That Old-Time Religion: Why Does Sir Thomas More – Torturer, Killer, Saint – Have So Many Churches Named After Him?

“Do you know where the Thomas More Church is?”

Ask that question anyplace where Catholicism is a mainstream faith, and the answer is likely “yes.” I’d wager that no other Catholic saint has so many churches named after him as Sir Thomas, the 16th-century religious firebrand and statesman. He crops up like kudzu, including in yesterday’s post about the loud bell of the Thomas More Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island, that is driving a neighbor batty.

Catholics revere More as a martyr because he was beheaded for refusing to say that the authority of King Henry VIII superseded that of the Pope. Even in secular and humanist circles, More is often given a measure of respect, partly for his collaboration with the Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus, and partly because of how More is famously portrayed in the 1966 Oscar-winning movie A Man For All Seasons.

What neither group ever seems keen to acknowledge is that Sir Thomas was also a man who so abhorred Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation that he burned Lutherans at the stake with great relish. One of More’s motives for hating the Protestant heretics was that they dared to read the New Testament in English rather than Latin, which was against the law in England at the time.

The historian and religious scholar James Wood reminds us that Thomas More, far from being the consummate “man of conscience,” was

… the heretic hunter of the mid-1520s, who personally broke into Lutherans’ homes and sent men to the stake,… [and who] would punish religious dissent not only with “displeasant” words but with state violence.

Hyperbole? Hardly. The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd, one of the more positive More biographies, recounts that when Sir Thomas learned that John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller, secretly possessed banned books, he had the man burned alive. After the execution, More expressed his satisfaction: “[He] burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy.” More cherished the image of Tewkesbury burning not just on earth, but in hell, “an hote fyrebronde burnynge at hys bakke, that all the water in the worlde wyll neuer be able to quenche.”

Richard Marius, an American scholar of the Reformation and the author of Thomas More: A Biographyconcludes that More, notwithstanding his earlier wanderings through Humanism, was eager to exterminate Protestants,

and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass. That he did not succeed in becoming England’s Torquemada 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.

Per James Wood, here is some of More’s handiwork:

With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, More personally broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. He imprisoned one man in the porter’s lodge of his house, and had him put in the stocks. He raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt, who was suspected of financing [protestant Bible translator William] Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died in prison. More was now a spiritual detective, a policeman in a hair shirt, engaged in “what would now be called surveillance and entrapment among the leather-sellers, tailors, fishmongers and drapers of London.” Six protesters were burned under More’s chancellorship, and perhaps forty were imprisoned.

Next time you hear the adjective “catholic” (small c) used in the sense of “shifty,” “evasive,” “disingenuous,” think of Thomas More, and think of this mind-crushing passage from Wood’s essay:

More attempted to answer the charge of the reformers that it was not Christian for the church to burn heretics. The church did not burn people, replied More; the state burned them. This was strictly true, because the ecclesiastical courts tried heretics and the state courts sentenced them. But More’s language is disingenuous. The church, he writes, would never want to kill anyone. “It is not the clergy that laboreth to have them punished to death.” The “spiritual law” is “good, reasonable, piteous, and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any therein.” The church asks the heretic to repent; if he does not, the church excommunicates him, at which point “the clergy giveth knowledge to the temporalty, not exhorting the prince, or any man else, either, to kill him or to punish him.” The church does not urge anyone to punish the heretic; it “leaveth him to the secular hand, and forsaketh him.”

To Wood, More was

cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics. He betrayed Christianity when he led it so violently into court politics, and he betrayed politics when he surrendered it so meekly to the defense of Catholicism.

The British historical biographer Jasper Ridley was even less charitable in his final assessment of Sir Thomas, calling him “a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert.”

The Catholic world had four or five centuries to come to its senses about More, but never did. In 1929, the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton fawned over him in The Fame of Blessed Thomas Moore:

Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.

The Vatican agreed that More was a man worthy of our highest adulation. In May of 1935, Pope Pius XI officially declared Sir Thomas a saint.

In October of 2000, Pope John Paul II did his part in trying to make Chesterton’s prediction come true. The pontiff wrote in an apostolic letter that More had “served not power but the supreme ideal of justice,” and lauded him for “unfailing moral integrity.”

Pope John Paul then officially declared  Sir Thomas the patron saint of Catholic statesmen and politicians; and as it concerns one thoroughly disreputable group, that is one honor on which His Holiness and I can agree.

(This is Part 1 in a series about the tyrants, hysterics, wackjobs, and conmen who populate the history of religion. Adapted from my earlier post at Moral Compass. Top image via wikimedia; bottom image by Simon_K via flickr)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.