The Liberation of Words

Hello, everyone—

Below is a lengthened version of a speech I gave at my homeschool group about my greatest hero (other than Jesus), Hannah More. Thinking of her influence and faith always makes me smile, and I’m delighted to share her rarely-told story with you.

I chose Hannah More as my greatest post-Biblical hero. She was one of the foremost pioneers of the abolitionist movement, a phenomenal playwright, and the founder of some of the first public schools—and all these efforts were driven by the power of her pen and a profound love for the Prince of Peace. Here is her story.

The youngest of five daughters, Hannah More was born in 1745 at an English village called Fishponds. Her father was a low-class Anglican schoolmaster who held the unusual and often looked-down-upon belief that both boys and girls should have a proper education; thus, Hannah and her siblings were homeschooled throughout their childhood. Hannah became literate at four years old, so much so that at the same age she created a humorous satirical poem. Her enduring love of wordsmithing helped her greatly after she graduated from school—when she began to write plays for the Bristol Theatre Royal.

The theatre beautifully revealed More’s formerly-insignificant name to the masses; many of her plays there would receive lavish praise. Only one of her dramas, though, would truly change her life. James Stonhouse, an eager fan of Hannah’s, gave a copy of More’s The Inflexible Captive to David Garrick, the most celebrated Shakespearian actor of his day. He adored her writing; and when Garrick and Hannah met, they became close friends from then on. Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions (p. 68) states, “What started as a teacher-pupil relationship grew into something near familial[.]” Indeed, Hannah More would watch Garrick’s productions over twenty times in a single season (she especially enjoyed his portrayal of Prince Hamlet), and Garrick would help author More’s play Percy, which, according to Eric Metaxas’ Seven Women (p. 66), “…proved to be a smash success. Indeed, it was literally the most acclaimed play of that era. The printers blew through four thousand copies in the span of two weeks.” Hannah More was now placed at the heart of British culture by both the wealthy and the common men.

Hannah was a strong Christian, but although her plays often presented clear ethical teaching, her faith didn’t take center stage until she read Cardiphonia. John Newton’s theological work sharply convicted her heart, thus launching her faith to new heights and motivating her to publish Sacred Dramas, Biblical accounts written as poetry. It seems insignificant now; but in Hannah More’s era, the act of integrating Christian doctrine with entertainment was deemed as dirty and desecrating to the Holy Scriptures. Dr. Samuel Johnson took this stance against her and said, “All addition to that which is already sufficient for the purpose of religion, seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.” (Seven Women, p. 70) Those like-minded with Johnson prevented all productions of Sacred Dramas for years. But Hannah stood her ground, stayed humble, and wrote in response (Seven Women, pg. 70),

“I hope the poets and painters will at last bring the Bible into fashion, and that people will get to like it from taste, though they are insensible to its spirits, and afraid of its doctrines.”

Although Hannah backed away from London life shortly after the publication of Sacred Dramas, her stand for the faith in the face of harsh criticism, combined with her still-lingering popularity, made her the ideal co-leader of 1787’s abolitionist movement.

The abolitionist campaign started when a preacher named James Ramsay opened his congregation’s eyes to the wickedness of slavery. By this point in British history, many had come to believe that the practice was normal and acceptable; the truth about how cruelly whites treated African-Americans never reached the public until that sermon. Two members of the preacher’s church, Sir Charles and Margaret Middleton, were instantly convinced that they must put the slave trade to an end, so they began discussing the matter with anyone who would come to their house, have dinner, and volunteer to join the cause. Among the dinner party goers were Hannah More and William Wilberforce. After abolition gained enough positive recognition, Charles and Margaret appointed the two as the leaders in carrying out the cause. Wilberforce was in charge of convincing Parliament to pass the abolitionist bill, but More was responsible for the greater task of coming to the people’s level and changing the way her entire culture thought of slavery. While Wilberforce first broke the matter to the British government, More broke out her pen—and wrote like crazy.

Hannah would publish many abolitionist writings during the forty-seven years in which she fought against the slave trade. Some of that writing included nonfictional accounts of black men and women and some satire against her countrymen. Her greatest piece, however, was “Slavery.” This was the poem that put David Livingstone in Africa and inspired thousands to sign the petitions that would enable Wilberforce to achieve success in Parliament. Ironically, she doubted that the poem would reap much success–but to her countrymen, it was beautiful yet biting, pretty yet powerful. (Poem from Fierce Convictions, pg. 130)

Hold, murderers! hold! nor aggravate distress;

Respect the passions you yourself possess:

Ev’n you, of ruffian heart, and ruthless hand,

Love your own offspring, love your native land…

Think on the wretch whose aggravated pains

To exile misery adds, to misery chains.

Hannah More wouldn’t see all of her abolitionist campaign’s fruit, but she did see the fruits of her other work, which included the apologetic defense of the Christian faith against scathing Deist attacks and the founding of the first public schools for the Industrial Revolution’s harshly-treated working children. Without fail, she revealed to the world the beautiful, pious liberation well-written words could provide, whether they liberated people from racial prejudice, brutal class systems, or hardened hearts against Almighty God. Her love for God was relayed to all men, no matter how they were commonly treated by everyone else. And all she had to change the world was prayer, pen, and paper.

“My very soul is sick of religious controversy. Christianity is a broad basis. Bible Christianity is what I love…a Christianity practical and pure, which teaches holiness, humility, repentance and faith in Christ[.]” ~Hannah More (Fierce Convictions, pg. 155)

~Sarah Merly

November 7, 2017

Isaiah 53