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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 11. William Tindale

William Tindale is, to us, above all the translator of the Scriptures, but, to his own age, he was probably at least as much the theological pamphleteer. Of his early life, nothing is really known. He was born, probably about 1484, in Gloucestershire, and went to Oxford, where, under the name of Hichyns, he took his M.A. degree in 1515. He spent some time afterwards in Cambridge, and, about 1520, went as private tutor to Little Sodbury, in his native county. It was here that he formed his great design of translating the Bible into English, and the need of such a work was impressed upon him while preaching to the country people. His preaching in the villages and in Bristol first brought him into collision with the church authorities. He had to appear before the diocesan chancellor; but of the result of his summons—probably unimportant—nothing is known with certainty. Before long, Tindale went up to London with the special object of gaining protection for his work of translation (1523). From Tunstall, bishop of London, he received little encouragement; but Humphry Monmouth, an alderman and merchant, gave him shelter and friendship. Gradually, Tindale came to think that there was no place in England for his purpose, and he crossed over to Hamburg (1524). It was possible to print books abroad and send them into England by an evasion of the existing regulations; and the secret association of the Christian Brethren, which existed for the spread of this suspected literature, was specially active in East Anglia, in London and in other seaports. In Germany, Tindale came into contact with others who, for reasons as good as, or better than, his own, had left England; among these were William Roy, George Joye (with both of whom he afterwards quarrelled) and John Frith. Pamphlets which troubled the government became more numerous in England after Tindale’s arrival on the continent; and yet, while their seizure was ordered, the king was reading them with pleasure. Tindale’s theological opinions had, by this time, gone far beyond those of his original master, Erasmus, and he put them forth with confidence: he was now opposed to all ceremonies that were not perfectly understood; he questioned confirmation and baptism with arguments which were often expressed disrespectfully and sometimes irreverently; while his insistence upon the need of faith alone was accompanied by a dangerous depreciation of all good works. Some bitterness of expression may be allowed men who fear for their lives or are chafing under abuses they cannot remove, but the language of some pamphlets of the day passed all such allowance. Joye was even more violent than Tindale, whom More styled “the captain of our English heretics”; but there were some who, like John Frith, argued out great issues in a becoming way. Frith’s Disputation of Purgatory and The Supper of the Lord, which presented the Zwinglian view, led to controversy with Rastell and More. He first began the lengthy sacramental controversy, but the characteristic of his teaching was the assertion that purgatory and transubstantiation should be left open questions. This tolerance was impressed upon him by Tindale, whose associations with Marburg may have suggested to him the need of comprehensiveness. His advice to Frith, that he should go on preaching “until the matter might be reasoned in peace at leisure of both parties,” was based upon expediency, but Frith soon raised the principle to a point of conscience. The Articles whereof John Frith died show us a writer and a martyr (1533) far above most theologians of the day in dignity and breadth. But Tindale’s orders to him, that he should “ever among thrust in that the Scripture may be in the mother-tongue and learning set up in the universities,” taken together with his letters to others, show the former as the leader of a wide-spreadmovement, directed by him with energy and zeal, but not always with knowledge or self-restraint. The typical misunderstanding of Wolsey displayed in The Practice of Prelates marks Tindale’s limitations and defects. He was a scholar with something of a scholar’s self-seclusion and ignorance of the world, and he is not the only scholar who, in writing upon theology or politics, has failed to calculate the effect of his language upon others. Furthermore, the circumstances of his life were unfavourable to his disposition. Publishers, like Froben at Basel, kept scholars, like Erasmus and Beatus Rhenanus, at work upon profitable tasks; the element of commercial speculation entered into all literary work; and thus, around Tindale with his great aim, were grouped others less lofty in mind and chiefly intent upon gain. His associates were often undesirable; his own absorption in his task and his curious love of self-assertion both tended to make him somewhat peevish in his dealings; and thus, partly because of himself, partly because of his friends, the story of his adventures abroad is a depressing one. The violence of these writers, the deceitful and underhand means by which they gained their influence, sometimes their treachery to each other, were certain to bring disaster upon themselves and others, and deprive them of much of the sympathy which might otherwise be theirs. But the main effect of Tindale’s writings was to urge the private appeal to the sole authority of Scripture, secured by the unlimited power of the king, with his full power of reforming the church. Such teaching made him a useful ally to Henry VIII, and led to his being secretly encouraged. But his strong condemnation of Henry’s divorce, creditable to him as it was, lessened his usefulness in Henry’s eyes.