On this day, October 6th, in the now distant year of 1536, William Tyndale was burnt at the stake. It is recorded that his executors had the mercy to strangle him beforehand, but that they botched the job, and that he revived to consciousness as the flames took hold. What was Tyndale’s crime, worthy of such an extreme punishment? He wanted people to think for themselves.
Established religions are about power and control, and the Catholic Church had long realised that they could control people by telling them what God wanted. Thus they didn’t want the people to read the Bible and to think for themselves about what God wanted. The Church insisted that they stood between the people and God, and that only they could interpret God’s will. Thus they kept the Bible in Latin so that the people could not read it. As early as the 1380s John Wycliffe had translated parts of the Bible into English, but the mere possession of a copy merited the death sentence.
Protestant reformer William Tyndale rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, thinking that true religion was between each person and God, and that everyone should be able to read God’s words in his own language. To a critic he exclaimed:
I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!
Tyndale had two great advantages: a flair for languages, enabling him to translate the original Greek and Hebrew into powerful and memorable English, and the printing press, until then used only for the Latin Vulgate, as in the Gutenburg Bible. Unable to publish safely in England, Tyndale travelled to Germany and the Netherlands, where, in 1526, his English-language New Testament was printed.
Tyndale was condemned as a heretic by Cardinal Wolsey, and copies of the Bible smuggled into England were confiscated and publicly burnt. But printing presses meant that confiscated copies were readily replaced, and English-language Bibles could no longer be suppressed. It took ten years for the authorities to catch up with Tyndale, and as he died at the stake he is reputed to have said: “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes”.
Tyndale soon got his wish, with Henry VIII authorising the Great Bible of 1539. That, and the King James Bible of 1611 — perhaps the most influential English-language book ever — were based largely on Tyndale’s translation. Though Tyndale had been written out of official history, regarded as heretical by the authorities, it was his words that generations heard and recited each week in church, his words and phrases that seeped into national consciousness. Perhaps Tyndale’s only literary peer is Shakespeare.
But Tyndale’s victory was Pyrrhic. He had wanted everyone to read God’s Word because he wanted a purer religion uncorrupted by Churches and the Establishment. But the genie was out of the bottle: when you start thinking where do you stop? And if the Established Church no longer dictates God’s will then what authority does it — or even its scriptures — then have?
It took some time, as great social changes do, but within a hundred years of Tyndale’s Bible (and similar translations in French and German) the Age of Enlightenment dawned, the age of science. Across Europe and the New World thinkers re-thought the foundations of religion. Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, Jefferson, D’Holbach, Rousseau, Diderot, Hume — even those who didn’t go as far as atheism set the scene for those who would.
While use of Latin had previously restricted such debates to a few educated intellectuals, now they spread into the common domain. The printing press gave writings a wide reach, free-thought flourished, and atheism became a widely discussed opinion. Thinking is lethal to any religion based on scriptural revelation, and Tyndale had sown the seeds for the demise of that which he held most dear.
Perhaps we are living in a similar age today. Parents and religious authorities have long tried to ensure that children grow up in “their” religion, segregating children into schools where they are taught that religion, but not others, seeking to control what the children hear about, keeping them from undesirable influences. But today they no longer have that power, and the greatest tool ever for liberation and free-thought — the internet — is now in the hands of the young.
Today any curious child can read the writings of atheists, the writings that priests and schoolmasters kept from previous generations. Thousands of websites are now battlegrounds where such ideas are discussed and fought out. There are numerous accounts of young Christians going into internet battle to defend their religion, and the very act of being forced to think about their faith becoming the agent that destroys it, producing, after a gestation of several years, another atheist. Excepting carefully moderated Christian-led websites, in most online debating forums the religious are now outnumbered and outgunned by atheists. The printing press ended the Churches’ stranglehold on Christendom; the internet will complete their demise.