How did an English Christian Radical’s fight for the right to read the Word of God in his native language lead to the foundation of the American ideal of individual liberty? This is the first part of an ongoing series on how the Christian fight for Liberty created the necessity for the freedoms currently under assault in progressive-led America:
Paul Gordon Collier
How the defense of the rights of men to have the Word translated to their native tongue led to the creation of the American Bill of Rights
In one of the great theological debates in the history of Christianity, a devout Catholic, Thomas More, went up against a rebel named William Tyndale. The historical setting for this debate was England of the 1520’s. The debate comes over a hundred years after the bones of John Wycliffe had been burned. His teachings set off Freedom revolutions in Moravia in the early 1400’s, leading to the eventual burning at the stake of Jan Hus, and culminating in the 95 Thesis of Martin Luther in 1517.
Thomas More and Tyndale were engaged in a debate which, on the surface, was about the primacy and infallibility of Papal Authority versus the authority of the Word of God (solo scriptura- or, Word First). The debate was borne from Tyndale’s efforts to translate scripture into common English so that the plowman can be as learned in scripture as the priest who would be teaching him.
But the debate had ramifications that went far beyond Christian doctrine; it was a struggle for a fundamental right that led pilgrims to brave the unknown forests of this land. That right, that ‘natural right’ as defined by God himself, was the right to pursue your faith, or not pursue your faith, without coercion and interference from the government.
This ‘natural right’ would be the cornerstone of the liberties our American bill of rights would be based upon. But we are over 200 years from that seminal moment in human history.
By Papal edict, the church, with the power of swords, muskets, and executioners employed by State authority, had deemed that the common man should not have access to the Word of God and that the Pope is the supreme authority in the land. By Papal edict, it was decreed that anyone who violated the Pope’s ‘rulings’ could face excommunication or even death.
When John Wycliffe took the Latin Vulgate of the New Testament and translated it to English, he was deemed a heretic by the Pope for daring to challenge his authority, for contradicting his rulings, that scripture could not, should not be translated to a common tongue, for the common man would pervert the meaning of scripture.
Never mind what the motivations of the church of the 14th and 15th centuries really were. The issues Wycliffe was making visible by his act of defiance, the same ones made clear by Jan Hus (who dared preach the word in the native Bohemian of the people he was teaching), were coming to a head in England through this debate between William Tyndale and Thomas More, a debate over the personal rights, the liberty of people to practice a faith of their choosing, or to not practice a faith at all.
Thomas More stood on the side of State and Church. Not only did he stand as their statesman, he also stood as one of the executioners of the State church. More aggressively pursued ‘heretics’ and sent many men to their deaths. He had a torture chamber installed in his home so that he could personally interrogate those who would defy the Pope’s laws. In the end, Thomas More’s work would lead to the execution of Tyndale himself.
At the heart of the debate was William Tyndale’s efforts to translate scripture from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament and the original Greek of the New Testament into the common tongue of the Englishman. To do this, he had to go to the continent, Europe, to a place where Protestants ruled so that he could freely publish his bibles and secret them to England.
Remotely, the two men engaged in an epic debate through the publication of books, each man taking his turn to assault the words of the other, either in defense of or in support of the authority of the Pope to call on the state to enforce his infallible standards of the church on all citizens, using the magistrate’s earthly weapons.