A woman and her children were dragged out of their house and fastened to a pole where dry brush was lit under them and they were burned alive. Their crime: reading the Bible in English, a practice strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church. It was England in the 1500’s when Catholic Bloody Mary had taken the throne and was determined to force Catholicism back upon those who’d been liberated from its idolatry and superstitions. Similar scenes were being repeated all over the country as Protestant Christians were being killed; possessing illegal Bibles in the English language could be deadly.
In January 1555 three pastors, Taylor, Bradford, and Saunders, who had all been former parish priests, were put on trial. They had come into the light of Christ’s grace and now preached the truth, for they had been able to read the truth in the available Scriptures made accessible by the work of William Tyndale, who had translated the Bible into English.
They were required to answer if they would acknowledge the Pope as the head of the Church and submit to His Authority, to which they answered that they acknowledged and submitted only to Christ. Death sentences were pronounced against them and they were taken away to be burned alive at the stake.
Taylor spoke before his death: “Good people, I have taught you nothing but God’s Holy Word and that which is from God’s blessed book the Holy Bible. I have come here today to seal it with my blood.” Taylor was able to say this because he had the Bible in his own language. Tyndale, who had translated it, was also killed for his efforts a couple of decades before. As the flames were lit and Taylor was about to be burned, he recited the 51st Psalm in English when he was struck in the face: “You Knave, pray in Latin! I will make you!” the ultra-Catholic executioner told him.
Latin was the only language allowed for the Bible, prayers, or any other religious activity according to Catholicism and the Pope’s decree, and they fought viciously to keep it that way. Very, very, few knew any Latin at all however. Horrified with the realities of an English Bible and that the truth of Christ would be known, exposing their perversions of God’s Word, they launched a campaign of killing, maiming, and torture, to suppress any and all who would dare to even read or own an English Bible.
This year we celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the King James Bible. To properly understand this story, we must look back where the story takes shape—with the onset of the Protestant Reformation—to really understand the whole scene and the intense struggle of how such a work ever came about.
The Reformation, which had begun in Germany with Martin Luther, was now beginning to spread over other parts of Europe. Luther was a simple monk that was merely trying to find peace with God when he came into the revelation that Jesus had paid for his sins and he didn’t have to try and pay for them himself with works like prayer and fasting. While reading the Bible he came into revelation and understood Christ’s finished work for him on the cross. It was now all clear: simply by faith does one believe and receive what Jesus did for him on the cross, accepting his forgiveness and coming into his grace.
Luther had been born again while reading the Scriptures in the New Testament, specifically the books of Romans and Galatians. Seeking to find peace with God, he finally understood the finished work of Christ and the payment He made for sin.
That revelation spread throughout Europe, eventually leading men like William Tyndale to lay their lives down to reach others with God’s Word. Tyndale had been directly affected by seeing the great fruit of Luther’s efforts in Germany and the effect of Luther’s translation of the Bible into the German language to turn many to true faith in Christ.
After Martin Luther was born again he began to see serious problems with the institutional Catholic Church. He began to preach on Christ’s payment for sin and the grace He offers and also to write about the errors the church had embraced in resisting this truth. Then in 1517 he posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther posted his Theses solely for the means of debating the issues, as is commonly practiced in university settings even to this day.
Some years before this the printing press had been invented by Gutenberg and students now got a hold of his Theses, reprinted them without permission—if copyright had been an issue back then like now there would have been no Reformation—and distributed them all over Europe. Before Luther knew it he was an international figure in the middle of a conflagration. The Reformation began to spread all over Europe and eventually came to England.
Thomas Cranmer began to read Luther’s writings. As Archbishop of Canterbury—England’s head of the church—he began to bring forth reformation teachings, ideas, and practices to the English Church, breaking away from Catholic superstitions, traditions, and doctrines.
King Henry VIII of England had been unable to bear a male child to inherit the throne. Henry had been basically forced to marry his deceased brother’s widow when only a teenager by the political powers of his day—the Pope had broken Catholic canon law and granted a special dispensation for political purposes for this marriage. Henry when he came of age wanted a divorce so he could marry another woman he actually had affection for, Anne Boleyn, but, because the Pope refused to grant him the divorce, he chose to break away from the Catholic Church instead. Though human motives took place on Henry’s part God was using it for His larger purposes.
Together with the confluence of Luther’s teachings and Cranmer’s adoption of the same, King Henry’s actions in some ways helped fan the flames that eventually, together with the confluence of Luther’s teaching spreading into Oxford and Cambridge, a widespread reformation movement within England began to arise. It continued under Henry’s successor Edward.
