The reformation was the result of two significant factors, a revival of learning and the return of the Word of God. While the Bible was the principle cause of the Reformation, without learning, it could not, by itself, have caused the great changes of the Reformation. Without the benefit of learning, the work that Wycliffe began in England would not have had the lasting affect it did. It would have been much like the brief bursts of light that had from time to time shone forth in earlier times; they shone for a little time, only to be crushed out by the darkness that everywhere prevailed. Times, however, were changing, and a new era was beginning.
After the death of Wycliffe, his followers traveled from one end of England to the other, spreading the gospel. Townspeople crowded around preachers of truth, and many of the nobility accepted the new teaching; some even of the royal family believed. For a time it appeared that England would accept the reformed faith.
The favorable reception with which the gospel was received encouraged Wycliffe’s followers to advance even further. Placards aimed at the priests and friars, and the abuses they defended, were placed on the walls of some of the cathedrals. In 1395, the friends of the gospel petitioned Parliament for general reforms. Then, not fully understanding the true nature of government and the truth which they were teaching, they asked Parliament to abolish celibacy and various other errors of Rome. Emboldened by early successes and the absence of the king in Ireland, they fastened their Twelve Conclusions on the gate of St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey.
When Arundel, archbishop of York, and Baybrooke, bishop of London, had read these propositions, they quickly found their way to the king and urged him to return. On his return to London, he forbade the Parliament to take up the propositions the Wycliffites had petitioned them to consider. He then summoned before him the most influential supporters of the reformed movement and threatened them with death if they persisted in defending their opinions.
Richard had scarcely withdrawn his hand from the gospel when, as the historian says, God withdrew his hand from Richard. (See D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, book 17, chapter 9.) His cousin, Henry of Hertford, son of the famous Duke of Lancaster, who had been banished from England, suddenly returned from the Continent. Having gathered all the malcontents in England around him, he was acknowledged as king. Unhappy, Richard was deposed and confined to Pontefract castle where he soon died.
Sadly, Henry chose to become the protector of the church, exercising his power and influence to conciliate the clergy. Under his reign, in the beginning of the fifteenth century, England’s first martyrs were burned at the stake in Smithfield.
A foremost leader among the followers of Wycliffe was Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, a man highly in favor with the king. Lord Cobham caused many copies of Wycliffe’s writings to be made and circulated through the dioceses of Canterbury, Rochester, London, and Hertford. Cobham attended the preaching of the gospel ministers, and if anyone attempted to interrupt them, he threatened them with his sword.
In 1413, Henry V followed his father to the throne of England, and the clergy were not slow to denounce Cobham to him. On September 23, 1413, an ecclesiastical court tried Lord Cobham, sentencing him to death. One night he escaped from the tower where he awaited execution and made his way to Wales. He remained there until he was again arrested in 1417 and returned to London where he was burned alive.
England was to pass through more years of suffering before the gospel truth would shine forth in the soft light of tolerance. For the next few years, the humble followers of Wycliffe suffered severe persecution.
About the end of the fifteenth century, the learning that was taking place in Florence, Italy, began to make its way to England. Caxton imported printing from Germany, and the dawn began to break more fully over England.
While learning was reviving, a new dynasty succeeded to the throne; Henry Tudor became king. His mother, Countess of Richmond, was known for her piety. Among her closest friends was Montjoy, who, along with his wife, were the governor and governess of the king’s children. Montjoy had met Erasmus in Paris and now invited him to visit England. Erasmus, who was the greatest scholar of his time, was fearful of catching the plague that was then ravaging the Continent, and he gladly accepted the invitation.
One day while visiting the Montjoy home, Erasmus, was introduced to young prince Henry. The young prince could ride his horse with great skill and hurl a javelin further than any of his companions. Besides these skills, he had a taste for music and could perform on several instruments. The king had taken great care to see that his young son should not come behind in any area of learning. It was his intention that the young prince would one day become the archbishop of Canterbury. Erasmus, appreciating Henry’s aptitude, did his best to share his learning with him.
About this time, King Henry VII asked the hand of Catherine of Argone for his oldest son. Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand, the king of Spain, and was the richest princess in Europe. The marriage of the Catholic Catherine to Arthur, however, was an ill-fated marriage that was to have a long lasting effect.
A short time after the marriage, in the early part of 1502, prince Arthur died. It soon become evident that Catherine would not become a mother, and young Henry was declared to be heir to the crown.
A difficult question now surfaced. Henry VII had received from Spain a dowry of two hundred gold ducats as a dowry for Catherine. With her husband dead, having left her without a son, the question was raised as to whether Henry VII would be obliged to return the dowry. Besides this misfortune, there was the very distinct possibility that such a rich heiress might marry a rival of England. To prevent this from taking place, Henry decided to unite her with his second son, and heir apparent to the throne. There were, however, serious objections raised. Warham, the primate, pointed out that according to Scripture, it was not proper for a man to marry his brother’s wife. (See Leviticus 20:21.)
