Yesterday in 1536, one of the greatest Englishmen to have ever lived was first strangled, then burned at the stake. His crime? Well, he disagreed with the king and the church on language policy. Sounds a bit incredible, doesn’t it? Kill someone over a dispute about which language should be used? Well, it happened.
Tyndale lived in a time when Latin was the language of government, education and the church. All church services were conducted in Latin. There were real advantages to using Latin. It was an international language, and it offered international mobility to those who spoke it. The disadvantage? Well, much information was locked up in Latin which few people spoke. If you could get a good education, meaning learning Latin, you had a huge advantage. Latin was the language of a small elite.
Tyndale had a different idea. He thought that information, especially the Bible, should not be locked up in a language accessible only to the elite. He told church leaders of his time:
“I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
He maintained that using Latin corrupted church leaders, enabling them to lead the masses wherever they wanted. While at the same time Latin kept the masses in superstition and ignorance. For Tyndale, then, the issue of language policy – English or Latin – was one of knowledge or ignorance, truth or falsehood, even of freedom or servitude.
I perceived how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue. – William Tyndale
It is revealing that some of his critics agreed – they predicted that a shift in language policy from Latin to English would result in an erosion of the power of the church and of the monarchy, and they opposed it for that reason. They were right! When Latin eventually did give way to English, power shifted from the church structures and the monarchy to the people.
Tyndale’s insistence on the mother tongue lead him to translate the New Testament, and large parts of the Old into English. He believed that ordinary people should be able to hear, read and interpret the Scriptures on their own.
The phrase “language policy” sounds boring and dull. It is anything but. Even today, much of the information minority peoples need is locked up in languages they don’t speak. Unfortunately, some Christians, and even some missionaries and pastors, think that these minority peoples should read the Bible in English – the new Latin. In some places, we are still fighting for the kind of language policy for which Tyndale died. It is still an issue of knowledge versus ignorance, wisdom versus superstition, and even freedom versus servitude.