In time groups like the Puritans began to spring up, who were not trying to become “purer” than others but rather wanted to purify the church from unbiblical Catholic idolatry, traditions, and superstitions. They desired to see a foundation of grace and the work of the Spirit take place in believers’ lives and are known today as the first Protestant mystics. They merely desired a return to New Testament ideals, both in word and deed by preaching about living for Christ and walking in His Spirit.
As the English Reformation spread however, persecution arose when Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, or “Bloody Mary” as she later came to be known, took the throne. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who severely persecuted Protestants, seeking to turn England back to Catholicism while putting hundreds and hundreds to death, thus earning her moniker, even having the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer killed as well.
Cranmer was persecuted and pressured by the Catholics to sign a document recanting principles of Protestantism. However, when he was brought before trial, he decided to repent of his actions. So when it came time for his execution, he chose to place the offending hand that had signed the document into the fire first before he was killed by being burned alive at the stake.
Meanwhile, an avid scholar from Oxford named William Tyndale had been converted and influenced by the reformation, and was a contemporary of Martin Luther’s. Tyndale eventually began to work on a translation of the Bible, seeing the need for it to be in the common English tongue of the people and not just in the Latin of the scholars and the learned which resulted in keeping the Bible inaccessible.
Luther had translated the Bible into the common German tongue and Luther's translation began to have a great effect in spreading the Reformation and the understanding of Christ’s finished work and God’s grace.
Tyndale began a similar venture for the English people. Tyndale began work on an English translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek.
John Wycliffe had done an earlier English translation a century before, but he and his Lollard movement were severely persecuted by the Catholic church and most of his followers, including women and children, were put to death just for having Bibles. Though the Catholic Church severely persecuted and killed many of Wycliffe’s followers they never actually caught Wycliffe himself. And yet in a perverse act of vengeance, they dug up his bones and burned them after his death.
Tyndale saw the need for another attempt at getting the Bible into the common everyday language of the English people. So Tyndale began work on a translation into the English from the Greek and Hebrew, using Luther’s German translation as well as Erasmus’ Greek text for assistance.
As an extraordinarily gifted scholar who spoke eight languages, he was able to bring forth, by God’s grace, a remarkable work. Nevertheless, no good deed goes unpunished, and for his efforts he was severely persecuted and had to flee England. He went and stayed in Wittenberg for a time with Martin Luther. A recent discovery confirms his time in Wittenberg even though he was attempting to hide there incognito. After some time there and many meeting with Luther, including time at the White Horse Inn where they would discuss theology and share a pint, he fled to Antwerp.
He finished his New Testament translation and was well on his way with the Old Testament, but spies and assassins who had been sent to eliminate him were hot on his heels.
As Tyndale smuggled New Testaments into England, they became hugely popular with the people but increased his position as a target of the Inquisition—the practice of torturing, consficating property, and killing those who strayed from the Catholic Church’s tenets. The Inquisition began in the 1100’s at the 2nd and 3rd Lateran Councils and fully inmplemented as official Catholic doctrine at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 where torture and murder were made official doctrine by a so-called Christian Church continuing its hideous practices even until the late 1800’s. The early reform movement in France known as the Waldensians were its first mass victims.
Translating the Bible into the common tongue of the people was verboten and brought forth the Inquisition to those who attempted it:
Some reasons that the Catholic Church wanted the Bible kept in Latin and not translated in the common tongues of the people were:
- They could prevent the common man from knowing what was really in the Bible and thus always hold power and sway over him/her, keeping them dependent upon the priests and the man-made religious system they had created of masses and rituals. This brought in enormous amounts of money through things like indulgences, i.e. forgiveness for payment rendered.
- By keeping the Bible in Latin they made sure only certain high ranking clergy could read it—which they rarely did—but also false doctrines could be buttressed up by the inability of people to access the Word of God for themselves. The murky and largely inaccessible translation in Latin helped them keep false doctrines like penance and purgatory alive.
- One of the early insights by Martin Luther in Germany was the discovery of a purposeful mistranslation of Christ’s words by the Catholic Church where they had changed the word “repent” to “do penance.” As Luther looked deeper into the meaning he saw vast implications: Repent meant merely “to change your mind” meaning that you agree with God that you are a sinner who needs and accepts His work of redemption on your behalf. “Do penance” on the other hand, meant to seek to work off the payment of your sin through your own works and rituals and efforts – exactly what the New Testament itself condemned as a slap in the face to Christ’s work on the cross for us at Calvary where he paid for our sins once for all.
