The Smugglers — God’s Outlaws Study No. 184

The seven Christians were brought into the courtyard near the prison. The executioners secured ropes around the Christians’ waists, hands, and feet. Three large poles had been set into the ground. Six men and one woman, a widow, were about to meet their fate. The believers had two things in common. They had illegally taught their children in the ways of faith, and they had each been sentenced to death.

The Christians had been arrested on Ash Wednesday, and held in solitary confinement. The following Friday, their children were called in for an interview to find out how much their parents had taught them. The prison warden, who had conducted the examination, threatened each of the children with a death like that of their condemned parents, if they ever repeated what they had learned.

On Palm Sunday, with the necessary evidence against the believers, the sentence of death was given to them. Only one of the believers was released from the fate of execution. Perhaps it was because she was the only woman among the guilty, or possibly because she was a widow. The reasons were not disclosed, but she was ordered to depart the prison where the remaining six, soon to be martyrs, remained.

Because the sun had already set and the streets were not safe for a woman alone in the evening, one of the prison guards, Simon Mourton, offered to accompany the widow. As Simon was leading the former prisoner by the arm, he heard the rattling of paper within the sleeve of her coat. "What have you hidden in your sleeve?" he asked, and pulled from her coat portions of the Bible. It was the same Scripture that had been taught to the children, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.

The widow was immediately brought back to the prison where she was again sentenced to die with the others.

On April 4, their fate was sealed. Having been secured to the three wooden poles, bundles of wood and straw were stacked around their feet. They had broken the law.

They had illegally taught their children, and for choosing to obey God rather than man, they were burned to death.

These seven Christians were martyred in the year 1519, in Coventry, England, in an area called Little Park. The law they had broken was teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in the English language. Only the Latin Scriptures were considered "holy." The Bible in any other language, including English, was believed "vulgar" and its use labeled heresy.

Many Christians in America have never learned of the origins of their English translation Bible and the persecutions that our brothers and sisters endured for attempting to evangelize those in England with the distribution, or even memorization of English scripture. The only "legal" Bible was in Latin, which most of the common people could not understand.

A Book for the Ploughman

October 6, 1998, marks 462 years since another Christian was burned at the stake for his translation and distribution of the English Bible.

William Tyndale was a highly educated man fluent in several languages, including Greek and Hebrew. He had been hired as a tutor for the children of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor. During his free time, Tyndale would gaze out into the fields below the manor and observe the ploughboys diligently working in the fields.

The ploughmen represented the uneducated and superstitious people of England. No one really cared about the ploughmen. They were destined for a life of ignorance, imprisoned within their own village.

The scholars had their Latin Bible, and the Erasmus Greek New Testament had recently been completed, but these were of little use to a poor country farmer. Redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ awaited the ploughman. The message of salvation seemed foreign to their existence, and in fact it was, until a man named William Tyndale decided to compile the "Words of Life" in English, the language of the ploughboy!

Tyndale had to hide in Europe under an assumed name to complete his translation.

In 1526, Tyndale’s English New Testament began trickling into England. The Scriptures, now referred to as the "pirate edition," were printed smaller than conventional books. This made them easier to smuggle in bales of cotton and containers to England.

As the "quiet" distribution of Tyndale’s New Testaments continued, it was inevitable that some would fall into the hands of the "enemy." Upon discovery of Tyndale’s work, officials began buying up as many of the English New Testaments as possible. William Tyndale was publicly denounced and accused of printing over 3,000 errors within his translations. The confiscated Scriptures were then thrown into the fire.

Hearing of the action, Tyndale replied, "In burning the New Testament they did none other thing than I looked for; no more shall they do if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall be so. Nevertheless, in translating the New Testament I did my duty. . . ."

Within a decade, Tyndale’s New Testament was widely distributed throughout England. Although the translator’s vision of the ploughboy’s Bible had come to pass, persecution of those caught with this "illegal" book was severe. The prisons were overflowing, hundreds of New Testaments were burned, and believers were even publicly burned at the stake with Tyndale’s New Testament fastened around their necks.

William Tyndale, through his translation and distribution of the English New Testament, became responsible for a wave of severe persecution. Thousands of Christians were executed. Two of Tyndale’s close friends, Little Bilney and Richard Bayfield, were burned at the stake. Weekly, reports would come to Tyndale, who remained in exile in Europe and continued his distribution of the Word of God and translation of the Old Testament.

The persecutions were no longer targeted at the ploughboy. Every man, woman, or child, educated or not, was at risk if they dared possess Tyndale’s New Testament. Even church officials, once persecutors, became martyrs after finding truth in Tyndale’s work. Thomas Moore arrested everyone he could lay his hands upon if he suspected them of holding the new views or possessing the heretical books.

