Heroes for the Books, Part 2: Hannah More

By Monday, April 06, 2015 ,

Here we are at the second post in the “Heroes for the Books” series on notable biographies. The first installment covered Eric Metaxas’ biography on William Wilberforce and can be found here if you missed it. This time, I want to introduce you to a lesser known friend of Wilberforce’s: Hannah More.

I met Hannah More through Karen Swallow Prior’s recent biography on her titled Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Admittedly, I knew little of her previously. I knew she was a colleague of Wilberforce, as she appears briefly in the movie Amazing Grace, but that was about it. However, she’s succinctly featured with glowing praise in Eric Metaxas’ biography on Wilberforce, so when I discovered Fierce Convictions, I was eager to read it. When I did, I was shocked Hannah More wasn’t better known. The range of her accomplishments is grand, and her faithfulness to her beliefs is moving.

Please excuse my dusty bookshelf... these things tend to get pushed down on the priority list
Karen Swallow Prior paints a vibrant picture of this lesser-known hero with a story-like style that draws in her reader. Her extensive research is fascinating, and many excerpts of More’s writings and letters are included, so the biography has a personal ring. And the scope of her accomplishments is really extraordinary – she was a renowned playwright and poet, a committed abolitionist alongside Wilberforce, and she championed education reform for the poor and for women. In thinking about it after reading, I’ve pinpointed two major aspects of Hannah More which Fierce Convictions powerfully narrates and that are worthy of notice.

1) When Hannah More saw something needed to change, she took it upon herself to effect it
Many times, this was through her pen. She was one of the most popular writers of her day, which is one reason I was surprised she isn’t better known today. Her plays were translated to the stage many times, and she was popular with England’s most admired minds of the day. But as she grew older and her Christian faith strengthened, she focused more on using her writing to influence changes she wanted to see in society. She particularly used it to address the prevalent corruption of the day. England was Christian in name only; people paid lip service to the church and observed religious routine, but crime, immorality, and violent sports were commonplace. More saw the disparity and wrote to compare the difference between genuine Christianity and how the populace had distorted it. It was frowned upon to bring faith into the public sphere, but More had an unusually respected voice, as she welcomed friendship with people of widely different beliefs and status, and she was known for her wittiness and intelligence. All kinds of voices, from literary critics, to theater elites, to church officials, praised her work, but she constantly sought to be the change needed and seemed to rarely let it give way to pride. I enjoyed seeing through Fierce Convictions how she used her wide influence to instigate so much good. 

2) Hannah More was a refreshing voice for the poor and for women
This area is perhaps what I admire most about Hannah More. It’s difficult to imagine today how engrained social class was in her day. The class into which you were born – aristocratic, middle-class, or poor – was your place and you were obliged to live by it and stay there. Downton Abbey fans: Lady Sybil and Branson, anyone? Or the maid trying to become a secretary? That prejudice against crossing social lines was real. But Hannah More poured energy and intellect into being a voice for the poor and for women, both through writing and hands-on teaching. Particularly notable were her and her sisters’ efforts to educate the impoverished village of Cheddar in Somerset. Conditions were appalling, and the Mores believed strongly that education was necessary for improvement. The chapter that details this endeavor is titled “Teaching the Nation to Read,” and it is accurate. To be poor also meant to be illiterate, and Hannah More’s work for the poor had enduring impact in changing that.
Beautiful Cheddar Gorge near the village of Cheddar
{Photo by Katherine Moreman}

Hannah More’s beliefs on the role of women were also unconventional, but she sought healthy tension between conflicting views of the day. She wrote extensively on the subject, and her ideas were unusual in that they encouraged women’s education, but she never subscribed to ideologies that encouraged profligacy. Rather, she saw education as the step to rationality and usefulness. She argued that society placed such focus on outward beauty and accomplishment that it developed vanity. Fierce Convictions reads, 
“A useful education served women best, More thought. To ‘learn how to grow old gracefully is perhaps one of the rarest and most valuable arts which can be taught to a woman.’ Yet, when beauty is all that is expected or desired in a woman, she is left with nothing in its absence. It ‘is a most severe trial for those women to be called to lay down beauty, who have nothing else to take up.’” (214)

 I enjoyed this aspect of Hannah More because she expected more of women than society at large did, but she also did not deny femininity and its difference from masculinity. The biography closes with this quote of More’s that summarizes her refreshing position well:
“The woman who derives her principles from the Bible, and her amusements from intellectual sources, from the beauties of nature, and from active employment and exercise, will not pant for beholders. She is no clamorous beggar for the extorted alms of admiration. She lives on her own stock. She possesses the truest independence. She does not wait for the opinion of the world, to know if she is right; nor for the applause of the world, to know if she is happy.” (254)

Well said, Hannah More. Her words on this subject reminded me of something Elisabeth Elliot, one of my favorites, once wrote:

“To me, a lady is not frilly, flouncy, flippant, frivolous and fluff-brained, but she is gentle, she is gracious, she is godly, and she is giving.”

I think that captures much of Hannah More. As I read Fierce Convictions, I was inspired and challenged, but also encouraged. She not only talked of change, but acted and fought for the change. She was by no means perfect, but she used what was in front of her to make a difference and was not afraid to speak up where it was needed. Here’s hoping for many more (sorry, couldn’t help it :P) Hannah Mores in days to come. Her story certainly needs to be told, read, and emulated.

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