A book review by Dr. Herbert Samworth
This is the review of the first of the three books authored by J. F. Mozley and deals with the life of William Tyndale. When the Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) published the book in 1937 it was the first major biography of Tyndale that appeared since the work of Robert Demaus in the late 19th century. It was not until 1994 that another major biography of Tyndale was issued. This was the biography written by David Daniell in commemoration of the five hundredth year of his birth. Thus in the span of about a hundred years three major lives of Tyndale were written.
Therefore it has been more than seventy years since Mozley’s life of William Tyndale first saw the light of day. What value is there in reviewing a book of that age? I would submit there are a number of reasons for so doing. The first is found in the statement of Mozley himself. In the preface to the book, we note the following words:
It is full time that a new life of Tyndale were written. Demaus laid a good and true foundation sixty-six years ago, but much knowledge has been gained since then… When I began to study Tyndale for myself two and a half years ago, I speedily discovered the state of the matter. Here is a man who has never yet received his due, whose reputation has been at the mercy of ignorance and partisanship: and so I determined to enter the field.
It is not our intention to review the book chapter by chapter as to duplicate his life. That aim can be better achieved by reading the book itself. Suffice to say that Mozley does a superb job in laying before us the life and labors of Tyndale. The book reads more like a mystery novel except that the individuals are real persons, who make real decisions, and are influenced by real circumstances.
It is the reviewer’s opinion that the value of this biography lies in the words that are quoted above. Mozley, after beginning his study of Tyndale, came to the conclusion that he had never received his due. Just exactly what that does that mean?
Certainly Tyndale had been recognized as the primary translator of the English Bible for a period of time. Of that there was no doubt but such honor had been accorded in a grudging manner with the caveat that this work was done in spite of Tyndale’s flawed character. While no trace of immorality could ever be laid at his feet, authors pictured him with a misanthropic view of life, easily offended, and in a word “touchy.”
The greatest value of Mozley’s life is that it portrays Tyndale as a real person. Here was a man whose great aim in life was to give the English people the Word of God in their own language. He was superbly equipped to do so. He was a graduate of Oxford University where it appears that he was first introduced to the Greek language in his undergraduate days. Evidence points in the direction that he later attended Cambridge University to hone his skill in the language. How he learned the Hebrew language in order to translate the books of the Old Testament remains a mystery to this day. But of his qualifications to translate the Scriptures accurately there is no doubt.
However, not only was Tyndale qualified to translate the Scriptures into English, the necessary Greek texts were available. During his final year at Oxford or first year at Cambridge the first printed Greek New Testament edited by Erasmus was issued from the press of Johannes Froben of Basle in 1516.
If a competent translator and the prerequisite texts were available, what prevented the Bible from being translated into the language of the people? Who could say that the people were in no need of the Scriptures because spiritual ignorance was not rampant? The fault was with the leaders of the English Church. It appears that Tyndale was never able to reconcile in his own mind the fact that Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, refused his request to translate the Scriptures when he had both the opportunity and responsibility to do so.
In Tyndale’s view, he was the logical person to sponsor and oversee such a project. As Bishop of London, he held the most important position in the English Church after the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was knowledgeable in the Greek language and would later aid Erasmus in editing of Greek texts.
What did Tunstall’s refusal to allow the Bible to be translated mean to William Tyndale? Ultimately it cost Tyndale his life. However, I am not convinced that this was the most important thing to Tyndale. The most important thing to him was Tunstall’s decision to withhold from the English people the Word of Life. In his introduction to the Books of Moses first published in 1530, Tyndale expressed his conviction that it was impossible to establish the people in the Word of God until they were able to read it in their own tongue.
In his book Mozley was able to capture this spirit of Tyndale. Certainly there were elements of anger, disappointment, and perhaps resentment. However, Tyndale refused to give into self-pity. He made the decision that if he could not translate the Bible into English in his homeland, he was willing to go abroad and do it. However, we must also keep in consideration that Tyndale was not only an exile, under British law, he was an outlaw because Bible translation was forbidden under the Constitutions of Oxford enacted in 1408 and still on the statute books of England. The result was that even abroad, Tyndale was not safe. He was a hunted man.
All of these things, Mozley is able to capture and express in a flowing narrative that draws the reader into the situation. Thus we are enabled to see that many of the caricatures of Tyndale as petty and jealous must give way to a man who was willing to hazard his life to accomplish his work.
Mozley also demonstrates this aspect of Tyndale by bringing forth a parade of individuals who formed lasting friendships with Tyndale and always spoke in the highest manner of his character. We think of Henry Monmouth, the London businessman and Merchant Adventurer, in whose house Tyndale lived during his time in London. Thomas Pontyz was willing to risk his life and business interests in a vain attempt to save Tyndale from the fire. In the end Pontyz lost not only his business but also his family because his wife refused to join him in England where he fled after his escape from the Low Country authorities who were seeking to charge him with heresy.
Perhaps the closest friendship that Tyndale enjoyed was with John Frith who died in the flames at Smithfield on July 4, 1533. It is impossible to read the letters that Tyndale wrote to Frith while in the Tower of London and fail to note his concern and interest in his imprisoned brother’s welfare.
Even Tyndale’s controversy with George Joye takes on another dimension when we understand that Tyndale did not believe that he was the only person competent to translate the Word of God. What Tyndale objected to, and who can disagree with him on this, is that Joye had no right to change his translation and print it. Under Tyndale’s name. Joye had every right to translate the Word of God into English but common honestly required him to print it under his own name.
If Mozley is able to give us a portrait of Tyndale as a true human being, he has also succeeded in showing that he was a man of true courage. The story of Tyndale’s betrayal by Henry Philips, his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and execution are well known and there is no need to rehearse them again.
However, it is the steadfastness and courage of Tyndale during his imprisonment that evokes our respect. Tyndale’s imprisonment, interrogations, trial, and degradation from the priesthood stretched over a period of at least sixteen months. What must it have been like to be in the Vilvorde prison for the period of time as his case dragged on and on?
Yet what do we hear of Tyndale. The snapshots are fleeting but they are signification. We read his letter addressed to the Commissary requesting clothing, lamp, and books but written in such dignity that his desire is for the salvation of the person’s soul. We also hear that the warden of the prison with his family are converted to true faith and declaring that if Tyndale were not a true Christian, they had no means of knowing who might be one. Even the inquisitor-general, Pierre Dufief, confessed that Tyndale was a good, learned, and honorable man. Surely if his enemies can accord him such a testimony, we can join with them.
Finally, his final words on the day of his execution show the main interest of his life. Lord, open the King of England’s eyes. It was the need of the English people to have the Word of God in their own language that was foremost on his mind. Those words were foremost on his mind because they were foremost in his life.
Obtain the life of William Tyndale by Mozley and read it carefully. It has the power to impact one’s life as few books can do.