Tyndale’s Bible spread the Reformation even more as people got hold of Bibles in English. Sadly, the assassins eventually caught up to Tyndale who was betrayed by a so-called friend. On October 6, 1536, in the town of Vilvorde, Netherlands, William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and then burned at the stake for doing God’s work of translating the Bible into the language of the English people so they could read it for themselves.
He was condemned by reason of a decree made by the Ultra-Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V—the same Emperor who Luther took his stand before during the Diet of Worms, in Germany in 1521 where he cried out: “I cannot and will not recant anything. For to go against Scripture and conscience is neither safe nor right.”
Luther had escaped the death sentence by being hidden in the Wartburg Castle—specifically where he had done his Bible translation work. Tyndale however, sealed his own faith and efforts with his own blood.
As time progressed Bloody Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth eventually took back the throne, deposing Mary. Elizabeth, as Queen of England, was much more sympathetic to Protestants.
With the more open environment, Tyndale’s Bible spread even further. Over time, the popularity of the Bible grew and different groups like the Puritans even published various commentaries in the margins of Bibles.
When Elizabeth died she had no heir—populary known as “The Virgin Queen” she had no one waiting to take the throne. In an ironic twist of fate, it was actually Bloody Mary’s nephew who we know as “King James” who eventually came to power and would publish an Authorized Version of the Bible.
Known both as James VI of Scotland and James I of England he saw the need for an authorized version of the Bible for the whole of England.
Quite ironically, it was specifically because he was the son of Mary Queen of Scots that James had been raised in Scotland.
In an interesting turn of events it was in Scotland that religious freedom had actually been attained sooner than in England. After the killing by the Catholics of Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, two popular Protestant leaders and preachers who were martyred for their faith, a popular rejection of Catholicism began to arise in Scotland. In turn John Knox later arose and helped lead the Scottish Reformation as well as the development and formation of the Scottish Presbyterian Church.
When James I of England a.k.a. James VI of Scotland took the throne, he was undoubtedly more sympathetic to Protestants than his mother but still remained quite traditional in his religious views. Those with power and means often live above the fray of common sentiment.
Thus, the Puritans, though appreciative of him for producing the Authorized Version of the Bible a.k.a. the King James Version, still found themselves on the short end of the stick with religious freedom in England. Being still persecuted specifically because they were seen as too radical a Protestant group, the Puritans eventually made their way to the New World and the American Colonies with King James Bibles in hand.
King James had assembled 54 scholars who worked on an Authorized Translation, which they completed and released in 1611.
However, they had continually referred back to the amazing and groundbreaking work that Tyndale had done as their reference point and the literal foundation of their work, directly incorporating so much of his translation in their work that, according to most scholars, including well-known Tyndale scholar David Daniell, fully 90% of the King James Bible’s New Testament is actually William Tyndale’s work. The same goes for the Old Testament from Genesis to somewhere around the Psalms—as far as he got when he was killed.
Thus, William Tyndale, the outlaw, the refugee, the man who did not and would not submit to the authority of the Pope nor the King, but instead chose to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), is the true unsung hero behind the publication of the King James Bible. It cost him his fortune and his very life but he laid it all down to do God’s will. Even today, generations are still reaping the benefits of his sacrifice to Christ’s purpose and calling.
The King James Bible not only helped spread the knowledge of God’s Gospel of grace that was regained in the Reformation, but was also carried across the sea to the American colonies by the Puritans, helping to lay a foundation of biblical faith in the new world of America.
Not insignificantly, the King James Bible gave the English-speaking world a codified, coherent, and unified language and lexicon, as well as a little thing that helped change the western world called literacy, changing in fact the course of human history.
One thing that is often overlooked in this whole scenario is that the King James Bible, this historic translation of God’s Word, is a direct product of the Protestant Reformation.
A reformation that started with a simple monk named Martin Luther who was merely trying to find peace with God when he came into the revelation that Jesus had paid for his sins and he didn’t have to try and pay for them himself with works like prayer and fasting. Rather, just by faith, believe and receive what Jesus did for him on the cross…That revelation spread throughout Europe leading men like Tyndale to lay their lives down to reach others with God’s Word…Glory!!!
Today you have the Bible in your hands, which others have paid for with their very lives and blood: READ IT !!!
*Special Note: The preceding article contains what may be for some disturbing historical facts. However, for the sake of mere political correctness or sensitive religious consciences one cannot rewrite nor water down historical realities to fit the religious and sociological political correct pressures of our day. A more mild view of history may do that and curve to those pressures, but then an important ingredient called truth would be lost. And this, Jesus said, is what “sets us free.”