What are the available proofs that John Tyndale may have been the first Puritan?
Before it can be discussed whether or not Tyndale was a Puritan, Puritan must be defined. A very basic definition for Puritan from Merriam-Webster is, “a member of a 16th and 17th century Protestant group… opposing as unscriptural the ceremonial worship and the prelacy of the Church of England” (Merriam-Webster) The definition of Puritan in which we find Tyndale firmly standing is, “Protestant religious policy independent of crown leadership but short of Anabaptism” (Knappen 215).
Though Puritanism is usually associated with the 16th and especially 17th centuries, there is sufficient evidence of a sort of medieval “economic and political” Puritanism (Knappen 209). It is within this frame of reference that Tyndale can be seen as the first English Puritan. To understand this, it must be understood that Tyndale was more than a translator. Nearly any student familiar with the history of God’s word in English is familiar with the work of Tyndale. This same student will also know Tyndale as one opposed to the ecclesiastical (and secular) powers that were. Beyond these characteristics, Tyndale was also “firmly opposed” to the economy of his time (Knappen 209). Tyndale was among those who, in a classically Puritan sense, viewed the economy through moral lenses. It is in this way that “Tindale [sic] appears as the founder, or at least the first English representative, of a new movement” (Knappen 209).
Beyond his economic moralism, Tyndale reflected the Puritan mindset when he, unlike some of his contemporaries, (namely Bliney) never gave in to governmental and ecclesial powers (Knappen 210). He famously opposed the ecclesiastic authorities by publishing an unauthorized edition of the Scriptures, while at the same time broke the law of the land while traveling abroad without permission (Knappen 211).
Tyndale himself admitted that his reading of the Scriptures he published constituted “a breaking of the king’s peace or treason unto his highness” (quoted in Knappen 211). Though Tyndale may have been similar to his contemporaries theologically speaking, his flood of illegal literature into his home country placed him in a league of his own; perhaps, one could say, as the first Puritan (Knappen 211).
Tyndale’s work The Obedience of a Christian Man is alluded to by some to prove that Tyndale was not a Puritan. In this work, Tyndale is careful to defend some level of obedience to civil authorities so as to distance himself from the Anabaptists. In the same work, Tyndale is clearly denouncing popular Catholic theology concerning the pope and sacraments (Knappen 212). While this work may not scream “Tyndale is a Puritan!” It must be remembered that actions speak louder than words, and history shows that Tyndale was indeed not a royalist, for “The royalist path was not the Puritan one” (Knappen 214).
Though Tyndale may not align perfectly with the modern concept of Puritan, it can be confidently asserted that within the religious, economic, and political landscape of the mid-16th century, Tyndale was the first to demonstrate the Puritan worldview.
Knappen, M.M. “William Tyndale—First English Puritan,” Church History (September 1936)
Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (2003)