A Tale of Grit: Tyndale’s Story
Addressing the Ephesian Elders who had come to visit him in Miletus Paul spoke some of the most powerful words recorded in Scripture. Referencing his impending imprisonment and the affliction that awaited him in Jerusalem he said “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:24). Paul’s words echo the sentiments cherished in the heart of another champion of faith: William Tyndale. For Tyndale, as for Paul, the afflictions and struggles that surged around him were not sufficient to derail him from pursuing the ministry he had received of the Lord Jesus: the translation of the Scriptures into the English language.
One of the current buzzwords in psychological and educational circles is grit, made popular by psychologist Angela Duckworth who studies grit and self-control at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals and the stamina to work towards those goals steadily and consistently for prolonged periods of time even in the face of difficulty. She states that grit is what enables students with seemingly average IQs to perform far better than their more intellectually gifted peers. What researchers still don’t understand is the engine that drives grit. What is it that makes some people grittier than others?
This article will not pretend to answer that question as it applies to the secular, academic world but it will try to answer that question as it applies to the spiritual world and it will attempt to do that by studying the life of one of God’s grittiest revolutionaries: William Tyndale.
The Early Life and Times of Tyndale
Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire around the year 1494 in the small town of North Nibley. He was educated at Oxford and while he was there he came into contact with Erasmus translation of the New Testament. The revolutionary thing about Erasmus’ translation was that he used the best texts available at the time bypassing the official Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible which was officially used by the Roman church. This meant that there was potential for major theological implications because the Vulgate, which was translated by Jerome had significant misrepresentations in it which were geared towards the church’s official stance on certain theological topics. For example Matthew 4:17 the Vulgate translates the word “repent” as “do penance” which gives the impression that one needs to do some external act of penance in order to receive forgiveness whereas Erasmus translation rendered the same verse as “be penitent” later changing it to “change your mind” which was the correct rendering of the text.
The problem was that if Erasmus was correct – and he was – that would mean that Jesus was not instigating an external sacrament of penance but rather calling for people to change their minds and turn from sin. Erasmus translation of the New Testament was a ticking time bomb because it represented freedom of thought which would lead to freedom of action. The greatest restriction that Rome had placed upon people was to restrict their freedom thought by not only limiting access to the Bible but also imposing their own interpretation of the Scriptures on the people through the means of an inaccurate rendering of the original text. Erasmus translation of the Bible had the potential to blow the second restriction right out of the water.
Erasmus translation of the New Testament was freely available to the scholars at Cambridge and Oxford and it did not fail to have a nuclear impact. The difference between the Vulgate and Erasmus translation meant that there would then be a complete difference in the theological understanding of Salvation and the Gospel and the scholars at Oxford and Cambridge devoured the truth greedily and almost overnight an entire generation of thought leaders sprang up. William Tyndale was one of them.
When Tyndale first came across the Erasmus New Testament he read it with interest but he looked at it as an extremely helpful self help book that would cover the how-tos of purity and morality. However the more he read it the more he came to realise that it was so much more than a useful manual on religious instruction. He discovered that the Bible was the all powerful, creative word of God that was able to not only convict but convert as well and this discovery led to a seismic shift in his thinking. He realised that while all his academic pursuits served to stimulate his mind it was the Bible alone that could regenerate his heart. He found a mentor that he hadn’t been actively looking for at Oxford and that was God himself. William Tyndale was never the same again.
The Three Musketeers
Energised by his newfound revelations Tyndale began to preach the truth at Oxford but he soon realized that Oxford was not ready to hear what he had to say and he was forced to leave. He moved to Cambridge where he met two other would-be English reformers: Thomas Bilney and John Frith. The arrival of Tyndale at Cambridge proved to be a great source of comfort and encouragement to both Bilney and Frith and the three joined together to preach the truth at Cambridge.
In her book “The Ministry of Healing”, Ellen White writes, “In order to convince others of the power of Christ’s grace, we must know its power in our own hearts and lives. The gospel we present for the saving of souls must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved”. The preaching of Tyndale, Bilney, and Frith was so powerful because this was true of them.
