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Statues of Liberty: Rev Jules Gomes nominates William Tyndale, great reformer who translated the Bible and created modern English


I had my first history lesson at the age of five. My father was treating me to a tour of Bombay. He took me to Shivaji Park, the cradle of Indian cricket. A giant statue of a swordsman on a prancing horse caught my attention. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. ‘That is Shivaji Maharaj, the great Maratha king, who fought the mighty Mughal and British Empires,’ my dad told me.

On my first tour of Cambridge, where I had arrived from India to pursue a doctorate, my guide spun charming historical narratives around a pantheon of statues dotting the university town. He pointed out ‘the dirty old men of Cambridge’ atop the old Faculty of Divinity – among them Erasmus, who laid the egg that Luther hatched; and Cranmer, architect of the Book of Common Prayer. The white statues set against the backdrop of the redbrick building were sorely in need of a good wash.

You don’t expect statues to sway your emotions (unless sculpted by Bernini), but I was deeply moved by the statue of William Wilberforce, at the entrance to St John’s College Chapel. The figures of Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, who believed that God had revealed himself through two books – nature and Scripture – surrounded by Isaac Barrow and Isaac Newton at the entrance to Trinity College Chapel, remain forever etched on my memory.

I’ve never stopped asking questions about statues or learning about history from statues. If revisionists doctor history books, the stones will cry out. Never mind the Taliban or Antifa taking the fun out of history by calling for an iconoclasm that would put Cromwell to shame.

It is time to give them a punch in the nose and conserve history in stone. ‘Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau, and I am nominating the original ‘Rebel Priest’, William Tyndale, who disobeys his bishop and bequeaths to us our foundational freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Most people know Tyndale as the greatest Bible translator in the English tongue. But beyond this, Tyndale becomes the ‘Father of Modern English.’ Working with a language lacking precision and standardisation, Tyndale shapes the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary of English more than Chaucer or Shakespeare during its transition from Middle English to Early Modern English. Tyndale constructs the refined speech of a nation that becomes the lingua franca of the world.

Tyndale’s lesser-known contribution to liberty, tolerance and the British and American constitutional order parallels his outstanding achievements in language and Bible translation. Liberty and language are intertwined in the work of the great reformer who seeks the ‘democratisation of the Bible’.

Constitutional lawyer Michael Farris, in From Tyndale to Madison: How the Death of an English Martyr led to the American Bill of Rights, debunks the standard mythology that the Enlightenment is responsible for the religious and other freedoms we enjoy today. It is Tyndale who sows the seeds of this exceptional accomplishment, he argues.

In 1522, Oxford scholar and cleric William Tyndale secures a position in Little Sodbury, Gloucestershire, as tutor for the children of the lord of the manor, Sir John Walsh, and his wife, Lady Anne. A theological debate erupts between him and another cleric, in which Tyndale demonstrates that his interlocutor’s position is contrary to the Bible.

The priest defiantly seeks to put down Tyndale’s biblical knowledge by claiming that the church is better off with the Pope’s laws than God’s laws. ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws,’ retorts the original Rebel Priest. ‘If God spare my life many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of Scripture than you do.’

Envious clerics fabricate charges of heresy. Tyndale is brought to trial. ‘This I suffer because the priests of the country be unlearned,’ he exclaims. How true! But none of the clergy publicly stand as his accusers and Tyndale is exonerated.

The Constitutions of Oxford (1408) have made it illegal to translate the Bible into English or to own an English Bible. Tyndale approaches Bishop of London Cuthbert Tunstall for permission to translate the New Testament from Greek into English. Tunstall turns him down. Tyndale flees to Cologne and later to Worms where he completes his translation of the New Testament in early 1526. By February, copies of Tyndale’s translation are selling like hot cakes in London.

Bishops order Tyndale’s Bible to be burned and booksellers to stop sales. At a public burning of Tyndale’s New Testament, Bishop Tunstall preaches at St Paul’s Cathedral, rubbishing the translation as having more than two thousand errors.

Tyndale defends himself with an argument that becomes foundational for the freedom of conscience: every man has the right to look in the Word of God and decide for himself whether what is being taught is true. He accuses the church’s hierarchy for ‘laws of your own making, wherewith ye violently bind the lay people that never consented unto the making of them’, thus endorsing the principle of democracy wherein all laws require the people’s consent.

‘Tyndale’s concepts of law by consent of the governed, even-handed justice, religious equality before the law, due process, fair trials, the freedom to speak, publish, and to decide for one’s self the truth about God were prescient and profound,’ writes Farris. ‘He advanced these concepts into the English system at a time when, at least in practice, they were utterly foreign. These conclusions were the necessary outgrowth of his belief that men should have the Scripture in their own language so they could come to God directly as individuals by their own choice rather than according to the dictates of either government or the hierarchical church.’

Tyndale is one of the first scholars to use secular history to argue against the church usurping the lawfully constituted authority of secular government. In his controversy with Lord Chancellor Thomas More, he charges ‘that by a combination of force and guile the Pope and his clergy wrested the government of the European states from the lawful rulers.’

​​​​​​​Brad Pardue in Printing, Power, and Piety: Appeals to the Public during the Early Years of the English Reformation, explores how Tyndale also lays the groundwork for the idea of the ‘public’ and the central place it now occupies in Western society. Thanks to the printing press, which produces copies of Tyndale’s Bible, for the first time in history the public is able to judge the ‘validity of revolutionary ideas’ through a mass-medium which uses the vernacular.

Church and State can no longer tolerate Tyndale the troublemaker. He is tried for heresy, condemned, strangled and burned at the stake. His final prayer ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,’ is partly answered when three years later in 1539, Henry VIII orders every parish church in England to make a copy of the English Bible available to its parishioners.

For Tyndale, God is the author of liberty. It is this radical concept that sows the seeds of modern idea of freedom, even if sections of the church’s hierarchy are hell-bent on tyranny. It is often argued that Muslim nations have failed because they have had no movement comparable to the Enlightenment. It would be more plausible to argue that Muslim nations have failed because they have had no figure comparable to William Tyndale.

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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes, BA, BD, MTh, PhD (Cantab) is a journalist and academic.

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