As a solution to this dilemma, a special dispensation was sought from the pope. In December, 1503, Julius II granted a bull declaring that for the sake of preserving union between the Catholic princes, Catherine was authorized to marry the brother of her first husband. The two parties were engaged, though the marriage was delayed because of the youth of the Prince of Wales.
Soon after the engagement, the king, who had earlier lost his queen, became sick. Wondering if all of these things were judgements from God, he began to have second thoughts about the proposed marriage. Many people were still unhappy about the idea of the young prince marrying his brother’s wife and questioned the right of the pope to authorize something forbidden by God. Young Henry, learning of his father’s change of mind and taking advantage of the popular feeling that was running high, declared he would never make Catherine his wife.
On May 9, 1509, Henry VII died and the Prince of Wales became Henry VIII. Seven weeks later he married Catherine. Only eighteen years of age, and with an insatiable desire for pleasure, Henry engaged himself in one grand round of amusement.
During the Middle Ages, the orders of the church had come above the law. A member of a religious order could commit any crime but could be tried only by the church. Parliament, seeking to correct this abuse and to check the growing power of the church, in 1513 passed a law that any ecclesiastic accused of theft or murder should be tried before a secular tribunal. Exceptions, however were made in favor of bishops, priests, and deacons. In doing so, they had actually exempted nearly all clergy of the church. This however, did not satisfy the church, and Cardinal Wolsey, accompanied by a long train of priests and prelates, attained an audience with the king. With hands uplifted, Wolsey protested that it was a violation of God’s laws for a church clerk to be tried. Henry, distinctly seeing that to put the clergy above the law was to put them over the throne, replied that it was by the will of God that the kings who reigned in England were kings. Furthermore, the kings of England in time past had recognized no superior, other than God. He therefore, affirmed the right of the crown above that of the church.
The Reformation in England, to a greater extent than in the rest of Europe, was the result of the Bible. While there could have been no Reformation without God’s Word, unlike much of the rest of Europe, England had no great individuals to compare with Luther in Germany or Zwingli in Switzerland. Men of the stature of Calvin did not appear in England during the Reformation period, but the Bible was widely circulated. That which was largely responsible for the light in England was the Word—the invisible power of the invisible God.
Erasmus left England and returned to the Continent where he completed his work on the Greek New Testament. When he published his finished work, he little realized the impact it would have on the world. When some of his friends questioned the wisdom of the work he had set himself to accomplish, he replied: “‘If the ship of the church is to be saved from being swallowed up by the tempest, there is only one anchor that can save it: it is the heavenly Word, which issuing from the Father, lives, speaks, and works still in the gospel’….Erasmus, like Caiaphas, prophesied without being aware of it.” Ibid., book 18, chapter 1
The clergy were horrified. They pointed to some passages where the differences were most glaring and accused Erasmus of trying to place himself above Saint Jerome in seeking to correct the Latin Vulgate. “Look here! This book calls upon men to repent, instead of requiring them, as the Vulgate does, to do penance! (Matthew 4:17)” Ibid.
On none of his works had Erasmus worked so carefully. He had compared all of the best manuscripts. He had corrected many obscurities and errors found in the Vulgate and had even placed in his version a list of the errors he had found. Nothing else went as far to prepare the way for the Reformation as the Bible being restored in its purity.
As the time for the dawning of the Reformation approached, Providence worked to prepare the way for the coming day. In 1484, about a year after the birth of Luther and about the time Zwingli first saw the light, William Tyndale was born to the southwest of Gloucester. At a very early age he attended Oxford, where Erasmus had many friends. Here he was introduced to the Greek New Testament, which profoundly affected his life. He later went to Cambridge but left there in 1519.
The spiritual revival that was beginning to gain ground in England because of the introduction of the Greek New Testament filled the clergy with apprehension. They were not in such a position of strength as to dare attack the universities, so they turned their attention to the more humble Christians.
Tyndale, after leaving Oxford and Cambridge, obtained employment as a tutor for the children of Lord and Lady Walsh. Sir John Walsh had made a fine showing in the tournaments of the court and by this means had gained the favor of the king. Many men of note and learning as well as church dignitaries, found a welcome at their home.
Behind their mansion was a small chapel where Tyndale would preach on Sundays. Tydale explained the Scriptures so clearly that his hearers felt as though they were listening to the apostles themselves. Soon, however, the small church became too small for the interest that was aroused, and Tyndale began to preach from place to place. No sooner would he leave one place than the priests would follow him, seeking to undo all that he had done, threatening to expel from the church anyone who dared listen to him. When Tyndale returned, finding the field laid waste by the enemy, he exclaimed; “‘What is to be done? While I am sowing in one place, the enemy ravages the field I have just left. I cannot be everywhere. Oh! If Christians possessed the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue, they could of themselves withstand these sophists. Without the Bible it is impossible to establish the laity in the truth.’” Ibid., chapter 4. From that point on, Tyndale began to dream of giving the Bible to England in the common language of the people.
