The first known translation of any portion of the Bible was the book of Psalms written by hand in the eighth century by Aldhelm, an English Bishop. It was written in “Old English,” hardly recognized as anything you or I would read or understand today. In the fourteenth century John Wycliffe’s hand-written copies of the entire Bible were translated from Latin (which only the highy educated could understand) into English (the language of the people), causing such an uproar among religious authorities that 44 years after Wycliffe’s death, the Pope ordered that his bones be dug up, burned and scattered in the river! “The Church” preferred that the people not be allowed to read the Bible for themselves, that the people remain ignorant of the word of God, and that Church authorities tell the people what they wanted them to know about the Scripture.
It remained for William Tyndale (1494-1536) to make the New Testament widely available in the language we can understand. Tyndale is often referred to as the “father of the English Bible.” Only three copies of the first printing (1526), are known to have survived till the present time. Tyndale paid a dear price for translating the Bible into English. Immediately the translation met with stiff opposition, especially from powerful religious clerics such as Catholic Bishop Tunstall, who confiscated copies and burned them publicly. Within a short period of time Tyndale was arrested, put in prison, tried and found guilty of heresy. On October 6, 1536 he was tied to a stake, strangled and burned. His final words were: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” If Tyndale had not defied the religious heirarchy of his day you and I might not have a copy of the Bible today.
Other brave and courageous souls picked up the pen to make the English Bible available to the common person. Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) endured banishment, misery and suffering to print the Bible in English. His efforts were followed by those of John Rogers (1505-1555) who published the “Matthews Bible”. Hated by Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”), Roger’s work was rewarded by violence and murder. Under her reign, Mary was responsible for almost 300 people being put to death because they read or owned a copy of Matthew’s Bible. John Rogers himself was arrested and led to execution. The story of his tragic death is recorded by John Foxe, (Acts and Monuments (1563), Vol. 6, 611):
“Freed from the bonds of prison and its horrors, John Rogers was led to the stake. The bails of sticks soon to be set ablaze promised him the rewards of his faith. He had been delivered long ago from the fear of death. Confident of the promises of the Master he had served for many years, he was soon to meet his Savior. With a mocking in his voice, the sheriff bawled, ‘Will you recant of your abominable doctrine?’
“That which I have preached I will seal with my blood,” the worn, feeble voice replied.
“Then you are a heretic,” shouted one of his captors.
“That shall be known at the day of judgment,” Rogers confidently spoke by now in a voice no more than whisper.’
“Well I will never pray for you,” the sheriff threatened.
“But I will pray for you,” came the same confident reply. They continued their path toward the hideous goal with Rogers quietly singing the Psalms. They were soon met by his wife and eleven children. Rogers showed no sorrow but cheerfully and steadfastly walked to the stake where he was burned to death in the presence of his family and a great number of onlookers giving praises and thanks.”
In 1539 Miles Coverdale produced a large edition of the Holy Bible, known as “The Great Bible” because of its size (16 1/2 x 11 inches). Copies were chained to lecterns in Saint Paul’s Cathedral so people who knew how to read could read them, and those who did not know how to read could hear others read the word of God to them. A people deprived of the freedom to read the Bible rejoiced at what they heard. Sometimes they asked questions about what they were hearing. On one occasion, a young man by the name of John Porter began to read the Bible to the people who surrounded him. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Vol. 5, 451 tells what happened:
(John Porter) “was known for his pious character and clear, loud reading voice. As (he) reverently opened the beautiful Bible and began to read a group of worshipers gathered to hear this angelic voice. The activity was soon noted by Bishop Bonner and his chaplains who began to fear the disgruntled crowds at the other end of the church who were complaining about these ‘Godspellers.’
The bishop called for Porter and rebuked him sternly, accusing him of expositions upon the text and creating a disturbance. Even though Porter denied he was saying anything contrary to the text, Bonner sent him bound in leg irons and handcuffs to prison. Porter’s cousin, serving as his advocate, urged the jailer to release him from the chains. The cruel treatment, he argued, was normally reserved for more serious crimes. After the cousin extended friendship and money to Porter’s captors, the jailers unfettered him, took him from the less serious criminals, and put him in the prison with the felons and murderers. Porter took the opportunity to share with the prisoners what he knew from the Scriptures. Some either prisoners or guards, complained about his preaching. He was taken to a lower dungeon, shackled in bolts and irons where, after six to eight days, he was found dead.
Commenting on the life of this man who treasured the Bible and dared to share it with others, Donald L. Brake (A Visual History of the English Bible, page 138) said: “How many prisoners’ souls were saved by this godly man we will never know, but his faithfulness is an encouragement to all who love the Bible. John Porter dared to stand up for his Lord and paid the ultimate price.”
Today we can purchase a copy of the Old and New Testaments for only a few dollars. Sometimes used copies can be found at the local thrift store for a dollar or less. We should remember that the Bible has not always been so readily available. The Scriptures did not come to English speaking people without great sacrifice which included confiscation of property, persecution, imprisonment and martyrdom. If the price paid for you and me to have a copy of God’s word was so great, should we not value this marvelous Book, read it reverently and commit ourselves to obey its teachings? Like John Porter, should we not share what we have learned with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?