Tyndale and the seeds of British political sensibility…

As I’m not far from signing off, and it being Christmas Eve and all that, it’s worth flagging attention to a piece by Rod Liddle on how Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in 1534, helped give rise to a “strange British blend of obstinacy and a lack of deference to authority, of enormous tolerance of different points of view, of different creeds and faiths”.

The influence of Protestant Christianity upon our language and thus literature is impossible to overstate. When the Gloucestershire scholar William Tyndale went up to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in 1510 the English language — in so far as one could ascribe to it a homogenous existence — was held in such contempt that it was banned from the college altogether, excepting feast days. As a result of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in 1534, it became a national language, complete and concise, with a sense of cadence and rhythm, of direct purpose, which has endured to this day. Without William Tyndale it is doubtful that there would have been a William Shakespeare — doubtful that there would have been an England.

In 1510 England was an authoritarian outpost of the Catholic Church — a country where, uniquely, it was illegal to read the Bible in the national language. Instead, commoners were dependent on the Church for their religious succour — which naturally invested the Church with enormous power. Hence, therefore, the Church’s disinclination to allow the Bible into the grubby paws of ploughmen and, indeed, ‘lowly women’. Control the language and you control the people. Tyndale, of course, rejected all that; the people must be able to read the Bible for themselves, otherwise they could not be saved. For Tyndale — as for Wycliffe before him — it was a purely theological opposition which nonetheless had immediate social and political repercussions. His translation of the Bible — the King James Bible is regarded as being 90 per cent the work of Tyndale — passed power downwards from the priests and bishops to the people, both by the mere fact of its existence and in the language it used.

But it is in the blunt brevity of his prose that Liddell sees Tyndale’s abiding influence into the modern day:

Tyndale, returned, ad fontes, to the scripture through Erasmus’s 1516 rendition of a Greek Bible (with Latin translation). You can argue which was the more revolutionary: Tyndale’s contentious use as a translator of such terms as congregation (rather than church) or love (rather than charity, from the Greek agape) which so infuriated Thomas More and threatened the Catholic Church — or the fact that his facility with this low-born lingua franca, English, was so acute and attuned to the common man that it became, almost immediately, respectable and later ubiquitous. It is not simply Tyndale’s knack of coining the memorable phrase — although that was, in itself, remarkable: he gave the English language, among a ream of phrases, ‘daily bread’, ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon’, ‘Let there be light’, ‘There were shepherds abiding in their fields’.

It was the simplicity and directness of the language, the eschewing of Latin- or French-derived terminology, a Bible written in words of usually one and at most two syllables; the template for what we know as ‘good plain English’. Scroll forward 400 years and George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ seems scarcely more than a plea to return to the language of William Tyndale, where words are beautifully precise creatures designed to elucidate, describe and explain rather than to obfuscate. Short words, short sentences: ‘Axe and it shal be given to you. Seke and ye shal find. Knocke and it shal be opened unto you.’ Words which are immediately intimate and purposeful; sentences in which the verb sits in full majesty in the centre (rather than, as in Latin, at the end). Anglo-Saxon words drawn from the dialect of the farm labourer in Tyndale’s native Gloucestershire; ‘mizzen’, for example, for drizzle. As the historian David Daniell puts it, Tyndale made a language for England. And with the language came a flourish of rhetoric, of style and beauty.

As if to prove the modernity of the man, Liddle quotes Tyndale on the still touchy subject of women in the ministry:

If a woman were driven into some island, where Christ was never preached, might she not preach him, if she had the gifts thereto? Might she not also baptise? And why might she not by the same reason minister the sacrament of the body and the blood of Christ and teach him how to choose officers and ministers? O, poor women, how despise ye them.’

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  • Rubicon

    Interested post Mike – it had me reflecting whether David Ervine was failing to follow the protestant tradition?

    Merry Christmas!

  • parcifal

    Helping common people to investigate truth for themselves was/is and always will be a dangerous thing, ( because they are then less easy to control through fear )
    Tyndale was right to translate; and was burnt at the stake for it.
    Rod liddle forget to mention that.

  • Mick Fealty

    Apparently Tyndale was strangled first, then burnt at the stake. He didn’t leave it out, but I had to cut somewhere.

  • Pete Baker

    “Without William Tyndale it is doubtful that there would have been a William Shakespeare — doubtful that there would have been an England.”

    And doubtful there would be such hyperbole, no doubt.

    Tyndale’s translation was undoubtedly influential in all the points made about the language.. but there are any number of other factors that should also be taken into account and probably are equally, if not more, important in considering the wider context.

    We are, after all, talking about a period of huge social unrest across Europe, as well as within England itself. A period which also saw massive social mobility, in class and geographical location, accompanied by a rise in the level of influence and affluence of England in Europe.

    I’ll also note that Liddle’s recent Channel 4 documentary on religion was appallingly badly made and argued.

  • Mark McGregor

    For those of us that have recently read ‘The God Delusion’ and found it a wonderfully articulated expression of atheists views. It is hard to not, especially at this time of year, raise the utter nonsense this is based on. Star-Trek and the rise of Klingon speakers is what springs to my mind. Maybe after 2,000 years of that fairy tale…………….

  • Henry94


    Be careful. Agreeing with Dawkins is a serious evolutionary disadvantage.


  • Mick Fealty

    Aha, so you are a Dawkins man Mark?

    He has a bright, engaging and enervating mind. But I suspect that this great quest of his is likely to end in the same ignominy as the great prayer gauge debate (coincidently involving another great secularist going by the name of Tyndall – born Leighlin Bridge, Carlow). I also suspect that proof or disproof of the existence of deity lies beyond the capacity of scientific method.