The first triumph of the truth was in the home of Lord and Lady Walsh. As Sir John and his wife began to accept the gospel, they became disgusted with the priests. The clergy were not so often invited to Sodbury, and when they did come, they no longer met with the same welcome. Soon they could think of nothing but how they might drive Tyndale from the diocese.
A storm was beginning to build. A formal complaint was filed, but a judicial inquiry into Tyndale’s conduct presented some serious problems. The king’s champion-at-arms was a patron of Tyndale’s and Sir Anthony Poyntz, Lady Walsh’s brother, was sheriff of the county. It was, therefore, decided that the most prudent thing that could be done would be to call a general conference of the clergy. Tyndale obeyed the summons to appear, but recognizing what was planned for him, sought the strength and help that could come from God alone.
Before the assembled church dignitaries, when his turn came to speak, Tyndale, in a calm and Christian manner, administered the chancellor a severe reprimand. This so exasperated the chancellor that he gave way to his passion, treating Tyndale as though he were a dog, whereupon Tyndale, required of him that he produce witnesses to support the charges. Not one of those assembled dared to come forward. Tyndale was, therefore, allowed to return quietly to Sodbury.
When the priests saw that their plot to silence the Reformer had failed, they commissioned one of the celebrated members of the clergy to undertake the task of converting Tyndale. The Reformer answered his opponent so well from the Greek Testament that the latter was left speechless. He then exclaimed: “‘Well then! It were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.’ Tyndale, who did not expect so plain and blasphemous a confession, made answer: ‘And I defy the pope and all his laws!’ and then, as if unable to keep his secret, he added: ‘If God spares my life, I will take care that a ploughboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.’” Ibid.
For some time, the position of Lord and Lady Walsh had been as a barrier protecting the Reformer from the malice of his enemies, but the enmity of the clergy was so great that Tyndale realized they would stop at nothing to interrupt his work of translating the Scriptures. Sorrowfully, he bade his host and hostess farewell and left to search for a safer retreat from which to pursue his work.
Tyndale made his way to London where he hoped to gain the patronage of Tonstall, the bishop of London. Tonstall, who was a learned man, was a friend of letters and the gospel. For a time, he had managed to walk a thin line between the two sides. Though learned, Tonstall lacked courage; and when forced to choose between the ignorant and bigoted priests and learning, clerical interests prevailed and he refused Tyndale employment. Greatly disappointed, Tyndale turned away.
Among those who had heard Tyndale speak was a rich merchant named Humphrey Monmouth. Monmouth invited the poor man to come live with him, and for the next year Tyndale pursued his work of translation in Monmouth’s home. Soon, however, persecution broke out in England and Tyndale, foreseeing an interruption to his work, left England.
From London, the Reformer made his way to Hamburg, and eventually to Cologne, France, where he continued his work. At last he took his prepared manuscripts to a printer and the actual printing was begun. Before the work had progressed far, Tyndale’s secret became known to the clergy and he was forced to flee, taking with him his precious manuscripts.
About the close of the year 1525, the first English New Testaments made their way across the Channel to England, hidden among the cargo of five different merchants. In spite of the strict vigilance exercised by the English authorities, the Bibles were successfully brought into the country. Thus, the Word of God, first given to the learned by Erasmus in 1517, Tyndale gave to the common people in 1526.
It was not Tyndale’s edition alone that was entering England. A Dutch house, knowing the desire for the Bible, printed an edition of 5,000 of Tyndale’s translation and sent them to England. These were soon sold and two more editions followed. Tyndale was able to follow these with a new and more accurate edition. This edition was printed in a smaller and more portable form, filling the clergy with great dismay. They quickly found that in endeavoring to prevent the circulation of the Bible, they were attempting a work that was beyond their ability to accomplish. The foundation of the reformed church was being laid in England by the diffusion of the Scriptures.
Tyndale was eventually betrayed into the hands of his enemies. After having suffered many months of imprisonment, he witnessed for his faith by a martyr’s death. Just before he died, his last prayer was that God might open the eyes of the king of England.
In a most unusual way, that prayer was answered. In 1538, Henry VIII signed an order appointing that a copy of the Bible was to be placed in every parish church, available for all to read. That edition become known as the Coverdale Bible, but it was largely the work of Tyndale. Within two years the edition was sold out and another one was printed. How different things were than they had been but two years before when anyone who had a Bible could only read it in secret, where none might see him.
Though Tyndale did not live to see the event, the weapons he prepared enabled others to carry forward the standard of truth, changing for all time the course of history.