G. F. Main’s Forgotten Reformer is an excellent and much-needed biography of Myles Coverdale (1488-1569), a leading figure in the English Reformation.
Main has organized his biography into twelve chapters, with the first two describing the historical backdrop to Coverdale’s life and the final one summarizing his major contributions. The intervening nine chapters lay out Coverdale’s life from the day he joined the Reformation in 1527 until his death in 1569.
It is very fitting that Main’s work has the subtitle: Myles Coverdale and the First Forty Years of the English Reformation. By God’s grace, Coverdale survived the first forty-two years of the English Reformation while many of his fellow reformers were burned at the stake.
In Chapter 1, Main presents Myles Coverdale and offers several reasons for the biography. Mains notes that Coverdale lived a long life, “brimming with interest” (p. 1). Coverdale was among the Cambridge scholars in the 1520’s who led the charge for reform in England and who, for the most part, ended their lives being burned at the stake. Although often in danger of execution, Coverdale survived the persecution under Henry VIII and Queen Mary, spending many years in exile in the process. Main notes a general forgetfulness if not complete ignorance about the English Reformation and the benefits we enjoy today because of what reformers like Coverdale dedicated their lives to accomplish.
Main proceeds in Chapter 2 to describe English society and religion at the dawn of the Reformation. Main presents England as a rural and relatively impoverished country with few roads and little to offer Europe in trade beyond wool. In the midst of this poverty and ignorance, the Roman Catholic Church was a firmly-established institution. In this setting, priests held positions of respect and power whereas the common parishioners were expected to merely obey the authorities and faithfully attend mass, confess their sins to their priest, fast the Lent, set up candles before images, creep to the cross, and fulfill similar duties.
In Chapter 3, Main presents the events that led to the dawn of the English Reformation, noting in addition the events in Coverdale’s life that led to his conversion and eventual flight into exile. Main discusses the changes brought about by the Renaissance, especially the printing of books and Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and new Latin translation.
He then turns to Martin Luther and the beginning of the reformation in Germany. In 1521, five years after Luther nailed his theses on the Wittenberg chapel door, a group of students at Cambridge were reading Erasmus’ New Testament. The leader of the group, Thomas Bilney, found salvation in Christ and rejected the teachings and duties of the church. Miles Coverdale and other students joined Bilney, studying the Scriptures and reading the works of Luther as well. By 1527, the movement for reform had spread beyond the centers of learning, and Coverdale left his monastic life at Cambridge to preach the gospel and advance reform. With the increasing persecution of his fellow reformers, Coverdale went into exile in 1529.
Chapter 4 covers the events that took place during Coverdale’s first exile from England. In 1529, it appears that Coverdale fled to Hamburg, Germany, in order to work with William Tyndale. Tyndale had fled England a few years earlier to translate the New Testament into English. When Coverdale joined Tyndale in his translation work, he assisted in the translation of the Old Testament. When Tyndale was betrayed to the Roman Catholic authorities and imprisoned, Coverdale continued the work and eventually published a complete English Bible in 1535.
During Coverdale’s first exile, several significant events took place in England that would lead to his return. In Chapter 5, Main presents the events that led Henry VIII to establish the Church of England and himself as the head of the church. Main notes the relationship between one of the leading figures, Thomas Cromwell, and Coverdale. Working closely with Cromwell, Coverdale translated various theological works and also produced the Great Bible of 1539. Main quotes A. G. Dickens as saying that this was Coverdale’s masterpiece of translation (p. 64). When Henry VIII turned against the reformers, Coverdale went into exile again.
Chapter 6 covers Coverdale’s second exile, from 1540 to 1548. After spending a brief time in Denmark, he spent two years in Strasburg. During this time, Coverdale met John Calvin, also in exile. Coverdale translated John Calvin’s work on the Lord’s Supper entitled A Treatise on the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Coverdale translated other works during this period that he thought was beneficial to the reformation in England.
