The translations and essays Tyndale produced throughout the course of his work demonstrate that God had revealed to him, like Nephi, that “it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records [in the vernacular], that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers; And also that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God, since the world began, even down unto this present time” (1 Nephi 3:19-20). The Church of Tyndale’s day, particularly in England since Wycliffe’s work, prohibited reading the scriptures in English, or even personally reading them at all. Tyndale’s drive to follow in Wycliffe’s footsteps, both as to the work of translation and as to many points of doctrine, placed him in grave danger from both Church and secular leaders at the time, in particular Sir Thomas More, a lay Catholic who had ascended to one of the most powerful posts in the realm advising Henry VIII — a monarch who, ironically, at the time considered himself a primary defender of the Catholic faith. Facing extreme danger and betrayal in England, Tyndale fled to the Continent where he frantically translated sacred text in hiding, disguised, under aliases, part Jason Bourne on the run, speaking every language, part Nephi returning to Jerusalem to preserve the scriptures.
Tyndale’s heroic work in first translating the New Testament while in hiding in Germany and Belgium (partially in 1525, full reprint in 1526, revised 1534), and then in learning Hebrew while on the run so that he could translate the Old Testament as well (completing the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Old Testament, from Genesis through Deuteronomy — and Jonah, as well as selections from the Psalms) can be viewed as considerably more dangerous than Nephi’s. Nephi and his brothers faced Laban, “a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty” (1 Nephi 3:31). Tyndale faced the concerted efforts of both England and the Hapsburgs’ Holy Roman Empire to find and apprehend him as Sir Thomas More, England’s lay Chancellor at the time, and numerous other of Henry VIII’s agents, as well as the clergy and agents of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on the Continent, tried their best to silence him. Evading their efforts, surviving shipwreck, and avoiding epidemics, he was miraculously able to translate the scriptures and write numerous theological tracts, some addressed directly to Sir Thomas More and others to Henry VIII.
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Why was the Catholic Church in England under Henry VIII’s reign (and also on the Continent to varying degrees in different kingdoms) so opposed to vernacular translation of the scriptures? Historians and theologians have analyzed this complicated question for centuries. Suffice it to say that the Church knew that if people read the Bible for themselves in their own languages, they would be empowered to interpret the teachings of the Gospel for themselves and incorporate those teachings into their own lives directly, outside of the control of the Church. Thus, doctrinal implications played a major role — the Bible contains no direct mention of popes, prayers to saints, transubstantiation, pilgrimages, the sale of pardons and indulgences, auricular confession to priests, veneration of relics or the host, the infallibility of the clergy, or of many more of the doctrines, practices, traditions, and requirements that had accrued over centuries in the Church.
Political control was also a major issue. The kingdoms and principalities of Europe were Christian — there was no meaningful separation of Church and State. Rulers based their authority on the divine right of kings as buttressed by the Catholic Church. But this led to corruption of both politics and religion. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, rejected the artifice of non-Biblical, Catholic teachings referred to above (among others not listed) after reading Wycliffe’s 1380s translations and influenced by his teachings. The monarchy and aristocracy viewed Wycliffe’s religious heresy not only as a sin against the Church, which buttressed their political authority, but as sedition after the concurrent peasants’ revolt.
In England’s 1381 peasants’ revolt, the real issue was the oppressive imposition of draconian poll and other secular taxes. But authorities (primarily the clergy) found the simultaneously growing Lollard movement a convenient scapegoat for the revolt because Wycliffe’s preaching, in addition to tearing down non-biblical dogmas and traditions, included hefty biblical rhetoric in defense of the poor and downtrodden and against the economic abuses they were suffering at the hands of both clergy and secular authorities. Wycliffe’s preaching, like Amulek’s, had thus provoked clergy and aristocracy alike; and as Amulek’s family and followers were burned alive together with their scriptures in Ammonihah, Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, were accused of heresy and burned at the stake together with their manuscript copies of Wycliffe’s translations in “Lollard pits” in the 1400s and early 1500s (Alma 14:8-17). Tyndale encountered Wycliffe’s teachings and translations as early as his Oxford school days in the early 1500s, and they inspired his life’s work, particularly from a doctrinal perspective.
