Christians killing Christians — Martyrdom? (Covenanters and Thomas More)

One of the things I find ridiculous about modern Anglican Kalendars is the presence of Sir Thomas More as a commemoration right alongside people like Thomas Cranmer or St Nicholas of Myra. Thomas More, from his own and Roman Catholicism’s perspective, was a martyr for his faith. From the perspective of Henry VIII, he was executed basically for treason, for refusing to follow the laws of his Sovereign. Both men were ostensibly Christian.

When I was a teenager, I read the book Jesus Freaks, edited by dc Talk and Voice of the Martyrs. It tells the stories of Christians from around the world and throughout history who have died for their faith in Jesus. This included more of Henry VIII’s victims.

Today, I listened to a gentleman I know give a talk on the religious history of Scotland. When he discussed the Covenanters, besides pointing out their importance for the development of democracy, human rights, etc, he talked about how they died for the Christian faith, for their faith in Jesus. Except that their persecutors, Charles I & II, were ostensibly Christians as well — who disagreed about certain points of Church polity (and I agree broadly with the Charleses, albeit not with their methods of dealing with the Covenanters).

These last two make me especially uneasy. Whilst the Covenanters are evidence of people who hold fast to their faith in the face of persecution, they are not a general vision of Christians vs. persecutors. They are, actually, Presbyterians vs. Anglicans. And that angle makes the story much more unpleasant. Is it as valiant as it sounds, then, to throw rocks at the people who tried introducing the BCP in Scotland, or to get your head chopped off over ecclesiastical polity?

When we recount Christian history, how do we tell it? This is especially important when we stumble on the sins of our forebears. As a person who day by day prefers Cranmer’s and Hooker’s Anglican vision to anything the Presbyterians have thrown at me, I cannot celebrate the Covenanters as martyrs for the Christian or even Protestant faith. But as a right-thinking Christian, I cannot approve of the methods used by the monarchs in this case, nor in the case of Sir Thomas More.

Certainly, emphasise that these people died for their vision of the Christian faith, that they believed that the arrival of Bishops and BCPs meant the compromise of the true Christian faith. But perhaps be transparent? Say, ‘Sadly, Charles II, himself an Anglican Christian, chose to turn aside from our Lord’s commandments to love, and used force to impose his religious polity.’ Admit that Anglicans and even the demonised Papis — er, Roman Catholics — are actually Christians, and say that the religious wars and persecutions of the Reformation era are a blot on Christian History, from Cranmer burned by Mary I to Cistercians drawn and quartered by Henry VIII to Covenanters executed by Charles II.

Then perhaps we can grieve for the sins of our ancestors and come together in our shared faith, rather than making the monarchist Anglican in the crowd feel highly uncomfortable.

6 thoughts on “Christians killing Christians — Martyrdom? (Covenanters and Thomas More)

    • I’m inclined towards stripping him of titles and exiling Sir Thomas More. But perhaps I’m a bit too Roman/Early Mediaeval for the Renaissance/Reformation.

      Regarding popular contemporary spiritual writer Thomas Moore, if I were Henry VIII I’d read him at least once before passing judgement. 😉

    • Yes — his refusal to accept Henry as Head of the Church added an element of instability. The Sovereign’s reign was safer without him in the country influencing policy.

      • I tend to think that Thomas More would have done the same to Henry VIII if he had the authority and power, because the latter was causing instability and eventual split of the Catholic Church. It seems to be no different from “Christians killing Christians” in war.

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