Sodbury Hall and A New Vision
Once Tyndale had completed his education at Cambridge he returned to Gloucestershire and took up the position of tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh at Sodbury Hall. Sir John kept an open table and men of various rank and learning frequented his home at meal times engaging in table talk which Tyndale participated in. One of the favorite topics of conversation was the new Protestant teachings that were spreading throughout Europe through the work of men like Erasmus and Luther. It was during these conversations that Tyndale first heard of Luther and his work and with his Bible by his side he emphatically argued for the Biblical legitimacy of Luther’s views. Half of his audience was taken aback at his boldness while the other half were scandalized by it exclaiming “your scriptures only serve to make heretics”.
While he was at Sodbury hall Tyndale began to preach at the little church of St. Adeline as well as in many of the nearby towns and villages. However everywhere he went the clergy followed him working to pluck up the seeds of truth he had sown among the people and thereby destroy the work his preaching was accomplishing. As he saw this happening an idea began to ferment in his mind, he realized that the only way to make a lasting impact on the people was to place the Bible directly in their hands. What if everyone in England had the opportunity to study the word of God in their native tongue? The more he thought about it the more he realized that this was the best way to establish the truth among the common people.
His work at Sodbury hall and the surrounding area infuriated the priests and they looked for ways to get rid of him. They first began a public campaign to smear his name, maligning him in the ears of the locals by reporting words he had never spoken and actions he had never committed in an attempt to turn the people against him. Next, they lodged a formal complaint against him with the chancellor of the Diocese. Yet none of these things moved him. Things gradually began to worsen when the clergy got wind of his desire to translate the Bible into English and for the sake of his safety and his desire to complete the work that God had laid on his heart Tyndale was forced to leave Gloucestershire.
London and Great Disappointments
The historian Wylie dates his departure from Sodbury hall at around 1523 and he arrived in London desiring only two things: a quiet refuge for shelter and an opportunity to share the gospel with as many people he could gain access to. Due to a glowing recommendation by Sir John Walsh, Tyndale was soon given the opportunity to preach in London and the Word of God was soon lifted up in the heart of the city. This, however, didn’t detract him from his chief burden of translating the Bible into English and he began to look around for a sponsor. Someone who could offer him a place to stay and the means he needed to translate and print the Bible.
His first port of call was the Bishop of London. The Bishop was a scholar and an academic and Tyndale thought that, armed with Sir John’s recommendation he could perhaps commend himself to the position of being the Bishop’s chaplain. This would give him a place to stay and a sufficient enough income to accomplish his work. He also thought of the kind of impact he could have on the church in England if he were to educate and turn the Bishop over to Protestantism.
The Bishop, however, had other ideas. He was a kind-hearted man who liked the idea of being neutral in a European climate that was fast becoming militant and he politely but firmly declined Tyndale’s offer leaving Tyndale high and dry.
It was a huge blow, one that discouraged Tyndale but he was a man who had grit in spades and his dejection didn’t last very long. His goal was firmly fixed in his mind’s eye and he bounced back declaring “I hunger for the word of God, I will translate it whatever they may say or do, God will not suffer me to perish”. God rewarded his faithfulness by providing him with another sponsor. Humphrey Monmouth, who had been greatly blessed by Tyndale’s sermons, heard all about his predicament and invited the reformer to come and live with him. Once Tyndale was comfortably ensconced in Monmouth’s home, Frith joined him and the two began to work together to translate the Bible.
Trials and Triumphs in Hamburg
But their work was cut short with the establishment of the Inquisition in England which produced a wave of persecution throughout London. Tyndale feared that the stake would cut short his work and he chose to leave England and travel through Europe, seeking refuge wherever he could and working to see his goal accomplished. He had no contacts in Europe, no money and given the current spiritual climate was putting himself at risk even on the continent by identifying himself with the Reformation yet none of those factors moved him. The only thing that mattered to him was finishing the work that God had laid on his heart to accomplish.
