Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior


Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.

I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.” Hannah More may be a forgotten woman nowadays, but she was far from unknown in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and even throughout Europe and America. She was a protege of the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson, close friends with the famous actor David Garrick and his wife, a co-laborer with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and acquainted with almost all of the eminent writers and evangelical gentle women and men of her day. She wrote multiple volumes of letters, essays, tracts, stories, plays, and one best-selling novel. She influenced the abolitionist movement to end the British slave trade, the animal welfare movement, the Sunday School movement, and the efforts of anti-poverty reformers and literacy activists.

In fact, she would be something of a patron saint, if Protestants had such saints, for those interested in the promotion of literacy and reading. She opened Sunday Schools in many poverty-stricken communities and villages where no school of any kind was to be found. These Sunday Schools were not just pretty little Bible story times, but rather full-fledged schools for the poor and illiterate which met on Sundays because that was the only day when poor children and adults did not have to work all day long. She also wrote books and tracts and story papers for the poor and for the burgeoning middle class. Her stories and poems were generally pleas for morality with a neat a little lesson or message embedded therein, a style of writing that’s somewhat out of fashion now but was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hannah More was a witty woman with a ready tongue, but tamed somewhat by her allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Here are a few Hannah More quotations that I found delightful:

On the poet Alexander Pope, who is buried, according to his wishes, at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham instead of at Westminster Abbey: “You will easily believe, madam, that I could not leave Twickenham without paying a visit to the hallowed tomb of my beloved bard. For this purpose I went to the church, and easily found the monument of one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey. . . . Pope,I suppose, would rather be the first ghost at Twickenham than an inferior one at Westminster Abbey.”

On Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . he is an entertaining and philosophic historian, yet, as Ganganelli said to Count Algarotti, ‘I wish these shining wits, in spite of all their philosophy, would manage matters so that one might hope to meet them in heaven; for one is very sorry to be deprived of such agreeable company to all eternity.’ It requires an infinite degree of credulity to be an infidel.”

On Dr. Samuel Johnson: “In Dr. Johnson some contrarieties very harmoniously meet; if he has too little charity for the opinions of others, and too little patience with their faults, he has the greatest tenderness for their persons. He told me the other day he hated to hear people whine about metaphysical distresses, when there was so much want and hunger in the world.”

On reading and writing: “I read four or five hours every day, and wrote ten hours yesterday.”

On Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel from the Old Testament: “I love this great genius for not being ashamed to take his subjects from the most unfashionable of all books.”

Hannah More is most associated with the literary, artistic, and political community that established itself at a place called Clapham and became known as the Clapham Sect, although they were not a sect and not all of the members actually lived at Clapham. They were a group of evangelical Christians with in the Church of England who worked together to bring about the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of what they called “manners”, what we now would call culture or worldview in action.

The greatest value of this little book, aside from reviving the memory of a forgotten saint, is to give a sort of generalized pattern for Christian community that can begin to change the world, as the often trite phrase is. These people—Wilberforce, his cousin Henry Thornton, preacher John Newton, Hannah More, publisher Zachary Macaulay, abolitionist James Stephen, poet William Cowper, and other perhaps less famous—worked together as a community, each using his or her own special gifts, to promote various causes and reforms that they saw as advancing benevolence and the cause of Christ. They fought against the slave trade by preaching, writing poetry and essays, publishing tracts and pamphlets, promoting the boycott of East Indian slave-produced sugar, producing art and decoration that illustrated the plight of the slaves, making speeches, and introducing legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade into Parliament again and again and yet again. They took up other causes at the same time, and they endeavored to live out their Christian commitment in relation to one another and to the world at large. They truly “spurred one another on to good works.”

It seems to me that such a group could be an inspiration to those of us today who want to work together to do our own small part in advancing the kingdom of God. The Clapham sect were not a commune. They did not live monastically. They were not exclusive. They worked with others, such as Horace Walpole and Sir William Pitt, who did not share all of their beliefs. And yet they were a force to be reckoned with in merry old Georgian England. If the Inklings are a model of Christian literary community, Hannah More and the Clapham sect are another example to which we can look and from which we can learn. I would love to hear from others who have read the book and who see ways that we in our day and time could use what they did to revitalize our culture and nation.

Ideas anyone?

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3 thoughts on “Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior

  1. I had somewhere heard Hannah More’s name but had never looked up who she was. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m ignorant but intrigued, as i stand here in my kitchen and TRY to be faithful in what small things God has called me to.

  3. I haven’t read it yet, but my book club is reading this one next. I suggested it after seeing it mentioned, I think here as an upcoming book in 2015. I’m really looking forward to it, even more after this review.

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