What Makes Thomas More an Important Christian to Remember?

Thomas More lived in divisive times and found himself on the bad side of a powerful English king. How can his response inspire and teach us today?

Contributing Writer
Updated Jun 26, 2023
What Makes Thomas More an Important Christian to Remember?

In hindsight, we know being close to King Henry VIII was not always a good thing. He relished his power to do whatever he wanted with people—whether to raise them to greater stature, marry them, divorce them, exile them, or have them executed. However, he did rely heavily on the council of others. One such counselor was the confidant, high-ranking leader Thomas More. Little did Henry know the extent of More’s commitment to God and the law, which would cause a rift between them.

What Did Thomas More Do in England’s Government?

Thomas More (1478-1535) was a man of significant accomplishment in medieval England. His father, John More, was a lawyer of great distinction who led Thomas into the profession by sending him to the best schools, including Oxford. Though it may have seemed that his life’s trajectory was set because of his superior intellect and accomplishments, Thomas felt a calling to the church, which he tested by living as a monk for four months at a monastery. He later decided he would better serve his fellow man through lay ministry, though he remained committed to the church and its teachings and sacraments.

Thomas More went on to become a member of Parliament at the age of 26, and his commitment to being impartial attracted the eye of King Henry VIII, earning greater trust and assignments from the king between 1515 and 1521.

More was such a close confidant and adviser that he was asked to accompany Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, where Henry and his opponents—the leaders of France and the Holy Roman Empire—came together to meet, impress, and size up each other.

Thomas More became Sir Thomas More once Henry knighted him in 1521 and served as one of Henry’s most trusted advisors in his inner circle.

When Martin Luther started writing letters of grievance against the Catholic Church, King Henry took it upon himself, with the help of Sir Thomas, to write Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which Luther was quick to argue against.

What Did Thomas More Write?

While Sir Thomas More was well known for correspondence, like his letters advising King Henry VIII, he is most well known for his book Utopia.

Britannica.com says the book “describes a pagan and communist city-state in which the institutions and policies are entirely governed by reason.” It is meant to speak against the leaders and countries of medieval England, which he believed were governed by greed and power plays.

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What Got Thomas More into Trouble with the King of England?

Sir Thomas More’s uncompromising nature and commitment to free speech caused his ascension to Speaker of the House of Commons. But these qualities began his downfall in his relationship with Henry.

More started speaking out against King Henry VIII’s personal choices. He didn’t approve of Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, nor the marriage to Anne Boleyn and her coronation as queen. In these acts, Henry was moving away from the Catholic pope and the tenets of the Church, and More did not support this. Because he refused to acknowledge Anne’s children as the next heirs to the kingdom, he was found guilty of treason and beheaded. He was later venerated as a martyr and saint by the Catholic Church and honored by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

How Did Thomas More’s Life End?

Dan Graves describes More’s final days:

“Sir Thomas More, an English genius of letters, wrote his last note using a piece of charcoal on this day, July 5, 1535. Days earlier he had been sentenced to be hung and disemboweled, but Henry VIII had changed the sentence to beheading. The letter More wrote was to his beloved daughter, Margaret. Because the next day was Eve of St. Thomas, he wrote, ‘Therefore tomorrow long I to go to God: it were a day very meet and convenient for me.’

Why must he ‘go to God’? As a young man, More showed the brilliance that leads to eminence. He wrote memorable works, such as a biography of Richard III and his famous Utopia, in which he called for reason to master human affairs. The title of this book also entered the English language as a word.

From 1518 onward, Henry VIII employed More in his service. For twelve years the humanist rose steadily. He was made Undersecretary of the Treasury, Speaker of Parliament, and High Steward of both Oxford and Cambridge. He even became Lord Chancellor. A loyal Catholic, More wrote and acted against the reformers. He opposed Tyndale's attempts to put the Bible into the English language. As Lord Chancellor he applied force against ‘heretics.’ His loyalty to the church was bound to bring him afoul of Henry when the king proclaimed himself head of the English church. Other clergy made complete submission. More resigned his post, pleading sickness. Robert Bolt's movie, A Man for All Seasons, takes up the story at this point.

