Chapter II | The historical context
This study would be lacking if it did not include at least a basic reconnaissance of history as it relates to the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Mormonism. What are the historical reasons that vitriol toward the Roman Catholic Church was so much part of Mormonism’s DNA?
1. The Renaissance
Had the Book of Mormon been even slightly specific in its case against “the great and abominable church” in its suppression and corruption of the Holy Scriptures, Exhibit A undoubtedly would have been the episode in history during the Renaissance involving the persecution of William Tyndale.
Until the 16th century, the Roman Catholic church was the only church in England. In 1408, in the century after the work of John Wycliffe to translate the Bible into English, the Roman Catholic Church made it illegal for anyone to translate the Bible into another language. The only authorized version of the Bible was Jerome’s Latin translation, known as the Vulgate. Church liturgy was recited in Latin, and it was forbidden for common people to recite the Bible or creeds in English, let alone read or own them.
William Tyndale was a scholar who completed his biblical studies at Oxford and Cambridge, had mastered seven languages, and used his expertise and gifts to translate the Bible into English. Tyndale saw corruption in the church, and a laity that was steeped in ignorance and superstition. He was repulsed by a clergy who perpetuated false doctrines, while the people languished in spiritual darkness without access to the Scriptures. On one occasion, when Tyndale sat at a table with a group of people including several priests, Tyndale railed at them, “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” (The Book of Martyrs, John Foxe, Chapter XII)
God enabled Tyndale to keep this promise, but at great personal cost. The most powerful men in England were Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and of course, King Henry VIII — and they all wanted Tyndale. Tyndale was a smuggler, but not of weapons or contraband. Tyndale was a smuggler of the Bible. His resolution to make the Bible available in English for commoners to read made him the most-wanted fugitive by the English hierarchy. The church was afraid that a country with access to the Bible would give them too much political power, so it was intent to keep them in subjection. Tyndale fled to Germany to continue his translation of the New Testament, and when they began printing copies in Cologne, the church tried to squelch it immediately. In the ensuing years, Tyndale was condemned by the church as a heretic and continued to escape authorities while the church was determined to stop the circulation of the New Testament. Copies made their way to England and Scotland, and people were converted to the gospel as they read the Scriptures.
Eventually, Tyndale was captured and burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church in 1536. His last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” So there is no question that the Roman Catholic Church attempted to conceal the truth of Scripture from the public and even its own clergy. But what happened next, in part, defies the allegations of the Book of Mormon against the endurance of the biblical text.
King Henry VIII had opposed the circulation of the Scriptures throughout England, but several years after Tyndale’s death, a new version was published called the Great Bible of 1539. King Henry made a law that a copy of this Bible was to be placed in every church in England, so that the laity would be able to hear it in the liturgy or to read it themselves. So within a few years of Tyndale’s martyrdom, several editions of the Great Bible, which was 70 percent Tyndale’s own translation, were circulated through England by royal decree.
The Great Bible was instrumental as England became strongly influenced by Protestantism. In 1611, King James VI and I commissioned a new translation, the King James Version, that heavily relied on Tyndale’s work. Tyndale’s dying prayer had been answered.