His ruling passion was a simple one: he wanted to render the defining texts of his age and culture — the Old and New Testaments — in an accurate English translation which even “the boy that driveth the plough” could grasp. And the fact that he eventually fulfilled this aim, and paid for it with his life, should be acknowledged more frequently by anybody who cares about freedom of expression.
That’s taken from a good article, William Tyndale: A hero for the information age in The Economist magazine (Dec 18, 2008). Here is more:
… Tyndale was ultimately more influential, and also in many ways a nobler figure than the more famous religious martyrs of the Tudor era, the Catholic Thomas More and the Protestant Thomas Cranmer. Both More and Cranmer served their time as enforcers of religious intolerance before falling victim to it themselves. No such stain sullies the record of Tyndale.
… It was a commonplace of the Soviet era that only people who were slightly abnormal, and utterly indifferent to their own comfort or survival, could find the courage to protest effectively against a totalitarian regime at the height of its powers. And Tyndale fits that description rather well. The main difference between his situation and that of the Soviet dissidents is that, fortunately, Henry’s England was much less successful in sealing off the realm from foreign ideas and influences.
When Tyndale went to Cambridge in 1517, the university was already bubbling with the new learning which had recently been introduced by the Dutch scholar Erasmus. Among many other innovations, Erasmus had rejected the idea that study of the Bible should be confined to a Latin version produced in the year 400. As the Dutchman argued, the proper way to decipher that text was to go to the originals (Greek for New Testament, Hebrew for the Old) and parse them with the best available tools of linguistic science.
To the sharp-minded, polyglot Tyndale, all that was obvious, and he was pretty careless about where he expressed that opinion.
… Tyndale was helped, by Londoners with more worldly wisdom than himself, to go to Germany under a false name, with his half-completed rendering of the New Testament tucked deep inside his trunk. And from the moment he arrived in Hamburg, his life turned into a cat-and-mouse game of sneaking from one north European city to another, in search of rapid presses and nimble protectors.
Agents of the English king were fanning out all over the continent, meanwhile, there were plenty of people in the Teutonic lands (especially in the Low Countries where the Emperor was trying hard to enforce his writ) who did not want the Bible to be translated into English or any other modern language.
… A determined eurosceptic might argue that Tyndale’s capture and execution was the first, ghastly example of a pan-European arrest warrant, made possible by an early version of Europol and the Lisbon treaty. That is true, in a way: he was arrested after Henry VIII made known his feelings to the Holy Roman Emperor who was sovereign of the Low Countries.
But Henry’s motives were more personal than theological. He was infuriated by a pamphlet which denounced his moves to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Theology was moving in Tyndale’s direction by the time of his death. England had half-switched to the Protestant cause, and Thomas Cromwell, the royal adviser, made a respectable stab at saving his compatriot’s life. However, having recently burned ten members of the ultra-Protestant Anabaptist movement, the regime of Henry VIII could hardly present itself as an advocate of religious freedom.
Jailed in the vast and forbidding fortress of Vilvoorde, Tyndale could easily have saved his life by agreeing with the Catholic hierarchy that the Bible was best left in Latin for the clergy to peruse. But he maintained his refusal in a way that impressed his Flemish jailers. “He had so preached to them who had him in charge…that they reported of him, that if he were not a good Christian man, they knew not whom they might take to be one.”
The article ends as follows:
… As for Vilvoorde, the place of Tyndale’s death, just a handful of keen locals have worked passionately to investigate and commemorate the local martyr. One of them is Wim Willems, a Protestant theology professor who divides his time between his Flemish homeland and central Africa.
“It’s when I go to Rwanda that Tyndale’s message really comes alive,” he explains. “I tell my African students to think for themselves, to make own their own free and informed decisions about what is valid in their native, traditional cultures and in the cultural values of Europe, including the humanism that Tyndale personifies.” And in Rwanda, more than in most parts of Europe, people can readily understand that defending human dignity from tyranny can often mean sacrificing one’s life. Perhaps some of China’s dissidents should consider adopting him too.
Read the full piece if you have a minute. [ link ]
One last bit on freedom of speech, just to emphasize the point of the above. This is taken from Regardless of Frontiers by AC Grayling from the Index on Censorship web site (Dec 10, 2008):
Most human rights instruments begin by asserting the right of every human individual to life, liberty and security. Arguably, the further rights that such instruments proceed to list are crucial to the possibility of these three, and especially to the second. But it is also arguable that among the other rights — to equality before the law and due process in its application, to privacy, to freedom of movement, to property, to family life, to association with others, and the rest — the one that matters most is free speech.
Without free speech one cannot claim or defend one’s other rights. Without it there cannot be democracy, which requires open discussion of policy ideas and party manifestos. There cannot be a due process of law without free speech, because in its absence one could not defend oneself against accusations, seek remedy against those who have wronged one, or gather and scrutinise the evidence required to make or refute a case.
Without it there cannot be education, inquiry, discussion, the imparting or receiving of information, the testing of opinion or the challenging of falsehoods. Without it there cannot be a free press, which along with an independent judiciary is an essential of a free society. Without free speech there cannot be living art, literature and theatre, which is to say: culture worth the name. Without free speech there are serious limits to the possibility of social novelty, experiment and change. To put matters in summary terms: without free speech other freedoms and rights suffer, if they are possible at all.