Thomas More vs. James the Less

Welcome to the opening matchup of Lent Madness 2020! If you're a veteran of the Saintly Smackdown, we're delighted you're back for another year of saintly thrills and spills. If you're joining us for the first time, we're especially glad you're along for this wild penitential ride. If you're curious about what this all entails, check out the About Lent Madness tab on the website.

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But mostly, we encourage you to read about the 32 saints participating in this year’s edition of Lent Madness, faithfully cast your (single!) vote on the weekdays of Lent, and add your comments to the great cloud of participating witnesses that gathers as the online Lent Madness community each year. If you're wondering when your favorite saint will be competing - in order to rally your friends and neighbors (creative campaigning is encouraged, voter fraud is not) - you can check out the 2020 Matchup Calendar.

Things kick off with an early 16th century Anglican facing off against a Biblical character as Thomas More clashes with James the Less. We hope you enjoy reading about these two saintly souls, more or less, before casting your very first vote of Lent Madness 2020! We're glad you're all here. Now get to it!

Thomas More

Of all the characters of the English Reformation, few are as remarkable as Sir Thomas More. He was considered a scold yet also a man of quick wit, at once both politically astute and obstinate, and a man who was behind his time even as he lived ahead of it.

Born in 1478, Thomas became a barrister in 1502 and was elected to Parliament in 1504. For a time, Thomas debated becoming a Franciscan or a priest — and ultimately chose neither, pursuing marriage and a legal career instead. While known for his strict piety, including the wearing of a hair shirt, and the daily recitation of the Offices, Thomas delighted in life in London and was eager to engage in argument and debate.

Thomas’s intellect, honesty, and loyalty to his family and king brought him into the service of Henry VIII. During this time, Thomas wrote Utopia, a political essay envisioning an ideal community in which there is no private property, universal religious toleration, and free education for men and women alike.

Thomas was a devoted husband and father, committed to the education of his wife and four daughters to a level far exceeding the standard education of women during that time; his dedication to this task was often noted by his contemporaries.

In 1529, Thomas became Lord Chancellor of England. Thomas was strident in his opposition to the Protestant Reformation, and his support in joining Henry VIII’s attack on Martin Luther earned him the title “defender of the faith” by the Pope. As Henry moved to assert his power as king over the Church in England, Thomas, dedicated to the Roman Church, found himself in opposition to the king he loved. He resigned as chancellor in 1532. When Thomas later refused to take an oath swearing that Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was true and valid (after the divorce from Catharine of Aragon), he was thrown into the Tower of London. At trial, Thomas defended himself as being true to the church over any king. He was condemned to die and executed in 1535. His final words were that he died for the faith of the Church and was “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Collect for Thomas More
Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Thomas More triumphed over suffering and was faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember him in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

David Sibley

James the Less

Who was James the Less? Well, it depends on whom you ask. This is because the gospels are replete with Jameses. There’s James the son of Zebedee, James the son of Alpheus, as well as James the brother of Jesus. The confusion is further compounded because the gospel writers don’t always distinguish which James they’re referring to in a passage and the Gospel of Mark only refers to “James the Less” in one passage (Mark 15:40).

Some Roman Catholics believe James the Less refers to James the brother of Jesus, while Anglicans consider James the Less as James the son of Alpheus. Even if we blithely assume the Anglicans are right in saying that James the Less is, indeed, James the son of Alpheus, this biography almost comes to a full stop. The truth is, we know very little about this apostle. Yet perhaps what we know is important enough. James the son of Alpheus was most certainly an apostle as three of the gospels include him in their lists (Mark 3:18; Matthew 10:3; Luke 6:12-16) — and he is also present in a room that is full of apostles in Acts 1:13. Beyond this, however, there’s not much more to go on.

Of course, this has never stopped the wider church from filling in the gaps — as you’ll see, neither will it stop me. Some legends hold that James the son of Alpheaus lived to ninety-six years old and died by crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish authorities in Ostrakine in lower Egypt. His body was then sawed in half. This is dubious for many reasons, including the fact that crucifixion was a favorite execution method of Roman, rather than Jewish, authorities.

But since I’m already giving space to dubious claims, I want to offer a new one, entirely of my own creation, and equally bereft of any evidence. In Mexican Spanish, we add a diminutive to people we feel an incredible amount of affection for, to those we love and adore. Mexican Spanish contrasts with America’s obsession with “bigger is better” by linguistically shrinking everyone we love to make them cuter and sweeter and more adorable still. I’d love to believe that “the less” is, in fact, a diminutive rooted in affection. If so, then Mark 15:40 is talking about James the little guy, James the adorable apostle, James the cherished one. Which James, exactly, this passage refers to remains a mystery, but to my mind that’s still a James worth voting for.

