Fierce Convictions – A Book Review

When I first heard that my friend and Liberty University colleague, Karen Swallow Prior, was writing her second book, a biography chronicling the life of noted British writer, educator and social reformer Hannah More, my initial reaction was, "How does she find the time to do that?" She performs her day job as a Professor of English at Liberty University with excellence since, judging from the testimonials of her students, past and present, she is fully devoted to instilling in them a love for literature and the Lord. Moreover, she had not long ago just published her first work, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, a beautiful and poignant memoir of how her lifetime passion for good books revealed for her, as I wrote in a brief review, "God's story and her place in His narrative." It is easily one of my all-time favorite reads.

By contrast, it took a period of unemployment for me to write my first book, and while I have the inspiration and a few draft chapters for many more, I haven't been able to focus enough to get another one finished. I've often said that writers require the convergence of time and inspiration to produce, and I've found on too many occasions that when I have an ample supply of one, I lack the other!

Yet here she is, writing her second book while also writing for a number of magazines, including The Atlantic, Christianity Today, and Relevant, and serving on various national committees, including the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States, all while living as a lady of the land with her husband and various animal friends. I joke with my wife, also a colleague who works alongside Karen in the Department of English and Modern Languages as an assistant professor of German and French, that I want to be like Karen when I grow up – except for the land and animals part!

I smile as I write this because one of the character traits she attributes to Hannah More is excessive praise of those she admired! I assure you, however, that I mean every word, and it is my great respect for and admiration of Karen that had me looking forward to reading her latest book, "Fierce Convictions – The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist." I read it in one "sitting" – I began reading it at the Raleigh-Durham airport on my way to Lake Charles, Louisiana for my grandmother's funeral, and I finished it on the plane from Dallas to Lake Charles. It takes a lot to keep my distracted mind focused on one task for an extended period of time, and Karen's writing has always been able to do that for me. She describes her subjects and the world in which they live so vividly that you are drawn into their lives as if you were personally present. A good novel has the ability to "take you there", but that's not always characteristic of a biography, which can sometimes lapse into a dry and academic recitation of the subject's resume. Karen's passion for evocative literature is apparent in her writing and, in that regard, she is a disciple of Hannah More, who rejected the notion that quality instruction had to be boring. As Karen writes:

More had an engaging and warm teaching style. She emphasized the imagination, frequently incorporating into the lessons various kinds of stories, whether from the Bible, fairy tales, or nursery rhymes in such a way, one firsthand witness recalled, that one "fancied [More] must have lived among them herself."

She quotes More as saying, "Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull." The readers of this biography will be pleased to find that Karen has taken this lesson to heart in her writing.

Hannah More was clearly equipped from birth to be a writer and educator, as her family and others who knew her as a child marveled at her intellect, quick wit, discernment, and mastery of words. The conventions of the time could have constrained her, because women were not encouraged to be learners and deep thinkers, much less great writers. While generally conservative and respectful of many of the cultural norms of her time, a fact for which some modern-day observers criticize her, she nonetheless redefined the possibilities for women of her era, first with her teaching, then her writing, and subsequently her social activism, which is how I came to know who Hannah More was.

It was my interest in the life of William Wilberforce, a prominent British politician and contemporary of Hannah More's, that brought her to my attention. Wilberforce was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain and, eventually, slavery itself, and his life has been recounted in several biographies and even a movie, Amazing Grace. It was a scene in that movie where I first heard the name of Hannah More, and I described it in my book:

Later, Wilberforce and his best friend, William Pitt, the youngest prime minister in British history, entertain several members of the abolitionist movement at Wilberforce's home. They are knowledgeable of his passion for their cause, his considerable political skills and his dilemma in reconciling his political career and his faith:

Thomas Clarkson: "We understand that you are having difficulty deciding whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist."

Hannah More: "We humbly suggest you can do both."

I can't tell you how stirred I was by this brief scene in a movie. It summed up the challenge of my life and the response required of me. I've always thought back to it whenever I doubted myself or the course I'm taking.

While I'm sure this exchange was fictionalized, it brought to my attention this female British abolitionist who was a member of a group of evangelical Christian reformers known as the Clapham Sect, or the Clapham Saints. They took their name from the then-rural district near London in which they acquired property and from where they carried out their divine charge, most succinctly stated by Wilberforce himself: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners."

