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thomas-moreToday (February 7) is the birthday of Sir Thomas More, often known as St. Thomas More. He is generally remembered as a brave man resisting the tyranny of king-over-conscience. He was required to take an oath according to the First Succession Act—an act which declared the King supreme, excluded Princess Mary from her right to the throne, and disparaged the Pope’s powers. Yes, he was required to take this oath, but he refused. That refusal cost him his life.

Still, there is some difficulty in painting More as if he were merely standing up for freedom of conscience. It’s a popular picture, to be sure—the kind of thing that comes through in the film A Man for all Seasons. But it’s one I intend to problematize here.

The fact is, Sir Thomas More was happy to enforce his own oppressive tendencies earlier in life, particularly against those who wrote or thought in ways he considered Verbotim. Even before he was made Chancellor, More was commissioned by the Bishop of London Cuthbert Tunstall to begin cracking down on heretics (defined here as those with theological positions contrary to the official position of Rome).

The first result of this work appeared after his elevation to the Chancellorship in his Dialogue concerning heresies (1529). This book condemned (among other things) the use of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, justified the ban on all forbidden books (including the New Testament, Luther’s works, etc.), and approved the punishment of people holding said books/opinions—including with the death penalty.[1] Indeed, More argues in this book that the State has every right to execute heretics “for the protection of its citizens from the corruption of error.”[2]

After More gained power himself, he took seriously that authority to squash erroneous opinions. During his Chancellorship , More oversaw (and participated in) the interrogation and imprisonment of suspected sympathizers with the Evangelical cause. If these Evangelical-sympathizers would not recant, they were to be executed. Indeed, while More was Chancellor, at least six Evangelicals were executed by the State: Thomas Hitton, Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, John Tewkesbery, Thomas Dusgate, and James Bainham.

More is certainly responsible for the execution of John Frith as well (More had him declared a heretic, issued a warrant for his arrest, and even offered a reward for his capture); but More had ceased to be Chancellor by the time of Frith’s execution in 1533. The Thomas More scholar Richard Marius once summarized this aspect of More’s life in this way: “More believed that [Protestants] should be exterminated, and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass.”[3]

“That he did not succeed in becoming England’s Torquemada,” Marius continues, “was a consequence of the king’s quarrel with the pope and not a result of any quality of mercy that stirred through More’s own heart.”[4] Indeed, More’s Confutation of Tyndale is oft quoted for the grim pleasure More seems to take in contemplating the burning of heretics: “As they be well worthy,” he writes, “the temporality doth burn them. And after the fire of Smithfield, hell doth receive them, where the wretches burn forever.”

This heresy-hunting and support for the execution of heretics seriously contrasts with More’s earlier work Petition for Free Speech (1523), in which he argued that it is in the best interest of king and country to encourage free speech.[5] Regrettably, by arguing in Dialogue concerning heresies that it was the State’s right to execute proponents of error, and by vigorously using his own position as a politician to support that cause, St. Thomas More unwittingly gave the State the moral authority necessary for his own later execution.

Regrettably, by arguing that it was the State’s right to execute proponents of error, St. Thomas More unwittingly gave the State the moral authority necessary for his own later execution.

I have a hard time believing, as a result, the Man for all Seasons depiction of St. Thomas More: that is to say, the belief that More was merely a man opposing the impositions of the State on personal conscience. More was more than happy to exercise the authority of the State when the State’s interests coincided with his own—that is to say, in the defense of what he considered pure doctrine. Rather, we ought to say that More was (for the most part) a consistent man. He would not compromise on what he believed to be true (if, he would include the caveat, the Church had officially declared it true).

As a result, he was consistent in his attempts to impose that Truth on others using the authority of the State (imprisoning heretics until they recanted or, through failure to do so, were executed), while at the same time rejecting the imposition of other’s beliefs on himself (which ultimately got him killed). In the consistency of his beliefs, More was certainly a brave man. And I am willing to call him a saint (much as I, as a Lutheran, feel inclined to call saints of other sinners who trusted in the mercy of Christ). But St. Thomas More was not, perhaps, the “lonely voice against the power of the state,” as he is so often interpreted (and, for example, as a 1999 book title refers to him).

[1] Rex, Richard. “Thomas More and the heretics: statesman or fanatic?” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More. Ed. George M. Logan. Cambridge University Press, 2011: 99.

[2] Latta, Jennie D. “Thomas More on Conscience and the Authority of the Church.” Thomas More Studies, Vol. 3, 2008: Thomas More’s 1529 Dialogue Concerning Heresies: 54.

[3] Thomas More: A Biography. Harvard University Press, 1999: 406.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Wegemer, Gerard. “More as Statesman.” The Centre for Thomas More Studies. October 31, 2001: 7. http://www.thomasmorestudies.org/docs/More_as_Statesman.pdf.