Collect for James the Less
Almighty God, who gave to your apostle James grace and strength to bear witness to the truth: Grant that we, being mindful of his victory of faith, may glorify in life and death the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Miguel Escobar

Thomas More vs. James the Less

  • Thomas More (68%, 6,814 Votes)
  • James the Less (32%, 3,231 Votes)

Total Voters: 10,045

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Thomas More: Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1554), Thomas More. Oil on Oak Panel, 1527. The Frick Collection. [Public domain]
James the Less: Statue of St. James the Less in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran by Angelo de Rossi [wikipedia]


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311 comments on “Thomas More vs. James the Less”

  1. Bible scholars have noted before
    James’ record is kind of a bore.
    Though More’s record is marred
    By those Bibles he charred,
    My conclusion is: Less is not More.

      1. While I greatly admire Sir Thomas for his standing up to ol' Henry and his belief in the education of women, I found the support for James the Less to be quite endearing. I have always been fond of the Biblical Jameses so cast my vote for James, less not more.

        1. I am with Patsy and Diane. So many books, movies and TV shows have been made about Sir Thomas More - we know his name! He was an incredibly honorable man. Now, think about James the Less... Yes, less is known... He was an apostle. A humble, dedicated apostle. Did he get to wear fine robes and feast at banquets? Not likely. For these reasons I voted for James the Less.

        1. If "the less" is diminutive affection that lends more credence to RC notion of James as brother of Jesus. Calling yiur sibling the little one? Speaking as an elder sibling, yes we'd totally do that.

    1. Same here! Much as I appreciate the movie "A Man for All Seasons", it's good to learn about some of the little-known saints.

      1. So we are underway with the Madness, eh? What a first day it has been. Thomas established a commanding lead early - but the later comments are going with James the Cute. I’m intrigued to see what the final result will be.

    2. Some days, when the Saints duking it out don't do anything for me, it's your limericks that keep me coming back.

      Did you dream that witty poetry would be a part of your vocation? God sure is nifty.

    3. Miguel’s linguistic creativity wins for me. James the Cute gets the loot.

    4. The question's not just More or Less
      For us to choose who's really best,
      But rather how
      Our heart is now
      For that's the one that we shall bless.

  2. I loved Mr. Escobar's explanation that, in Mexican Spanish, a diminutive shows love and affection. Thank you for this! So, it's James the Less for me today.

      1. It was not just the bibles that were charred by More. It was humans, fellow citizens, tortured then burned. And he was delighted when there were and delighted that they would burn in hell. He himself said so. “(Tewkesbury) 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.” That he did not do it to more people is due to the king falling out with the pope, not because he felt mercy. No, I would not vote for him- nor for Cranmer for the same reason.

    1. In honor of all the "ita-s" and "ito-s" in my life, I love that expression of cariño, today it will be James.

    2. I am in Costa Rica and love the diminutive theory......though I did love Thomas More in The Tudors!

  3. Thomas More was a faithful fanatic, perhaps one of the most confusing people in history. Mostly I respect him, but can never vote for someone who burned people to death because he feared their faith.

    1. Hi Diana, I should have read your comment before I casted my vote! Given the religious intolerance in our modern days, I now see More’s actions in a different light.

    2. I used to have a vaguely positive impression of More--Man for All Seasons and all that. Then I read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and realized he was misguided and violent in his zealotry.

      1. Since those are both works of fiction, they may say as much about the authors' attempts to create engaging stories as they do about the actual historical characters.

        1. Mantel's work is based on impeccable historical work; "A Man for All Seasons" is romanticized. I could never vote for someone with his own set of torture chambers.

    3. Pam, you must enroll yourself to get the daily emails. Go to the top right of this page (, enter your email address in the box below "GET LENT MADNESS BY EMAIL!" and click "Subscribe". You'll start getting the daily updates tomorrow.

      Welcome aboard!

  4. Since "sanctity" might actually be a bit of an elusive quality to identify, I like the constraint that any reference to our "little James" demands more conversation. I'll go with him.

  5. Thomas Moore was a communist to the core, he wrote Utopia and Utopia is a vision of a communist society. In addition, he was a very crude and course man. Thus he in his book suggests that the best way to pick a wife is to examine her in the nude. Please Vote for James the Less (faith without works is dead)

  6. As an Anglican, it feels a little odd to be voting for Thomas More - but I can't think of many men more dedicated to living by their consciences informed by faith and striving for the betterment of others as best he could understand it. I might not agree with him on everything, but I admire him greatly, nonetheless, and hope I can live with such fidelity, too.

    1. Me Too! Education for women, Utopia based on Christ-like sharing and community, and the fact that unlike today's "religious advisers" he actually picked God over king. These are the reasons that I picked Thomas More.

