Koran Burning? How about a Bishop Burning Bibles?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent spate of conservative Chritians wanting to burn copies of the Koran brought to mind a time when a conservative Bishop chose to burn as much of an entire print run of Bibles as he could lay hands on.

In the 1530s, the Catholic Church was concerned with suppressing William Tyndale's translation of the Bible, the first English translation to go back to the Hebrew and Greek texts. It was also the first English translation to be printed in large quantities.

In a society where the church was the absolute arbiter of truth, even the king's authority relied upon the church's interpretation of the writ of God.  The church's writ was undermined by its own behavior, so few things could be more disruptive than for the common people to think they understood the Bible. With this belief came questions about the ways the authorities conducted themselves.

The printing press helped bring about the Protestant reformation, and with challenges to the authority of the church came challenges to the authority of government. Imagine how the authorities must have felt when their efforts to prevent the printing of Tyndale's Bible failed – they nearly captured him at the printer's establishment with the sheets of his English New Testament, but he escaped and had the work printed in Worms. He printed it in the usual format, but also in a small format that could more easily be concealed, and began shipping them "In boxes, in barrels, in bales of cloth, in sacks of flour..." according to Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

The Bishop Tunstall of London had all the copies he could locate burned. Then he came up with a new scheme to suppress the book, and enlisted a merchant to help him buy up all the copies that had been printed and not yet distributed. This windfall enabled Tyndale to get out of debt and print an edition with some corrections he had wanted to make.

The Church authorities eventually captured Tyndale, tried him and convicted him of heresy. He was strangled while tied to a stake, then his body was burned to prevent him from being resurrected on Judgment Day.

If some Christians will burn not only their own holy book but the translator as well because they fear it will be understood, should we be surprised some of them might want to burn other people's holy books?


  1. Thanks for this reminder that burning books never really goes out of fashion with fanatics.

  2. I think the Bishop was not so much a fanatic as an apparatchik.


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