The Life of William Tyndale – Part 9

EVENTS AFTER 1530 – by Dr. Herbert Samworth

 

Following the printing of the Pentateuch in 1530 we do not know much about Tyndale’s activities for a period of time. There was no doubt that he continued his work of translation. Perhaps this was when he began his translation on the following books of the Old Testament that John Rogers would incorporate in the Matthew’s Bible of 1537.

However, there was one book that Tyndale wrote during this time. It was entitled The Practice of Prelates. There are many who are of the opinion that it the one book of Tyndale that we could safely do without because of its subject matter and how it alienated King Henry VIII. Perhaps we can better understand it when we seek to put the larger context before the reader.

While the exact location of Tyndale could not be established by the authorities in London, they were well aware of his basic activities. He was also the subject of much discussion and even of disagreement. There were some who were totally convinced that he was a heretic and should be captured and brought back to England to face charges of heresy. Little doubt existed that such a course of action would result in his conviction and death at the stake.

However there were others, who while they thought that Tyndale should be brought back to England, had a totally different view of the man. These were the Evangelicals and were convinced that the time was right for an English translation of the Bible. Thus Tyndale, rather than be burned at the stake for heresy, would be employed in the work of Bible translation. At this time it may appear that they were unrealistic in their hopes, but they were able to persuade the King for permission to attempt his recall.

They employed a man by the name of Stephan Vaughn to search and make contact with Tyndale. Several letters of Vaughn are extant today that tell of his efforts. In the event, Vaughn was able to make contact and speak with Tyndale about a possible return. Vaughn reported that Tyndale on one occasion said that if King Henry would permit the free circulation of the Scriptures, he promised to return to England, place himself at the King’s mercy, and not do any more translation.

However, it was during this time of discussion that Tyndale published his book entitled The Practice of Prelates. From our point of time in history, we may wonder what Tyndale attempted to accomplish through the writing and publication of this book. Its stated purpose was an attempt to warn King Henry VIII against the clerical branch of the church. He signaled out for special emphasis the Lord Chancellor and Papal Legate Thomas Wolsey. He called him Wolfsee, certainly no term of honor. He described Wolsey’s actions that Tyndale believed could prove injurious to the King.

However, what Tyndale did not know was that Wolsey had already been disgraced and it was just a matter of time before he would be punished by the King. In the event, Wolsey died before this sentence was executed. Thus all the warnings that Tyndale placed in his book were out of date because Wolsey’s fall had already occurred.

However, there was another subject that Tyndale wrote in the book that absolutely did not win him favor with the King. Tyndale was convinced that Henry should not divorce Catherine of Aragon. You might well imagine the wrath of King Henry when he learned of this because he was in the middle of seeking that divorce. What right had any subject of the King to lecture him on how he should behave? There appears to be evidence that King Henry was so enraged that he ripped in half a report that Edward Vaughn had written back to England about his contact with Tyndale in which Vaughn spoke highly about him. Many scholars of the English Reformation are convinced that this sealed Tyndale’s fate with the King Henry.

However, there remains something to be said in favor about what Tyndale wrote. Although events proved that he was ignorant of what had taken place with Wolsey, this did not mean that Tyndale should not have written the book. If there was a characteristic of Tyndale that remained constant throughout his life, it was his integrity. Political reality said one thing and the Word of God said another. It was not a matter of political intrigue or to court the favor of the King that Tyndale wrote. This applied to his decision to write about the impending divorce. The question is not what does current opinion has to say, but what did the Word of God say about the matter. The best friend that King Henry had was William Tyndale. While others were seeking to aid him in the divorce and fawning to retain his favor, Tyndale wrote from the perspective of the Word of God. There is also good reason to believe that Tyndale would have said the same thing to the King’s face that he wrote in his book. The best friends are those who speak the truth according to the Word of God. Tragically, Henry was not interested in what the Word of God had to say about the situation but how he could obtain the divorce and marry Anne Bolyn.

