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History of Protestantism, vol. 3

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    Chapter 3: William Tyndale and the English New Testament

    Bilney—Reads the New Testament—Is Converted by it—Tyndale—His Conversion—Fryth—All Three Emancipated by the Bible—Foundations of England’s Reformation—Tyndale at Sodbury Hall—Disputations with the Priests—Preaches at Bristol—Resolves to Translate the Scriptures—Goes to London—Applies to Tonstall—Received into Humphrey Monmouth’s House—Begins his Translation of the New Testament—Escapes to Germany—Leo’s Bull against Luther Published in England—Henry’s Book against Luther—Wolsey Intrigues for the Popedom—His Disappointment—Tyndale in Hamburg—William Roye—Begins Printing the English New Testament in Cologne—Finishes in Worms—Sends it across the Sea to England

    Picture: Procession of Wolsey to Westminster Hall

    Picture: View of the Interior of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, looking East

    Erasmus had laid his New Testament at the feet of England. In so doing he had sent to that country, as he believed, a message of peace; great was his astonishment to find that he had but blown a trumpet of war, and that the roar of battle was louder than ever. The services of the great scholar to the Reformation were finished, and now he retired. But the Bible remained in England, and wherever the Word of God went, there came Protestantism also.HOPV3 360.1

    There was at Trinity College, Cambridge, a young student of the canon law, Thomas Bilney by name, of small stature, delicate constitution, and much occupied with the thoughts of eternity. He had striven to attain to the assurance of the life eternal by a constant adherence to the path of virtue, nevertheless his conscience, which was very tender, reproached him with innumerable shortcomings. Vigils, penances, masses-all, in short, which the “Church” prescribes for the relief of burdened souls, he had tried, but with no effect save that he had wasted his body and spent nearly all his means. He heard his friends one day speak of the New Testament of Erasmus, and he made haste to procure a copy, moved rather by the pleasure which he anticipated from the purity of its Greek and the elegance of its Latin, than the hope of deriving any higher good from it. He opened the book. His eyes fell on these words: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” “The chief of sinners,” said he to himself, musing over what he had read: “Paul the chief of sinners! and yet Christ came to save him! then why not me?” “He had found,” says Fox, “a better teacher” than the doctors of the canon law—“the Holy Spirit of Christ.” 1Fox, Acts and Mon., vol. 4., p. 620; Lond., 1846. That hour he quitted the road of self-righteous performances, by which he now saw he had been travelling, in pain of body and sorrow of soul, and he entered into life by Him who is the door. This was the beginning of the triumphs of the New Testament at Cambridge. How fruitful this one victory was, we shall afterwards see.HOPV3 360.2

    We turn to Oxford. There was at this university a student from the valley of the Severn, a descendant of an ancient family, William Tyndale by name. Nowhere had Erasmus so many friends as at Oxford, and nowhere did his New Testament receive a more cordial welcome. Our young student, “of most virtuous disposition, and life unspotted,” 2Fox, Acts and Mon., vol. 5., p. 115. was drawn to the study of the book, fascinated by the elegance of its style and the sublimity of its teaching. He soon came to be aware of some marvelous power in it, which he had found in no other book he had ever studied. Others had invigorated his intellect, this regenerated his heart. He had discovered an inestimable treasure, and he would not hide it. This pure youth began to give public lectures on this pure book; but this being more than Oxford could yet bear, the young Tyndale quitted the banks of the Isis, and joined Bilney at Cambridge.HOPV3 360.3