    The point of the article is not about belief or the lack of it. The last para is probably worth quoting:

    We have been defined by what has happened, not by what should or might have happened. That strange British blend of obstinacy and a lack of deference to authority, of enormous tolerance of different points of view, of different creeds and faiths, is traceable directly to Tyndale — sitting at his desk in exile in Antwerp, about to be betrayed by agents, shortly to be strangled and then burned to death at the stake. From Antwerp, his New Testament crossed the North Sea, secreted in other less godly but more legitimate manuscripts. They arrived in England, where they were either seized and burned by the authorities or read and read again, a thousand times over.

    You can erase the crosses from the walls of the House of Commons; you can melt down the coins and tear up the flags. But you cannot quite erase history or change what history has — for better or for worse — made us.

  • Mark McGregor

    I just get more confused.

    Is the primary and desired outcome of christianity (and most religions) not the extinction of all earthly human life?

    Not that I believe any of that author’s analysis of easily explained demographics.

  • Mark McGregor


    I’m my own man and was a fully believing atheist long before I ever heard of Dawkins.

    I don’t deny religions had/have a part in defining the character of many nations. Arguably in a british context the Imperial Cult of Rome had as large an impact on the development of the Nation as Christianity.

    My point is: for many that impact is based on a nonsense regardless of how many decent outcomes can be listed. Negatives can be listed too but what’s the point.

    My only point is, many believe the starting point for these claims are fundamentally flawed.

  • Mick Fealty

    This hit my in box just after this thread kicked off: is Andrew really a Christian?

    But religion is probably the least interesting aspect of this ‘thesis’. The modern relevance of the Tyndale story is about the intellectual freedom to be ‘your own man’. His contention is that this very societal freedom is essentially a product of the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing (Scottish) Enlightenment. And we are unacknowledging recipients of that freedom.

  • Pete Baker

    “The modern relevance of the Tyndale story is about the intellectual freedom to be ‘your own man’. That is essentially a product of the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing enlightenment.”

    Or.. the intellectual freedom to be ‘your own man’ is a product of the Enlightment, in which the Reformation played its, albeit important, part.

    After all, Galileo was also his own man.

    The problem with Liddle’s argument, as evidenced by his recent TV appearance, is that he seems determined to place religion at the centre of that development, when it may just be the most public, and documented, arena in which it was played out – but he may just be using someone else’s pronouncements as a guide in that.

  • Mick Fealty

    Notwithstanding Liddle’s lazy propensity to look for a silver bullet, there are some things worthy of note.

    Not least that if looking for secular and technological reasons for the rapid (and decentralising) spread of the English Reformation from Kent through everywhere but the wilds of Lancashire (and at least one obscure part of Dorset), as opposed to the singularly inspiring, but largely discrete, biography of Galileo, it must come down to Caxton’s invention of the printing press and the rapid reproduction and popularisation of Tyndale’s work.

  • Pete Baker

    Indeed. Galileo was just the most readily to hand example of someone not of the Protestant faith.

    In reference to Caxton’s echo of Gutenberg’s printing press and “the rapid reproduction and popularisation of Tyndale’s work”.. well, you could almost compare it to the spreading of a virus.. or even a meme.. ;o)

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s a thesis in that Pete. But it’s late, and I’ve Santa to play to a two year old in the morning…

  • Pete Baker

    A Merry Christmas then, Mick, to you and yours.

  • BeatingAbout

    About the Dawkins chap: is it possible to dismiss the views of one who got it so right about GW Bush? Dawkins described him, at the beginning of his presidency as “that deeply stupid little oil spiv”. Deluded or deeply insightful?

  • Henry94


    If insulting your opponents is a sign of insight Mick has been persecuting the wrong people with his “ball not man rule”

  • Mark McGregor


    The ‘ball not man’ rule is an invention to try and promote debate. Dawkins refuses to molly coddle idiocy. There’s lots of honest and legitimate opinon that won’t reach Mick’s standards, much of it in the articles we are expected to comment on. The rules of this site would stifle a Dawkins, the rules of this site edit pastes from clergy talking about the DUP.

    Happy holidays. (new gadget is my excuse for being online – it works!)

  • BeatingAbout

    Henry 94

    A quick glance at the Bush presidency would suggest, I believe, that what you refer to as Dawkins’ “insult” has proven to be nothing more nor less than “accurate description”.

  • smcgiff

    The bible coming within the reach of the common man was a pivotal moment, alas it did not readily reach a more enlightened development – The realisation that it’s all a fairy story. That’s a shame, as humanity would truley evolve from the primitive if he realised this.

    Richard Dawkins is a god.

    As an aside, how long did it take of the Catholic church to produce a bible for the common man of its faith?

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed Henry. Mark’s comments set me thinking. Is Dawkins’ muliple arguments against God of necessity ad hominem?

    Enjoy the rest of the season…

  • Henry94


    In the 1500’s in Italy, there were more than 40 vernacular editions of the Bible. France had 18 vernacular editions before 1547, and Spain began publishing editions in 1478, with full approval of the Spanish Inquisition.

    In all, 198 editions of the Bible were in the language of the laity, 626 editions all together, and all before the first Protestant version, and all having the full approval of the Church.

  • Pete Baker

    Well, Mick, if it set you thinking, it’s also worth remembering that we have featured Dawkins and his arguments against religion

    “I am attacking Gods, all gods, anything and everything supernatural..”

  • Dawkins fairy tale?!

    Why not read “Your God Is Too Small” by J B Phillips – that issue is the real “starting point”.