If faith produce no works, I see
That faith is not a living tree.
Thus faith and works together grow,
No separate life they never can know.
They’re soul and body, hand and heart,
What God hath joined, let no man part.
Hannah More was well known in her day in at least three areas – as a writer, an educator, and a social reformer. It is sad that she has been all but forgotten in our day, but she deserves to be remembered as an example of charity, piety, and zeal in accomplishing great things in the service of the Savior.
Early in her life she was well known for her play writing and her involvement with the “who’s who” members of the high society of the late eighteenth century. This included Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Horace Walpole. She wrote a popular play, Percy, which was produced by the famous actor, David Garrick in 1777. In later life, she became very active in helping to found Sunday Schools, especially for poor children and she practiced philanthropy. She was the most influential female member of the “Society of Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade” in England.
Hannah was born in Stapleton, near Bristol, in 1745. Her father was a schoolmaster. He saw to it that all five of his daughters were well educated. They would use their education in the service of the Lord; the three oldest founding a famous girls’ boarding school in Bristol. Hannah completed her education there. Her gift for writing would show up early. By age eighteen she had written a play, “A Search for Happiness”, which became widely read.
At 22 Hannah became engaged to a local landowner, William Turner. They were engaged for six years. He got cold feet twice after he and Hannah set the date. Finally after the third proposal, she ended the engagement. Turner tried to compensate her with a sum of £200 each year. She refused to take it, but her sisters accepted it without her knowing. Eventually, she agreed to use it, and this allowed her to give up teaching and concentrate on writing.
When she was a young woman, Hannah enjoyed the high life. Sometime during the 1780’s she became more zealous for her faith, and eventually decided that the theatre was morally wrong. She began to believe that acting was not an activity that Christians should engage in. She turned to more Christian work. She now included among her friends John Wesley, who encouraged her in her Christian writing, Pastor John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace”, and William Wilberforce, famous for his work in the abolition movement. Wilberforce was a member of the “Clapham Sect”, a group of wealthy evangelical Christians who were fighting to get slavery abolished in England.
Hannah’s Biblical worldview began to come out in all of her writings. She wrote many famous Christian essays on the importance of establishing moral laws in society. The most famous of her tracts, The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, was written around 1795, and went through many editions. It was translated into several languages. In this and other tracts, she was encouraging commoners to be contented with their lot in life. In 1809, she wrote, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, which was an essay on how to choose a good wife. This work went through thirty editions in the United States in ten years. Another important work was, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, which encouraged education for women.
The Sunday School system was coming into popularity in the late eighteenth century. Hannah and her sisters established schools in the brutal coal district of Mendip Hills, known for very slovenly and dangerous neighborhoods. Within ten years, Hannah and her sisters had founded sixteen schools, helping the poor children learn to read the Bible and to practice Christian morals. The women also taught the children practical skills that would help them through life, such as cooking, growing food, and handling money. Hannah used her God-given writing ability to produce many of the books that were used in these Sunday Schools.
Besides all of this, Hannah joined the anti-slavery movement and encouraged many other women to do likewise. Here again, Hannah used the gift of writing that God gave her to make the atrocities of slavery known to the general public. In 1788, she wrote “Slavery, a Poem”, while William Wilberforce was striving to get Parliament to outlaw the slave trade. Her poem touched the hearts of those who read about how the slaves were treated. It dramatically portrayed the story of the female slaves who were separated from their children. Because of her work, many began to question Britain’s role in the slave trade. Here are two excerpts from that work:
I see, by more than Fancy’s mirrow 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!
Ev’n this last wretched boon their foes deny,
To weep together, or together die.
By felon hands, by one relentless stroke,
See the fond links of feeling nature broke!
The fibres twisting round a parent’s heart,
Torn from their grasp, and bleeding as they part.
Hold, murderers, hold! not aggravate distress;
Respect the passions you yourselves possess;
Thy followers only have effac’d the shame
Inscrib’d by SLAVERY on the Christian name.
Shall Britain, where the soul of freedom reigns,
Forge chains for others she herself disdains?
Forbid it, Heaven! O let the nations know
The liberty she loves she will bestow;
Not to herself the glorious gift confin’d,
She spreads the blessing wide as humankind;
And, scorning narrow views of time and place,
Bids all be free in earth’s extended space.
What page of human annals can record
A deed so bright as human rights restor’d?
O may that god-like deed, that shining page,
Redeem OUR fame, and consecrate OUR age!
And see, the cherub Mercy from above,
Descending softly, quits the sphere of love!
Hannah continued to support the cause of abolition for the rest of her life. Even in her retirement years she played a part in the national debates on the slave trade by writing tracts against the practice. In her home in Somerset, she entertained such visitors as Macaulay and Gladstone, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Fry (see her story in a February, 2012 posting on this Blog), and Sarah Siddons. Her influence was spread by many evangelical women who came after her, including well known novelists Mary Martha Sherwood (1775-1851) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna. Many hundreds of women carried on her work in Sunday Schools and Tract Societies. She had lived long enough to see her dream come true– the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.
People came from all over the world to visit this bright, sweet old lady in her waning years. Towards the end of her life she suffered poor health. She had to limit these visits to two days a week, but she was always gracious and visitors left having been blessed by this remarkable lady.
She died peacefully, on September 7, 1833, at the age of eighty-eight. Her charity did not stop with her death; she left behind nearly £30,000 (equivalent to $3,000,000 today) from the income from her books, to be distributed to the poor.
Hannah’s life was an expression of a vital Christianity. She put her faith into action, combining faith, hope, and charity to all downtrodden people. She has been called an “Apostle to the Poor” and truly she was. She believed that “Faith without works is dead”, and summed up her theology for life when she wrote, “Action is the life of virtue, and the world is the theatre of action.” I pray that Christian women today would be more active in righting wrongs and fighting for justice for the poor or downtrodden.