“They were smuggling . . . books?” exclaimed the young woman incredulously. She had seen me reading Brian Moynahan’s God’s Bestseller as we sat waiting in the jury pool and asked me what it was about. The setting, and the question, would have pleased its author, for Moynahan aims to report the intrigue that accompanied the rendering of the Bible into English and to prosecute a case against the man who would have blocked its way.
The hero of his tale and the victim of the intrigue is William Tyndale, English priest, Oxford-trained linguist, and early Lutheran, who flees to the Continent and translates the New Testament and the Pentateuch from the original tongues into a sturdy, poetical English that becomes the basis of the King James Bible. The accused is St. Thomas More, Councilor of King Henry VIII and Chancellor of the Realm, who denounces Tyndale as a heretic, searches out and burns his translation, writes at incredible length to refute his treatises, and, Moynahan speculates, spitefully procures Tyndale’s arrest on the Continent shortly before his own execution, thus destroying him from beyond the grave. There is scandal, of course, in the sins of saints, as Moynahan knows. God’s Bestseller is ultimately a reckless book for its libel of More, but it is partially redeemed by its drawing attention to an episode of English history that no student of the Reformation, Catholic or Protestant, can afford to ignore.
A writer of popular histories of Russia, the author of The Faith: A History of Christianity, and a former foreign correspondent and European editor for London’s Sunday Times, Moynahan has a historian’s skill at setting a scene and a journalist’s nose for a great story. He starts with the ceremony in 1428 condemning Wycliffe posthumously as a heretic—the exhumation and immolation of his bones and the scattering of his ashes—and artfully proceeds to explain the origins of the English statutes against heresy and biblical translation, the Lollard rebels, the consequent link between heresy, translation, and sedition in the English mind, and the larger troubles of the papacy and the Church. His story of Tyndale’s relations with More and his associates in Henrician London, in Antwerp, and in the flow of published books between them is fetchingly told and full of interesting twists and turns. Under suspicion in the countryside for his preaching and opinions, Tyndale arrived in London in 1523, having conceived his project of translating the Bible into English, naïvely proposing that he be given a position in the household of Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall to perform the task, and waiting the summer for the bishop’s reply.
Unsuccessful in his suit but befriended by the London community of German merchants, Tyndale went back to the Continent and began his work and wandering, going first to Hamburg and eventually to Antwerp, by way of Wittenberg, Cologne, and Worms—so adept at lying low that he allowed no portrait to be made of him in his lifetime. Indeed, he leaves biographers guessing at his whereabouts from year to year. By 1526 his English New Testament had been published, smuggled into England, and burned; meanwhile, Tyndale learned Hebrew and, successfully evading agents sent by Henry to capture him, published an English Pentateuch in 1530.
Interwoven is the tale of the King’s passion for Anne Boleyn, important not only as the motive for the final break with Rome but also because Anne and her family were protectors of emerging Protestants. Anne is known to have kept a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament and to have shared at least one of his other tracts with Henry. Moynahan simultaneously bemoans and exults in Tyndale’s simplicity in insisting on the validity of Henry’s first marriage—on the one hand imagining an earlier and easier Reformation in England had the translator supported Henry’s cause, and on the other welcoming the evidence of Tyndale’s honest reading of biblical command without regard for earthly reward. Of the pursuit of heresy by More and his associates Moynahan’s account is much less sympathetic, but at least it acknowledges from time to time that, even apart from the spiritual issue, the authorities faced a real threat: “Tyndale and his fellow Bible-men, as More suspected, were indeed fuelling future wars of religion [which] caused, in the regions where they were most virulent, a carnage as great as that of the Black Death, . . . and infinitely more prolonged.”
Moynahan is at his eloquent best in describing the electric effect that first reading the Bible in their native tongue had on Englishmen of the 1520s and ’30s and in illustrating the power of Tyndale’s poetic voice to craft the words that English speakers take for granted as the Word of God. Following the scholarly work of David Daniell and citing the computerized comparisons, he establishes that between 80 and 90 percent of what we know as the King James Version of those books that Tyndale translated is identical to Tyndale’s text, and he readily confirms this intuitively by quoting Tyndale’s versions of the most familiar passages—the start of Genesis and of John’s Gospel, the Beatitudes, and much more.
The King James commission, recently dubbed “God’s Secretaries,” added discretion to poetic brilliance, replacing Tyndale’s translation of ecclesia (as “congregation”) with “church” and his translation of agape (as “love”) with “charity.” More had found Tyndale’s choices indicative of heresy. The commissioners removed his Lutheran prefaces and marginalia, but the secret of their success is that they worked from a gifted stylist who had mastered the rhythms of the original tongues. Moynahan’s love for biblical English is infectious, and the implicit condemnation of the gifted humanist More for failing to hear it is his most telling point. His account of the book-smuggling trade along the coasts of England, too, is colorful and engaging. And to a generation that has watched and joined a revolution in information technology, his discussion of the technology, economics, and politics of the emergence of book publishing will seem fresh and exciting. It makes our experience small by comparison, for we only get faster the information that most of us could have gotten anyway, while publishing made available for a few pennies texts that a generation before had been affordable only to the rich or to those with a position in the institutional preserves of wealth.
