Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
By Byron Borger
December 15, 2014
Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Karen Swallow Prior (Nelson; 2014) $24.99
The Center for Public Justice holds two important and complementary convictions that may appear to be in tension. First, as faithful Christians, we must develop a coherent view of the task of the state, which subsequently shapes our role as citizens. As such, CPJ has a distinctive political voice. A second pillar of our perspective, however, is that not all of life, not even all of civic life, is particularly political. While we want a robust, positive view of government, and we long to see more Christian citizens wisely relate faith and politics, we know that most social problems are not the sort that the government can solve.
Historically, CPJ has taken its cues from the religious and social renewal brought about by the revival of neo-Calvinism in late nineteenth-century Holland and the Christian political party led by Dutch thinker Abraham Kuyper. Renewed faith there impacted all of life and inspired the flourishing of many spheres of culture, even as it led to uniquely Christian societal associations and a philosophically distinctive party.
A new book, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior, takes us to another era where governmental reform and legislative action for public justice were inspired largely by non-political cultural engagement. Many know of the commitment of Victorian-era Christian activist William Wilberforce to two great goals: the “reformation of manners and the abolition of slavery.” Besides being an elected Member of Parliament, Wilberforce was also a tireless social reformer, helping with causes as diverse as literacy, conservation, and animal welfare.
You may also know (if you’ve read Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas, or seen the movie it inspired) that Wilberforce’s work for cultural renewal and political justice was done in collaboration with other cultural activists – writers, artists, educators, publishers, and members of the cultural elite. Among them was the energetic Hannah More, the subject of this spectacularly interesting, well-researched, and engaging popular biography.
Metaxas, in fact, helped convince Karen Prior to write her book. As he says in his enthusiastic introduction, he learned about More while researching Wilberforce and crammed several pages about her into Amazing Grace, hoping that someone else would do a full telling of the extraordinary woman’s story. Little did he know that Prior, who teaches literature at Liberty University, did her dissertation on Hannah More. As Metaxas tells it, he almost jumped out of his skin when he learned this. “I had involuntarily shouted that she must write as soon as possible because I knew of an editor and so on and so on. That I might in the smallest way have helped midwife the birth of this volume made me wish to trill the nunc dimittis and skip away into the next world.” Fierce Convictions is, as he says, “a book everyone should read; it is a life everyone should know, and one that many should emulate.”
Hannah More worked with Calvinists, Wesleyans, Quakers, and those in her own Anglican tradition to shape a consensus in the society about morals, truth, beauty, humanness, and justice. She knew the influence of artists and thinkers on culture, and that cultural renewal was necessary for lasting legislative change. (Indeed, she may have been in view when Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his famous essay about poetry that Christian poets were “unacknowledged legislators.”)
More wanted to forge alliances with what we sometimes dryly call influencers, from priests to poets to publishers. She herself was a poet from a very young age, and she became a renowned and respected writer, essayist, and advocate for literacy and for schooling for girls. She enjoyed friendships with writers and intellectuals of the day, such as the famous Samuel Johnson, the writer Horace Walpole, and the London actor David Garrick. After her death, her first biography was dedicated to Queen Victoria.
I can’t recount here the thrilling stories reported so dramatically by Prior. More was exceedingly energetic (even as she struggled with ill health), and she fired the imagination of a society reeling from the reverberations of the French Revolution and the harsh early years of the Industrial Revolution. She was an abolitionist, but she also opened a large Sunday school, worked to educate girls, advanced animal rights, proclaimed in poetry and polemics “the values that most defined the Victorian age: duty, family, piety.”
Tragically, More's reputation was tarnished by harsh criticism when the modernist movement arose by the end of the nineteenth century. In her epilogue to Fierce Convictions, Prior reminds us that Virginia Woolf was one of those anti-Victorian critics. Ironically, Woolf was a great-granddaughter of James Stephen, one of the Clapham colleagues of Wilberforce and More.
“In most of the world today,” Prior writes, “More has now been largely forgotten – an unknown abolitionist, an obscure poet, and an outdated reformer. Yet she should be known. Somewhere between… hatred and hagiography is a woman who was at once ordinary and remarkable. She was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots. But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours.”
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”