    These two were joined by a third, a young man of blameless life and elevated soul. John Fryth, the son of an inn-keeper at Sevenoaks, Kent, was possessed of marvelously quick parts; and with a diligence and a delight in learning equal to his genius, he would have opened for himself, says Fox, “an easy road to honors and dignities, had he not wholly consecrated himself to the service of the Church of Christ.” 3Ibid., p. 3. It was William Tyndale who first sowed “in his heart the seed of the Gospel.” 4Ibid., p. 4. These three young students were perfectly emancipated from the yoke of the Papacy, and their emancipation had been accomplished by the Word of God alone. No infallible Church had interpreted that book to them. They read their Bibles with prayer to the Spirit, and as they read the eyes of their understanding were opened, and the wonders of God’s law were revealed to them. They came to see that it was faith that unlocked all the blessings of salvation: that it was faith, and not the priest, that united them to Christ-Christ, whose cross, and not the Church, was the source of forgiveness; whose Spirit, and not the Sacrament, was the author of holiness; and whose righteousness alone, and not the merits of men either dead or living, was the foundation of the sinner’s justification. These views they had not received from Wittemberg; for Luther was only then beginning his career: their knowledge of Divine things they had received from the Bible, and from the Bible alone; and they laid the foundations of the Protestant Church of England, or rather dug down through the rubbish of ages, to the foundations which had been laid of old time by the first missionaries to Britain.HOPV3 360.4

    Henry VIII was aspiring to become emperor; Wolsey was beginning to intrigue for the tiara; but it is the path of Tyndale that we are to follow, more glorious than that of the other two, though it seemed not so to the world. Having completed his studies at Cambridge, Tyndale came back to his native Gloucestershire, and became tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh, of Sodbury Hall. At the table of his patron he met daily the clergy of the neighborhood, “abbots, deans, archdeacons, with divers other doctors, and great beneficed men.” 5Fox, Acts and Mon., vol. 5., p. 115. In the conversations that ensued the name of Luther, who was then beginning to be heard of, was often mentioned, and from the man the transition was easy to his opinions. The young student from Cambridge did not conceal his sympathy with the German monk, and kept his Greek New Testament ever beside him to support his sentiments, which startled one half of those around the table, and scandalized the other half. The disputants often grew warm. “That is the book that makes heretics,” said the priests, glancing at the unwelcome volume. “The source of all heresies is pride,” would the humble tutor reply to the lordly clergy of the rich valley of the Severn. “The vulgar cannot understand the Word of God,” said the priests; “it is the Church that gave the Bible to men, and it is only her priests that can interpret it.” “Do you know who taught the eagles to find their prey?” asked Tyndale; “that same God teaches his children to find their Father in his Word. Far from having given us the Scriptures, it; is you who have hidden them from us.”HOPV3 361.1

    The cry of heresy was raised against the tutor; and the lower clergy, restoring to the ale-house, harangued those whom they found assembled there, violently declaiming against the errors of Tyndale. 6Ibid. A secret accusation was laid against him before the bishop’s chancellor, but Tyndale defended himself so admirably that he escaped out of the hands of his enemies. He now began to explain the Scriptures on Sundays to Sir John and his household and tenantry. He next extended his labours to the neighboring villages, scattering with his living voice that precious seed to which as yet the people had no access, in their mother tongue, in a printed form. He extended his preaching tours to Bristol, and its citizens assembled to hear him in St. Austin’s Green. 7Ibid., p. 117. But no sooner had he sowed the seed than the priests hastened to destroy it; and when Tyndale returned he found that his labor had been in vain: the field was ravaged. “Oh,” said he, “if the people of England had the Word of God in their own language this would not happen. Without this it will be impossible to establish the laity in the truth.”HOPV3 362.1

    It was now that the sublime idea entered his mind of translating and printing the Scriptures. The prophets spoke in the language of the men whom they addressed; the songs of the temple were uttered in the vernacular of the Hebrew nation; and the epistles of the New Testament were written in the tongue of those to whom they were sent; and why, asked Tyndale, should not the people of England have the Oracles of God in their mother tongue? “If God spare my life,” said he, “I will, before many years have passed, cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than the priests do.” 8Fox, vol. 5., p. 117.HOPV3 362.2

