|Christians who Changed their World: Hannah More (1745-1833)|
In 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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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?