From 1745 to 1833.
Genius without religion is only a lamp on the outer gate of a palace; it may serve to cast a gleam of light on those that are without, while the inhabitant sits in darkness.
Talented poet, playwright, convicted moral writer and philanthropist Hannah More was arguably the most influential woman of her time. Witty and quick, she is best known for her writings on abolition and for encouraging women to get involved with the anti-slavery movement. She was born on February 2, 1745, near Bristol in southwest England and was the fourth of five daughters of Jacob and Mary Grace More. Jacob was a schoolmaster, and eventually his eldest daughter, Mary, followed in his footsteps, opening a school for girls in 1758. Hannah became a pupil at 12 and eventually taught there, as well.
More mastered writing at a young age. When she was 17 she wrote her first play, The Search After Happiness. In 1767, More became engaged to William Turner, a local landowner. After six years, Turner kept refusing to name a date for the wedding, so More broke it off. To compensate, Turner gave her an annuity of £200. Armed with this financial stability, More pursued writing full time.
More had a relatively successful career in playwriting and as a part of the London social scene, but her life took a new direction sometime in the late 1780s. She bought a small house in Somerset and completely retired from London society. During this period, she converted and became an evangelical. She became close to the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce and hymn-writer John Newton. In 1788, she published a poem, “Slavery,” to coincide with the first parliamentary debate on the subject. The poem described the life of a severely mistreated female slave and brought to light England’s role in the slave trade worldwide. “Shall Britain, where the soul of freedom reigns,” she says in the poem, “forge chains for others she herself disdains?” This and her other abolitionist writings gave the British movement a public voice. She also wrote many ethical and religious pieces. Her originality and force made these tracts and books extremely popular. When she died, it was discovered that she had earned £30,000 for her writing (not including the vast amounts she gave away), equivalent to millions today.
More and her sister Martha were moved by the poor conditions of people living in Cheddar. They set up 12 schools that focused on reading. More also donated large amounts of her writing profits to educational causes. During her work with the poor of Cheddar, she continued writing; her most famous book of this period, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), argued that women’s education was severely lacking and too trivial, giving them no instruction on how to be moral, rational or even companionable.
More was also vocal in her opposition to the French Revolution. In 1793, she published a tract countering the arguments of Thomas Paine in Rights of Man and later wrote another tract attacking the anti-clericalism of the revolution. She used the money made from these writings to help French clergy taking shelter in England.
During her “retirement,” she stayed busy. She continued writing on evangelical piety, remained active in the anti-slavery movement, kept an open house for many visitors and ultimately inspired a generation of evangelical women. She died on September 7, 1833, and is buried at the Church of All Saints in Wrington, England.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Henry William Pickersgill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923