    But it was plain that Tyndale could not accomplish what he now proposed should be his life’s work at Sodbury Hall: the hostility of the priests was too strongly excited to leave him in quiet. Bidding Sir John’s family adieu he repaired (1523) to the metropolis. He had hoped to find admission into the household of Tonstall, Bishop of London, whose learning Erasmus had lauded to the skies, and at whose door, coming as he did on a learned and pious errand, the young scholar persuaded himself he should find an instant and cordial welcome. A friend, to whom he had brought letters of recommendation from Sir John, mentioned his name to Bishop Tonstall; he even obtained an audience of the bishop, but only to have his hopes dashed. “My house is already full,” said the bishop coldly. He turned away: there was no room for him in the Episcopal palace to translate the Scriptures. But if the doors of the bishop’s palace were closed against him, the door of a rich London merchant was now opened for his reception, in the following manner.HOPV3 362.3

    Soon after his arrival in the metropolis, Tyndale began to preach in public: among his hearers was one Humphrey Monmouth, who had learned to love the Gospel from listening to Dean Colet. When repulsed by Tonstall, Tyndale told Monmouth of his disappointment. “Come and live with me,” said the wealthy merchant, who was ever ready to show hospitality to poor disciples for the Gospel’s sake. He took up his abode in Monmouth’s house; he lived abstemiously 9By his good will he would eat but sodden meat, and drink but small single beer.” (Monmouth, on his examination-Fox, vol. 4., p. 618.) at a table loaded with delicacies; and he studied night and day, being intent on kindling a torch that should illuminate England. Eager to finish, he summoned Fryth to his aid; and the two friends working together, chapter after chapter of the New Testament passed from the Greek into the tongue of England.HOPV3 362.4

    The two scholars had been a full half-year engaged in their work, when the storm of persecution broke out afresh in London. Inquisition was made for all who had any of Luther’s works in their possession, the readers of which were threatened with the fire. “If,” said Tyndale, “to possess the works of Luther exposes one to a stake, how much greater must be the crime of translating the Scriptures!” His friends urged him to withdraw, as the only chance left him of ever accomplishing the work to which he had devoted himself. Tyndale had no alternative but to adopt with a heavy heart the course his friends recommended. “I understood at the last,” said he, “not only that there was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.” 10Writings of Tindal, p. 4; Religious Tract Society, London. Stepping on board a vessel in the Thames that was loading for Hamburg, and taking with him his Greek New Testament, he sailed for Germany.HOPV3 362.5

    While Tyndale is crossing the sea, we must give attention to other matters which meanwhile had been transpiring in England. The writings of Luther had by this time entered the kingdom and were being widely circulated.HOPV3 363.1

    The eloquence of his words, fitly sustained by the heroism of his deeds, roused the attention of the English people, who watched the career of the monk with the deepest interest. His noble stand before the Diet at Worms crowned the interest his first appearance had awakened. As when fresh oil is poured into the dying lamp, the spirit of Lollardism revived. It leaped up in new breadth and splendor. The bishops took the alarm, and held a council to deliberate on the measures to be taken. The bull of Leo 11See ante, vol. 1., p. 310. against Luther had been sent to England, and it was resolved to publish it. The Cardinal-legate Wolsey, following at no humble distance Pope Leo, also issued a bull of his own against Luther, and both were published in all the cathedral and parish churches of England on the first Sunday of June, 1521. The bull of Wolsey was read during high mass, and that of Leo was nailed up on the church door. The principal result of this proceeding was to advertise the writings of Luther to the people of England. The car of Reformation was advancing; the priests had taken counsel to stop it, but the only effect of their interference was to make it move onwards at an accelerated speed.HOPV3 363.2