Sir Thomas More, so well-known abroad, must submit to Henry or the king could not rest easy. Every effort was made to trap the wary and scrupulous lawyer, but More could not be bribed and kept close control of his tongue. On April 17, 1534 he was consigned to the Tower of London. At first he was allowed books and visits, but later these were withdrawn.

Meanwhile, More refused to reveal what he thought. He was determined that none could condemn him for anything he said. He forced his opponents to condemn him for refusing to speak. Sir Richard Rich played Judas, perjuring himself. On July 1st More was convicted of treason. With nothing left to lose, he then declared his opposition to the king's action. Afterward he wrote a prayer for the salvation of his enemies and pled for courage. ‘Good Lord, give me the grace, in all my fear and agony, to have recourse to that great fear and wonderful agony that Thou, my sweet Savior, hadst at the Mount of Olivet...’

Along with the charcoal letter, Sir Thomas sent Margaret his hair shirt. He was granted his wish to die the next day. On the morning of July 6, 1535, he was told to make ready. He joked with the executioner and proclaimed himself the King's good servant, ‘but God's first.’ At 9 A.M. he was beheaded. After his bloody death, his head was exhibited on London bridge. In 1886 Leo XIII beatified More and in 1935 Pius XI canonized the English martyr.”

(“Sir Thomas More’s Utopian Head Rolled” by Dan Graves, MSL, first published on Christianity.com on May 3, 2010)

What Can All Christians Learn from Thomas More?

We can learn to all to be Thomas More in several senses. Sir Thomas More never stopped learning, growing, and succeeding. Yet he didn’t do these things for personal gain but because he believed God called him to use his skills this way. He never compromised his beliefs that were based on the Bible. He didn’t fear for his own life when his knowledge of the truth came up against the greatest power in the land. He was willing to be a martyr for his Savior rather than give in to what the culture said was okay. He gave no thought of his comfort—in fact he wore a hairshirt much of his life to be constantly reminded of Christ’s suffering. We can stand up for what’s right as More did, as the Word and the Holy Spirit strengthen us.

Regardless of our views on divorce and remarriage, we can learn from More that such a decision should not be made as Henry VIII did. Rather than listening to counsel, he used his power to create whatever life he wanted, despite the consequences. There were great consequences for Henry, Katherine, and Anne, which they never expected. More pointed out that King Henry’s greed led him to turn his back on the faith of his youth and the law of the land. As a result, things spun out of control with further marriages and murders. Henry would have done better to follow his friend to a life of greater integrity, honesty, and loyalty.

Dan Graves’ Bibliography:

Bezold. Geschichte der Deutschen Reformation. Berlin: Derlagsbuchhandlung, 1890. Source of the portrait.

Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons (video and written versions).

Chambers, Raymond Wilson. Thomas More. University of Michigan Press, 1958.

Daniell, David. William Tyndale: a Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Hudleston, G. Roger. "More, Thomas, St." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.

"More, Thomas." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1996.

Mozley, J.F. William Tyndale. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York, The Macmillan company, 1937.

Last updated April 2007.

Photo Credit: Public Domain (1527 portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger) via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Oelerich-Meyer is a Chicago-area freelance writer and copy editor who prayed for years for a way to write about and for the Lord. She spent 20 years writing for area healthcare organizations, interviewing doctors and clinical professionals and writing more than 1,500 articles in addition to marketing collateral materials. Important work, but not what she felt called to do. She is grateful for any opportunity to share the Lord in her writing and editing, believing that life is too short to write about anything else. Previously she served as Marketing Communications Director for a large healthcare system. She holds a B.A. in International Business and Marketing from Cornell College (the original Cornell!) When not researching or writing, she loves to spend time with her writer daughter, granddaughter, rescue doggie and husband (not always in that order).  

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