      1. "Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me ....." comes to mind. Jesus seems to often bless the "lesser" people

  7. Thomas More has never inspired me, and perhaps I'm being contrary, but with the promise of more information about the saints as they advance in the brackets and the dearth of information available about James the Less, I can't wait to see what more is provided as he joins the Saintly Sixteen. Go Team James!

  8. I have great respect for More standing up to power, particular a king using religion to enhance royal power, but I was open to voting for James until I read the explanation. I like to know who I am voting for and James the Less seems so unclear that I really cannot cast my vote for this unknown.

  9. Just can’t get past More’s fanaticism. Genius, yes; great father, yes. Saint?, Not in my book.

  10. In Greek, linguist Sarah Ruden notes that the diminutive form is also associated with adorable or cute or endearing. She addresses the use of the word dogs in the parable of the Syro-Phoenician woman. The word in Greek would actually translate as cute and adorable puppies, throwing new and lighter light on troubling Gospel passage. I am voting for More anyway.

  11. Diana, seems to me that Thomas More is the one who got burned. I voted for james anyway.

    1. Actually, wasn't Thomas More beheaded? I'm not sure it's important - he was just one of Henry's many casualties in his grab for power. I voted for More even though he's a mixed character (as are we all). I admire his faithfulness even if I don't always agree with some of his attitudes.

  12. Thomas More. (I like the Robert Bolt version over Hilary Mantel). Gotta go with someone who puts their faith over politics even if it costs them their life. Also, I like the fact he tried his darndest NOT to be executed. Never carried for eager martyrs.

    1. While I agree heartily re 'eager martyrs' (ugh!), and re Bolt v Mantel ("...But for *Wales*, Richard?" Lol!) Mantel's is a lot more accurate to what the actual More was like.
      He was a complicated man, for sure, and lived in dangerous times, but his approval of torture and eagerness to send people to a horrible death out of fear leaves me unable to vote for him. But maybe a lot of people will now check out "Man for All Seasons".
      Duke: "Dammit, Thomas -- can you not come with us, for fellowship's sake?"
      More: "And when we die, and you go to Heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to Hell for not doing mine... will you come with me, for fellowship's sake?"

      1. If it were James,brother of Jesus,then the thought of him being sawed in half could possibly be, if they just crucified him as Christ, he could come back. Was then, sawing of his body, as their way to prevent this, as a precaution? Just a random thought

  13. I also love Miguel's explanation of the diminutive in Spanish and especially love the image of the "adorable apostle." It almost brought me over to James, and yet I relied on the certainty of Thomas More's existence (I like knowing whom I am voting for) and have admiration for his respect for his daughters and wife and his sacrifice for his ideals. How many of us would be willing to do what he did for his beliefs of right and wrong. He's far from perfect, but you can say that about anybody, and I may not want to share a beer with the man, but that's true for a lot of people I admire. Unapologetically, may I have some More, please!

  14. Thomas More's advocate makes an excellent case that eventually compelled my vote. I have deep trouble with his resistance to the Reformation and lack of "Anglican compromise," (which may be a healthy reminder that not all compromise is Godly.) More's faith, discipline, advocacy and legacy are admirable even today. I very much appreciate the advocacy for James the Less. It's a powerful reminder that in God's reign, there are no "lesses" and the least can be the most cherished. So, I find myself in the odd position of voting for one with whom I struggle while standing by one I'm learning to cherish. Saints are not always ones with whom we can feel warm and cuddly.

    1. Amen to that - "Saints are not always ones with whom we can feel warm and cuddly." God seems to have a habit of choosing to work through complicated and messy people (that includes all of us)!

    2. I wish you had mentioned More’s burning people at the stake in your biography! It seems like a pretty important part of who he was.

  15. Though he does present rather a mixed bag, I think Thomas More showed commendable spine in standing up to an increasingly crazed authoritarian who brooked no dissent and would often lash out with deadly consequences at those he perceived as being disloyal. Not just a man for all seasons, Thomas More was a man for all centuries. He gets my vote today.

    1. I hadn"t made the comparison but currently here in the US we have a crazed authoritarian figure who lashes out at those he perceives as disloyal- not to God or to our country- but to those disloyal to HIM.
      Makes me think twice about my vote for James the Less

  16. I vote for Thomas More, definder of the faith and devoted to his family. He was committed to the education of his wife and 4 daughters. A man way ahead of his time.
    You lost me when starting the artaicle with," who was James the Less?".

  17. My all time favorite movie is the original "A Man For All Seasons," starring the late, great Paul Scofield as Thomas. If Thomas didn't say it, author Robert Bolt gave him the wonderful line, "Finally, it is not a matter of reason; finally, it is a matter of love."