Commemoration Sunday / Hannah More / “Lessons from the Extraordinary (and Extraordinarily Forgotten) Life of Hannah More”

by Henry William Pickersgill, oil on canvas, 1821

A reflection given on the life and work of Hannah More (commemorated in the Anglican liturgical calendar on September 7) by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on September 6, the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Our First Commemoration Sunday – Why We’re Doing This

#1: We’re a church that takes seriously, as the Creeds call it, the Communion of Saints.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1

This leads us, naturally, to love of Christian history and biography. For here, we come to see, in flesh and blood portraits, Jesus’ faithfulness and the outworking of his promise to be with us until the end of the age.

#2: Taking the Communion of Saints seriously is an antidote to the individualism rampant in the modern church.

For many, the horizon of their faith does not go beyond them and God, this day, and their story. Al Mohler writes:

“When we make this walk of faith about “me,” we forsake the fullness of the gospel. The gospel does not allow us to boil down its glory to a story about ‘I’ and ‘me.” The story of the gospel encompasses in resplendent unity all the people of God, together, as one people. The gospel is God’s story as he, through Christ, made a people for his pleasure. God’s people, therefore, never find themselves alone. The sinner who comes to faith in a hotel room reading a New Testament is not alone. The saint dying as a martyr for the faith does not die alone. The missionary taking the gospel to the far reaches of the globe does not go alone. At the moment of our death…we are not alone. Brothers and sisters, we are never alone!” (The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits, pgs. 165-166)

As we blaze a trail into future, we are not alone! As we see the church under attack from within and without, we are not alone! And we don’t have to make it up as we go. We hold fast to the faith that has sustained so many before us.

#3: We haven’t gotten to engage much with the Anglican calendar of commemorations. I want to see that change in the days to come.

#4: I have personally gained so very much from Christian biography and history. And I want to share that with you.

Getting to Know Mrs. More

If you’ve never heard of Hannah More, then you’re in good company. Let these words from Eric Metaxas be your introduction:

“Until 2006, I had never heard of Hannah More. It was only in that happy year, in the course of writing my book about William Wilberforce … that I stumbled across her. But it was hardly the kind of stumbling that suggests a person stubbing his toe on a half-buried log in the woods and much more the kind of stumbling that suggests coming across a gurgling…fountain in the midst of a desert. It was not merely surprising; it was staggering: a revelation. How did this get here, and am I the only person who knows it’s here, and what shall I do about it? It was at first simply difficult to believe that this charming and witty and superlatively talented woman really had existed. What was probably the most troubling part of it all was that not only was I ignorant of her existence, but everyone I knew was ignorant of her existence. It was as though she had noiselessly tip-toed out of the pages of history and been removed to page-less oblivion. (Eric Metaxas, from the forward to Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior)

Let us begin to recover her.

Hannah was born the 2nd of February 1745 and died the 7th of September 1833 (thus the reason she is commemorated on September 7 in our calendar). She, along with her four sisters, is buried at the Church of All Saints, Wrington in North Somerset, England. All five of them would remain single for their entire lives. Interestingly, Hannah More Chapel in Reistertown, Maryland was named after her.

From a very early age, literary gifts and a keen intellect were seen in her – she taught herself to read at the age of three and wrote her first poem at the age of four. It was a satire on the city of Bristol, England, which she lived outside of. Two lines of the poem read:

This road leads to a great city

Which is more populous than witty

This four year old girl would become a renewer and reformer of society, an abolitionist, a decorated writer, poet and playwright, and an entrepreneurial educator, especially of women. She was an advocate for progress in attitudes toward the education of women, but she would be vehemently disowned by feminists today because, most deeply, she was a committed Christian and life-long Anglican, grounded in biblical, orthodox faith.

Let us turn now to the lessons we learn from her life, which I’ve tried to sketch in roughly chronological order.

Five Lessons for Today

#1: It Is Not Where We Come From, But Our God That Matters

Hannah’s parents, Jacob and Mary More, were thirty-five and sixteen when they were married. To put it lightly, this raised some eyebrows. Their means and station in life were low and the circumstances of their marriage, to say the least, were very questionable. It appears that the family, and even later biographers, would try to “clean up” the family’s history in terms of social standing. As she made her way to the top of English literary society (especially in her plays), this was most likely a persistent source of embarrassment for Hannah. Here is Karen Swallow Prior’s reflection on this:

The little girl born of that union [of Jacob and Mary More], a girl whose imagination took root in a charity school in Fishponds, would emerge as one of the most fascinating women of her time. Real stories, such as the story of More’s parents, may be at variance with our wishes and hers. Yet More’s life shows that the facts and our wishes can produce great stories when serving things much grander than ourselves, and that the stories we tell ourselves and others matter.” (Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions, pgs. 24-25, Kindle edition).

You see, when who we are and where we are from serve to exalt the redemptive purposes of God, it changes the way we tell our story and how we think about who we are. Who are you and where are you from? In Christ, that all changes.

#2 The Church Must Embrace and Equip Those Called to the Single Life

After an engagement of six years in her 20s, Hannah More was left at the altar not once, not twice, but three times by one William Turner. This was devastating for Hannah. After this, she and others around her discerned more and more a call to a committed single life.

After this, Hannah would grow life-long friendships with men and women in the body of Christ. In fact, it was meeting and reading and learning from no less than John Newton that served as turning point in Hannah’s life. This and other friendships would be the soil in which God would develop and deepen Hannah’s faith in Christ and the vocations she was called to.

