Karen Swallow Prior. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2014. 272 pp. $24.99.
In our modern era of cultural upheaval, with a renewed emphasis in evangelicalism on the gospel’s intersection with social justice and societal transformation, it’s common to want to look back into history and see how other Christians have lived. There are countless biographies of Christian men who have lived out their faith in ways that changed the world. Far fewer ones about women exist. Hannah More was a close friend and ally of William Wilberforce, the famous British abolitionist. More’s work and cultural impact was arguably even greater than that of Wilberforce. But until recently, knowledge of her life and testimony had faded into obscurity. With “Fierce Convictions,” Karen Swallow Prior has brought More’s remarkable life back into view in an engaging way.
Hannah More was born into a middle class family with a schoolmaster father who recognized and nourished her intellectual gifts far beyond what was common for girls at that time. In young adulthood Hannah capitalized on those gifts in a variety of ways, helping her sisters found and run a successful group of schools for young ladies, and writing poetry and plays. A seven-year courtship by an upper class man of means resulted in two separate broken engagements and a resulting lifetime annuity, which gave More a measure of financial freedom to pursue her writing.
The combination of More’s prodigious talent and vivacious personality soon earned her a place of honor amongst the upper-crust of London’s theatrical and intellectual circles, a place she would continue to hold throughout her long life. At first More was enamored with the glitter of London society, but gradually her strict Anglican upbringing caused her to become ambivalent and morally conflicted. She enjoyed pride of place in a group of literary women called the Bluestockings, who gathered regularly to talk politics, science and philosophy. Yet she expressed growing reticence and dislike of the shallowness of life among the upper class. She lamented the excesses of fashion and hairstyles that she felt pressured to adhere to fit in, and she regularly declined involvement in Sunday activities like cards and opera going. While More’s mind was more than a match for the intellectual and cultural mores of the day, her heart was leading her mind into deeper, more eternal things.
More’s discovery of Cardiphonia, the seminal work of John Newton, the converted slave trader, was the beginning of her transition from strict outward adherence to the Anglican religious system of her upbringing, to as she described it, “vital, experimental religion.” By this she described a faith that was expressed from the inner person outward in true acts of faith. It was “religion of the heart”. With her heart newly awakened to Christ, and at the encouragement of Newton himself, Hannah More directed her mind and her pen with renewed energy and commitment to promote education and reformation of British society at every level.
It would be easy, perhaps, to initially write off More’s determination to be a force for good as the typical youthful expressions of a new convert. It may even be familiar to us today, in our era of renewed interest in working out the truths of the gospel through social transformation. But as Prior clearly shows, More’s prodigious contributions came, not out of a presumptive perception of some special call, but simply out of the faithful, even fierce, use of her gifts to call out what was clearly right to her according to Scripture.
Two thirds of Prior’s meticulously researched book describes More’s work to, among other things, abolish the slave trade, teach the poor to read, improve the morals of the rich, eradicate abusive animal practices (through the establishment of the RSPCA), and elevate the education of women. While More’s writing gifts were deep, she had a remarkable skill for networking, as well as a strong moral compass. While she was dogged by what seems a combination of a social inferiority complex and snobbish inclination towards the upper classes, she nevertheless understood how her skill and charm could earn an audience with those who could further the causes for which she fought. Notably, in her interactions alongside other women intellectuals as well as men, she maintained a strong commitment to personal integrity and relational decorum. She developed numerous profitable working relationships and close friendships with both married and single men (including such notable figures as William Wilberforce and Horace Walpole). Not once did these deep friendships seem to move outside the bounds of appropriateness.
While much of this attitude could of course be credited to her personal Christian faith, More held strong convictions about the value of women’s minds and souls as means of service, not just their external appearance and accomplishments as defined by the values of her day. “It is humbling to reflect,” she wrote, “that in those countries in which the fondness for the mere persons of women is carried to the highest excess, they are slaves…their moral and intellectual degradation increases in direct proportion to the adoration which is paid to mere external charms.” Furthermore, she was concerned that in any teaching of the Christian faith (another essential, in her mind), care must be taken to not diminish the cost that following Christ might require. “May it not be partly owing to the want of a due introduction to the knowledge of the real nature and spirit of religion, that so many young Christians, who set out in a fair and flourishing way, decline and wither when they come to perceive the requisitions of experimental Christianity? Requisitions which they had not suspected of making any part of the plan; and from which, when they afterwards discover them, they shrink back, as not prepared and hardened for the unexpected contest.”
More could certainly bear witness to the unexpected contests of the Christian life. No person who wrote so prolifically and who challenged so many cultural norms could hope to live free of criticism. Her work to abolish slavery and to educate the poor of Blagdon earned her an unholy amount of ire. More’s work threatened to disrupt not just cherished church tradition, but economic and social systems as well. The nineteenth century equivalent of a watchblogger war was waged against her. Her health and spirit was broken more than once over it, though never permanently. More was indeed too fierce of heart to be kept down for long.
Another of More’s convictions concerned the importance of engaging the imagination when teaching or writing. Karen Prior writes in a way that does just that. By interweaving period detail and personal anecdotes of More’s contemporaries into her biography, “Fierce Convictions” reads like a page turning period drama, one that is almost too good to be true. Indeed, Prior’s own life seems to mirror More’s closely. Prior is an award winning professor of English as Liberty University, a prolific writer in her own right, a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society, and the first woman to join the Research Institute of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. No doubt Hannah More would be proud.
As Christian women wrestle with how to use their gifts to proclaim and express the gospel in the midst of a culture opposed to it, “Fierce Convictions” offers a model of one woman’s life that inspires, even as it challenges assumptions. It is highly recommended.
By Rachael Starke