Weekend Reads: The unsung British abolitionist

by Russ Pulliam
Posted 3/07/15, 08:17 am

Thanks to the Amazing Grace film and several good biographies, William Wilberforce is well known for ending slavery in the British Empire.

Not so well known is his fellow abolitionist Hannah More. She was an equal to Wilberforce in fighting slavery and joined the informal Clapham Sect in battling against poverty and injustice. She also was a pioneer novelist and devotional writer, as well as a friend to the literary and political elites in London in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior helps round out the Clapham and abolition story for North American readers with her excellent new biography of More, Fierce Convictions, The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014).

The Clapham Sect was an informal but very influential group of Christians who changed England and the British Empire for the better in the name of Christ. Members of Parliament linked up with literary elites and top military officials and business leaders to transform the culture and politics of England. Their impact was extraordinary, but hard to discern and fully appreciate apart from a good grasp of the historical and social context of the times, which Prior does a good job of describing in her book.

Hardly anyone defends slavery today, at least not publicly, in the Western world. In the mid- to late 18th century hardly anyone opposed slavery as a matter of principle. Hardly anyone opposed poverty as a matter of principle, either. Prior reveals how unusual More’s life was, along with her partnership with Wilberforce and others in the Clapham Sect, in dealing with these issues.

Their efforts to end slavery and the slave trade lasted more than 40 years, through political efforts and what might be called public advocacy today, with tracts, speeches, newspaper and magazine commentary, and interest groups to advance their causes.

The Clapham Sect also influenced a reformation of manners, as it was labeled then, or what might be called a massive shift in culture today. What Prior reveals so aptly is that the Clapham movement had a political element, but politics alone never would result in lasting cultural and social reformation. In fact, based on the Clapham story, a case can be made that cultural and spiritual reformation is the primary foundation for lasting political change.

While Wilberforce and others attacked the slave trade in Parliament, More led the opposition in influencing public opinion, with tracts and poetry. She already was a major literary figure when she committed to exercising her faith more vigorously with her gifts.

More had such influence because of her mix of literary ability and networking skills. She was friends with other notables such as actor David Garrick, author Samuel Johnson, and Member of Parliament Edmund Burke, whose political theory is still influential in conservative circles today. Such friends were not necessarily evangelical Christians, but their respect for More opened doors for gospel influence in an age, like ours, when the gospel of Christ was tolerated in theory but seldom considered cool or respectable or appropriate for the elite leadership of England. In fact, John Wesley advised her to keep taking her faith to the upper echelons, where he felt he would not be welcome.

Prior’s book reveals the incredible depth and breadth of More’s life. She wrote popular tracts and defended traditional scriptural principles in a winsome way. More and her sisters gave much of her time and energy to helping the needy, launching schools in a day when the idea of education for the poor was controversial and universal education for all children was more than a century away.

“Well before Charles Dickens portrayed the plight of impoverished children in his Victorian novels, More’s schools recognized the particular needs of all children, and those of poor children in particular,” Prior writes.

More took care of orphans. She wrote plays for the stage in London. She had an unusual ability to walk with the top membership of a very socially stratified British society but also had friendships with the poor. In short, she was quite a fountain of both common and special grace.

More was a single woman, along with her sisters, and that may help explain why she has been forgotten in historical accounts on the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior handles this part of the story with wisdom and discernment, as her potential husband, William Turner, got cold feet about marriage too many times and lost his opportunity. Not long after that relationship failed, More came to a stronger Christian faith through the influence of former slave trader John Newton, a London pastor and the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Prior packs much wisdom and understanding into this short 256-page biography. “The work of artists arises from suffering,” she notes, discerning a source of More’s capacity from her own lifelong illnesses and her empathy for the suffering of others.

The author also shows a keen grasp of the difference between reform in England, rooted in Christian faith, and the tragic failure of the French Revolution to achieve its lofty ideals. Prior lays out in detail how influential More became, as a popular writer appreciated by both upper and lower class readers.

In an age of constant publication of pamphlets, More’s most influential work was a pamphlet challenging Tom Paine’s sentiments for revolution of the French style. “The best route to reforming society was reforming oneself,” Prior notes in summing up the widely circulated Village Politics pamphlet.

Prior organizes her biography thematically instead of chronologically so readers without a British history background may need a timeline of events to follow the story with more clarity. A thematic approach is understandable in the life of Hannah More. She lived such a fruitful life, across several disciplines and social classes—one that any biographer would be hard-pressed to give a neatly organized outline of her life.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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