He jumped on board a ship headed for Hamburg with just ten pounds in his pocket and his copy of the New Testament in his hand. When he got to Hamburg he really struggled to translate the Bible. He was poor as a church mouse and all alone, he was hungry, cold and could barely afford to keep a stable roof over his head but he soldiered on and by the end of 1524 translated and printed the gospels of Matthew and Mark which he sent to Monmouth.
From Hamburg, he moved to Cologne and continued to translate and print portions of the Bible there until an unexpected roadblock stopped the work and nearly threatened to destroy it.
While Tyndale was in Cologne the notorious Papal theologian Cochlaeus also came to live in the city. Tyndale was carrying on his work secretly and no one save his printers was aware of what was going on. Cochlaeus, however, stumbled on the entire operation quite by accident and immediately began to work to shut it down.
Cochlaeus needed to get some printing done and as luck would have it employed the services of Tyndale’s printer. One night while he was at a dinner party hosted by the printer one of the printer’s associates, possibly a little tipsy with too much wine, loudly remarked that regardless of the wishes of the King of England and the Cardinal of York England would soon be Lutheran. Cochlaeus was dumbfounded and on further inquiry learned that there were two men hiding out in Cologne, translating the New Testament into English. He learned that there were 3000 copies ready for the press, fully paid for by English merchants and that once these were printed they would be smuggled back to England for distribution. Cochlaeus panicked and using his influence pulled some strings to get one of his friends to speak to the senate who immediately put a stop to the work of printing.
Tyndale was devastated but not being the type to wallow in his misfortune he immediately took hold of the arm of God by faith, trusting that the work was of the Lord and he would take responsibility to preserve it. Realising he needed to be one step ahead of the Senate he rushed down to the printers, grabbed the manuscript and jumped on board a boat headed as far from Cologne as possible.
After a week of traveling, he arrived at Worms and continued his work there which he quietly completed about the end of the year 1525. He then sent the newly translated edition of the Bible back to England to be smuggled in and dispersed as far and as fast as was humanly possible.
Another account tells of how the Bishop of Durham, while in Antwerp sent to Tyndale’s publisher asking to purchase all available copies of his translation of the Bible. The publisher, Packington, complied with the request but thought it odd and alerted Tyndale to the development. Tyndale’s response to Packington was that if the Bishop was purchasing copies of his translation of the Bible he was only doing so in order to burn them all, which he ultimately did. But, instead of impeding the work this merely provided the money he needed to produce a larger number of better quality bibles.
Sadly Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips in Antwerp, who feigned friendship to gain Tyndale’s trust and betrayed him into the hands of guards as he was leaving his house. He was taken to the castle of Vilvorde, condemned as a fanatic, strangled and then burned in 1536. His last words were “Lord! open the King of England’s eyes. “. So powerful was his witness that he converted his keeper and others in his household before his death.
Tyndale’s Engine of Grit
The story of William Tyndale is an extraordinary one for so many reasons but perhaps the most compelling reason of all is how it reveals his grit in pursuing his goal to completion. What was the engine that drove his passion and perseverance in the face of so many disappointments and challenges? I would like to suggest that two factors contributed to it. The first was his personal experience with Jesus. In 1 John 1:3-4 the apostle John says “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”
Tyndale’s passion and perseverance were driven by the experience he had had with Jesus and his desire to see others have that same experience. In others words, the love of Christ constrained him. (See 2 Corinthians 5:14)
The second factor that drove his grittiness, I believe, was the power of the Holy Spirit. God himself drove Tyndale’s work for the sake of the countless millions who would benefit from it and come to a knowledge of the truth by it. And yet God could not have worked through Tyndale if he had not been willing and he was only willing because he had tasted and seen the goodness of God for himself.
What drives spiritual grit? Revelation 12:11 summarises it succinctly “ And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony and they loved not their lives even unto the death”. A personal experience at the foot of the cross with Jesus is the engine that drives all spiritual advancement, all spiritual grit. How can we instill grit in others? How can we be grittier ourselves? We need to have a personal experience with Jesus, through his word, every single day and then be willing to let his spirit use us to accomplish His work. I believe there is a William Tyndale in us all.