Karen writes, "Clapham – and Battersea Rise within it – became the headquarters for a close-knit group of some of these true believers – believers not only in the Christian faith but also in the idea that serious Christian faith could actually make a difference in the world." More was not the only woman associated with the Clapham Sect, but she was clearly the most well-known and influential because of her stature in the literary world. Reverend Oscar Hardman, an Anglican theologian, writes of her participation in the Clapham Sect:

Books for the educated and tracts for the simple were produced by the same wise and industrious enthusiasm, the most successful of the tracts being the work of the poetess Hannah More, who, though she lived in Somerset, was closely associated with the Clapham Sect and is to be reckoned of their number. Aided by funds supplied by Wilberforce, she and her sisters promoted the moral and spiritual welfare of the people of Cheddar and the neighbouring villages by a remarkable ministry of love; and then, by the publication of a series of ballads, allegories, and simple stories, which proved so popular that they sold by the million, she extended her influence to the whole of England.

Karen notes that "While the Clapham Sect is notable for offering expanded roles to the women who were part of its community, More was the only female member who held a status considered equal to that of the men." While More's fame as a writer certainly contributed to her status, so did her friendship with Wilberforce, whose combination of reverence and exuberance so closely mirrored her own that they became fast friends. Karen writes of their initial encounter:

In the fall of 1787, More met Wilberforce in Bath. Shortly afterward, she gushed, "That young man's character is one of the most extra-ordinary I have ever known for talent, virtue and piety. It is difficult not to grow better and wiser every time one converses with him."

Karen writes, "Along with their passionate Christian convictions, they shared a wittiness rare among the faithful. More said glowingly of Wilberforce that he had "as much wit as if he had no piety." They even shared a tendency toward frail health, which dogged them both for most of their lives. Their friendship, one of her longest and dearest, lasted for 47 years until their deaths within weeks of one another, and while he worked through the political process to bring about reform, he came to admire how her engagement of the culture through writing and education could also affect change. He wrote:

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.

Hannah More used "the female pen" to do more than fight for the rights of African slaves. The reference Reverend Hardman makes to the More sisters promoting "the moral and spiritual welfare of the people of Cheddar and the neighbouring villages by a remarkable ministry of love" concerns a network of "Sunday schools", not the church-based classes held on Sunday mornings with which we are familiar, but full-fledged schools which helped to educate poor English children on the one day they and their parents were not engaged in hard labor.

They arose out of a Sunday trip which More encouraged Wilberforce and his sister, visitors to her home in Cowslip Green, to take to nearby Cheddar Gorge. Rather than being enamored of the scenery, however, Wilberforce was taken aback by the abominable conditions of the poor in Cheddar and the surrounding communities, and he encouraged More and her sister, Patty, to begin a number of Sunday schools in the region, which he bankrolled. Despite the opposition of the wealthy, who saw no economic benefit to educating and uplifting the poor, and the religious establishment, who considered the teaching of what she called "Bible Christianity" rather than the doctrine and practices of the Church of England heretical, the schools lasted for 30 years, and gave birth to other programs benefiting the children and the parents of the poor. While the schools were closed after Hannah More's death in accordance with her will, they were the precursor for the public primary schools educating English children today. In acknowledging the significance of the schools Hannah More and her sisters established, Karen simply yet profoundly states, "More helped teach her nation to read."

There were so many other causes which captured More's attention and for which she employed her gift of words, to include animal rights, worker rights, prison reform, observation of the Sabbath, and teaching good morals and character to the general population. She was by no means perfect, and Karen doesn't shy away from discussing her failings. She was a reformer who expanded the roles of women, the poor and working class people in England, yet she was a product of her times, and her beliefs about gender and class are considered archaic by today's standards. In the years following her death, the passage of time and unflattering assessments of her legacy by modernists critical of the Victorian era values she espoused resulted in her being relegated to relative obscurity.

Despite the consequential role she played in "the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners", she has gone largely unheralded while her dear friend and fellow Clapham Saint, William Wilberforce, is lauded worldwide as a role model for Christian statesmanship and public engagement. That's unfortunate, because Hannah More has much to teach the modern Christian about how to have an impact for Christ in the culture.

She immersed herself in the culture rather than walling herself off from it, and she promoted Christian ideals with an appealing disposition, demonstrating that being a champion for virtue doesn't mean being dour or joyless. While she was dedicated to the Church of England, she partnered with people from various Christian denominations, and despised religious conflict when, in her estimation, they should all have as their common basis a devotion to Jesus Christ, as Karen illustrates:

It was a sad irony that More held a strong aversion to religious or doctrinal strife. She shunned such controversy and division, remarking it was not her "object to teach dogmas and opinions, but to train up good members of society and plain practical Christians."

In many respects, I see in my friend Karen Swallow Prior a modern-day Hannah More. Her commitment to the written word as a means to advance the cause of Christ, her preeminence as an educator, her willingness to partner with others who share her objectives, and her spirited and personable presence in the midst of the culture mirror the life of Hannah More at the height of her influence. It seems altogether fitting that she would be the one to reintroduce the world to this extraordinary woman.