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William Tyndale

Strange landscape

He defied exile, shipwreck, prison and Henry VIII,
and contributed to freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

Image: Jason van der Valk

in a Strange Land

William Tyndale, who was born around 1495, must have suspected that translating the Bible into English could be hazardous to his health. John Wycliffe, who had worked on an English translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, escaped death at the stake only by dying of a stroke in 1384. But Wycliffe's story gave hope, too. Despite all the authorities did to destroy his translation, manuscripts survived.

Exile and escape

Tyndale had a knack for languages. He had learned at least seven, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and he had an irrepressible personality. He decided to translate the Bible directly from the Greek and Hebrew, and to make the Bible accessible to everyone in England, even “the boy that drives the plow”. When Henry VIII's henchmen stepped in to stop him, he escaped into exile in Europe.

He was hopeful that God would give him enough time to complete his work, but he had barely completed the New Testament when he was again forced to flee. Holding his only copy of his exhilarating English translation of the New Testament, he escaped by boat up the Rhine, just ahead of the agents sent to destroy it.

Smuggling copies and shipwreck

He managed to get his New Testament translation printed and smuggled into England in shiploads of corn though every port was watched. Copies were passed from hand to hand. Those that were discovered were torched.

Tyndale then turned to the Old Testament. He had completed the translation, but was shipwrecked outside Hamburg. His boat was smashed to pieces, and his entire manuscript was lost.

Beginning all over again, he was betrayed for a handful of silver by a man he had befriended, and imprisoned in a castle north of Brussels. He was cold, so cold he asked for a piece of cloth to patch his leggings, and “a lamp in the evening, for it is worrisome to sit alone in the dark.” He was not sure he could go on.

Somehow he managed to complete his translation of the Old Testament from Joshua through 2 Chronicles before he was found guilty of heresy. He was in his early forties when he was tied to a stake, strangled, and burned on 6 October 1536. “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” he cried just before he died.


Apparently, the Lord did. Within twelve months, Tyndale’s translation, “which had been denounced, proscribed, and repeatedly burned at St. Paul’s Cross,” was formally approved by Henry VIII and published, under a fictitious name.

Many of Tyndale’s phrases entered the King James Version of the Bible and survived. You may have heard or said them -

The song of songs
The Living God
Forgive us our trespasses
Stranger in a strange land
The gate of heaven
And the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.
The apple of his eye. . .

Red apple


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass