Elective presented at the Priscilla & Aquila Centre 2022 annual conference at Moore Theological College, 31 January 2022.
Speaker: Susan An.
MC: Chris Thomson.
In a time when the list of acceptable careers and activities for women was vastly different, Hannah More’s brilliant mind, warm character and deep faith helped her to become one of the most influential voices within 18th-century England. Her contribution to social causes—including the abolition of slavery; education for women and the underprivileged; and animal rights—will be examined, as well how all of these causes came from her deep love of and desire to do God’s good work.
Level: Popular academic.
I’ll be speaking about Hannah More. She wore many hats in her lifetime, but I would call her a writer, educator, philanthropist and abolitionist. But what drove her to do all these things was her strong evangelical faith. Her faith shaped her life, and she worked hard to shape also the time and society that she was living in.
Hannah More was born fourth out of five daughters on 2nd February 1745, in Bristol, England. Her father Jacob was a school master at the local free school. They were from a middle to lower middle-class background.
Hannah’s greatest bonds were with her sisters—Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth and Martha. They worked together and lived together their whole lives. None of them married and seemed completely content in each other’s company.
As was usual at the time, Hannah was initially educated at home by her father. At the time, women were educated in modern languages, music, drawing, painting, embroidery and manners. Latin, mathematics and natural history were not taught.
Jacob went against this at first, and started to teach Hannah everything, including Latin and mathematics. However, apparently she was so outstanding that Jacob stopped. He thought that it was unfeminine that she so was good at “manly” subjects. Hannah’s mother apparently had to beg him to keep teaching Hannah.
So Hannah was sent to a tutor from Bristol Baptist Academy to finish her education. He reported that he’d never had a student as brilliant as Hannah. But she was not taught Latin and mathematics. There was no question that she would go further; university was not offered to women until well into 1800s.
This stilted education had a lasting impact on Hannah. She wrote a book about the limits of education offered to women: Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799). And she spent her life offering education to those that were excluded—namely, other women and people from working class communities.
She also fiercely argued against the belief that women and slaves were less intelligent. She wrote that unless they were given access to same education, to measure them against white men was wrong. She really empathised with anyone who was denied education.
Going back to her early life, in 1758, Mary, the oldest sister, opened a school for girls in Bristol. Given that they were from a modest background without doweries, one of the only career paths for them was teaching.
The school was an immediate success. They were able to expand and move the school to a more affluent area. They ran the school 30 years until they retired and handed over its operation to their protégée.
Hannah started there as a student and became a teacher. Hannah was apparently an engaging and lively teacher. Unlike the strict education that focussed on rote learning, Hannah wanted her students to use their imagination, rewriting Bible stories with flair. She said her aim was for her students “to see Christ walking on the waters of the river Thames”. She hated corporal punishment, and if she could see that her students were disengaged, she blamed the syllabus, rather than punishing them.
Whilst she was a teacher she seriously considered marriage. She met a man called William Turner, who was a respected and wealthy landowner. He proposed and she accepted.
But after six years and three postponements, the wedding still hadn’t taken place. It seems that Turner would cancel and reset the date each time.
After the third cancellation, Hannah had had enough. A family friend intervened and settled an annuity of 200 pounds a year. It was common practice then when an engagement is cancelled, given the time and inconvenience caused.
This incident is significant for two reasons:
- Hannah never seriously considered marriage again. She had other marriage proposals and could have married if she wished. But after this point, she seemed to enjoy the freedom of being an independent woman
- This annuity freed Hannah, for the first time in her life, to pursue a career path that she had always desired: that of a playwright.
Financial independence meant Hannah could now set her sights on what had always been her passion. She had always been a writer—a writer of plays in particular. For Christians, plays were a moral grey area at the time, but Hannah attempted to bridge the gap by writing plays for her students while she was a teacher.
Hannah began her new career by living in London for a part of the year. She met famous writers and theatre managers, and showed them her work.
David Garrick, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors and manager of London’s Theatre Royal at the time, became a friend and mentor. He helped her stage two plays. Both were well-received and finally elevated Hannah into the literary circles she had always dreamed of.
But Hannah didn’t find fulfilling her lifelong dreams all that satisfying. Her second play, Percy, was accused of plagiarism. Although the accusations were groundless, it shook Hannah. Then David Garrick died in 1779. She continued to visit London and many friends she’d made in the literary world, but things changed after this. She stopped writing for the stage, and when she put together a collection of her works later in life, she wrote that she regretted this time.
Hannah had always been a Christian, but had been brought up by her high churchman father. In 1780, Hannah read a book that changed her life called Cardiphonia by John Newton, the evangelical pastor, the abolitionist and writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”. This was religion that touched both head and heart. She would later visit him at his church, and he introduced her to William Cowper’ poetry and other evangelical works.
Hannah signalled her final transition by abandoning London and setting up a house at Cowslip Green in Somerset, Mendip Hills, in 1785. She was now spending more and more time with her evangelical friends, and in 1787, she was introduced to the most significant person in her life besides her sisters: the abolitionist and politician William Wilberforce. He was more than a decade younger, but they were both impressed with each other’s faith, charm and intelligence. Their collaboration on major projects were underlined by a warm and enduring friendship.
The first major collaboration for More and Wilberforce was, of course, the abolition of slavery. Slavery was accepted as an economic necessity at the time, and it was deeply embedded in society.
More had already been doing this independently: she had met naval captains who had worked on slave ships and had heard of the appalling conditions. She carried around plans of how densely a cargo hold is packed with slaves, and whipped it out at dinner parties with her high society friends to persuade them of the immorality of slavery. She used her theatrical contacts to show the anti-slavery play Oroonoko. She campaigned for the upper classes not to use West Indian sugar (which was produced directly by slaves).
But perhaps her biggest contribution was that in the lead-up to Wilberforce presenting a bill to limit the number of slaves carried in ships in 1788, she published a poem called “Slavery”. The poem was a vivid description of mothers and fathers in Africa being violently ripped away from their children, villages in ruins and lives in tatters. As well as being an appalling picture of inhumanity, it was groundbreaking in describing Africans. At the time, academics described Africans as homo monstrous, naturally inferior to Europeans. Even Christians believed them to be the cursed children of Ham from Genesis, designed to serve the white man.
Hannah displayed what can only be a biblical understanding of anthropology: Africans were people exactly like herself, able to feel and experience the same things. She took her readers on an emotional journey to see them as human beings made in the image of God.
By the time slavery was abolished, it became fashionable to think slavery was immoral. The poem stopped William Cowper from attempting to write a similar poem, because he didn’t think he could anything further. David Livingstone the missionary read this poem almost a century later, and it sparked in him the desire to bring the gospel to Africa.
Abolition took a long time, slowed down by the French Revolution and people’s nervousness of anything that could destabilise society at the time. But More continued to publish tracts on anti-slavery throughout, even when they had lost their initial momentum.
Slavery was abolished in 1833—the same year that both Wilberforce and More died. Both died within weeks of each other after hearing that it had been abolished.
In 1789, Wilberforce came to stay with the More sisters at Cowslip cottage. After being sent to take in the views of valleys of Cheddar, Wilberforce instead saw the poor living conditions of the local villagers.
He proposed that the More sisters open a Sunday school—not the sort of school we think of when we hear “Sunday school”, but a charity school that operates on Sundays (because children worked during the week), designed to teach the working class children the basics of reading and manners. Wilberforce offered to finance the operation if the More sisters would run the school.
Over the next ten years, Hannah and Patty would set up a series of schools in the Mendip area, beginning with Cheddar, with varying levels of success. The “great schools”, Cheddar, Shipham and Nailsea, survived into the 20 th century until they were absorbed into the state school system. There were numerous schools set up in other villages as well.
Setting up the schools was no easy task: the villages were terribly neglected. The local gentry rarely visited or made philanthropic efforts. The vicar was absent, drawing the salary and taking tithes, but never going to preach sermons or work with the community. They would often appoint curates in their place who would live closer, but still in more affluent neighbourhoods. It was the farmers who were in charge, employing the people as labourers. They did not want the working class to be educated above their station.
More would go into the villages—firstly, to convince farmers that educating the working class would mean that they would stop robbing the orchards and poaching on their land. She would then find a room or a barn to convert into a school. Lastly, she would appoint a teacher to live in the village.
The curriculum would consist of reading (especially the Bible and the prayer book), basic arithmetic, manners and other life skills. At its peak, 1,000 local children attended the schools each week. Some of the schools were so well-received that they added evening classes for youth and adolescents, and even adult literacy classes. As the students grew in their ability to understand the Bible, church attendance also increased exponentially—from 50 to 700 in Cheddar.
More’s Sunday schools—perhaps because of their success—were heavily criticised both during and after her time. Detractors note that the syllabus was too narrow and that it was there to not raise anyone above their stations, but to make life easier for the upper classes. They point out that the students were only taught to read, but not write. Others criticised More for employing Methodists as teachers. Others thought that More took spiritual leadership in the village, rather than leaving it to the bishop, vicar or the curate.
While it is true that the syllabus would now be considered narrow, More had to work hard appease the upper classes who were funding the schools. They were particularly nervous after the French Revolution that the lower classes would rise and topple them. More did emphasise reading more than writing, but there is also evidence that she taught writing more than she was willing to admit. A number of former students were employed as teachers to work at the school over time, which would have been impossible without being able to write.
More made no secret of the fact that she greatly cared for the salvation of the Mendip villagers. There was undeniably a spiritual void that no one else was stepping into. For example, the vicar at Shipham claimed the tithes for fifty years, but had not preached a sermon or catechised a child there for over forty years. With no religious instruction and lack of access to Bibles before the More sisters came along, their goal was that Bibles would be read and understood in each home. Hannah and Patty worked incredibly hard to support the schools. They were middle-aged women, often in poor health. They would ride from town to town each Sunday. They couldn’t even get to all the schools and had to split their visits across two Sundays. This level of dedication came from their genuine desire to see true faith and genuine joy when it they saw evidence of it.
As More involved her life with the villages, she became aware of the difficult living conditions of the working class. So she formed the Women’s Friendship Societies where, for a small subscription, the people were offered payments in times of illness, birth and deaths. She personally topped up the finances herself whenever there was a shortfall.
Many of the women were engaged in spinning linen. Hannah found the pay low for such labour-intensive work. Through research, she found that spinning wool would double their pay. She funded a master to come and teach the women how to spin in wool and even found a buyer for them.
When mining slump led to the plummeting price of ore in Shipham and Rowberrow, More bought it at above the market price and then stored it until the market stablised.
Upon her death, her estate of 30,000 pounds was distributed amongst 70 charities, religious activities, schools and clubs. Some of her schools and clubs continued to operate into the 1950s.
Writer to the gentry
Hannah was a writer at heart, and through all her activities, she never stopped writing. As someone who moved between classes (which was so rare at the time!), she wrote for all classes, but her content and aim was different. For the fashionable, she wrote, challenging them to live out a sincere faith. For the working class, she wrote with the aim for them to live harmoniously and with honesty.
In Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society (1788), she pointed out the religious complacency of the respectable. An example was engaging a hairdresser on a Sunday, which prevented them from attending church. Or telling servants to tell unwanted guests they were out when they were in: not only was this dishonest to the guests, but the servants then had to lie on their behalf. The book ran to seven editions and caused even Queen Charlotte to stop calling her hairdresser on Sundays.
An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World (1790) aimed to teach the gospel instead of morality: she criticised the consumerism and impersonal nature of fashionable society.
Strictures on the Modern System of Education with a view of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune (1799) I’ve mentioned previously: it was her thoughts on the limitations of female education at the time, and was probably a combination of her own experience as well as her experience as an educator.
Hints Towards the Education of a Young Princess (1805) she wrote expressly hoping that the future monarch, Charlotte Augusta, would be given the book. She desired for Charlotte to have a classical education, as well as good Christian character. There is evidence that Princess Charlotte was read the book multiple times, but reportedly hated it!
Novels were a grey area for Christians, and More seems to be have felt ambivalent about them. But she still wrote Coelebs Search of a Wife (1808). It was enormously popular, but it was savaged by critics. It is largely a didactic story of a young man’s search for a wife and was seen as early precursor to Jane Austen. Mansfield Park, in particular, is viewed as having been heavily influenced by More’s work.
Regarded as the most widely read female author in England at the time, More is seen to have made evangelical thought fashionable to the upper classes. John Newtown urged her to keep writing and remarked that people who would never read religious books would read all of hers.
Cheap repository tracts
Given her extensive experience with the working class, More was bothered that there was so little for them to read. Now that she had taught them to read, it was time to write something for them to read.
Village Politics Addressed to all the Mechanics, Journeymen and Day Labourers in Great Britain, by Will Chip, a Country Carpenter (1793) was a 5000-word essay that she wrote that contained a dialogue between a blacksmith and a mason, discussing the French Revolution. She emphasised the goodness of the law in England, and how the state benefitted both the rich and the poor. She attempted to win the poor using reasoned arguments. Having taught them literacy, she knew that it was no longer possible to exclude the working class from political debates.
The success of this book convinced Hannah of the potential for cheap, popular literature. She established Cheap Repository Tracts where, between 1795-1798, she produced 114 tracts—49 of which she wrote herself. These consisted of ballads, Sunday readings and stories. Thanks to subscriptions by her friends (Wilberforce and others), the tracts were able to be sold at below cost. Two million copies were sold in one year.
More was able to write short, simple and popular tracts that conveyed complicated ideas using effective metaphors from the lives of the working class. From a modern point of view, the tracts preach to the lower classes to remain in their stations, while waiting to be rescued by the upper class. They were also predictable. But the skill in More’s storytelling lay in her colloquial metaphors and precise, vivid descriptions of street life and work patterns of rural communities. She knew the lives of the rural poor, and she placed them in realistic situations and gave them dignity as individuals.
Moralists now saw publishing poor repository tracts as an ideal way to reach the working class. As More herself wound down her involvement due to her sheer exhaustion, in 1799, the Religious Tract Society was formed with the aim to teach religion and morality in homely language. These tracts were more decidedly religious than More’s. The Society published More’s first tract, The Shepherd of Salisbury, until 1884.
Through her writings, hospitality, powers of organisation and longevity, More was one of the most influential figures in the Evangelical movement. Wilberforce apart, few could match her moral authority.
More retired from Cowslip Green to Barley Wood in 1801, hoping to visit the poor and spend time reading and reflecting. But visitors continued to her house. No evangelical could resist if they were in the area, but duchesses, MPs and actresses would also come, drawn by her books and reputation. She wrote of having up to twenty people a day coming to see her, half of them strangers. She was often called “the bishop of Barley Wood”.
As the years went by, her sisters died one by one, until the youngest and her closest, Patty, died in 1819. In her later years, due to her charitable efforts, she was concerned about money, but she never stopped being generous. Her income supported her servants, schools and numerous charities. She also took in two orphans. Her friends helped manage her finances, and moved her into their homes to look after her.
Growing increasingly frail, she died in 1833, aged 88.
Why isn’t More more famous?
Firstly, her writing hasn’t aged well. She was a skilled writer with excellent insights into the societies she moved in, but ultimately she wrote too didactically and with religious reform in mind.
Secondly, feminist scholars do not appreciate her belief in gender roles.
Thirdly, Conservatives of her day did not like her for her progressive views on education and evangelicalism. Furthermore, Progressives of her day did not like her for not embracing proto feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, and for teaching the lower classes the goodness of God-given hierarchy and her dislike of the French Revolution.
Fourthly, she was a single woman with no children. Due to Wilberforce’s fame, his sons wrote a biography about him upon his death.
In her day, More was enormously popular and the most widely read woman of her time. Her unique life meant she was a true meritocrat and not an inheritor of privilege. This allowed her to move between classes, and she was able to relate and influence all of them, which made her rare and unique in her time. She was a woman of sincere faith, devoted to living the life God had called her to with gifts he had given.
Let me finish with one of her poems, “Here And There: Or This World And The Next: Being Suitable Thoughts For A New Year”:
Here bliss is short, imperfect, insincere,
But total, absolute, and perfect there.
Here time’s a moment, short our happiest state,
There infinite duration is our date.
Here Satan tempts, and troubles e’en the best,
In a weak sinful body here I dwell,
But there I drop this frail and sickly shell.
Here my best thoughts are stain’d with guilt and fear,
But love and pardon shall be perfect there.
God cannot disappoint, for God is love.
Here Christ for sinners suffer’d, groan’d, and bled,
But there he reigns the great triumphant head:
Here mock’d and scourged, he wore a crown of thorns,
A crown of glory there his brow adorns.