In the spring of 1535, a man named Henry Phillips arrived in Antwerp, where Tyndale had been hiding. Having learned of the failure to arrest Tyndale, Phillips took it upon himself to betray Tyndale in hopes of gaining notoriety and financial reward.

By the end of May, Henry Phillips had made contact with Tyndale and obtained his confidence, noting that Tyndale was "simple and inexpert in the wily subtleties of this world." Before Tyndale knew what was taking place, Phillips set an ambush for his newfound friend and two English spies made the arrest.

Tyndale knew his mission was quickly coming to an end. He had chosen this path and was well aware of the consequences.

His translation of the Old Testament is believed to have been completed during his 18 months in prison. His final words, as he was to be burned at the stake, reveal the heart of God’s martyr, refusing to conform to man’s laws above God: "Lord, open the King of England’s eyes."

A "Red Letter" Edition

It is unfortunate that so many of us are unaware of the work of William Tyndale and the sacrifice made by so many in sixteenth-century England. The King James Version Bible, first printed in 1611, nearly 100 years after Tyndale’s pirate edition, is largely the work of William Tyndale. Yet, for the most part, no credit or historic account of his translation ever appears within the pages of today’s Bible. We have benefited from the blood of these martyrs, receiving numerous study notes and helps found throughout the countless variations of Bibles available on our bookshelves.

It is difficult for many of us to realize the dangers associated with God’s Word throughout history, and even today. When Christians in North Korea have been caught with a Bible, the "offender" and their entire family were imprisoned for 15 years. The North Korean Communists refer to this consequence as a "reduced" sentence. In years past, the penalty was death.

In Muslim nations like Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, Christians with Bibles are burned with cigarettes or expelled in chains from the nation.

Our Burmese co-worker, Wy Foo, was arrested in China for Bible smuggling. Unlike American couriers who are typically "slapped on the hand" for smuggling Bibles, Wy Foo was hanged upside down and beaten to death.

In Revelation 6:9-11, we read a passage that is disturbing to many who cry "peace and safety." "And when He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held, And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?’ And a white robe was given to each of them, and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed."

In his historic book, Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable, Happening in the Church (later to be known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), John Foxe reveals the persecutions brought upon those of the first century church, including many of the Apostles, as "Some slain with sword; Some burned with fire; Some with whips scourged; Some stabbed with forks of iron; Some fastened to the cross or gibbet; Some drowned in the sea; Some their skins plucked off; Some their tongues cut out; Some stoned to death; Some killed with cold; Some starved with hunger; Some their hands cut off, or otherwise dismembered, have been so left naked to the open shame of the world."

Foxe continues by saying of the early Church, "There is no day in the whole year, unto which the number of five thousand martyrs cannot be ascribed, except only the first day of January." From the time of Christ and the Apostles, to the present day, and until the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Church continues to shed its blood for the living Word of God. A "word" which remains stained with "red letters" from the blood of each of its martyrs.

Whom Should We Obey?

"And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’," Acts 5:27-29.

There has always been a controversy within today’s church concerning Bible smuggling and other activities which are considered "illegal" by today’s law. Those in disagreement with "illegal" practices commonly quote Paul’s epistle to the Romans, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves," Romans 13:1, 2.

In context there is a clear commandment to obey civil authority for the punishment of evil, and the good of mankind. Verse three clearly defines this context, " For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil . . . ." Yet those who do good in sharing the saving message of Jesus Christ in a Muslim nation have reason to fear. The rules established by Sharia law (Islamic rule) clearly are a terror to good.

We must not confuse civil authority with God’s will. We have a right, and duty, to exercise that which God instructs, even if it violates man’s law. The apostle Paul was clearly instructing the early Church to submit to man’s rule in doing good, that we may not be found as evildoers. If you walk by a pond where a child is drowning, you would ignore the "No Trespassing" sign and save the child. Godless nations and their token "official" churches who oppose Bible smuggling want their children to drown.

In the book of Acts, Peter was clearly commanded by the local "rulers" not to teach in the name of Jesus. However, in verse 20 of chapter 5, the angel of the Lord instructs Peter to "Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life." Was the angel of the Lord disobeying God?

When Joshua sent two spies to view the land of Jericho, they were hidden in the house of Rahab the harlot. Rahab’s house was built along the wall of Jericho, a wall built to prevent "illegal" passage of unwelcome visitors. When the king heard of the arrival of the Israeli spies, he immediately sent word to Rahab and instructed her to bring forth the spies, which had entered her home. Rahab disobeyed the command of her king and hid the spies, even lying to protect their whereabouts. Later that evening, she secretly "smuggled" the spies out of the city by lowering them through her window and down the wall with a long cord.

