When It Was A Crime To Read The Bible
In England in the 1520’s, unless you were literate in Hebrew, Greek or Latin, reading the Bible for yourself was impossible.
By the start of the third decade of the 16th century, William Tyndale had already been on the run for five years. The king of England, Henry VIII, had declared him a felon. Fleeing Roman Catholic authorities in London (never to return to England), he first went to Cologne, France, then to Worms, Germany. What crime had this fugitive from justice committed? Of what treasonous, rebellious act was he guilty? He dared to translate and print the New Testament into the English language.
In England in the 1520’s (indeed, throughout Europe during the middle ages), unless you were literate in Hebrew, Greek or Latin, reading the Bible for yourself was impossible. You had to rely on what the Roman Catholic clergy said the Bible contained. You would not have been able to study the Bible for yourself to discern the truth for yourself – much less be free to practice what you learned therein. Rome ruled with an iron hand.
The Catholic Church did not want nor permit a wide transmission of the Bible and its contents. When Tyndale’s New Testament was published in Worms, 6,000 copies were shipped back to England. Medieval historian William Manchester reports,
“To the bishop of London this was an intolerable, metastasizing heresy. He bought up all that were for sale and publicly burned them at St. Paul’s Cross. But the archbishop of Canterbury was dissatisfied; his spies told him that many remained in private hands. Protestant peers with country houses were loaning them out, like public libraries. Assembling his bishops, the archbishop declared that tracking them down was essential -- each was placing souls in jeopardy -- and so, on his instructions, dioceses organized posses, searching the homes of known literates, and offered rewards to informers -- sending out the alarm to keep Christ’s revealed word from those who worshiped him.” (A World Lit Only By Fire, 204-205)
Tyndale was eventually arrested and imprisoned for sixteen months in the castle of Vilvorde, near Brussels. In 1536, after being tried and convicted for heresy he was publicly executed, being tied to a stake, strangled to death, and then his corpse burned.
As we consider Tyndale’s struggle and sacrifice to provide the commoner in England with readable Scriptures, we are compelled to thank God for the ease and convenience with which we can read and study the Bible for ourselves. We are obliged to cherish the privilege of reading the divine text, understanding it, reflecting upon it, and thinking over it to bring ourselves into harmony with God’s will, and then to share it with others (Eph. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15; 2 Pet. 3:18; 2 Tim. 2:2).
We must not neglect reading, learning, and living God’s word. We have the good fortune of constant access to the Bible. We have many opportunities to read and know God’s word. Failure to drink deeply from it squanders precious and necessary blessings the Lord has given us (Job 23:12; Jas. 4:17).
So, the next time you pick up your Bible to read, study, and meditate, remember the sacrifices of countless others who helped make this possible. But above all, remember the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His life on the cross and then was resurrected from the dead so you can know the truth, abide in His word, and be saved from the slavery and corruption of your sins (Jno. 8:31-36; 1:1-3, 14-18).
Joe R. Price