HIS LEGACY – by Dr. Herbert Samworth •
How is it possible to even think of writing a legacy of such a person as William Tyndale? In many ways he is the father of the English Bible. While it is true that John Wycliffe was the first to translate the Bible into the English language in the late 14th century, he translated from the Latin Vulgate and, as a result, the Wycliffe Bible was a translation from a translation. On the other hand, Tyndale worked from the original source languages of Hebrew and Greek.
Perhaps the best way to attempt a legacy would be to follow out the prayer that Tyndale spoke at his execution. The prayer was that the Lord would open the King of England’s eyes, i.e. that he would permit the free circulation of the Bible in the English tongue.
In 1537 just one year after Tyndale’s death, John Rogers produced a translation of the complete English Bible that he called the Matthew’s Bible. This was the second complete English Bible following the Coverdale Bible printed in 1535, one year before the death of Tyndale.
In this edition, Rogers used the work of William Tyndale on the New Testament and the Pentateuch that had previously been printed. For the books Joshua to II Chronicles we believe that he used a previously unknown translation from the Hebrew by William Tyndale that was completed before his arrest and execution. How Rogers came by this manuscript remains a mystery to this day. For the remaining portions of the Bible, he basically followed the text of the Coverdale Bible.
Rogers had the Bible printed in Antwerp and shipped to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor. Both of these individuals were in favor of the free circulation of the Bible in English. From what we can learn, these two men took the Bible to King Henry VIII who gave it a cursory examination. He then asked them if it contained heresy. When they replied that it did not, he uttered these amazing words, “Then, let it go forth to the people.” Because until this time the Bible in English had been proscribed, it was necessary to print on a slip of paper the words: Set forth by the Kinges most gracyous lycece. Thus for the first time in nearly one hundred and thirty years, the English people were permitted to have the Word of God in their own language. The Matthews Bible apparently was the only edition of the Word of God that John Rogers was associated with. It was his desire to honor William Tyndale by having his final work of translation to be printed. However, Rogers would have the distinction of being the first individual condemned to death for heresy during the reign of Queen Mary. On February 4, 1555 John Rogers sealed his testimony with his life.
There is an interesting side note to this story. After the book of Malachi, Rogers had printed in large bold letters the letters W T to indicate that it was the work of William Tyndale. Although Tyndale had prayed that the Lord would open the King of England’s eyes, those initials apparently were never noticed by the King. On that occasion, the Lord closed the eyes of the King of England!
However, this was just the first part of the answer to William Tyndale’s prayer. The King of England’s eyes were opened and the Bible was permitted to circulate freely. However, just two years later, in 1539, Henry issued another decree that all the churches in England were to have a copy of the Scriptures in “the largest size.” This was known as the Great Bible and some seven editions were published by 1541. The story of the printing of the Great Bible is a narrative in its own account. It was also called the Chained Bible because copies were often chained to a podium in churches and people would come to read it themselves or have someone read it to them. It soon became apparent that the reading of the Bible was more popular than hearing the sermon and people would gather during the service times for that purpose. Finally, the audiences grew so large that it was ordered that the reading of the Bible was to be restricted to times when there were no services.
Thus we see the prayer of Tyndale answered in an even greater manner. Now all the churches in England possessed copies of the Word of God.
But possibly the greatest answer to Tyndale’s prayer and contribution to his legacy is in relation to the printing of the King James Bible of 1611. As with the history of the printing of the Great Bible is a story in itself, so also is the printing of the King James Bible. However, the committee tasked with the revision of the New Testament, retained 84 percent of Tyndale’s work. In other words, out of every one hundred words used in the New Testament of the King James Bible, eighty four are from William Tyndale. Surely the Lord did answer the prayer of William Tyndale!
In this conclusion to the life of William Tyndale, we see that his life and legacy are inseparably intertwined with the Word of God. Because the Word of God abides forever, so also will be the legacy of William Tyndale. This is not a matter of exalting an individual but of gratitude for one who lived in order to give the ploughboy the word of God. We can be thankful to the Lord for such people who, even at the cost of their lives, consider the Word of God and its distribution the supreme desire of their lives.