Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The English evangelicals

Note: The term 'Protestant' is not appropriate for the early stage of the Reformation in England and historians prefer to use the contemporary term 'evangelicals', usually written with a lower-case 'e' to distinguish the from the Evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One of those present at Worms was the Englishman, Cuthbert, Tunstall, bishop of London. He wrote warning that the Babylonian Captivity must be kept out of England at all costs. Yet he was too late. In 1518 Luther was sent two letters telling him that his books were being exported to England. At the end of 1519 Erasmus informed him that certain people in England were admirers of his writings. Further evidence comes from the ledger of the Oxford bookseller, John Dorne, who sold a dozen books by Luther between January and December 1520.

On 12 May 1521 in a spectacular ceremony in London, the papal anathema was pronounced against Luther and the bull was posted on the door of St Paul’s. But on the same night a mocking rhyme was scribbled on the bull. In July 1521 the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum was published. Henry told Luther that it was his, though he later denied it. He commissioned Thomas More and John Fisher to write against Luther.

Luther’s works reached England through contacts between the English and German merchant communities, especially in London. Lutheran works were not translated into English until later, but they were read in Latin by the educated. Bishop Longland feared ‘the corruption of youth’ at Cardinal College.

At Cambridge, reformers met at the White Horse Tavern. The group was so Lutheran in outlook that it was nicknamed ‘Little Germany’. The usual chairman was Robert Barnes, then prior of the Augustinians. Another associate was Thomas Bilney, who was won over by reading St Paul in Erasmus’s translation. The Master of Queen’s College, Cambridge, Dr Forman, masterminded a contraband book trade between London and Oxford. Soon these early English reformers were questioning transubstantiation. Among the first enthusiasts for the new teaching were the Lollards, and the movement spread among the old Lollard communities in East Anglia and the South-East.

On 26 and 17 January 1526 Wolsey, acting as papal legate, and accompanied by Sir Thomas More, made a raid on the German community in London and seized five Germans. On 11 February he presided over a ceremony at St Paul’s, the bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, preached a sermon, and five Germans and the English ‘evangelical’, Robert Barnes, abjured their heresy, carrying their faggots which they then threw on a fire, followed by heretical books. In the following month, Tyndale’s New Testament began arriving clandestinely into England.

William Tyndale (c. 1490-1536)
Tyndale was the most noted of the university evangelicals and England’s earliest Reformation publicist. Like Wolsey he was an MA of Magdalen College, Oxford. He became a tutor in the West Country, where he came to despise the ignorance of the local clergy. In 1523 he attempted to get a place in Tunstall’s household. When he refused, he went to work in the house of a rich London cloth merchant named Humphrey Monmouth and became associated with the ‘brethren’.

In 1524 he left England for Germany. In 1525 he began printing his New Testament in Cologne, using Erasmus’s and Luther’s New Testaments. He was forced to flee by a local magistrate, and completed the translation at Worms. 90% of the New Testament in the Authorized Version is derived from it and Tyndale’s phrases have seeped into the language: ‘eat, drink and be merry’; ‘the salt of the earth’; ‘the powers that be’ ‘death, where is thy sting’. Tyndale’s translation was tendentious, and he used it to undermine church doctrines and ceremonies.

From March 1526 it was secretly sold in England. From 1527 until1534 (when Tyndale issued a revised edition) it was printed five times in Antwerp in pirate editions for sale in England.
In 1530 he translated the Pentateuch and engaged in his controversy with More, who railed against the heretics in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) and Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532-3).

One of Tyndale’s most important books was the Obedience of a Christian Man in which he developed the theory of the godly king who could rescue the church from corruption. However in his Practice of Prelates (1530) he denounced the king’s divorce.

Tyndale was kidnapped in Antwerp in 1535 and executed in Brussels 1536.