William Tyndale – Father of the English Language

Historian and regular contributor, Christopher Jobson, gives us his perspective on the extraordinary achievements of this great man.

William Tyndale, born in 1494, martyred in 1536, has been claimed to be both the founder of the King James Bible and the father of the English language.  His life’s work was to translate the Bible into English.  It was an obsession that began when he was young.  When he was ten, and already knew Latin, as well as English, he read that King Athelstan, Alfred the Great’s grandson, had some of the scriptures translated into English.  From then on this became the life purpose of this brilliant boy, who went to Oxford University when he was twelve. There he made himself master of the languages necessary to fulfil his mission: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian. He was acknowledged by his peers to be outstandingly accomplished in all of them.  His English reads like a rare almost transcendent gift.  Even those who dismiss Christianity concede that Tyndale’s words and sentences form much of the basic structure and memorability of the English tongue.

His translation of the New Testament came out in 1525 and was the first printed Bible in English.  In his short life he was mostly penurious, often hungry, isolated, hounded, vilified and cruelly misrepresented.  He laid down his life to put soul-saving words on to the English tongue.

He was a Roman Catholic whose work would become a beacon for Protestants of all denominations all over the world.  He was a defender of the divinity of the King who persecuted him, planned his assassination and tried to wipe his work off the face of the earth.

William Tyndale was a quiet, fervent scholar whose voice shook the Holy Roman Empire, rattled the gilded cage of Henry VIII and caused the papacy to panic and seek revenge.  He was the keystone of the King James Version of the Bible which was published seventy-five years after he was burned at the stake.  His last words were “Lord open the King of England’s eyes”. He never once gave in or gave up his vow to make the Bible accessible even to “a plough-boy”.  Scholars estimate that 94 per cent of the New Testament in the King James Bible is exactly as Tyndale left it. The poet W.H. Auden lamenting the modern trend of churches to abandon it in regular use said, “why spit on your luck” – why indeed!

Christopher Jobson

Feature Image: Portrait of William Tyndale, Wikicommons (P.D.). All other images are Wikicommons (P.D.)

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