Read the Bible for Myself

I grew up on a farm in Gloucestershire, England. Life was very difficult for English families. Children worked very hard to help their parents. Disease and famine often killed thousands at a time.

My parents could tell early in my life that I had a gift for learning languages. I was able to go to Oxford University, one of England's finest schools. By the time I graduated, I had mastered SEVEN languages! Of them, Hebrew and Greek were most useful to me, because I could now read the Bible in its original languages.

I learned so much about God as I read the Bible for myself! I knew I had to use the gift God had given me so that others could read the Bible for themselves, too! I was well aware that translating the Scriptures was against the law and could cost me my life, but how could I not do what God was calling me to do?

Church and King Try to Keep Me Quiet

At first I asked the Church authorities for permission to translate the Bible into English. The answer was no. The Church believed that only the Pope and priests were educated enough to truly understand and interpret the Bible.

One day a discussion with a priest became a heated argument when he told me that it was better to be without God's laws than the Pope's. I could not believe what I was hearing! I answered him by saying, "I defy the Pope and all his laws; if God spares my life, I will cause a young farm boy to know more of the Scriptures than you do."

I also did not agree with the Church's teaching that doing good things was the way to get to heaven. The Bible clearly says that salvation is a free gift from God for those who believe. Many in the Catholic Church and also the King of England, Henry VIII, looked for ways to keep me quiet.

Hiding from Spies

I knew I must leave England immediately. I secretly traveled to Germany, where others had also taken a stand against some of the Church's teachings. When I arrived, I quickly changed my name--so no one would be able to find me--and began my work.

Translating the Bible into English was a difficult job. Each word had to be recorded correctly. The language also had to be simple enough for even an uneducated person to understand. It took more than a year for me to complete the New Testament translation.

I had to find a good printer whom I could also trust to keep my whereabouts secret. I could not risk being caught. English spies would be paid well to turn me in. One spy eventually did find out where the first printing was taking place. I narrowly escaped capture, getting away just in time with some of my materials!

The English Bible on English Soil

Once the printing was completed, copies had to get into England without being seized. Smugglers hid the Bibles in shipments where no one expected them: in flour barrels, in trunks with false bottoms, and in airtight boxes inside wine barrels.

The Bibles sold as quickly as they reached England, even though one cost about half a week's earnings (over $100 in today's dollars). Families saved and put their money together, and a farmer would trade an entire load of hay to get just one Bible. Groups would meet together to hear the Word of God for the first time in their own language.

The religious leaders and the King were furious! They tried to destroy as many copies as they could. They also intensified their search to find and arrest me.

A "Friend" Turns Me Over to Killers

I had begun to feel quite safe in Germany. I had also become somewhat of a celebrity. But I let nothing get in the way of completing my task. I worked late every night translating several books of the Old Testament.

One day I met a young Englishman in Germany who seemed to share my ideas about the need to translate the Bible. Over time we became good friends. What I didn't know was that this young man was a spy who would soon betray me. He led me right into the hands of my captors, after inviting me out for a meal. I was jailed, charged with heresy (false teaching), and sentenced to death by burning.


The last thing we know about William Tyndale is that he was led through a crowd into the public square. A noose was placed around his neck. His last words were, "God, please open the King of England's eyes." He was then hanged and his body was set afire.

God answered his prayer in a wonderful way. Within one year of William Tyndale's death, the King of England gave approval for an English Bible to be published. Tyndale's Bible was used as a guide for the new translation. This new translation is the father of the King James Bible that is still read today.

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder

  1. William Tyndale had a talent for learning languages. Instead of burying his talent, he worked hard to develop it and use it for God. What talent has God given you? What can you do to develop your talent and use it for Godês glory?
  2. Translating languages is very difficult work. To get a feel for the difficulty, try translating the Ten Commandments into language that a preschooler could understand. You can find them in the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter 20.
  3. It seems strange that some people in the 1500s thought the Pope's law could be more important than God's law. Can you think of a time when you have had to choose between following God's laws and following man-made laws? What did you do?
  • Suggested reading:
    • The Queen's Smuggler: William Tyndale by Dave & Neta Jackson (Trailblazer Books, Bethany House)
    • William Tyndale by Bruce Fish (Heroes of the Faith series, Barbour)
    • God's Outlaw by Brian Edwards (Evangelical Press)

("William Tyndale, God's Outlaw" published on on July 16, 2010)


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