For pretty much the entirety of my adult life, I’ve loved good biographies and memoirs. Whether a modern celebrity like Neal Patrick Harris, a tech guru like Steve Jobs, a war hero like Louis Zamperini, or a mathematician like John Nash, it’s fascinating to learn the stories behind well-known (and not so well known) individuals.
Before reading Fierce Convictions, I’d never actually heard of Hannah More. Unless you travel in very particular circles, it’s likely you have not either. After reading, I have only one thing to say: I really wish I’d known about her sooner. In this new biography, Karen Swallow Prior introduces readers to woman who was both an extremely gifted poet and playwright, and a person of deep conviction and compassion.
Social activism and orthodox convictions
One of the great accusations made against conservative evangelicals in our day is that we are “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” Our concerns over doctrine, evidently, take precedence over any and all social action. And as is often the case, when we attempt to correct this assumption, slavery is raised. At the western form of slavery’s height in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were numerous Christians who believed it was acceptable to own slaves, including Jonathan Edwards. Though he ended his days a staunch abolitionist, John Newton continued in the slave trade for ten years after his conversion to Christ.
And yet, when we look to Hannah More and her contemporaries (including her close friend, William Wilberforce) you get a different picture. More wasn’t an abolitionist in spite of her orthodox convictions—she was because of them. Throughout her life, this was one of her great passions, and her literary gifts were a valuable resource for the cause.
More’s abolitionist efforts over the decades were said to constitute “one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English history.” Indeed, it could be said that More was the mastermind behind some of the abolitionist movement’s most effective campaigns to sway public opinions. Imaginative literature, such as More’s antislavery writings, and other arts were essential to the abolitionist movement because, as has been noted, the slave trade was so hidden from the eyes of the people. (133–134)1
This reminds us of the power of the arts. We cannot deny the power of art, literature, and drama to transform the thinking of our culture. Indeed, we would be utter fools if we tried. Why? Because you change people’s ideas by presenting them in a different way. (And if you have any doubt about this, consider the rapid acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the west. It almost certainly couldn’t have happened without its normalization through popular media.) Abolition would likely not have succeeded without the efforts of an individual like More—someone who was able to bring the issue before the people, so it was no longer hidden from their eyes. Because once you see, you have to do something about it.
But her passion was not limited to abolition: she also desired that people know how to read. So More and her sisters started Sunday schools to teach the poor to read. And why did she do this? Not simply because she valued education (which she did), but because she believed the Scriptures were so important to the Christian life that people must be taught to read so they can read them for themselves (160).
We dare not get caught up in silly notions that orthodox Christianity doesn’t lead to social action. The truth is quite the opposite; consistent belief always leads to action. Or, to say it another way, what we do is the fruit of what we believe. And More is a helpful example in this regard.
Contemporary beliefs and biblical inconsistency
Nevertheless, even though More was greatly concerned with education, seeing learning as the next best thing to religion, she was hardly a revolutionary in her day (and certainly not in ours). Despite her strong desire to teach her nation to read, she would not teach poor children to write. This was an area in which her culture’s influence was stronger than More’s Christian convictions.
This is an important reminder for us: because we all exist within a specific cultural context, how we express our faith is going to be influenced by it. And undoubtedly, there will be some dreadful inconsistencies (as in the case of slavery in the west). Because of this, we need to approach how we express our faith and our values humbly. Perhaps we should be willing to extend grace to our brothers and sisters who wrongly advocated for the practice of slavery, or embraced classism and all that went along with it. Not excuse it, but acknowledge that just as we are troubled or appalled by these things, so too will our descendants by some of our own inconsistencies.
In Fierce Convictions, Karen Swallow Prior has produced a wonderful treatment of one of the most important social reformers you’ve probably never heard of. It is superbly written, highly informative, and enjoyable to read. If you enjoy biographies, or if you’re concerned at all about the history of the abolition movement, you will be well served by this book.
Title: Fierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
Author: Karen Swallow Prior
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2014)
Buy it at: Amazon