An Interview with Karen Prior on Her New Biography of Hannah More

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fierce-convictions-hardbackKaren Swallow Prior’s new biography of Hannah More (1745-1833) is now available: Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014).

As Mark Noll explains:

Hannah More was an educational pioneer and a best-selling evangelical author of “cheap tracts” for England’s poor in the tumultuous years of the American and French Revolutions. As educator, writer, reformer, and public Christian she was much lauded, but also much lampooned, during her own lifetime. With careful research, balanced judgments, accessible prose, and unusual insight, Karen Swallow Prior’s biography shows clearly why Hannah More made such an important impact in her own age, and also why her life can speak in significant ways to readers today.

Dr. Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University, recently answered a few questions about Mrs. More and the new biography:

How did you first become interested in Hannah More?

I was researching another eighteenth century writer for my doctoral dissertation when I stumbled across Hannah More after a day of prayer and fasting over my floundering research efforts. I had never heard of her before, and neither had my dissertation chair. But I instantly knew that this was who I needed to write about in my dissertation. Once I convinced my dissertation chair of that, I did. When I finished, one of my academic advisors (a professed agnostic) urged me to write a biography of More for a general reading audience.

Painting by H.W. Pickersgill in 1821, when Hannah More was 76 years old.
Painting by H.W. Pickersgill in 1821, when Hannah More was 76 years old.

Eighteenth-century English society seems to be marked by a series of chasms separating people—socially, economically, religiously, and culturally. How did God use More to begin bridging some of those separations?

Crossing so many divides is one of the most fascinating aspects of More’s life. More was born in a rapidly changing society, and her life embodies many of those changes. She was born to laboring class parents but became an early example of social mobility by rising well above her station by the end of her life. But having both lower class origins and upper class attainments gave More an opportunity to effectively reach both rich and poor (and in between) through her writing and her reform efforts. Another bridge she offered was between high and low church: she was a committed member of the Church of England her entire life, but she was influenced by and had sympathies with the Evangelical movement and the (much frowned upon) Methodists. Furthermore, as a woman leader among men, More also achieved a greater cultural influence than she would have had she remained within the private, domestic sphere. In sum, as a devout, socially mobile woman, More was uniquely positioned to bridge a number of chasms in a highly divided society. I can’t help but see the hand of Providence in creating More for such a time as this.

Some have suggested that More was a sort of proto-feminist and others consider her an anti-feminist. How do you think?

That question really functions as a sort of Rorschach Test!

Many feminist critics today would bristle to hear More referred to as a feminist. They would point to More’s biblical faith as well as her renunciation of the rights for women advocated by her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft, in refusing her the title of “feminist.”

Others would call her a conservative feminist, because despite some of her conservative positions, More sought significant changes for women’s education that would allow them to use their intellectual abilities much better than was expected of them at the time. She was part of a circle of learned literary women called the Bluestockings. And many of her closest friends were men. Additionally, she was one of the first English writers to make as much income as she did from the writing profession, so she certainly was a pioneer for women in that respect.

Of course, the term “feminist” was not even in common usage at the time, so trying to fit her into a current day category is nearly fruitless. I think it is safe to say that More was a strong woman and a strong Christian who provided an excellent example of using all of one’s gifts for the glory of God and breaking down a number of social barriers to do so.

Did she ever come close to being married? How did her singleness affect her life and activism?

Again, the hand of God is evident here. More was engaged to a wealthy gentleman. But his continual refusal to actually marry resulted in her breaking off the engagement and his settling an annuity on her as compensation (which was common in that time). It was that modest source of income that allowed More to leave teaching and head to London where she made her way as a writer. She would never have been able to invest in the kind of reform efforts she did had she married and had children. God used her mightily in a different path. Truth be told, as someone who has been unable to have children myself but who has found blessings in the other work God has brought me, I am really encouraged and inspired by More’s life in this particular aspect.

Wait—I thought people called her “Mrs. More”?

The title of “Mrs.” was customarily used at the time for adult women regardless of marital status. The titles “Miss” and “Mrs.” at that time distinguished one’s age in the same way that their male corollaries “Master” and “Mister” did.

How did suffering shape her work and the way she went about it?

More did suffer: she suffered from the broken engagement that left her single, from bouts of illness (including what we would recognize now as depression) throughout her life, from the mockery and persecution of those who opposed her efforts, and finally, as the last, bereaved sister among five who lived her last years alone. More’s suffering turned her increasingly toward God. This fact is reflected in her letters and books, which she continued to write as an elderly woman. I’m not going to give it away, but the scene of her last months, days, and hours in the book—drawn from eyewitness accounts—actually brings me to tears, tears of mourning and joy over a life lived to the glory of God despite—or perhaps because of—obstacles and pain.

Tell us about More’s relationship to evangelical leaders like William Wilberforce and John Newton.

Newton_jJohn Newton was key in More’s embrace of evangelical faith. She read his collection of letters, titled Cardiphonia and published anonymously, and was tremendously moved by his spiritual insights. Shortly thereafter, she travelled to Newton’s church to hear him preach. She stayed after the service to speak with him in person, and returned home with her “pockets full of sermons.” Newton became a key underwriter and supporter in More’s efforts to open Sunday Schools in the West of England where she lived.

In 1787, More met William Wilberforce, who would work with More on a number of reform efforts through the decades. More had actually opposed the slave trade long before meeting Wilberforce, but as soon as the young Parliamentarian had been recruited into the abolitionist movement shortly after his conversion in 1786, the two formed a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives (indeed, they died months apart from one another). One of many touching aspects of their friendship is how Wilberforce developed a better understanding of the hidden powers that can be found in the private sphere, as expressed in one of his journal entries:
481px-William_Wilberforce01

Individuals who are not in parliament seldom have an opportunity of doing good to considerable numbers. Even while I was writing the sentence I became conscious of the falsehood of the position; witness Mrs. Hannah More, and all those who labour with the pen.

These friends sharpened one another as iron sharpens iron. And in such sharpening, the world was transformed.

What role did More play in the abolishment of the British slave trade?

While Newton’s role was spiritual, Wilberforce’s political, others’ financial, More’s role was literary and social. She wrote anti-slavery poetry, led a boycott of sugar made from slave labor, and wrote voluminous letters to pro-slave trade friends. In all these efforts, she appealed to her fellow citizens’ consciences and emotions, primarily by the power of her pen. Her most acclaimed work today, the one included once again in numerous literature anthologies, is her poem, Slavery, which she wrote to coincide with one of Wilberforce’s parliamentary measures. The abolitionists really knew how to work as a team and to make the most of their individual gifts. It took years for them to win success, but they did.

If readers read your biography of Hannah More, they will, Lord willing, _____________.

… be mindful of our own cultural blind spots today and be encouraged to see past these in order to do the work God has set before us in this time and this place by embracing the gifts, opportunities, and challenges He has given us.

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