Humphrey Who?

by Brian Watts

Have you heard of Humphrey Monmouth? Probably not. But, humanly speaking, if Humphrey had not done what he did, you would not likely be reading this article right now. Humphrey is one of the great unsung heroes of the faith – a man to whom we are indebted, even if we have never heard of him.

Humphrey Monmouth lived in the sixteenth century. He was not a renowned theologian. He was a wealthy merchant who had made a fortune in the cloth business. But as a wealthy businessman, he played as significant a part in the Reformation as any of the more famous theologians and preachers. Everybody knows of Martin Luther and John Calvin – but “Humphrey–who”?

Humphrey Monmouth’s invaluable contribution arose out of his relationship with William Tyndale. Tyndale’s name has gone down in the history books as the father of the English Bible. He pioneered the translation of the Scriptures into English from their original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Tyndale was martyred for his efforts in 1536. But his work still lives: ninety percent of his words passed on into the later King James Version of the Bible.

The “establishment” of the time was bent on keeping the Bible from the common people. (Does that sound familiar? The Vancouver School Board no longer allows the traditional distribution of Bibles by Gideons.) The Scriptures were considered dangerous in the hands of the unlearned; they were only to be read by the priests. To that end, it was convenient to keep them in Latin. Some argued that such protectiveness avoided the possibility of heresy as unlearned men read their own interpretations into the text of the Bible. Others, like the Duke of Norfolk, were more honest about their opposition to the Bible. He said, “I never read the Scripture, nor never will read it. It was merry in England afore the new learning came up; yea, I would all things were as hath been in time past.” The Bible has an uncanny way of challenging our lifestyles and beliefs!

But such arguments carried no weight with Tyndale. In one particularly heated debate with an antagonistic cleric, Tyndale concluded by vowing: “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” And that became his life’s mission: to translate the Bible so that everybody would be able to read and understand for themselves. His translation has become famous, and his influence in propagating the truth and freedom of the Reformation in the English speaking world is inestimable.

So where does Humphrey Monmouth fit into the story? We often neglect the full spectrum of contributions that go into every spiritual endeavour. The preacher gains the recognition, but the kingdom is advanced through a far more diverse combination of giftings. We would not have had Tyndale’s English Bible if it were not for Humphrey Monmouth.

When Tyndale embarked on his mission, he needed more than textbooks and inspiration. He needed food and clothing and a place to stay; he needed an income to survive. This is where we meet Humphrey. The wealthy businessman gave young Tyndale room and board and financial support as the young man laboured intensely in his translation of the New Testament for six months. As pressures mounted, Tyndale fled to Europe to continue his work. But still he would not have been able to fulfill his mission without Humphrey Monmouth.

In England, Monmouth had introduced Tyndale to a secret society of London merchants called The Christian Brethren. This clandestine group was financing and importing Christian literature to advance the cause of the Reformation in England. It was an underground movement in a hostile environment. Tyndale’s personal financial support came out of this group – as did the investment which enabled him to print his Bibles. By the time he went to print, he was out of the country, but still the merchants backed him. In fact, his Bibles were smuggled into England in the bundles of cloth that were the basis of Humphrey Monmouth’s wealth. Brother Andrew was not God’s first smuggler! The Bibles would never have been translated, printed, or distributed without our unsung hero’s nvolvement.

The kingdom mandate requires preachers to preach if the message of the Bible is to extend into all the world. But it also requires businessmen and others to faithfully serve God in their work. Monmouth’s contribution was no less spiritual and no less vital than that of Tyndale. This remains true today. There is a far broader scope for involvement in the purposes of the kingdom than many churches realize. The preachers have their place – but the true task of church leadership is to equip the saints (theologically) for works of service. The Humphrey Monmouths of this world must be equipped and encouraged to do the important works that God has prepared for them.

There is nothing unspiritual about the fact that Monmouth was wealthy. The Scriptures speak of the wealth of the nations coming to God’s people (Is 60:5). That does not mean that the ungodly will start to write large cheques to finance fancy church buildings. It means that God will enable key men to gain wealth in order to finance the purposes of the kingdom. The wealth of the nations flowed to Humphrey Monmouth.

It is a great irony that Monmouth made his fortune trading in the fabric which clothed the rich in London’s high society. Members of the influential establishment who were resisting the spread of the Scriptures were actually financing the distribution of the Bible. Every garment they bought, made out of Humphrey Monmouth’s cloth, paid for another Bible! Even as they hunted Tyndale to imprison him, they were providing – out of their clothing budget – for his daily bread.

We pray that God will raise up heroes of the faith like William Tyndale in our generation, men who will be willing to go to the stake to proclaim the truth of the Bible in a culture that is trying hard to prevent the common man from hearing its liberating message. But we must also pray for heroes like Humphrey Monmouth who will use the talents and resources that God has given them to the same end. Men may say, “Humphrey Who?” But God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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