This act clearly suggests God’s goodwill in civil disobedience. Rahab, a harlot, who knew little of the God of Israel, was prepared to do good unto God, disobeying authority, and even placing herself in grave danger. For this act, her life was spared.

A similar act of smuggling is found in Acts 9:25 when the disciples lowered Saul down a wall to spare his life from the Jews who were conspiring to kill him.

Acts of civil disobedience and secrecy are not uncommon in the Scripture. We find Mary and Joseph quietly fleeing to Egypt in the evening. The mother of Moses hides him in a basket and places him in a river to escape a decree that would kill her baby. Daniel is ordered to discontinue his daily prayers. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are ordered to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image.

Some Christian leaders have stated that if we disobey the governing authorities then we are deserving of the persecutions, which come upon us. Are Christians in China who refuse to register with the official church deserving of the beatings they endure? Are Muslims in Islamic nations who convert to Christianity deserving of death by stoning?

A teenage girl in Pakistan is charged with murder and awaits execution if she is found guilty. Her "crime" was committed when she gave a Bible to her Muslim friend. Her friend, after reading the Scripture, was converted and subsequently executed by her own family for refusing to recant her new faith. Because this Christian girl gave the Bible which led to the conversion, she is being charged with the death of the Muslim girl. How would our theology of absolute obedience to civil authority deal with cases such as these in Islamic nations?

Are we willing to risk our lives and the lives of the North Koreans to distribute God’s Word? These are sobering questions and must be asked before contributing to ministries like The Voice of the Martyrs. As you support such a ministry, you are also partnering in "illegal" acts, which sometimes carry a penalty of death. However, you are in good company with those who have not only asked the question, "Am I willing to lay down my life for the sake of the gospel?" but have also demonstrated their willingness to do so. Your English Bible was paid for with the lives of such martyrs.

We realize that the type of ministry undertaken by VOM is not popular. It challenges our comfortable lifestyles. It violates our "rights." It also points us toward a higher call and strengthens our faith.

Those who believe that we should respect governing authorities and submit to their laws even when it hinders evangelical activities, also believe that in so doing we will avoid persecution. They are right. If the Christians in China stop meeting illegally, the Public Security Bureau will stop beating them. If Christian women in Sudan submit to Islamic law, their children will not be sold as slaves, their husbands will not be crucified or drowned. If William Tyndale had not "illegally" translated the English Bible, he would not have been burned at the stake.

As someone said, "suffering may prevent sin, but sin will never prevent suffering."

As we continue our work in serving the persecuted Church, we continually receive requests for more Bibles [and so do we in the work of Giving & Sharing]. Are you willing to help us help the persecuted?

— written by Tom White and Steve Cleary, from The Voice of the Martyrs, October, 1998, reprinted by permission. You may order a free copy of Voice of the Martyrs magazine by writing Box 443, Bartlesville, OK 74005, E-mail:

Three Who Burned

John Wycliffe (1330-1384), John Hus (1372-1415), and William Tyndale (1493-1536) were not Sabbath-keepers; they were reformers within the Catholic Church. But without their focus on Bible Truth, and work in translating the Bible into the common language of the people, the iron grip of the Medieval Church would not have been broken. We owe a great debt of gratitude to these three pioneers who gave their lives so that we can enjoy the blessings of freedom to worship God today.

Giving & Sharing is pleased to recommend three VHS videos on Wycliffe, Hus, and Tyndale. The first video, John Wycliffe, the Morning Star (75 min.) tells of the scholar and cleric who for the first time translated the Bible into English, which he put in the hands of the Lollards (poor preachers). Wycliffe, one of Europe’s most renowned philosophers, defended English nationalism against the power of the Pope, and championed the poor. He taught that God’s forgiveness cannot be bought with indulgences, and the Mass (transubstantiation) is wrong. He preached that the only true authority is the Word of God, and could only be understood if all the people read it in their native language. Wycliffe was banned by the Church from his teaching post at Oxford. He was considered so dangerous by the Roman Catholic Church, that they wanted to burn him. Wycliffe escaped burning at the stake only because he died before he could be condemned. Forty years after his death, his bones were dug up and burned, and his ashes thrown into the river, in a vain papal attempt to extinguish his continuing influence on all of Europe.

John Hus (55 min. video) was a Bohemian priest and scholar who lived 100 years before Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. He was convinced that the Bible should be presented in the language of the people, that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ, and the Word of God is the final authority. He taught openly at the University of Prague, and as a pastor, challenged the abuses of medieval Catholicism. Hus wrote and preached against papal indulgences, clerical abuses of power, immorality of high living within the Catholic clergy, and the veneration of the Pope. He promoted piety and godliness, rather than riotous living and excess which the Catholic Church allowed.

