William Tyndale, Thomas More,
and the Writing of the English Bible—
A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal
Geoffrey W. Sutton
God’s Bestseller is a plot-driven biography of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and his ruthless antagonist, Thomas More. Character development is lacking due to the limited reliable information about Tyndale’s interactions with others. This is no fault of Moynahan because once Tyndale became known as an evangelical, aka heretic, he fled England to hide in Germany and the Netherlands to achieve his calling—the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue of English.
Even for readers who don’t know much about history, the book’s subtitle reveals the outcome—Tyndale was a martyr. What Moynahan treats us to is the life and death struggle between Tyndale and More, staged against political and religious battles for control of the Bible, money, and the lives of men and women.
Early on we get a small glimpse of Tyndale’s early years. We learn he went to both Oxford and Cambridge. He then set upon his life’s goal of completing an English translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English. Such a translation was forbidden by the ruling Roman Catholic Church whose English warrior was none other than the famous Thomas More (1478-1535). In 1524, Tyndale left England for Germany and completed his English translation of the New Testament in 1525. The book became a bestseller despite its illegal status in England.
As Tyndale was working on the Old Testament, another battle took place between King Henry VIII and the Pope. As you may know, Henry was in lust with Anne Boleyn and eager to divorce his first wife, Catherine, who had given birth to Mary, but no male heir. The pope’s refusal to grant the divorce led to Henry’s 1534 break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England, which granted the divorce. The biblical battle runs from the bedroom to the continent as Queen Anne Boleyn kept a Tyndale New Testament at her bedside and was occasionally able to assist reform minded Englishmen until she fell victim to Henry’s penchant for other women.
As the political-religious battle waged between pope and king, More was rooting out heretics and sending them flaming into eternity. Following More’s flameout, Tyndale was eventually captured when he was betrayed by Henry Phillips. During his 500-day imprisonment, Tyndale responded at length to inquiries about his beliefs. In the end, he was strangled and burned at a stake 6 October, 1536.
Only three years after his death, Tyndale’s work provided a substantial basis for Myles Coverdale’s Great Bible (1539) and later, the King James or Authorised version of 1611. More’s legacy includes canonization by Pope Pius XI in 1935 and fame associated with Utopia.
Moynahan is a master of the art of creative nonfiction as he moves the story with lively conflicts between various religious and political characters. He illustrates the main points of disagreement between the reformers and the traditional church with quotes from Tyndale's original translation on such matters as transsubstantiation, priests vs. elders, and love vs. charity. Doctrines hang on the difference in meaning of a word or two. But more importantly, lives are at stake. For Tyndale, Christians do not eat the body of Christ during the Eucharist, they do not need a priest for confession, and 1 Corinthians 13 is about love--not charity and the association of charity with donations to the church. There's more of course--the famous Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith crops up in more than one battle.
Moynahan keep us close to the action by pointing to familiar landmarks in the main cities of London and Antwerp but he also keeps us close to the era by judicious quotes from the main characters presented in early modern English.
Moynahan, B. (2002). God’s bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible—A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martins.