Guest essay by Marshall Foster
It was the greatest catastrophe in recorded history. The Black Death, the bubonic plague, ravaged Asia, then descended upon Europe and swept into England in 1348.The deadly bacteria were carried by flea-infested rats on ships from the East. The plague killed up to 50 million people—roughly 60% of the entire population of Europe. Life came to a standstill except for the mass burial of the dead. Like the headless horseman, the Black Death marched up the Thames River in England, killing 100,000 people in London alone.
When the plague reached Oxford University, half of the students and professors were struck down. A young student, John Wycliffe, saw his friends die agonizing deaths, with raging fever and black boils covering their bodies. It seemed that the end of mankind was at hand.
In this moment of worldwide devastation, Wycliffe “passed days and nights in his cell groaning and sighing and calling upon God to show him the path he ought to follow.”1 Wycliffe threw himself on the mercy of God. A brilliant scholar, in the dire circumstances he dedicated himself to the study of Holy Scripture. John was transformed when he learned that salvation came only as an unmerited gift of grace from a loving God. In time, he realized that he had been spared for a great work.
Wycliffe’s heart broke for the people of his nation. The survivors of the plague had lost precious family members. The English were overwhelmed with depression and near starvation. They needed solace and hope. “The people are very ignorant. There are no schools; there are none to teach them except the [prelates] who have no desire to see the people gaining knowledge, for knowledge is power, and ignorance weakness.”2
The schemes of the power elites thrived on the people’s ignorance. They were thus able to suppress the people’s rights which the Great Freedom Charter, Magna Carta, had declared in 1215. The clergy were pacifying the populace with foolish tales and superstitions. God’s Word was not being taught, rather there were fanciful stories of ghosts, demons and fire-breathing dragons. In short, the people were being confused and exploited.
The people were also being impoverished by unbearable taxes and church fees. “The king and the barons plunder them …a swarm of men live upon them. They must pay taxes to the king, to the barons, and to the priest; and they have no voice in saying what or how much the taxes shall be.”3 At this time the Roman Church was being engulfed in a perverse and self-inflicted scandal. There were two Popes for half of the 14th century, both excommunicating each other and raising armies to fight for them.4
Wycliffe began teaching the Bible to his students at Oxford when he became a professor. His books and sermons explained the great errors in doctrine and practice that had multiplied through the centuries. The Scriptures taught that only God Almighty was sovereign over all nations, not any king or prelate. It taught that the Almighty wanted to empower the people to be free from tyranny and to prosper in all areas of life—including civil government. Wycliffe said, “The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”5
Wycliffe became loved and admired as he boldly taught the liberating gospel. He erected an outdoor pulpit at St. John’s Cross in London where huge crowds came out to hear him preach. “The people listen… with wonder and delight. They begin to think; and when men begin to think, they take a step toward freedom. They see that the Bible gives them rights which have been denied them….”6
But how could the truth prevail? The English people had known nothing but the Church of Rome which permeated all institutions. Everyone was in its grasp and under its laws. The prelates, aware of the people’s unrest, passed laws to stop independent thinking. Under penalty of death they decreed, “We forbid the laity to possess any of the books of the Old and New Testaments.”7 They were closing in on Wycliffe.
Wycliffe was placed on trial before the Bishops Court to be burned at the stake. As the judges took their seats, there was a strange rumbling sound, walls shook to their base, the building and the entire city of London were shaken by a great earthquake!8 The proceedings were dismissed. During another attempt to try him, the Queen, a disciple of Wycliffe, sent her troops to forbid the prelates from proceeding. “The bishops were struck with a panic fear: they bent their heads … like a weed before the wind” and he was released. The Bishops finally relented, simply banning Wycliffe from teaching at Oxford, and gave him a church at Lutterworth to pastor. Wycliffe was now free to complete the three great tasks that would far outlive his frail body. First, Wycliffe concentrated on translating the Bible from Latin to English. Second, he published his theological views and commentaries on the Bible for future generations.
Finally, like a spiritual commander, Wycliffe sent out his army of “Bible Men”—ordained preachers whom he had trained. They went throughout England sharing the first Bible pages ever available in English. They preached the gospel and taught the everyday people and nobles alike to read. They also left portions of translated Scripture with others who could continue to spread the Word. These poor preachers were to become the foundation of a movement called the Lollards. Over the next century and a half an underground educational and spiritual movement permeated all of England, until it was said that every second man you met was a Lollard.”
