Early English Bible Translations: Scholars, Heretics, and Reformers
In medieval Europe, those who were literate read the Latin Bible; the illiterate might memorize Latin texts like the Psalms through recitation during church services. Only in England was there a strong popular movement for accessing the Bible in the vernacular, in part as a result of the teachings of John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe (c. 1320-84) taught that the Bible provides inerrant truths that should guide religious and political government. He and his followers believed the Bible should be available to all people in their own language—in the case of the peasants and middle class, English (specifically, an earlier form of the language known as Middle English). Wycliffe, or members of his circle, produced a New Testament in the 1380s, translated from the Latin Vulgate. Since the Wycliffite Bible appeared during a period of social, political, and religious unrest, authorities perceived English-language Bibles as symbols of heresy. Wycliffe's teachings were condemned in 1382. In 1409 the Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the translation of any biblical text into English as well as the reading of such texts. English-language Bibles were pushed underground for the next 130 years.
In the early 16th century William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), inspired by the work of Martin Luther, wanted to translate the Bible into English. Unable to win the approval of English religious authorities, Tyndale moved to Germany and began translating the New Testament from Greek. This translation went to press in Cologne in 1525, but the print shop was raided and Tyndale had to flee. He resumed his work elsewhere, publishing a complete New Testament the following year; copies were smuggled into England. Tyndale next published portions of the Old Testament and revised his New Testament translation. Shortly after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, Tyndale moved to Antwerp, where many illegal English books were produced. There he was arrested and charged with heresy and provoking sedition in England. Tyndale was convicted and executed in August 1536.
In 1538, Henry VIII reversed the policy toward vernacular translations of the Bible, realizing that English Bibles were politically expedient for the new Church of England. A new Bible translation was endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Known as the Great Bible, this translation was based on the work of Tyndale and his successor, Myles Coverdale. It appeared in 1539.