Promised safe passage by the Emperor, Hus was called into question by the Catholic Council of Constance. In the end, he was accused, imprisoned, charged with heresy, and burned at the stake. On July 6, 1415, Hus died singing. The same Council ordered the exhumation of Wycliffe and his bones burned.

The phrase, "your goose is cooked," comes from the martyrdom of Hus. His name in German sounds like "goose." As he was burned, they coined the term "Hus is cooked (goose is cooked)" in German. Yet, Hus said to the Archbishop during his trial, that though he — the goose — be burned at the stake, another will come — a swan — to teach and preach the doctrine of the Bible; to finish the work which had begun. That "swan" was William Tyndale.

God’s Outlaw, The Story of William Tyndale (93 min.) is an inspiring story of how one individual can change the world for good. In England, the Bible, and even prayers, were forbidden in English. He continued the work of Wycliffe in translating the Bible into English, and publishing it in continental Europe for his countrymen. Copies of Tyndale’s Bible were smuggled in sacks of grain.

At a dinner meeting among priests and bishops, Tyndale said that he "defied the Pope and all his laws" and vowed that "a plough-boy would know more of the Scriptures than they" so help him God.

King Henry VIII was at first sympathetic toward Tyndale. In Tyndale’s treatise on Christian growth, he was sympathetic towards monarchs because if priests abused their power, kings had the right of judgment and justice against them. Henry VIII liked this since the Pope had refused to annul his marriage; and Henry ultimately set himself at the Defender of the Faith, above the Pope. However, Tyndale, because of Scriptural command, could not condone the King’s divorce from Catherine and subsequent remarriage to Anne Bolin, and in his writings stated that divorce was sin. Miffed by someone who would follow the Bible that literally, Henry then allowed the Catholic Church to arrest Tyndale.

His translation was so dangerous that Tyndale became hunted throughout Europe. King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, and the Pope’s legate Cardinal Wolsey, sought to capture and silence this simple man who only wanted the English plowman to understand the Scriptures. Finally, through intrigue and betrayal, Tyndale was captured, strangled to death, and hastily burned at the stake.

While he was being tied up at the stake, Tyndale prayed that the "eyes of the King would be opened." After his death, the circulation of the English Bible found its way into the hands of King Henry. In seeing the masterful work done, Henry issued an edict that every church was to have one of these Bibles on display in their chapel. Tyndale’s prayer was nevertheless heard. Popes, kings, and civil powers could not keep the Word of God from the people.

There are striking similarities between Wycliffe, Hus, and Tyndale. They were tireless translators of the Bible into their native language. They stood for the poor who were oppressed by the rich. They stood against the Catholic hierarchy and held that the Bible is the ultimate authority. Their faith did not waver in spite of personal danger to themselves. They met a common fate, yet in the eyes of God, I am sure they will find mercy. May we all follow their faith!

The three VHS videos on Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Hus (American NTSC format) are available from Giving & Sharing for $63 to keep, or $15 to rent (please send $63, if tapes are returned in good condition, we will refund the $48 difference). Please write to: Giving & Sharing, Box 100, Neck City, MO 64849.

The Bible is Dangerous!

Here is an E-mail we received from Iran: "I am an history student in Iran. In my opinion Islam is religion of violence and Christianity is religion of love and I would like to read holy Bible then I know Lord and real love. Unfortunately, the Islamic regime restricts people and we have not access to Holy Bible. I wonder if you could possibly send me Holy Bible." F.P, Teheran, Iran.

Comment: We told this man it would be dangerous for us to send him a Bible. The last Iranian student to receive a Bible from us was expelled from the university and flogged. This man responded that he knew the dangers, and wanted the Truth anyway. Please pray that the Farsi Bible we sent him makes it through, and God opens his mind.

Ockford’s Book Burned

When opposers of the Truth of God cannot burn the person, they will try to destroy the book of that person.

In 1650, James Ockford, a pupil of Theophilus Brabourne, wrote a 72-page treatise in support of the seventh-day Sabbath. It caused such a controversy in Salisbury, that the English Parliament recommended that all copies be burned and the author punished. Only one copy is known to have escaped the flames. Ockford was called both an Anabaptist and a Jew. He protested, denying he was a Jew.

Ockford saw the Sabbath as a joy: "happy shall the Church be, that worshippeth God according to His Law, and giveth Him His due, by placing on the Seventh day, the honours which God requireth to be performed on it."

— written by Richard C. Nickels