Forty years after Wycliffe’s death all the religious hierarchy of Europe gathered at the Council of Constance to try to snuff out the movement begun by John Wycliffe. They burned at the stake several of Wycliffe’s disciples, most notably, John Huss. Their anger at Wycliffe was so great that the council ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be dug up at Lutterworth, burned to ashes and thrown in the river. “They forget that there are some things which the fire will not burn—such as liberty, truth, justice. A new order of things was emerging in human affairs—that thrones will be overturned; that sovereigns will become subjects, and subjects sovereigns.”9
For 5,000 years of recorded history there had never been any books printed. All scrolls and books were handwritten by scribes who spent their lives copying as much as they could. But manuscripts were so costly that only the very wealthy could ever purchase one.
But one day in 1430 A.D., a Dutchman, Laurence Costner, was watching his kids play in the woods. He carved his children’s names in the bark of a tree when he thought: “I might carve the letters of the alphabet, each letter on a separate block, ink them over, and then I could stamp any word in the language.” Costner created a rough version of what would become the movable type printing press. He hired a young German, Johannes Gutenberg, as his apprentice. But soon afterward Costner died.10 The young Gutenberg did not give up on the invention after Costner’s death. He greatly improved it by changing from a wood type mold which broke under pressure to metal, movable type. Gutenberg worked tirelessly for many years to perfect the movable type printing press. He began his first big printing project in 1450—the Holy Bible. The first Bible ever printed was the first book ever printed. From this point in history the world of knowledge, especially the wisdom expressed in God’s Word, could be readily printed and read by all people. The monopoly of rulers and prelates on knowledge was broken forever. The floodgates of freedom were opened. Gutenberg explained the impact of his invention which, without firing a shot, “scattered the darkness of ignorance.”
He said: “Yes, it is a press certainly, but a press from which shall flow inexhaustible streams, the most abundant, the most marvelous liqueur that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread His Word, a spring of pure truth shall flow from it. Like a new star, it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance and cause a light until now unknown to shine among men.”11 And so it did!
By the early 16th century thousands of Bibles were being printed on the new Gutenberg-style printing presses. Scholars at Cambridge University in England were spiritually and intellectually awakened as they read many of the newly discovered ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament brought to England by Erasmus from Holland. They would gather at the White Horse Tavern in Cambridge as they came to understand the profound differences between the Word of God and the corrupted traditions and doctrines of the Roman Church. These men included Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and a brilliant young scholar, William Tyndale.
All these men from Cambridge, at great personal cost, helped lay the groundwork for biblical Christianity and for constitutional liberty that would flourish in the New World. But the one man who had the greatest impact on our world was William Tyndale. He understood that if England were to truly become a free and prosperous nation, the common people must have the Bible in their own language, to be read in their own homes.
Tyndale could have succeeded in most any career path he chose. He was brilliant, perhaps the finest linguist in the world and a charismatic orator. Wealth and status awaited him. But instead, knowing the cost, he left academia to dedicate his life to translating the Bible into modern English (which was profoundly different from the Middle English of Wycliffe’s era). He moved to London where a wealthy Christian gave him protection from the violent church leaders. In that relatively safe place he began his
translation. Yet the ignorant prelates of the church “fell upon Tyndale like a pack of hungry hounds.”12
Tyndale responded to one of the angry bishops who was harassing him, “If God spare my life, before many years I will cause a boy that drives a plow [a commoner, in other words] to know more of the Scripture than you do.”13 Tyndale was driven into exile, landing in Europe with a mere ten pounds sterling in his pocket. He barely escaped with his life and his manuscripts, since King Henry VIII had begun burning so-called “heretics” for the pleasure of his court and the prelates.