    At this stage of the controversy an altogether unexpected champion stepped into the arena to do battle with Luther. This was no less a personage than the King of England. The zeal which animated Henry for the Roman traditions, and the fury with which he was transported against the man who was uprooting them, may be judged of from the letter he addressed to Louis of Bavaria. “That this fire,” said he, “which has been kindled by Luther, and fanned by the arts of the devil, should have raged for so long a time, and be still gathering strength, has been the subject to me of greater grief than tongue or pen can express.... For what could have happened more calamitous to Germany than that she should have given birth to a man who has dared to interpret the Divine law, the statutes of the Fathers, and those decrees which have received the consent of so many ages, in a manner totally at variance with the opinion of the learned Fathers of the Church....We earnestly implore and exhort you that you delay not a moment to seize and exterminate this Luther, who is a rebel against Christ; and, unless he repents, deliver himself and his audacious writings to the flames.” 12Gerdesius, Hist. Reform., tom. 4., appen. 22., p. 117.HOPV3 363.3

    This shows us the fate that would probably have awaited Luther had he lived in England: happily his lot had been cast under a more benignant and gracious sovereign. But Henry, debarred in this case the use of the stake, which would speedily have consumed the heretic, if not the heresy, made haste to unsheathe the controversial sword. He attacked Luther’s Babylonian Captivity in a work entitled A Defense of the Seven Sacraments. The king’s book discovers an intimate acquaintance with mediaeval and scholastic inventions and decrees, but no knowledge whatever of apostolic doctrine. Luther ascribed it to Lee, afterwards Archbishop of York; others have thought that they could trace in it the hand of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. But we see no reason to ascribe it to any one save Henry himself. He was an apt scholar of Thomas Aquinas, and here he discusses those questions only which had come within the range of his previous studies. 13Ibid., tom. 4., pp. 177, 178. He dedicated the work to the Pontiff, and sent a splendidly bound copy of it to Le. It was received at Rome in the manner that we should expect the work of a king, written in defense of the Papal chair, to be received by a Pope. Leo eulogized it as the crowning one among the glories of England, and he rewarded the messenger, who had carried it across the Alps, by giving him his toe to kiss; and recompensed Henry for the labor he had incurred in writing it, by bestowing upon him (1521) the title of “Defender of the Faith,” which was confirmed by a bull of Clement VII in 1523. 14See bull in Gerdesius, tom. 4., app. 24. “We can do nothing against the truth, but for it,” wrote an apostle, and his words were destined to be signally verified in the case of the King of England. Henry set up Tradition and the Supremacy as the main buttresses of the Papal system. The nation was wearying of both; the king’s defense but showed the Protestants where to direct their assault; and as for the applauses from the Vatican, so agreeable to the royal ear, these were speedily drowned in the thunders of Luther; and most people came to see, though all did not acknowledge it, that if Henry the king was above the monk, Henry the author was below him.HOPV3 363.4

    Wolsey now turned his face toward the Popedom. If he had succeeded in achieving this, which was the summit of his ambition, he would have attempted to revive the glories of the era of Innocent III: its substantial power he never could have wielded, for the wars of the fifteenth century, by putting the kings above the Popes, had made that impossible. Still, as Pope, Wolsey would have been a more formidable opponent of the Reformation than either Leo or Clement. It was clear that he could reach the dignity to which he aspired only by the help of one or other of the two great Continental sovereigns of his time, Francis I and Charles V He was on the most friendly footing with Francis, whereas he had contracted a strong dislike to Charles, and the emperor was well aware that the cardinal loved him not. Still, on weighing the matter, Wolsey saw that of the two sovereigns Charles was the abler to assist him; so breaking with Francis, and smothering his disgust of the emperor, he solicited his interest to secure the tiara for him when it should become vacant. That monarch, who could dissemble as well as Wolsey, well knowing the influence of the cardinal with Henry VIII, and his power in England, met this request with promises and flatteries. Charles thought he was safe in promising the tiara to one who was some years older than its present possessor, for Leo was still in the prime of life. The immediate result of this friendship, hollow on both sides, was a war between Francis and the emperor. Meanwhile Leo suddenly died, and the sincerity of Charles, sooner than he had thought, was put to the test. With no small chagrin and mortification, which he judged it politic meanwhile to conceal, Wolsey saw Adrian of Utrecht, the emperor’s tutor, placed in the Papal chair. But Adrian was an old man; it was not probable that he would long survive to sway the spiritual scepter of Christendom, and Charles consoled the disappointed cardinal by renewing his promise of support when a new election, which could not be distant, should take place. 15Burnet, Hist. of Reform., vol. 1., p. 4.; Lond., 1681. But we must leave the cardinal, his eyes still fixed on the dazzling prize, and follow the track of one who also was aspiring to a crown, but one more truly glorious than that of Pope or emperor.HOPV3 364.1

