If you are like most people, you perhaps have never heard of Hannah More, so don’t feel bad. When you’re done hearing my very short discussion about her and her legacy, and why she is often called the female Wilberforce, you might, like me, come to think of Wilberforce as the female More.
Let me just tell you a little bit about her life and what we can learn from her. As the subtitle of my book suggests, she was a poet, reformer and abolitionist, and I will briefly go through those things and the structure of her life.
The first phase of her life found Hannah More quite a celebrated writer, moving among the literary elite of London as a young woman in the middle to late 18th century. Some of her works now today appear in anthologies of romantic literature and minor women writers, so she still is remembered by literary scholars.
But it wasn’t long after she had spent these years in London when she read a book — it was published anonymously, actually — a book of letters from a clergyman to a number of people. The book was called “Cardiphonia, or The Utterance of the Heart,” and the author was John Newton. Most of us probably remember him as the former slave ship captain and the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and also the mentor to William Wilberforce, the one who actually encouraged Wilberforce upon his conversion not to leave public life but to maintain his public work in Parliament and to do ministry there.
After reading Newton’s work, [Hannah More] really became disenchanted with the fashionable life in the city and withdrew to the country. There she met up with Newton in person and also with William Wilberforce and a number of other evangelicals who formed a group called the Clapham Sect. These are people who not only fought the slave trade but they enacted reforms throughout all of society.
All of the things that More herself was involved in — and this is what is really unique about her and why I think she is worthy of being rediscovered — made her one of the rare people in this highly stratified culture, highly divided by class, gender and race, uniquely poised to reach everyone in her society.
She first wrote, as I mentioned, works that were received by the literary elite, and celebrated and applauded. But she left all that behind after being convicted to live a life for the Lord. So she began writing treatises, heavy books aimed to the wealthy and the powerful and elite, encouraging them, exhorting them and inspiring them to live not just nominally religious lives but to live devout lives. These books were best-sellers. Even royalty read the books and were influenced by them. The Queen actually said that she was convicted to let her hairdresser off on Sundays so she could observe the Sabbath.
So More wrote first to the upper class and she convicted them, and she wrote also to the growing middle class. The novel was developing as a popular form of literature and read by the masses, and so she wrote a novel for them that extolled a biblical view of marriage and of education.
She opened a number of Sunday schools out in the countryside in the west of England, where she lived. Those of you who know about the Sunday school movement know that Sunday schools then were not what they are now. They were actually schools, elementary schools held on Sunday for the poor because Sunday was the only day they didn’t work. Even the children worked six days a week.
More opened these schools and taught the poor to read, which was considered very radical and revolutionary. She taught the poor to read because she wanted them to be able to read the Bible. She wanted them to be able to learn the catechism and repeat it. She taught the poor employable skills so they could get out of the mines and out of the dangerous work that they were doing and out of the grinding poverty that they lived in.
Not only did she try with her friends in the evangelical movement to reform the wealthy, to instruct the middle class and to elevate the lives of the poor, but she even cared about animals.
Animals in that time were considered, as a result of Enlightenment thinking and the disciples of Descartes — who believed that animals were just simply machines to be experimented on alive — to be used as entertainment and to be viciously treated until their short, brutish lives were ended. But More and Wilberforce and their evangelical friends promote[d] animal welfare. More did so in her tracts. Wilberforce did so by being one of the founding members of the British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We have a counterpart here in America today.
During all of these years — which covered decades, where they were doing all of this work, reforming society from high to low — they were also fighting the slave trade. This is what they are most known for, and the reason I am spending the least time talking about that tonight is because it’s important that we learn from the lives who went before us about how they were not single-issue activists. They were Christians who understood that the application of the Gospel throughout all of society can lead to flourishing for everyone.
So they worked on all of these issues simultaneously. We know from history how long it took them to accomplish some of these feats. It wasn’t until after working for decades, in 1807 finally England abolished the slave trade. And it wasn’t until 1833, several weeks after the deaths of Wilberforce and several weeks before the death of Hannah More, that the last slaves in the British Empire were freed. This was decadeslong work, and the entire time they were working on issues that affected every level of society. Talk about restoring the culture and having a vision for everyone!
So when we study the life of someone like Hannah More — and again, I’m sure most of you have never heard of, and I had not heard of, her until I stumbled across her name in a dusty book doing doctoral research — we find that church history is filled with saints like these who went before us. And we don’t have to know all their names, and we don’t have to expect our names to be remembered, but we can expect that because we are doing the work of Jesus Christ and [it is because we are] guided by his spirit that we can be part of movements that will change the world forever and ever, just as these saints who went before change the world for us.
• Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Liberty University and specializes in 18th century English literature. She is the author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, Poet, Reformer Abolitionist” (Thomas Nelson, 2014). This excerpt is from her April 8, 2016, remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.
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