By the early 1500s, the English clergy (or their proxies, like Sir Thomas More) were able to spin Lollard doctrinal disagreements as seditious so that the State would have a reason to petition foreign sovereigns to extradite back to England heretics, like Tyndale, who had fled into European exile from their native England. Under governing treaties at the time, heresy alone (though punishable by death within a sovereign’s own jurisdiction) was not an extraditable offense. (The heretics could still be burned in the foreign jurisdiction.) Sir Thomas More, in particular, made heretic hunting a priority of the realm, with Tyndale as the primary, expressed target. The two even engaged in a lengthy written debate/dialogue over several years that could be enlightening reading, if the stakes weren’t so high — Tyndale’s life hung in the balance.
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Sadly, many devout Mormons consider Sir Thomas More, and not the martyr William Tyndale, a “man for all seasons” and an admirable example of the principled stand of religious conscience against the secular demands of state power to abrogate belief. Only the accident of history that More was friends with Erasmus transforms Sir Thomas More, a murderous, evil man, into a mighty Abinadi preaching before King Noah (Mosiah17:5-20). It was the famed humanist Erasmus who described his “darling” More as “a man for all seasons”; this description has stuck and given us our romantic conception of More and his role based on his steadfastness in opposing Henry VIII’s divorce. The political machinations that had placed More in such proximity to Henry VIII with the authority as Chancellor were not enough to maintain the King’s favor in the face of his desired divorce. More would not transgress the Church’s absolute prohibition of divorce to endorse Henry VIII’s desire to divorce so that he could try for a male heir with another wife. So More was executed, and now even we Mormons romantically venerate him for this act, despite his malevolence in persecuting fellow Christians for their desire to read and possess the scriptures in their native English.
But Tyndale, not More, is the Abinadi to our Henry VIII. The lengthy “dialogue” between Tyndale and More, which anyone can read and evaluate for themselves today, shows that Tyndale is the good guy. More seems to relish the thought of burning heretics at the stake to show off his loyalty to the Church. Tyndale also vehemently opposed Henry VIII’s divorce, and this opposition also got him killed. And this was in the face of the political reality that Henry VIII had reached out to Tyndale through his agents to offer him secure passage back to England after Tyndale had written a tract about the primacy of the King over the Pope, the State over the Church in secular government, which had understandably greatly pleased the king. All Tyndale had to do was slip in a brief apologia in favor of the divorce (which could have been supported by the Old Testament). Instead, Tyndale simultaneously wrote that the king should remain married, based on the Bible, because Catherine had not in any way offended against him and therefore there were no biblical grounds for the divorce.
More’s fanatical campaign of heretic hunting ultimately snared Tyndale (through the capture of numerous associates of Tyndale in England and information obtained from them under torture or the stocks or the dungeon). Had Tyndale, the prototypical Protestant in the Lutheran mold, simply condoned the divorce (as one would think a Protestant would), he likely would have been given safe passage from hiding in the Low Countries back to England and likely could have even been taken up at court, through the influence of Ann Boleyn, who was sympathetic to Tyndale and the “bible men,” i.e., the Protestants. And yet, More, with his campaign against fellow Christians reading the Bible in English and his torture and burning of those fellow Christians, is our “Man for All Seasons” revered by many in our Church today, rather than Tyndale whose name and labor to bring God’s Word to light for the people is hardly known or acknowledged. (Tyndale has, however, been invoked several times in General Conference, which increases the curiosity of why he remains in the shadows and his persecutor, More, often stands in the limelight.)
