are you now or have you ever...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sir Thomas More as conservative reformer

What kind of reformer was Sir Thomas More? Often portrayed as a heroic martyr for the liberty of conscience, More had a long career in public service before his disagreement over the King's Great Matter led to his alienation from & eventual martyrdom by Henry VIII.  Here's an interesting reflection on Thomas More's work as part of the Northern Renaissance prior to the Reformation:  Thomas More, Christian Humanism and Utopia.  (Hat tip to the old Western Confucian blog.)  As the reflection points out, at the core of More's work as a lawyer, judge & statesman were some simple Christian principles:
He believed that through the wisdom and examples of the Holy Scriptures, specifically by serving one another in the active Christian love found in the Gospels, and the guidance by the universal Church and its doctrines, society could better itself until the time that Christ returned to earth.
That brief summary of More's key convictions explains how the Man for All Seasons pivoted from being a Church reformer in the period prior to the outbreak of the Reformation to such a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy & papal primacy during the Reformation -- a transformation that ultimately led to his martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII.  Both before the Reformation & in that movement's early stages, More sought to defend the purity of the Catholic faith, first from the abuses present within the pre-Reformation Church & then from the destruction of the Catholic faith at the hands of a government seeking to impose Protestantism in England.

In that work, More is an almost perfect example of a conservative reformer. He was no radical; rather he sought to retain essential truths of the faith while working to correct abuses in the Church's way of life. Unlike his opponents, he was not a doctrinal innovator; he sought reform for the Church instead of its replacement. Once this is understood, More's actions during the early Reformation can be understood to be a continuation of his efforts to improve the Church prior to the Reformation. As such, More's basic approach to the question of reform stands well within the conservative approach to societal change set out by men such as Edmund Burke (himself a practicing Anglican who was married to a Catholic & sympathetic to Catholic freedom in England & Ireland).   Far from being a reactionary, a fundamentalist or religious fanatic (as he has been portrayed recently by the historical fiction Wolf Hall), More stands as a conservative voice for both reform of and fidelity to the Catholic Church, of necessary change within the constraints of substantive continuity.

What, then, of charges made against More that he tortured Protestants during his time in government, denying to his opponents the very right of conscience that he himself claimed when subject to coercive action by Henry's henchmen? The Supremacy and Survival blog has a good discussion of the actual historical record regarding Thomas More's actions in the suppression of heresy prior to Henry's break with Rome:
As summarized by John Guy in The Public Career of Sir Thomas More (Yale, 1980), "Serious analysis precludes the repetition of protestant stories that Sir Thomas flogged heretics against a tree in his garden at Chelsea. It must exclude, too, the accusations of illegal imprisonment made against More by John Field and Thomas Phillips. Much vaunted by J.A. Froude, such charges are unsupported by independent proof. More indeed answered them in his Apology with emphatic denial. None has ever been substantiated, and we may hope that they were all untrue" (165-66). See also G.R. Elton, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Papers and Reviews 1946-1972, Volume 1, 158 ("It is necessary to be very clear about More's reaction to the changes in religion which he saw all around him. No doubt, the more scurrilous stories of his personal ill-treatment of accused heretics have been properly buried, but that is not to make him into a tolerant liberal.")
Paralleling this understanding of More, Cambridge historian and Reformation scholar Eamon Duffy has noted, "More was neither blood-soaked nor a hypocrite, but he was a man of his times, not of ours." And in that, More reflects one of the key characteristics of a conservative reformer: he was a man of his day, living not by abstraction but by the customs and the mores of hist time, tempered by prudential application of principle.


Jonathan Rowe said...

He wrote "Utopia" right? I'm still trying to get a handle on what he meant by it. The idea of collectivism/egalitarianism (even the most radical kind) didn't originate with Marx. Though Marx gave it an atheistic spin.

Mark D. said...


He did write Utopia, although the best interpretation of it that I have read proposes that it was meant to be a satire/parody of all the various attempts at creating or planning an ideal society (the give away is in the title, "No Place").

Tom Van Dyke said...

A fascinating debate from the 1500s--Thomas More [with the pope's approval and encouragement] vs. early Protestant Reformer [translator of the Bible into English, and thus a wanted theological fugitive, eventually whacked by order of Henry VIII in 1536].

More is virtually unreadable these days but the same arguments [and Tyndale's] persist these 500 years later, and the linked paper lays them out nicely--both sides getting their innings in.

Mark D. said...

Thanks, Tom. The More-Tyndale debates are well worth reading, but yeah, More is a hard slog in English.