While researching his book “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery,” writer and radio host Eric Metaxas encountered one of Wilberforce’s staunchest allies and good friends, Hannah More (1745–1833).
She was a member of the London literati, a staunch evangelical Christian, a tireless activist with a conservative bent who helped end slavery, turned back the tides of the French Revolution that were lapping at the English shores, and labored to bring basic education to England’s poor.
Like many of us, Metaxas had never before heard of this luminous figure. Of his ignorance, he writes: “It was as though I had discovered a gurgling Bernini fountain in the midst of a desert. When I came to fathom the crucial role she played in the history of abolition and the so-called Reformation of Manners, I was positively disturbed at the outrageous ellipsis.”
A Life in BriefHannah More was the fourth of five daughters of the schoolmaster Jacob More and his wife, Mary Grace. Though the family struggled financially, living in a small house in the countryside near Bristol, the parents bestowed on each daughter the gift of an education.
Hannah was the most precocious of her siblings. By the age of 4, she was reading and writing. At age 13, she joined her oldest sister, Mary, in the girls’ school the older girl ran in Bristol. By 16, Hannah was teaching at the school and had written her first play for the students there.
Five years later, she became betrothed to William Turner, a landowner of means living in Bristol. It was an engagement that lasted six years. After Turner broke off the date set for a wedding for the third time, More ended their courtship. As was the custom at the time, Turner then endowed her with an annuity—in this case, 200 pounds—which completely changed More’s circumstances. Later the two became friends, and for his part, for the rest of his life, Turner regretted his failure to wed More.
Working With WilberforceIn “Seven Women,” Metaxas notes that in 1785 William Wilberforce wrote in his diary: “God Almighty has set before me two Great Objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” Two years later, he met More, and as Metaxas tells us: “How Wilberforce came to be the champion of abolition—and how he was able to succeed in ending the slave trade in Great Britain in 1807, after twenty years of battling—had everything to do with Hannah More.”
And Thou! great source of Nature and of Grace, Who of one blood didst form the human race, Look down in mercy in thy chosen time, With equal eye on Afric’s suffering clime: Disperse her shades of intellectual night, Repeat thy high behest — Let there be light! Bring each benighted soul, great God, to Thee, And with thy wide Salvation make them free!
A 19th-Century Miss MannersLike Wilberforce, More was repulsed by the degenerate culture of late 18th-century England. It was common knowledge, for instance, that the Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, was a dissolute rake who gambled himself time and again into debt and made a hobby of philandering. Many in the upper class behaved little better.
Realizing even more than 200 years ago that “politics was downstream from culture” and that no legislation would change society, More fought to reverse the culture of her day through her writing, with her efforts aimed at the elites who set the example for the rest of the country. For years, she authored works like “Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society” (1788) and “Hints Towards Forming the Character of a Young Princess” (1805), which was directed not only at the young Princess Charlotte but also at the upper class.
The Anti-RevolutionistEqually important was More’s stance against the revolution in France, and the related ideas that were spreading throughout Europe. In England, Tom Paine’s radical tracts and his “Rights of Man” stoked the fires of this revolutionary fervor, and several of her friends urged More to write in opposition.
"Tom. No, no, I want a new constitution. Jack: Indeed! Why I thought thou hadst been a desperate healthy fellow. Send for the doctor then. Tom. I’m not sick; I want Liberty and Equality, and the Rights of Man. Jack. Oh now I understand thee. What thou art a leveller and a republican, I warrant. Tom. I’m a friend to the people. I want a reform. Jack. Then the shortest way is to mend thyself. Tom. But I want a general reform. Jack. Then let every one mend one."
In her battles against slavery, poverty, a libertine culture, and revolution, Hannah More mobilized those same weapons.