The response of many people when they first learn about Hannah More is often astonishment at not having heard of this extraordinary woman before. Hannah More might be one of the most influential women that history has ever forgotten. But there are compelling reasons to remember Hannah More’s name and legacy once again, particularly now when we are facing so many moral, social, and religious challenges in our culture.
More lived in England from 1745-1833. Her father was a charity school master who provided her with a home education that surpassed what was typically given to girls in that time. Her natural intelligence and love of words soon blossomed. By the time she was a teen, More had earned a reputation for her skillful drama and verse. She became a teacher in her sisters’ school for girls, and education remained a lifelong passion. After a failed courtship by a wealthy landowner, More gained enough financial independence to pursue a literary career that took her to London where her poetry was praised and her dramas were staged to great applause.
But when More encountered the works of John Newton—the former slave captain who wrote the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”—her soul was quickened and her Christian conviction took root. She had long been opposed to the slave trade, but now she joined Newton, parliamentarian William Wilberforce, and other Christians in what would turn into a decades-long, arduous campaign to end the British slave trade. She wrote a moving and powerful poem against slavery along with, over the years, stories, ballads, and letters—all with the goal of swaying the public’s hearts toward the horrific plight of human slaves.
But More and her friends were not content to take on merely one social problem, even as sweeping a travesty as slavery. They sought reforms in the areas of labor, gambling, animal welfare, and prison. More used her pen with great skill to advance many of these efforts and even to help stem in her home country the revolutionary spirit that was taking over in France.
Another legacy of More’s is the Sunday Schools she opened across her home region. In these, many of poor children—and later their parents, too—were taught to read and do arithmetic, learned the catechism and Bible lessons, and gained employable skills and lessons in home economy.
Most of More’s volumes of literary works—including poetry, drama, stories, essays, and treatises—in some way instructed her readers in morality, politics, or Christian living. She was one of the bestselling and most influential writers of her day. In fact, it was her early literary reputation that led so many of the fashionable in her day to read her works, praise, and sometimes even practice her calls for reform—including the abolition of the slave trade.
More’s wit, literary skill, and winsome demeanor helped her to “make goodness fashionable,” a phrase often used to describe the influence she and her evangelical friends wielded in advancing the values that would come to define the Victorian era. Even into her old age, More continued to write, to evangelize, and—with the wealth she gained from her writing—to support young clergymen along with various schools and missions.
In Hannah More we find for today an example for our own efforts to advance social good and Christian teaching as she did—through deep layers and across a broad spectrum of society.