By Dr. Roger Erdvig
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanter’s wand!—itself is nothing!—
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless!—Take away the sword—
States can be saved without it!” These profound lines were written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, just six years after Hannah More died—someone who perhaps Lytton had in mind as he wrote these famous words. Hannah More, a contemporary of William Wilberforce, is known as the most influential British woman of her time—the late 1700s and early 1800s. Her pen catapulted her to prominence and helped bring an empire to its knees.
Hannah was born in 1745 in Gloucestershire, England, one of five daughters of Jacob and Mary More. Exceptionally bright like her sisters, Hannah could read and write by age four, and her most requested birthday gift was paper, which she used to feed her insatiable appetite to write poems and essays. From her earliest days, she was known for her sharp wit and quick tongue but also for having a distinct “moral bent.” She did not write merely to entertain; she wrote to persuade. As a teenager, she began to teach in a school her older sister had founded in Bristol. From early in her teaching career, she became an outspoken advocate for the right of girls to be educated. She also was a firm believer in harnessing the power of the imagination in learning. She considered it a great failure if a teacher brokered in “mere verbal rituals and dry systems.”1 Lessons simply had to be communicated in the most lively and inviting ways possible. While in Bristol, the scope of Hannah’s imagination and experience greatly expanded. She became a fan of the theatre and was welcomed into friendship with some of England’s 18th-century elites. Through these literary and artistic associations, her writing blossomed. Hannah continued to hone her unique way with the pen and, at the age of 18, wrote her first play, The Search After Happiness. Her intention was to provide a morally upright drama for the girls she taught, in contrast to the debased content that was so common in the dramatic works of her time and which reflected the moral excesses of the English culture. In 1774 at the age of 29, Hannah moved to London. A family friend forwarded one of her plays, The Inflexible Captive, to David Garrick, the leading actor in London at the time. He immediately took a liking to her, and he and his wife opened the doors of their home and social circle to Hannah. She soon found herself in close association with some of the most notable people in London, including Dr. Samuel Johnson, who produced one of the most important early dictionaries of the English language, a forerunner to the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. That same year, The Inflexible Captive was published, and thus began Hannah’s successful career in making her work available to discriminating readers. Hannah was a Christian, and her faith and moral bent were important—though still developing—influences on her writing. While in London, she also explored how to relate with unbelievers and worked out how to do so without compromising her growing understanding of Christianity. In her mid-30s, Hannah began to withdraw from the London social scene, concentrating more on the development of her faith than her social network. One biographer said, “More became increasingly disenchanted with the trappings of high society and turned more fully toward the Christian faith she had assumed all her life but not embraced with full intention.”2 John Newton’s book Cardiphonia (utterance of the heart) was the catalyst for her development. Here is a brief quotation that demonstrates the kind of influence his work had on Hannah’s faith:
“When I would do good, evil is present with me. But, blessed be God, though we must feel hourly cause for shame and humiliation for what we are in ourselves, we have cause to rejoice continually in Christ Jesus, who, as He is revealed unto us under the various names, characters, relations, and offices, which He bears in the Scripture, holds out to our faith a balm for every wound, a cordial for every discouragement, and a sufficient answer to every objection which sin or Satan can suggest against our peace.”
Of course, we know John Newton as the slave shipmaster turned pastor who wrote the best-loved hymn, Amazing Grace. Hannah began a long correspondence with this giant of the faith, all the while internally struggling with maintaining friendships with the intelligentsia of London. She also began to reflect more deeply on how to cultivate friendships with people who rejected her faith. Consequently, Hannah felt herself being pulled in two different worlds, and she began to consider that perhaps following Christ would mean leaving London and her associations there entirely. In 1782, Hannah published a series of dramatizations of Bible stories, Sacred Dramas, as her first overtly Christian work. This work was largely a product of her internal conflicts, and she sought to demonstrate that “devoutest piety and the cultivation of elegant literature and taste”3 were not incompatible. During this season, Hannah came to the conviction that culture was as much, or even more, influenced by the arts than by legislation. This is consistent with the words of contemporary theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer: “Popular culture—more so than the academy or the church— has become the arena where most people work out their understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful.”4 Hannah understood this and wondered how she might expand her influence on the culture through her writing. In 1787, Hannah visited John Newton to gain wisdom from him. Just a few years earlier, Newton challenged William Wilberforce to use his influence in Parliament to work to abolish the slave trade. He issued the same challenge for Hannah, steeling her resolve to use her pen to influence the culture. Hannah became friends with Wilberforce, and their work, in two different but intimately related spheres of influence, would eventually instigate the collapse of the slave trade and slavery in Britain. As part of her efforts, Hannah penned a poem called Slavery, in which she made the cultural case against the scourge of human trade and ownership. Similar to how Uncle Tom’s Cabin ruptured the conscience of America, Slavery dealt a fatal blow to the commonly held assumption that slavery was a natural and normal part of life in the British Empire. Using words meant to enliven the imagination, she painted pictures with her pen of the dark secret the average Briton had never seen—the inestimable suffering of African families at the hands of the slave traders and slave owners. Here is just a small excerpt:
“Shall Britain, where the soul of Freedom reigns,
Forge chains for others she herself disdains?
Forbid it, Heaven! O let the nations know
The liberty she tastes she will bestow;
Not to herself the glorious gift confined,
She spreads the blessing wide as human kind;
And scorning narrow views of time and place,
Bids all be free in earth’s extended space.”
This awakening led to petitions to Parliament signed by hundreds of thousands of everyday people. Hannah’s writing ultimately swayed the hearts of members of Parliament, just as Wilberforce’s fiery speeches did until, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished in England.
But Hannah’s efforts were not solely directed at slavery. She also took aim at the worldview and habits of the population that could accept and support slavery. England had become a nation of people who identified as Christians but lived as pagans. Much of the foundation for this worldview was encouraged in the 1700s by the political and moral upheaval in France, driven by the pursuit of decadence and revulsion for tradition. To combat the rising tide of this secular and brutal perspective on the world, which was the moral and intellectual framework for slavery, Hannah wrote a series of pamphlets advocating for Christian values and norms as the only foundation for a just and well-ordered society. She used her well-honed rhetorical skills and entertaining style to move public opinion once again towards a desire for the good, the right, and the true. William Wilberforce is often credited with fomenting the movement that eventually ended the slave trade in Britain and restored a biblical moral framework to the British Empire. However, as he would acknowledge, his efforts in legislation would not have succeeded had Hannah More not been wielding the enchanting power of the pen to reshape the hearts of individual citizens, leading to a renewed conscience throughout the British Empire.
Authorʼs Note: To learn more about Hannah More, see Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas, which was the primary source of information for this article. For a deeper dive into Hannah’s life and impact, read Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.
Dr. Roger Erdvig serves as Director of Worldview Education at Summit Ministries. An avid student of history, he is a member of the Scholars Advisory Council for the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, the premier museum experience in the U.S., documenting the indisputable link between faith in the God of the Bible and the pursuit of liberty.
1. Hannah More, The Complete Works (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1957), 1:355.
2. Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014), 86.
3. Henry Thompson, The Life of Hannah More (Philadelphia: E.L. Cary and A. Hart, 1838), 1:86.
4. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic; Annotated edition, March 1, 2007), 33.