    We have seen Tyndale set sail for Germany. Arriving at Hamburg, he unpacked the MS. sheets which he had first begun in the valley of the Severn, and resumed on the banks of the Elbe the prosecution of his great design. William Rove, formerly a Franciscan friar at Greenwich, but who had abandoned the cloister, became his assistant. The Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark were translated and printed at Hamburg, and in 1524 were sent across to Monmouth in London, as the first-fruits of his great task. The merchant sent the translator a much-needed supply of money, which enabled Tyndale to pay a visit to Luther in Wittemberg, whence he returned, and established himself at the printing-house of Quentel and Byrckman in Cologne. Resuming his great labor, he began to print an edition of 3,000 copies of his English New Testament. Sheet after sheet was passing through the press. Great was Tyndale’s joy. He had taken every precaution, meanwhile, against a seizure, knowing this archiepiscopal seat to be vigorously watched by a numerous and jealous priesthood. The tenth sheet was in the press when Byrckman, hurrying to him, informed him that the Senate had ordered the printing of the work to be stopped. All was discovered then! Tyndale was stunned. Must the labor of years be lost, and the enlightenment of England, which had seemed so near, be frustrated? His resolution was taken on the spot. Going straight to the printing-house, he packed up the printed sheets, and bidding Roye follow, he stepped into a boat on the Rhine and ascended the river. It was Cochlaeus who had come upon the track of the English New Testament, and hardly was Tyndale gone when the officers from the Senate, led by the dean, entered the printing-house to seize the work. 16Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, vol. 1., p. 49 et seq. Cochlaeus, p. 126. Fox, vol. 5., p. 119.HOPV3 364.2

    After some days Tyndale arrived at Worms, that little town which Luther’s visit, four years before, had invested with a halo of historic glory. On his way thither he thought less, doubtless, of the picturesque hills that enclose the “milk-white” river, with the ruined castles that crown their summits, and the antique towns that nestle at their feet, than of the precious wares embarked with him. These to his delight he safely conveyed to the printing-house of Peter Schaefer, the grandson of Fust, one of the inventors of the art. He instantly resumed the printing, but to mislead the spies, who, he thought it probable, would follow him hither, he changed the form of the work from the quarto to the octavo, which was an advantage in the end, as it greatly facilitated the circulation. 17In the Museum of the Baptist College at Bristol is a copy of the octavo edition of Tyndale’s New Testament. (Ann. of Eng. Bible, 1:70.)HOPV3 364.3

    The printing of the two editions was completed in the end of 1525, and soon thereafter 1,500 copies were dispatched to England. “Give diligence”HOPV3 365.1

    — so ran the solemn charge that accompanied them, to the nation to which the waves were wafting the precious pages—“unto the words of eternal life, by the which, if we repent and believe them, we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the blood of Christ.” Tyndale had done his great work. While Wolsey, seated in the splendid halls of his palace at Westminster, had been intriguing for the tiara, that he might conserve the darkness that covered England, Tyndale, in obscure lodgings in the German and Flemish towns, had been toiling night and day, in cold and hunger, to kindle a torch that might illuminate it.HOPV3 365.2

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