For the past four centuries, the King James Version of the Bible has reigned supreme. Soon after its completion in 1611, it became the translation of choice for almost all English-speaking Protestants. Some 350 years after its creation, Winston Churchill hailed it a “masterpiece” and George Bernard Shaw called the King James Version “magnificent.” Today, even the famous atheist Richard Dawkins admits, “Not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, a barbarian.”
Yet, who do we have to thank for this incredible work? Truly, King James provided the vision and resources necessary to create the version that bears his name. This published scholar, linguist, and poet assembled some 47 scholars who worked tirelessly for seven years to produce the king’s “Authorized Version.”
Still, King James’ magnum opus never would have been produced had it not been for a simple cleric who lived nearly 100 years earlier. His name was William Tyndale. And, Tyndale lived and died for one consuming passion: he wanted the boy who quote – “driveth the plough” – to know Scripture every bit as well as the priest who led his congregation.
That’s a noble aspiration today, but in the 1520s, it was heretical. The Catholic Church had forbidden that the Bible be translated into the common language. The church viewed an informed public as a threat to its power. And, many priests feared a biblically literate populace would better recognize their corruption. As the Bishop of London expounded at the time, the Bible in “the vulgar tongue . . . will without doubt infect and contaminate the flock committed to us.”
Tyndale, however, embraced the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers – that God commissions all believers to be ministers of His Word. Tyndale also rightly understood that the church would never reform as long as laypeople were denied God’s truth.
Tyndale fled to Germany in 1524 and the next year, produced the New Testament in English. This New Testament was then printed and smuggled into England. And, in 1530, Tyndale completed and printed the Pentateuch in English, as well. Five years later, though, a friend betrayed Tyndale. He was captured and imprisoned in a castle near Brussels. There he languished for more than 430 days without heat or light. Eventually, Tyndale was charged with treason and hanged. Yet, right before Tyndale died, he cried out, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”
That God did in the early 1600s. And, nearly 90-percent of Tyndale’s Bible passed into the King James Version. Truly, this version stands as a lasting monument not just to King James, but to William Tyndale – a martyr and hero of the faith. All of us who own a Bible owe Tyndale a great debt.