Coverdale then settled in Bergzabern, Germany, where he served as the pastor of the town’s church and headmaster of the local school. In the summer of 1548, after the death of Henry VIII, Coverdale returned to England.
For six years, the length of King Edwards VI’s reign, Coverdale devoted himself to strengthening the reformation in England as seen in Chapters 7 and 8. Coverdale worked on the Book of Common Prayer. When the new Book of Common Prayer led to revolts in the county of Devon, Coverdale was the only preacher willing to go to the region. He was eventually appointed bishop of Exeter, the cathedral city of the county. Coverdale faithfully preached and taught, but the region remained hostile to the reformers.
When Queen Mary came to the throne, Coverdale was imprisoned. The King of Denmark intervened on his behalf by asking for the release of Coverdale. In 1555, Queen Mary released Coverdale to go into his third exile.
Chapter 10 presents the events of Coverdale’s third exile on the continent. He arrived in Denmark and, after thanking the king for saving his life, made his way to Germany. However, Coverdale and many other English exiles found the situation in Germany too precarious. Coverdale then went to Geneva, Switzerland. He joined a growing community of exiles and assisted with the work on the Geneva Bible. On August 14, 1559, he left Geneva to return to England.
Coverdale spent the last ten years of his life preaching and teaching. He declined his former position as bishop of Exeter or a similar office in the church because he could not agree with a number of practices introduced by Queen Elizabeth, such as wearing vestments and kneeling for communion. He was one of a growing number of churchmen who would eventually be known as the Puritans. Because of his age and frailty, Coverdale spent the last years of his life in London. He was highly respected and commonly referred to as “Father Coverdale.” He died on January 20, 1569.
In Chapter 12, Main summarizes Coverdale’s contributions to the Reformation. He notes Coverdale’s part in the translation of the English Bible. He also notes his influence on congregational worship through the publication of metrical psalms and hymns. Furthermore, Coverdale translated many works of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers to further the reformation in England.
Apart from the printed page, Coverdale was a noted preacher. He preached at the most important preaching stations in England, including Paul’s Cross, and in many little-known pulpits. Finally, his willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel and even go into exile repeatedly encouraged many and advanced the cause of Christ.
Coverdale was truly the translator of the English Reformation, devoting many years to translate the Scriptures, hymns, and the writings of other reformers for the sake of church. Main provides an appendix listing Coverdale’s various translations and works.
Despite the many strengths of this biography, Main could have done more to direct his readers to the writings of Coverdale and other resources readily available online.
For instance, the works of Coverdale are available here and here. The Coverdale Bible of 1535 is also available online here. I have found this website very useful for accessing the Coverdale Bible and other Bibles of that time period. Coverdale’s translation of John Calvin’s work on the Lord’s Supper is also available here. I hope these resources will encourage more research on the life and influence of Coverdale.
In one of the appendices to the book, Main provides a letter that Coverdale wrote while in prison waiting to be burned at the stake in 1554. This is a valuable addition to the work, and this letter in modern English suggests another way in which Main could bless this generation. It would greatly add to our understanding and appreciation of this reformer to have more of his writings in modern English, with introductions and annotations to make them even more accessible.
I highly recommend G.F. Main’s biography of this English reformer and devoted servant of the church of Jesus Christ. Coverdale faithfully served the Lord in his own generation and has blessed many subsequent generations of English-speaking Christians through his translations. Main skillfully introduces the reader to the broader events of the English Reformation, thereby providing a fuller historical perspective for appreciating the impacts of this period which endure to our own day.
Finally, Main writes in a style accessible to a broad audience and, as a result, this biography should be a valuable resource in the classroom, at a Bible study, or for personal reading.
I hope that many are encouraged by Coverdale’s example of service and faithful suffering for the sake of the gospel. May we be challenged by the single-mindedness and devotion of his generation and, by God’s grace, strive even more to honor our common Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.