Tyndale's Bible

October 4: On this day in 1535, the first complete English Bible was printed, using translations by William Tyndale and his disciple, Miles Coverdale. Tyndale was in confinement in England when the first copies of his Bible rolled off the press in Europe, finally captured by those authorities who had condemned as a capital crime his mission to bring a pocket-size Bible within reach of every "boye that dryveth the plough."


On dramatic grounds alone, the story of Tyndale's Bible is a compelling one; when the relatively unknown and thoroughly outcast martyr is placed against the larger Reformation canvas—Henry VIII's two-step with Anne Boleyn and the Church, the jockeying and unseating of Sir Thomas More, and the impact of the printing press—it offers an intriguing perspective on 16th-century England.


By early 1526, Tyndale had published his translation of the New Testament, at his own cost. It and pirate editions circulated widely enough that by the summer of 1528 there was an English warrant out for the supposed heretic-author of this "pestiferous and most pernicious poison." For the next seven years, as he worked on revising his New Testament and completing his translation of the Old, Tyndale used disguises, aliases, and frequent relocations to stay one step ahead of all the lawmen, spies, bounty-hunters, and double-dealers trying to find him.


According to Brian Moynahan's God's Bestseller (2003), the pivotal figure in Tyndale's capture was Sir Thomas More, who regarded the heretic Tyndale as the worst "hell-hound in the kennel of the devil." Tyndale despised people like More on two principles: as eminent Catholics they propped up a corrupt Church, and as learned scholars they spoiled the Bible, ruining the narrative poetry with "anagogical and chopologicall" nonsense. And Tyndale the Protestant polemicist had no doubt that the reason the Church wanted a Latin Bible in their pocket rather than an English one in the plough-boy's "is not for love of your souls, which they care for as a fox doth for the geese."


The swinging door of English history caught both men. Tyndale and More were killed within fifteen tumultuous months of each other—Tyndale's day at the stake coming a year and two days after his Bible appeared, and less than a year before it was legally for sale in newly Protestant England, "set forth with the king's most gracious license."

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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