by Jefferson David Tant
One of the great blessings we have is that we have the Bible, God’s Word, in the language of the common people -- English. And we are thankful for those who provided this for us at a high cost. The story behind the translation is an interesting story.
The very first English translation was done by John Wycliffe (1324-1384). This was, of course, before the printing press invention, and all copies were hand-written. Wycliff was helped in this work by the Lollards and others who produced the first copy in 1382. Some 170 copies of this work survive today. This was not well received by the Catholic Church. In a letter written by Archbishop Arundel in 1412 to the Pope, he wrote concerning Wycliffe:
“That wretched and pestilent fellow of the damnable memory; the very herald and child of anti-Christ, who crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue.” [Encyclopedia American, III, p. 671]
So, what was the problem? In 1199 Pope Innocent III wrote, “The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places, since they cannot be everywhere understood by all men.” (Ibid)
But even before that, Pope Gregory VII wrote: “Not without reason has it pleased Almighty God that Holy Scripture should be a secret in certain places, lest, if it were plainly apparent to all men, perchance it would be little esteemed and be subject to disrespect; or it might be falsely understood by those of mediocre learning, and lead to error.” [Ibid]
“In 1408, Convocation passed at Oxford the famous Constitution, which forbade any man to translate any part of the scripture, unless he was authorized by a bishop. The penalty for violation was greater excommunication. The Constitution also forbade the reading publicly or secretly of any of the books, booklets, or treatises composed in the time of John Wycliffe. The people of England were still without access to a copy of God’s Word in the fifteenth century.” [Ferrell Jenkins, The Theme of the Bible, p. 106].
Then came William Tyndale right after the printing press invention. Tyndale was a member of the Bow Lane church of Christ in London. In view of the Oxford Constitution, Tyndale went to the bishop for permission to do the translation but was refused. He then went to Germany in 1525 and contracted to do the translation, and had to move from Cologne to Worms, as spies were after him. Copies were made and smuggled into England. He realized he needed to print a new version, as there were some mistakes in his translation, but he had no more money. Meanwhile, the archbishop, aware that the English translation was being sold, ordered his henchmen to go buy up all the copies. They were subsequently publicly burned. This money then provided Tyndale with funds for the new translation.
When the archbishop became aware of the new version, he called in his henchmen and asked what they might do to get rid of it. My understanding is that they told him that if they bought up all the printing presses, they might be able to stop the Bible’s spread.
Eventually, Tyndale was imprisoned, condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned at the stake in 1536, as he had defied the order of the Church. By order of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary (1553-1558), many copies of the Bible were burned, but in 1559, Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, and things began to change