Tyndale is in good company. Sir Thomas More, the English Archbishop Tunstall, and the rest of the clergy in England, and all clergy on the Continent, including and especially the Pope, would surely have also burned Joseph Smith and any and all people who followed him at the stake together with Tyndale. Luther was not a martyr in his translation work and preaching against the false traditions that had accumulated in the late medieval Church. Tyndale and many others, however, were martyrs. Their work in bringing the Word of God to the people in their own languages was monumental and entailed the sacrifice of everything followed by a horrendous death based on their conscience of what was right and wrong about the dogmas of the Church in their time. We owe a lot to them. Joseph Smith read James 1:5 in King James English because of them. (Also, their history, actions, and teachings are important and valuable in their own right, independent of the degree to which Joseph Smith knew about, agreed with, or endorsed them or not.)
As Mormons, our history merges with the general history of Christianity before 1820. Do we not realize this? Tyndale is as much ours as he is any other Christian’s.
————————-Mormon Lectionary Project
The Feast of William Tyndale, Priest, 1536†
The Collect: Heavenly Father, we thank thee for inspiring William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English so that our foreparents could read the scriptures in their native tongue and endowing him from on High with the gift of powerful and graceful expression and with strength to persevere against all obstacles, and we ask thee to reveal thy saving Word to us through our study of these Scriptures as we read and hear them calling us to repentance and life through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
* Tyndale’s lifelong dedication to the task of translating the Bible into more coherent and modern English than Wycliffe’s problematic translation made him a fugitive, banished from England and constantly on the run in Continental Europe. He was never painted during his lifetime — the famous mid-sixteenth century portrait of him hanging in the Dining Hall of Hertford College, Oxford is entirely an artist’s conception of what he might have looked like.
† Note that date for the feast of William Tyndale is October 6, which is the traditional date of his commemoration, though it appears he was likely executed a few weeks earlier in 1536 at Vilvoorde castle in Brussels.
 “Lollard” was the term that became descriptive of pious knights and farmers who were persuaded by the views of John Wycliffe beginning in the 1360s and extending into the 1530s (one of the last Lollards to burn was Thomas Harding in 1532, though many others were still to be burned at the stake under different labels of heresy). Wycliffe was an Oxford-educated Catholic priest who was critical of the Church’s views at the time of clericalism and opposition to vernacular and personal study of the Bible.
The Lollard movement came to be viewed as subversive to the government and not just the Church when “[a] peasant’s revolt broke out in May 1381, sparked off by the imposition of a poll tax, but blamed in part on Wycliffe’s radical preaching and his championship of the poor” (Brian Moynahan, Book of Fire: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Bloody Birth of the English Bible (London, Abacus: 2010), p. xvii). Wycliffe was declared a heretic and banished from Oxford at the insistence of William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Blackfriars Council of May 17, 1382; much later, in 1428, his body was exhumed and he was symbolically defrocked from the priesthood and posthumously burned at the stake. In 1408, Thomas Arundel, Courtenay’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, had ordered that all of Wycliffe’s works be burned, declaring that Wycliffe was the “son of the Serpent, herald and child of Antichrist” who had “filled up the measure of his malice” by preparing “a new translation of Scripture into the mother tongue” (Ibid. xxiiii). Lollards, as his followers, were to meet the same fate if they were caught discussing Lollard teachings or in possession of hand-copied manuscript pages of Wycliffe’s translation. “‘Lollard Pits’ were assigned as the places where they were to be burnt” (Ibid. xxv).
 The Church was able to convince secular government in many jurisdictions that Protestant heresy amounted to treason/sedition after Germany’s Peasant War in the 1520s. Martin Luther condemned the uprising of the peasants and their leaders (though he also had plenty of criticism for the aristocracy who viciously slaughtered as many as 300,000 peasants in the conflict). Sir Thomas More had an easier time maneuvering the hunt for and extradition of Tyndale who was in exile in Europe, because he now (post 1525) had a basis to argue to the secular authorities in the Low Countries that he was in sedition and not just a heretic.