AGAINST MORE, though, Moynahan is unrelenting, careless, and unjust. The gist of his accusation is nothing new. As scholars such as John Guy and Richard Marius have shown, the suppression of heresy and the pursuit of heretics were central to More’s public career, and England was a free enough society in those days for More’s activities to have gained him critics and to have elicited his published response. From Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in 1563 through Jasper Ridley’s The Statesman and the Fanatic in 1982 (Wolsey is the statesman, More the fanatic), More has been excoriated as the proto-tormenter of Protestants, and More indeed made no secret of his opinion of Tyndale, publishing what was apparently at the time the longest book ever written in English in order to refute his heresies.
The specific disputes concerning More’s treatment of alleged heretics whom he captured or imprisoned have been much rehearsed in recent scholarship, and on the whole he has been exonerated of acting illegally even by writers such as Guy and Marius, who hold no brief for More. Though Moynahan cites some of these works in his discussion of his sources, he almost always chooses to believe the worst of More. That More acted with vigor within a legal regime that permitted warrantless searches, imprisonment without a speedy trial, and interrogation without the benefit of counsel is undeniable. (One would have to have been asleep for the past few years not to be able to imagine circumstances in which governmental officials might reasonably think it their duty to act with such vigor.) To bend one’s mind to understand a world that coupled heresy with treason and thought them to be imminently destructive of social peace and decent freedom is admittedly beyond the agility of many in a liberal age, unless they can somehow see how liberalism itself has little room for those who call its premises into doubt.
But Moynahan’s indictment goes beyond liberal prejudice or Protestant loyalty. Though he has the journalist’s annoying habit of feigning objectivity by saying something mean from time to time even about his friends, he is accurate enough when he writes, “Both More and Tyndale produced invective by the yard,” and anyone who has ploughed through even a portion of the polemic between the two can sympathize with his summation of its effect: “Tyndale knew a thousand ways to skin the pope, and More to flay the heretic, and they used them all, several times over, so that they penetrate the modern mind—free of the awe of those words, pope, heretic, and their terrible accoutrements, inquisitor, stake, fire—with the shrill inconsequence of a faulty burglar alarm.” Here he is disingenuous, however, for he treats Tyndale’s invective as inconsequential but takes More’s as evidence of malice, obsession, and unadulterated hatred. Psychological diagnoses of More’s bitterness towards the emerging Protestants are nothing new, but Moynahan is a particularly harsh analyst, begrudging More even a comment made in passing: when a heretic departs England under a pass of safe conduct, and More says, “Let him go this once, for God shall find His time full well,” Moynahan concludes that More means to track him down abroad and see him burnt.
Bias in interpreting the polemics is probably inevitable: Any faithful Catholic must still shudder at Tyndale’s fierce denial of the sacraments and humorless mockery of the pope, and a good Protestant can bristle at the accusation of heresy and find the suppression of English Bibles incomprehensible. Moynahan’s charge that More procured Tyndale’s arrest, nevertheless, is no mere matter of interpretation. He admits he has no evidence for it beyond More’s published disdain for the man and More’s skill when in office in using spies and agents. Such was the renegade Oxford graduate Henry Phillips, who earned Tyndale’s trust in Antwerp and then betrayed him to the Emperor’s men. Never mind that the only record of any tie between More and Phillips is that Phillips once, in Rome, said falsely that he was one of More’s relations. Never mind that More had already been in the Tower for several months when Phillips would have been hired; security was lax, says Moynahan. Never mind that More’s pension had been suspended and that, according to tradition, his family was short of funds in his absence; he was wealthy enough to have saved a purse for the purpose, says Moynahan. Never mind that none of the biographies of More allege any involvement—other than publishing his polemics—in the pursuit of heretics during the nearly two years between his resignation of his office and his arrest; Moynahan so alleges, and does so without reference to a source. In an interview, Phillips mentioned Barnes in the same breath as Tyndale, and since More had written against both, he was, Moynahan concludes, Phillips’ patron in betrayal. Why Moynahan would stretch inference so far becomes clear when he points out that, with More in the Tower, Barnes had been rehabilitated in London and had even been sent by Henry on a mission to Luther’s companion in Germany, Philip Melanchthon: “Be-trayal of a royal diplomat to a foreign power [was] an act that was classified as treason,” writes Moynihan. Thus, even if Richard Rich did perjure himself at More’s trial—and Moynahan hasn’t the temerity to deny that Rich did—Thomas More still deserved his execution.
God’s Bestseller, then, is a sobering reminder that the old passions of the Reformation can reignite, even in an ecumenical age. In a preface to a collection of Tyndale’s works published forty years ago, the scholar F. F. Bruce wrote:
It gives us no pleasure today to contemplate two great and good Englishmen like Tyndale and More, men of principle who were both to give up their lives for conscience’ sake, engaging in bitter polemic with each other. But, as they both believed, the issues for which they contended were issues in which men’s souls were at stake; and they would have agreed on this at least, that the urbanities of modern theological debate betokened a failure to appreciate how serious the issues were.
What a pity if the collapse of urbanity in our own time should leave us only the bitter vituperation and not the energetic pursuit of truth.
James R. Stoner, Jr. is Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University and author most recently of Common-Law Liberty (University Press of Kansas).