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Cathedral to display “the most dangerous book in Tudor England”

Posted on: October 11, 2017 7:25 AM
The opening page of St John’s Gospel from one of only three known surviving copies of William Tyndale’s New Testament – the first English-language Bible – from the library of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Photo Credit: St Paul's Cathedral, London

St Paul’s Cathedral in London is set to display one of only three-known surviving copies of “the most dangerous book in Tudor England” as part of an event to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1536, William Tyndale was executed for his work in translating the New Testament into English, and King Henry VIII’s officials and Church leaders set about searching for destroying copies of what was the first English-language Bible. But within a few years it was available within every church in the country.

The publication of Tyndale’s Bible in 1526 “opened up for the first time the whole of the New Testament in English and helped to bring continental Reformation ideals to the people of England,” St Paul’s Cathedral, which owns one of only three known surviving copies, said. “Tyndale wrote that the Church authorities banned translations of the Bible in order ‘to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine . . . and to exalt their own honour . . . above God himself’”.

Tyndale travelled to Cologne in Germany to get the Bible printed and had to smuggle copies into England. Church officials were furious. The Bishop of London issued a prohibition notice and, as a public demonstration of its unlawfulness, held a Bible-burning ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral on 27 October 1526. The cathedral also played a part in Tyndale’s execution: it was a Canon of St Paul’s who planned Tyndale’s arrest in the German city of Antwerp.

“As an artefact, it is something that is hugely precious,” Cathedral librarian Jo Wisdom told BBC News. “Of course it has added excitement of being contraband – it was imported in bales of wool, disguised so that nobody would know exactly what it was if it fell into the hands of the customs.”

On its website, St Paul’s Library entry for the book says: “Although Tyndale was executed the words in which he expressed the content of the New Testament live on. Roughly eighty percent of the King James New Testament used today is Tyndale’s work. The following phrases appear in print for the first time in Tyndale’s translation: ‘broken-hearted’; ‘eat drink and be merry’; ‘signs of the times’; ‘flowing with milk and honey’”.

St Paul’s copy of the book entered its library collection through a bequest. The true significance of the volume, which helped change the literary, religious and political landscape for ever was only realised in the nineteenth century.

The Bible, which was rebound in the 19th Century, will be on display next week during an evening hosted by the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley. “Souls at Stake: Tyndale, the Bible and the 21st Century” is one of a series of events at the Cathedral to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It will feature contributions from the broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg, who has produced programmes written books about Tyndale and the King James’ Bible, and theologian Dr Jane Williams, the assistant dean and lecturer in Systemic Theology at King’s College.

Souls at Stake: Tyndale, the Bible and the 21st Century” takes place from 6.30 pm to 8 pm on Tuesday 24 October. Click here to order free tickets.