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Culture Q&A

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior: Hannah and her brothers

A Christian poet’s battle against slavery has lessons for today

Karen Swallow Prior: Hannah and her brothers

Karen Swallow Prior (Photo by Sam Dean/Genesis)

Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, is the author of the newly published Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist

Who was Hannah More? Hannah More was a contemporary of British anti-slavery leader William Wilberforce. She was born in 1745, he in 1759, and they both died in 1833. They were lifelong friends: He worked in Parliament while she wrote poetry, tracts, and songs to appeal to British hearts. She, Wilberforce, and their evangelical friends ended the slave trade, also brought reform to high society, and improved the lives of the poor.

What were her Christian beliefs? Hannah More was born into the Church of England. She always demonstrated a pious character and a high moral bent, but when she read John Newton’s Cardiphonia, a series of “Letters of the Heart,” she started showing in her correspondence an evangelical faith.

Tell us about the Zong Massacre of 1781, which moved her toward fierce convictions. Many slaves on the ship were dying, and the slave traders were going to lose money on this particular journey, so they threw slaves overboard to collect the insurance money. When courts ruled they had the right to collect it, many people started to see the horrors of the trade. 

You write, “The industry was steeped in brutality at every level of execution. Slave ship captains were cruel, not only to the slaves, but to the sailors. Many of them, as in John Newton’s case, were taken into service by force and beaten, abused, abandoned, and sometimes sold into slavery.” Does any industry in our own time have a pervasive cruelty similar to that? Abortion has become so much part of our culture, not just in terms of individual lives and choices, but even in our whole economy, which has shifted and changed because of the lives aborted rather than born. Many people acknowledge how horrible abortion is, but they find it hard to imagine our society functioning without it: a necessary evil. 

What was Hannah More’s strategy in fighting slavery? More published her poem, “Slavery,” on the same day that Wilberforce introduced anti-slavery legislation in Parliament. She wanted to move hearts and imaginations.

Please read us some of it. Whene’er to Afric’s shores I turn my eyes, / Horrors of deepest, deadliest guilt arise; / I see, by more than Fancy’s mirror shewn, / The burning village, and the blazing town: / See the dire victim torn from social life, / The shrieking babe, the agonizing wife! / She, wretch forlorn! is dragg’d by hostile hands, / To distant tyrants sold in distant lands! / Transmitted miseries, and successive chains, / The sole sad heritage her child obtains!

The poem closes with an address to God. Could you read that part? And Thou! great source of Nature and of Grace, / Who of one blood didst form the human race, / Look down in mercy in thy chosen time, / With equal eye on Afric’s suffering clime: / Disperse her shades of intellectual night, / Repeat thy high behest—Let there be light! / Bring each benighted soul, great God, to Thee, / And with thy wide Salvation make them free!

She taps into ideas of individual liberty and equality. And contextualizes them in a strong moral foundation. The poem appeals to family ties, patriotism, love of God, love of truth, love of freedom. 

In 1792 More wrote a satiric poem to support boycotting West Indian sugar produced through slave labor. Here it is from a British newspaper of the time: I am shocked at this purchase of slaves / and fear those who buy and sell them are knaves. / What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans, / is almost enough to draw pity from stones. / I pity them greatly but I must be mum, / for how could we do without sugar and rum, / especially sugar, so needful we see. / What? give up our desserts, our coffee and tea.

That speaks to the way slavery was so ingrained in the British economy, as abortion is today. What in our popular culture is the equivalent of More’s poetry? There is the film Juno. I don’t know what the producers of that film were trying to do, but it was good art: It showed the complexity and the humanity of a situation in a very life-affirming way. 

You’ve written that your “opposition to abortion under any circumstances, except those rare times when it is necessary to save the life of a mother, is rooted in social justice, not Christian belief.” How so? My opposition to abortion is based on accepting the simple fact that an individual life begins at conception. I don’t believe I need to be a Christian to believe in the protection of human life. Now my Christian faith compels me to respond to that injustice in a certain way and to confront it.

I guess that was the thinking behind Wedgwood and its famous picture of a kneeling slave in chains asking, “Am I not a brother?” The goal was to help people recognize that human lives were at stake. It was a very powerful figure, because the visual arts were very important. There weren’t a lot of slaves in England and people didn’t even know what a slave ship looked like, so Hannah More would carry around in her pocket a print of a cargo hold. She would pull it out at dinner parties and show people. 

She never married, but wasn’t she engaged for six years, and three times the prospective groom backed out? More was born to a poor schoolmaster and teaching at a school when she met this wealthy landowner who kept having cold feet. At the time a woman who had experienced a broken engagement was somewhat considered damaged goods, and it was common for the gentleman to give the woman an annuity of some sort as compensation. Hannah did not seek this herself, but her family and friends insisted that financial compensation be made. Her fiancé gladly agreed. They made her accept it. 

That insistence was providential. The money allowed her to quit her job teaching, pursue her life as a writer, make her way to London, and be welcomed by the London literati and some of the most powerful people in England. She never would have been able to accomplish what she had if she had married and then most likely had children. God had a different call on her life, and this is what He had her do. 

She wrote to John Newton about her desire to see “the removal of the great gulf which has divided rich and poor.” What was her anti-poverty work like? More was an early founder of Sunday schools. They were not what we think of now, an hour learning Bible lessons. On Sunday, when the poor children were not working, More hired teachers to teach the students to read. That was controversial: Many feared that if the poor could read, they could organize and start a revolution like one that had been started in France and earlier in America. But More believed people needed to be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Comments

  • wiseblooding's picture
    wiseblooding
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:11 pm

    An illuminating interview! So glad to read this poetry by a poet unknown to me. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:11 pm

    Thank you for this interview.  I love to read history, and had no idea about Hannah More.  It is so important that we read, all the more to be encouraged to continue the fight to be light in the darkness.