I had no idea what a debt I owe to Hannah More.
As it turns out, I…. no, WE… live in a world significantly shaped by the life of this lady: a poet, an abolitionist and a reformer. She was an acclaimed poet and published playwright. She was dinner-party-buddies with the likes of Dr Samuel Johnson, the great force behind the first dictionary. She worshipped with John Newton, author of Amazing Grace. She worked tirelessly alongside William Wilberforce: he the voice and she the writer of the pamphlets which changed the course of history in the battle against slavery. She was the only female member of the legendary Clapham Sect.
And, as if that weren’t enough: she and her sisters co-founded a school while still in their teens, they wrote for the reform of education and the place of women in a changing world, and in the years that followed, established schools for an entire region of England where children worked and life was rough… but on Sunday (oh sweet Sunday!), the factories were closed and the books opened.
Although historians and biographers have noted Hannah More before, Karen Swallow Prior has produced a stunning work in her book Fierce Convictions (Thomas Nelson). I’ve been a fan of Karen’s writing for some time (you might remember her fantastic guest post) – and in this work she brings all the academic rigor of painstaking and careful research to bear, mingled with conviction, warmth and wit.
Karen Swallow Prior’s thoughts and writing captured me the first time I read her, and I can see why Hannah More must have had the same effect on her. For certainly, Prior could write on anything, and probably anyone, and I would be willing to read it… but she chose Hannah More: and what a credit to humankind (and womankind!) they both are.
I’ve mentioned before that I am, first an foremost, a lover of fiction. Non-fiction books are often hard for me to get through, and biographies can read a lot like tedious history. In particular, I am a lover of fiction with snappy dialog. But Fierce Convictions – although it is non-fiction and a biography, is CRAMMED full of the wit and insight of one of the great minds of her day. There are excerpts of her letters which made me laugh out loud, and which I went back and underlined a second, and then a third time – in order to think on them more deeply.
This was a terrific book to read: not only because it is fitting to pay tribute to someone such as Hannah More, or even because her example of faith-in-action, of someone using what she had in the ways that she could with perseverance, is something remarkable to emulate. It was a terrific book because the story of Hannah More is woven into a deeper story of how the world has changed, and of how it is the same.
Were it not for women like Hannah: I may not have been able to attend college. Her writings were significant milestones in a long road towards women being educated. Were it not for women like Hannah: who knows how long the African slave trade would have lasted? Were it not for women like Hannah: would the industrial revolution have played out in the way it did? Or would democracy have developed as it did, given that literacy is a crucible for democracy – and she taught a nation to read?
Hannah More’s world was different to mine: as a woman, she had no right to vote, no place at the table. As someone in the 18th century, she did not have public schooling. Information was slow to travel. Social classes could not be transcended.
The world has changed since More’s time (and More had a hand in changing it), but it was also startling to me to read about the ways in which More’s world is similar to ours: we have pressing injustices in our world, and it is often not in the economic or political interests of the powers-that-be to change them. There are people who cannot read in our world, and it is often considered too hard/too expensive/too unrealistic to make a difference. There are people right under our noses who are in need of advocates.
We remain a world in need of people with Fierce Convictions. And, having read Hannah More’s story, I’m feeling just a little more Fierce.
You should read it too. Our world needs more like her.
Thomas Nelson Publishers have kindly offered me a copy of Fierce Convictions to a reader. Enter to win a copy below. Entries close Wednesday, November 13th at midnight PST.