The Unlikely Man Behind the First English Bible

Late at night, in the year 1523—almost 500 years ago—a preacher and a business leader strike up a conversation in the lobby of St. Dunstan church in London, England. After taking an interest in each other’s worlds, they set out into the streets of London, passing the flicker of street lamps.

The first wave of the Reformation had come six years earlier, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Luther then translated the New Testament into German in 1522. But German isn’t English and there was no English Bible in 1522.

The business leader? You’ve never heard of him. He was a wealthy merchant who had made his money in the cloth business. His name was Humphrey Monmouth.

The preacher? You’ve heard of him! His name was William Tyndale. He played a significant part in the Reformation. Tyndale was young, Oxford educated, a scholar who learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and he wanted to translate the Bible into English for everyday people to read for themselves. The Church of England thought that practice was unhealthy.

Taking the Risk

Tyndale had been rebuffed by the established church for a huge project he had in mind. But Monmouth was quite taken by Tyndale’s ideas and not put off by the obstacles associated with it. We business leaders like big ideas and we love to solve problems!

At the time, there were only a few partial translations of the Bible in play in England. Tyndale was a reformer, a critic of the Church and he lived the life of man on the run from the religious leaders and government officials of his day. Tyndale’s plan was to translate the Bible into English directly from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, by-passing the Latin in order to be more accurate. Then he would take advantage of a new technology to make copies faster. 

What was the new tech? It was called the printing press. The planned result? The first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation. It would be a challenge to the control of both the Church and the laws of England. 

Others had denied Tyndale the support he needed, but Monmouth decided to take the risk. He quickly saw that Tyndale needed food, clothing, money and a place to stay where he would not be discovered. So he did what you would do if you were in Monmouth’s shoes: he had William Tyndale sleep at his house for six months and started paying him about ten pounds a year. 

Bibles Smuggled in Cloth

But all of the money did not come from Monmouth. Monmouth was part of a secret society of London merchants called The Christian Brethren. This was an under-the-radar group of guys that financed and imported Christian literature to advance the cause of the Reformation in England. The Christian Brethren hatched a plan so that when the Bibles were translated and printed, they would agree to use their ships to smuggle the contraband Bibles throughout England. 

As the religious and government pressure increased, Tyndale had to leave Monmouth’s house and flee to Europe to continue his work. The New Testament was published soon after he arrived in Worms. 6,000 copies were printed and smuggled into back into England in 1526, a couple years after Tyndale met Humphrey Monmouth. 

But how did it happen? The freshly printed Bibles were smuggled into England in the bundles of cloth on ships that were the basis and product of Humphrey Monmouth’s business along with his friends’ businesses. They also came in bales of cotton and sacks of flour!

Tyndale’s work was the basis of the King James Authorized Version. It was completed 10 years after meeting Humphrey Monmouth who supported him with his friends in the Christian Brethren movement. These were men and women who believed in the power of the word of God and used their companies’ leverage to do something about it. The results? Tyndale’s work tilted the course of history and his work is still felt today in 2017. 

The Price of Kingdom Partnership

But Monmouth and Tyndale paid a high price for their kingdom partnership. Monmouth ended up in prison in The Tower of London. Not many donors end up in prison for the ministry they love. That’s bone deep belief! In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and on October 6, 1536 he was strangled and his body burned at the stake. His last prayer was, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."

Within two years of their deaths, the King of England ordered that every parish church should receive its own copy of the ENGLISH Bible. Within 75 years, the king, “King James” authorized an updated English translation, of which around 80% came from Tyndale’s translation. Today, almost 500 years later, the King James Bible, has become what could be called the most influential book in the world. The English Bible you read and carry, is also carried by 600 million other English speakers, and is built on Tyndale’s translation. 

Business IS Mission

We all know the name Tyndale…I say it’s time we remember the catalytic power behind this scholar preacher. It was a business leader named Humphrey Monmouth. If we’re not careful, we could see this as a story about business leaders supporting missions causes. But that’s only half the story. That would assume the only good thing a business leader can do is to write checks to missions agencies like a human ATM machine.

The fact is, the Bibles would never have been translated, printed, or distributed without Monmouth. Without his business making deals, selling cloth, being profitable, being excellent at what they did, loving people, serving customers, collecting invoices, negotiating with government, importing, exporting, the Bible piece would be another great idea that was never realized.

The theology of the matter is that doing business, in and of itself, glorifies God. The cloth Monmouth sourced, or made, and ultimately sold to consumers glorified God…period. Don’t miss the mission in his merchant work. Don’t miss the mission in his strong margins. Don’t miss the mission in his loving employees. Don’t miss the mission his loving customers. Don’t miss the mission of making beautiful cloth. All of those activities glorify God in and of themselves! 

Yes, it’s true. No Tyndale, no translation. But I say this. No textiles, no Tyndale. No ships, no scriptures. No business, no Bible. No ROI, no Reformation. 

What do you make? What service does your company provide? Is your company a solid vehicle that is honoring God? Don’t miss the mission in your business. You’re not just an ATM machine for missions. Your business is a mission for the Kingdom.