LITTLE SODBURY MANOR – by Dr. Herbert Samworth
The narration of Tyndale’s life has brought us to the year 1521. We are now on firmer ground as regards his activities. In that year he left Cambridge University and returned to his ancestral home – Gloustershire. He became a tutor to the children of Sir John and Lady Anne Walsh at Little Sudbury Manor, their home.
Once again, we are faced with the question of why should a person, who spent at least eight years at Oxford and graduated M.A. and an indefinite period of time at Cambridge, return to his childhood land to become tutor to two young children, about the ages of eight and ten? Were conditions so desperate that this was the only means of earning a living?
It is nearly impossible to make sense of Tyndale’s activities unless we interpret them in the light of his ambition to translate the Word of God into the English language. Although detailed certainly of his activities lies beyond our knowledge, there was a basic pattern that is plain to see. His actions were all directed to prepare himself to translate the Bible into the English language. Several factors appear to make this abundantly clear: his disgust with the theology taught at Oxford, his matriculation at Cambridge to improve his knowledge of the source language of the New Testament, and the activities and conversations at the White Horse Inn would reinforce his basic conviction that the Word of God must be translated and printed in the vernacular if ever there was to be true reformation in the Church of England.
Whether his activities were part of a master plan that he had formulated even as a student at Oxford or that he came gradually to see that this was to be to his life’s work is nearly impossible to state with certainty. However, it is abundantly clear that his activities and studies were designed to equip him to be a skilled translator of the Scriptures into the English language.
Even his work at Sodbury Manor would contribute to his preparation. For certainly his duties of instructing two young children would leave him ample time to continue his private studies. However, that was not all that Tyndale did while at the home of the Walshes.
One of his activities was to go to a monastery called St. Austin’s near Bristol. There in the green at the entrance of the monastery he preached the Word of God in the English tongue. Perhaps such activity would seem commonplace to us today. However, such was not the case nearly five hundred years ago. While attendance at church was required by law, we must keep in mind that the entire service was in Latin. A person who did not understand the Latin could sit through an entire service and leave as he entered without any additional knowledge of God’s Word.
However, what occurred at Saint Austin’s Green was different. The Word of God was proclaimed and there is reasonable certainly to believe that for many people, it was the first time they head the Gospel message explained in a language they could understand. It was reported that the crowds grew so large that Tyndale was ordered to stop preaching. The reason was that it was causing a disturbance and the people could go to a church service if they had an interest in hearing the preaching of God’s Word. This incident served to illustrate the indifference of the church officials’ concern for the spiritual welfare of their flocks. It was doubtlessly true that the people attended the church services but they did not have the ability to understand what was being said.
There is another incident that is revealing concerning the condition of the church. The Walshes were hospitable people and would invite the local clergy to their home for dinners. As a matter of courtesy, they would include their tutor, William Tyndale, to partake with them. In the conversations that would take place at the meals, Tyndale demonstrated his knowledge of the Scriptures so impressively that the priests and clergy were offended and stopped coming to the Walshes.
At this time a rumor began to circulate that Tyndale had gained his knowledge of the Bible through the influence of Satan. This rumor was started by the priests who were jealous of Tyndale and wished to have him silenced. It is revealing of their ignorance of God’s Word that they would attribute to the archenemy of God the power to teach Scripture to Tyndale because it is by means of Scripture that the works of the evil one are destroyed.
However, the rumor grew to such a degree that Tyndale was hailed before the Chancellor, John Bell, who. in Tyndale’s words, rated him like a dog. These incidents reveal much about the spiritual conditions in England at that time.
The Walshes became concerned about Tyndale, fearing that they were employing one who was an enemy of the church. To allay their fears, Tyndale translated a production of Erasmus called the Enchiridion, or Handbook of the Christian. It was done with such skill that it completely won the Walshes to his side.
We must not think that Tyndale was completely alone in his concern for the spiritual condition of the church. It is reported that one clergyman in seeking to warn him against his spiritual foes went so far as to call the Pope the Antichrist. Many believe that it was a William Latimer who previously held high positions in the church but was now retired from active ministry. This person admitted that he had been a servant of the Pope but now was free from his service. He cautioned Tyndale that his life was at risk and that he needed to be careful in voicing his opposition against the clergy.
However, there was another incident that has been recorded by both Richard Webb and John Foxe that provides for us a defining moment in Tyndale’s life. One day he was having a conversation with a fellow priest about the necessity of having the Word of God in the vernacular (English) language. There is no absolute certainty who that person was.
However, in the midst of their conversation, the fellow priest said to Tyndale that the Bible in the English language was not necessary. As long as they had the Bishop of Rome’s laws (the canon law) of the church, the Scriptures were not needed.
To that person, Tyndale returned this memorable answer, “I defy the Pope and all his laws, if God spare my life, I will make the boy that driveth the plough know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” It is important that we understand the importance of that remarkable statement. Tyndale not only said that he would give the ploughboy the Scriptures in a language he could understand, he was also concerned to provide the means whereby he could understand what the text meant.
At a time when the clergy were indifferent to the spiritual needs of the people, Tyndale was formulating plans to make even the ploughboy know the Word of God. The contrast between the two could hardly have been greater.
However, Tyndale knew that it was impossible to provide the Scriptures to the ploughboy from Little Sodbury Manor, such a work could only be done in London. So armed with letters of introduction and commendation from the Walshes and others, he set out for London.
In the fourth part of our account of Tyndale’s life, we will recount what took place when Tyndale arrived in London.