Christians who Changed their World: Hannah More (1745-1833)

HannahMoreIn late eighteenth century England, the opportunities available to women varied by social class. Lower class women had little opportunity for education and typically worked in service for the upper classes or in factories; a shockingly high number were prostitutes. Upper class women did not have as many rights as men, but were often well traveled and active in politics and intellectual life. Some were writers, following in the footsteps of Aphra Behn, the first female professional writer in Great Britain.

Formative years
Hannah More did not come from an upper class background, but she had the good fortune of having a schoolmaster for her father. Hannah was the fourth of five daughters born to Jacob More. Prior to her birth, Jacob had hopes of a career in the Church of England, but he changed his plans when he lost a great deal of money in a law suit over an estate he thought he would inherit. He moved to Bristol, and in 1743, he was appointed as teacher at Fishponds school, where Hannah was born.

In 1758, Jacob set up a boarding school for girls, run by his older daughters. Hannah studied there and later taught at the school as a young adult.

While teaching at the school, Hannah began writing plays for the girls to perform. These plays would establish her as a literary figure in England. One of them, The Search after Happiness, written when she was 17 years old, sold over 10,000 copies by the 1780s.

In 1767, she left the school and became engaged to William Turner. After six years, with no wedding in sight and with Turner unwilling to set a date, she called the engagement off. Turner gave her a £200 annuity as compensation for his refusal to fulfill his commitment to her, and with that income she was able to devote herself to literary pursuits.

In 1774 More went to London, where she became acquainted with David Garrick, a famous actor, playwright, and theatre manager. Garrick introduced her into literary and intellectual circles in London. More became acquainted with Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and other intellectual leaders of the day, and was closely associated with the “Bluestockings,” a group of women involved in intellectual and literary activities and political discussion.

More continued to write, with her greatest success being the play Percy (1777), which Garrick helped her to produce. However, Garrick died shortly thereafter, and her next play, The Fatal Falsehood (1779) flopped. This effectively ended her interest in the theatre.

Changing Directions
On a trip back to Bristol, More discovered Ann Yearsley, a poet who made a living as a milk maid. More helped her get published and even raised a large amount of money to help her when she went bankrupt, but the two had a serious falling out in 1785, including More being taken to court by Yearsley. These reversals led More to withdraw from the fashionable intellectual circles in London and enter what would become the next major phase of her life, as an evangelical reformer.

Already in 1782, More had published Sacred Dramas, a work intended to be read rather than performed. She was becoming far more serious in her outlook on life and she was gradually experiencing a conversion toward evangelicalism. She became friends with John Newton, the converted slave-trader turned pastor and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and became heavily involved with William Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle. She soon joined them in working for social reform and rapidly emerged as the leading female member of the group.

More put her prodigious literary talents to use in the cause of reform. The Clapham Circle is best known for their work in abolition, and More got involved in this right away. In 1788, shortly after Wilberforce first introduced a bill in Parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade, More published the poem, Slavery, a description of the horrors of slavery from the perspective of a slave woman separated from her children. She would continue to produce anti-slavery tracts in the following years, including particularly The Sorrows of Yamba, or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation (1795).

More’s reform writings were not limited to the slavery issue. She wrote numerous books on morality and religion, character formation, education of women, and politics. Many of these had proto-feminist leanings, insisting that women’s potential had been shortchanged in the educational system. Among her political writings were Village Politics, by Will Chip (1792), a response to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man that was intended to move England away from following in the footsteps of the French Revolution, and Thoughts on the Speech of M. Dupont (1793), an attack on French anti-clericalism.

More would combine her interests in supporting the working poor and conservative loyalist politics in The Cheap Repository Tracts (1795-1797), a series of pamphlets published at a rate of one per month. They dealt with moral themes and were written in More’s characteristically vivid style. The most successful of these was The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, which was translated into multiple languages. These tracts, which sold up to two million copies in a year, extolled the virtues of frugality, industry, piety, contentment, loyalty to the crown, and hatred of the French.

All of this was in keeping with William Wilberforce’s statement that God had set before him two great objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the “reformation of manners,” by which he meant a fundamental reform in how people behaved and treated each other. Without articulating it in those terms, More’s work shows that she was united with Wilberforce and the rest of the Clapham Circle in these two great causes.

The Educator
But More did more than simply write in the cause of social reform. She gave a great deal of money to philanthropic causes, particularly the British and Foreign Bible Society. In 1785, she purchased a house at Cowslip Green in Somerset, near the village of Cheddar. When William Wilberforce visited the area, he was distressed at the poor living conditions of the residents, so he encouraged More to open a school to begin educating the children. By 1800, she had opened twelve schools throughout the area, teaching reading, the Bible and catechism to the children. This was quite controversial—the local farmers thought education would destroy agriculture in the region, and the clergy were convinced she was a “Methodist,” which in the period was a slur similar to calling someone today a “holy roller.”

More continued to be a sharp and witty conversationalist until two years before her death. She welcomed visitors, including Samuel Coleridge, and she served as an inspiration for the next generation of evangelical women writers in Britain. She also continued to be involved in the intellectual life of England.

More died on September 7, 1833. Like Wilberforce, she lived just long enough to see her nearly lifelong dream of the abolition of the slave trade come to pass. On her death, she left £30,000 to charitable causes, the equivalent of over $3,000,000 today.

Next Steps

What talents do you have to lend to the cause of restoration—the commitment to “join with God in redeeming individuals, restoring communities, and repairing the lives of families”? Are you?

Further Reading:
For more on More’s writing, go to the Colson Center Library and download “Commending the Faith: Hannah More’s Finely Crafted, Reverent Prose.” If you’re interested in the American abolition movement, try
Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement at the Online Bookstore.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.