There was another matter that was much on Tyndale’s heart at the time. It was in reference to John Frith. John Frith is a person that should be better known than he is. He was a student first at Cambridge and then at Oxford. In fact he was one of the Cambridge students selected by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to be part of the new college that he had established at Oxford called Cardinal College. That same college is known as Christ Church today.

Wolsey got more than he anticipated from the scholars that he selected to be part of his new foundation. They proved to be true Evangelicals and as a result several were arrested and imprisoned in a salt cellar under one of the university buildings. Several of these young men died from the exposure and lack of a proper diet. Frith survived the ordeal and lost no time in leaving England to join Tyndale.

Exactly when did Tyndale and Frith first meet? There are some who say that it was during the time that Tyndale studied at Cambridge while others believe it was during the year that Tyndale spent in London after the refusal of Cuthbert Tunstall to permit him to translate the Bible. There are still others who believe they had never met in England but Frith was acquainted only with Tyndale’s work of translation and decided to go to Antwerp in order to help him. Perhaps we will never be able to know for certain the true facts.

However, after a period of helping Tyndale, Frith decided to make a visit to England. It was a very dangerous time to make such a trip but Frith decided to go regardless. It appears that his purpose in going to England was to escort the Prior of the Reading Monastery out of England into Europe. However, he was arrested as a vagabond. Later, he was released but word quickly spread that he was in the country and the ports were watched. He was rearrested and placed in the Tower of London.

For a period of time, Frith came under the jurisdiction of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who did everything that he could to save his life. Frith was a noted scholar who won people by his demeanor. Even arch conservatives such as Edmund Bonner, Stephen Gardiner, and John Stokesley were won over by the force of his personality. It is said that the warden of the Tower of London was so impressed with Frith that he would permit him to leave the Tower solely on Frith’s promise to return.

While Frith was in the Tower of London, he was requested to put in writing his thoughts on the Eucharist. This was the crucial doctrine for determining whether the person was orthodox or a heretic. If a person denied the real physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the doctrine of transubstantiation, he was considered heretical and would be burned at the stake. The person who asked Frith to write out his thoughts, William Holt, proved to be a traitor and carried his exposition to Sir Thomas More. From that moment, Frith’s fate was sealed although he was still under the direct supervision of Thomas Cranmer.

However, Stokesley was able to have Frith assigned to his jurisdiction because he was now the Bishop of London. Although Stokesley was impressed by Frith, Stokesley considered him to be a heretic. In the trial for heresy before Stokesley, Longland, and Gardiner, Frith was convicted of heresy and was sentenced to be burned at the stake.

News that Frith had been arrested and imprisoned reached Tyndale in Antwerp. He wrote two letters to Frith while he was in the Tower. In the first, Tyndale warned Frith not to meddle with the doctrine of the Eucharist because it would seal his fate. But as we have seen Frith had already put his thoughts into writing although he stated clearly that he was indifferent as to whether it was a physical or spiritual presence. The fact that he considered the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist to be a matter of indifference was what sealed his doom. The doctrine of transubstantiation required the physical presence of Christ because it was His body and His blood that were transubstantiated from the bread and wine.

In the second letter Tyndale was aware that Frith had been sentenced to death and that it was but a matter of time before the execution would occur. He encouraged Frith to remain faithful unto the end. In this latter Tyndale wrote about himself in a remark that captured the purpose for his life. We read Tyndale’s words concerning himself:

I call God to record against that day when we shall all give in an account of our doings to the Lord Jesus Christ that I did not alter one syllable of His word against my conscience. Nor would I do so this day whether all that be in the world, be it riches, honor or pleasure be given me.

John Frith

John Frith

For William Tyndale, it was the Word of God above all. It was not fame, honor or riches that he sought. His desire was to give the ploughboy the Word of God in his own language so that he might read and understand it. For that he was willing to give his life.

Of the same spirit was John Frith. He did not recant but remained faithful to the end. He was burned at the stake on July 4, 1533. John Frith was in his 30th year at his death.

Next: The Life of William Tyndale – Part 10: The Second Edition New Testament

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