Those in our midst who are called to the single life must experience the same embrace and equipping that Hannah did. Is the Church – is our church – a place where singles can experience their life in Christ as blessed by God and having a place in the family of faith? Who knows what good fruit such friendships will bear in Christ!

#3: Christian Witness Has a Place in the Public Square (and It Matters), But Will Cost You Much

Hannah was unashamedly in the thick of the politics, culture, and society of her day. Here I want to focus on particularly on her role in abolishing slavery in Britain.

Armed with her pen, More became involved in the abolitionist movement through her friendship with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and many others. In fact, it was John Newton’s influence that led Wilberforce and More to the conclusion that Christianity included public witness and not just private piety.

Here’s what they were up against:

“As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is, so a person in eighteenth-century Great Britain – immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade – could not easily, if at all see slavery for what it was. … The slave trade seemed so necessary to the material well-being of the nation that even those who could imagine a world without slavery could hardly envision how it might cease.” (Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions, pg. 146 of Kindle edition)

The team of abolitionists thought that, by showing Britain how bad the slave trade actually was, that they could win a quick victory in both public opinion and Parliament. They sought personal testimony from captains and eyewitnesses, depicting the horrors of what was happening beyond the coast.

One particularly moving testimony that was presented before a committee of the House of Commons involved an eyewitness account of a person who came upon slave traders as they were about to murder the child of the one of the slaves because the child carried no value to them. The eyewitness ended up buying the child from traders for the price of a mug of brandy, only to deliver the child back to same ship the mother was on. The price of a mug of brandy. How could Britain let this continue? they reasoned.

More joined the fight through her writings, most famously through her poem entitled Slavery. Here are some of the most moving lines:

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 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!

And yet, for all their vigor and commitment to abolition, that quick victory did not happen. The battle lasted decades. Hannah More and William Wilberforce died within two months of each other –Wilberforce just three days after the Emancipation Bill was passed. But the work won in the that victory would last. In fact, for many years after that victory, the Church Missionary Society would keep a tradition of naming orphaned African girls “Hannah” in honor of More’s persistent work.  

The similarities between the slave trade then and abortion today are easy to see. Hannah was fond of calling slave traders “human flesh merchants.” Today abortion is the leading cause of death in the world, claiming about 40 million lives every year. What compelled the abolitionist was the same foundational Christian belief that moves the hearts of those in the pro-life movement: all lives matter. That all are made in the image of God and therefore full of worth and value. Furthermore, the incarnation of Jesus Christ showed them, and us, the redemptive purpose of God in his death and resurrection.

More and her compatriots teach us that our public witness matters and can make a massive difference, but we must also be willing to count the cost.

#4 Hannah More Teaches Men to Value the Contributions of our Sisters in Christ

For men, the life of Hannah More should cause us to examine how much we value the contributions of our sisters in Christ. My point is not to bring shame here, but to simply ask the question are we learning and benefiting from the perspective of women in Body of Christ? Because of her giftings, over the course of her life, this woman would Pastors, Bishops, Royalty, government leaders, rich, and poor.

At the beginning, I noted Eric Metaxas’ bewilderment that Hannah has been largely forgotten. Her literary giftings being so clear, she deserves to be read. And so do many women in the Body of Christ.

Here’s just a sampling of what we have to gain. This is an excerpt from her book on prayer (the last book she ever wrote), entitled The Spirit of Prayer. Here’s she’s commenting on the Lord’s Prayer:

“It is not customary for kings to draw up petitions for their subjects to present to themselves; much less do earthly monarchs consider the act of petitioning worthy of reward … [But] it is a singular benefit to our fallen race that the King of kings both dictates our petitions, and has promised to recompense us for making them.” (pg. 105)

#5 Hannah More Teaches Us to Suffer & Die Well

From Karen Swallow Prior:

“More [suffered]. [S]he suffered from the broken engagement that left her single, from bouts of illness (including what we would recognize now as depression) throughout her life, from the mockery and persecution of those who opposed her efforts, and finally, as the last, bereaved sister among five who lived her last years alone. More’s suffering turned her increasingly toward God. This fact is reflected in her letters and books, which she continued to write as an elderly woman. … [T]he scene of her last months, days, and hours … brings me to tears, tears of mourning and joy over a life lived to the glory of God despite—or perhaps because of—obstacles and pain.”

I’ll end with just a brief scene from her final days, again from Prior:

“The day before she died, her friends held the morning devotion at her bedside: “She was silent, and apparently attentive, with her hand devoutly lifted up. From eight in the evening of this day, till nearly nine, I sat watching her.  Her face was smooth and glowing. There was an unusual brightness in its expression. She smiled, and endeavoring to raise herself a little from her pillow, she reached out her arms as if catching at something, and while make this effort, she once called,  “Patty,” (the name of her last and dearest sister,) very plainly, and exclaimed, ‘Joy!’” These were her last words. … She was buried next to her sisters in the church yard [of Wrington]. A headstone under a mighty tree commemorates the lives of these five sisters.” (Fierce Convictions, pg. 294, Kindle edition)

The grave inscription there reads, “These all died in faith, accepted in the Beloved.”

And so for the work of God in Hannah More, we give all thanks and praise to Jesus our Savior, God our Father, and the Spirit of New Birth, now and always. Amen.

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