In the next ten years Tyndale was under the constant threat of being captured by King Henry’s spies or any one of several powerful dynasties in Europe. Henry and his inbred, kingly cohorts knew the dangers to their power if the Bible were to be read and understood by the people. Within two years Tyndale had produced his first edition of the New Testament in English. Immediately, 3,000 copies were smuggled into England in wine barrels. King Henry ordered the Bishop of London to purchase all the copies that were being smuggled into England so that the authorities could burn them all before anyone could read them. Ironically, Tyndale was overjoyed. He saw that the anger of the king and his bishops would backfire. Their purchases provided Tyndale with the money to create a revised edition and to print even more Scriptures. His final edition was so excellent that it became the foundation for all the English versions even up to modern times. Modern English, the lingua franca of the world, was birthed by William Tyndale’s Bible. For centuries, his translation or a derivative translation, was used as the major tool and reason for learning to read.
Although William Tyndale could not quite complete his full translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew, his notes and drafts made their way to his friend and fellow translator Miles Coverdale. Tyndale was soon betrayed by a friend and thrown into the dungeon at Vilvoorde Castle in Belgium. He spent over a year in isolation and cold, before being burned at the stake at the direction of Henry VIII. Tyndale’s final, faith-filled words from the scaffold were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”14 Tyndale’s prayer was answered almost immediately. Henry VIII forced an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope would not agree to the divorce, so Henry broke away from the Church of Rome and became the head of the Church of England. For his own selfish reasons, Henry had begun the movement to free the English church. Anne survived only three years as queen before losing her head to Henry’s cruelty. But while she was still in favor, Anne, who was trained as a Protestant in her youth, told the king that he should have his own English Bible since he had become the head of the Church.
The king then purchased 6,000 copies of the Bible in English to be placed in every church in the land. Since the Bible had other names attached to it, Henry did not know he was paying for William Tyndale’s translation to be spread all over his kingdom. Henry had paid twice for the unleashing of the Bible into the people’s hands and had unknowingly set a divine time bomb under the thrones of fellow tyrants for centuries to come.
Yet, the battle for freedom was not over. The three other leaders that had met with William Tyndale forty years before at the White Horse Tavern at Cambridge were to be martyred also. Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer became leaders of the free church in England but ran into the wrath of Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary Tudor, commonly called Bloody Mary. In 1555, Bishop Ridley and Latimer were tied back to back on a stake in the middle of the street in Oxford. As the executioner was lighting the wood beneath them, the older Latimer encouraged his younger friend, “Be of good cheer, Ridley, for today we shall light a candle in England that shall never be put out.” And so they did! Over the next fifty years England became a “People of the Book.” From there liberty would spring up on a scale never before known on earth.
Wycliffe, Gutenberg and Tyndale set the stage for the unstoppable, worldwide spread of Christian liberty. By the dawn of the 17th century, almost every household in England and Scotland would have a Bible—the Geneva Bible (based primarily on Tyndale’s translation)—in their hearts and on their dining room tables. Tyrants would still rage, but now the people were coming to understand a higher law, a divine strategy to liberate the world (Luke 4:17-21). Following that strategy, they would begin to “bind their kings with
chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron.” (Ps.149:8)
- D’Aubigne, J.H. Merle, History of the Reformation (Baker Book House, 1976) P. 703
- Coffin, Charles C., The Story of Liberty (Maranatha Publications, 1987) p.35.
- Ibid. p. 32
- Byfield, Ted, Ed., The Christians, Vol. 8 ((Christian History Project, 2010) p.45.
- Rushdoony, R.J., Institutes of Biblical Law (Chalcedon Foundation) p. 1
- Coffin, Op. Cit. p. 44.
- Fountain, David, John Wycliffe (Mayflower Christian Books, 1984) p. 43
- D’Aubigne, Op. Cit. p. 705.
- Coffin, Op. Cit. p.30
- Ibid, p. 70
- Gutenberg, Johannes, Traditional Attribution
- D’Aubigne, op. cit., p. 742.
- Fish, Bruce and Becky Durost, William Tyndale (Barbour Publishing, 2000) p. 57
- Ibid, p. 198
The original of this article first appeared as an edition of the World History Institute Journal, November/December 2018 edition, as a circular newsletter, and on the site of the World History Institute.
Compelling speaker and writer, Dr. Marshall Foster, Founder of the World History Institute has led the forefront of teaching God’s Providential, overcoming and victorious history for decades.
World History Institute P.O. Box 4673
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