Religion & Liberty Online

Hannah More: Pioneer of Voluntary Christian Schools

(Image credit: Frances Reynolds / Bristol Museum and Art Gallery / Bridgeman)

“Action is the life of virtue … and the world is the theatre of action.”

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Hannah More (1745–1833) was a most extraordinary woman. A poet and playwright mixing with the leading figures of her day in the theater and arts, she found evangelical faith and deployed her considerable writing skills in support of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade. These same talents were harnessed in advocacy of evangelical Christianity through a series of influential tracts and pamphlets. She was a pioneer of schools and other philanthropic works in the poor, rural district where she lived. With the Countess of Huntingdon, she is one of the leading women figures in the evangelical revival.

Hannah More was born at Fishponds, near Bristol, just over 100 miles to the west of London, on February 2, 1745, one of five daughters of a schoolmaster, Jacob, and his wife, Mary. She was able to read by the age of four and grew up studious, intelligent, and quick-witted. Hannah developed a talent for creative writing and published her first play, The Search for Happiness, in 1762, at just 17. None of the five More sisters married, although there was one serious romance for Hannah, who was engaged in 1867 to a merchant, William Turner. No marriage resulted, and the engagement was broken off six years later.

In 1772–73, Hannah and two of her sisters, Martha and Sarah, made the first of many trips to London. She was seeking to develop her artistic writing. This first trip brought her into contact with the London theater and arts scene, where she became friends and collaborator with Joshua Reynolds (painter), Samuel Johnson (writer), and David Garrick (actor). Indeed, Garrick wrote a prologue and an epilogue to More’s play Percy, first performed at Covent Garden in 1777 and later at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. More was devastated by Garrick’s death in 1779.

Hannah’s entry into the London theatre community led her into the Blue Stocking Society, a group of women of intellectual and social standing who took their name from their preference for wearing stockings in blue worsted. In time the name was applied, in somewhat derogatory fashion, to middle-class conservative-minded female philanthropists and social reformers—women just like Hannah More.

While Hannah was moral and upstanding in her Christianity, she had not yet experienced what was known as “vital religion” (that is, an evangelical faith, a faith animating every part of life). In her London circles in the early 1780s, she came into contact with leading evangelicals, including Thomas Scott (author and bible commentator), John Newton, and William Wilberforce.

Somewhat exasperated with the theater and with a newfound commitment to the faith, Hannah looked for new openings and outlets for Christian philanthropy. In 1785, she moved from London to rural Somerset and the rolling Mendip Hills around the Cheddar Gorge, just a few miles from the Bristol area where she was born. This was an area of beautiful scenery but also a mining district characterized by rural poverty. She wanted to write, to practice good works, and to put her philanthropy into action. As she later wrote, in 1808, in An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World:“Action is the life of virtue … and the world is the theatre of action.”

Hannah became increasingly concerned for the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants of the villages near where she lived. This was partially inspired by her irritation at the nonresidence of the clergy in the 12 neighboring parishes. This practice involved a minister accepting the appointment (and the pay) but residing elsewhere to the neglect (either partial or total) of his spiritual responsibilities. This caused considerable complaint from evangelical clergy seeking to faithfully minister in their own parishes. Her concern led her to the idea that would become the focus of her life and ministry.

Education was always at the heart of the evangelical endeavor. Hannah, supported by her sister Martha, was a pioneer in schools work, especially in her home area of Cheddar Gorge. Her interest was sparked by a visit from William Wilberforce to her Somerset home in 1789. Wilberforce told Hannah that the scenery was wonderful but that he was appalled by the spiritual degradation and condition of the inhabitants. This fuelled her own concerns; she needed little further encouragement to set about the educational work for which she would become widely known.

Within little more than a decade from Wilberforce’s visit, Hannah had established more than a dozen voluntary day and Sunday schools for both adults and children. These schools became models for the development of voluntary Christian schools across the country, and it was often evangelical women who were prominent, both as founders and teachers. The Sunday school became one of the most successful of the agencies used by evangelicals to convert the working class. Together with the later development of “ragged schools” (schools for the poorest children), they were also significant examples of evangelical social concern.

The actual origin of the Sunday school goes back, principally, to Robert Raikes (1736–1811), an evangelical newspaper proprietor in Gloucester, also in the west of England, who was shocked by observing children simply playing in the street on a Sunday. For the evangelical, the Sabbath was a day for devotion and serious study. Raikes opened his first school in 1780. Although there were some antecedents, the difference now was that Raikes publicized his work, and so the movement spread.

Hannah and Martha More opened their first school nearly 10 years later. Hannah told a friend that the great objective of instruction was the Bible itself. Martha kept a journal, published later in 1859 as the Mendip Annals, which describes much of the sisters’ activities in this period. The subtitle reveals the real purpose: “A Narrative of the Charitable Labours of Hannah and Martha More in Their Neighbourhood.”

The Mendip Annals reported the opening of the first school, “On the 25th of October 1789, we opened our school with one hundred and forty children, with exhortations, portions of Scripture, and prayer.” Hannah’s school activities were met with opposition, however. In 1800, a local clergyman launched an attack on the grounds she was pursuing Christian activities separate from the Church by enabling the schoolmaster to encourage students to share their Christian experiences. This was, without question, evangelical paternalism in action.

The schools were characterized by rewards for good behavior, and girls, upon getting married, were presented with the sum of five shillings (around $50 today), a Bible, and a pair of white socks knitted by the sisters. Six months after opening the first school, instruction for adults was introduced. Martha reported a letter from Hannah in the Mendip Annals—“They are so ignorant that they need to be taught the very elements of Christianity.”

Hannah More was genuinely interested in the improvement of the moral well-being of the poor. She showed this not only through her schools but also by founding self-help benefit societies and schools of industry attached to the schools intended to teach reading and a trade. For Hannah, though, it was only Christianity that could bring about that permanent change of heart so characteristic of the evangelical version of the faith. And there was significant change observed in the lives of many in these remote villages. Swearing, gambling, and dishonoring God on the Sabbath was, at least to some extent, replaced by church attendance, prayer, and a keeping of the commandments; in other words, improvements in moral behavior. It should be added that the adult instruction class quickly grew from four to 60.

Hannah’s fight against ungodliness, as she saw it, also entailed the development of religious tracts and pamphlets, which were distributed to the poor. On March 3, 1795, she published the first of her Cheap Repository Tracts. She published three per month, and by the end of the first year, an association was established—with Henry Thornton, the evangelical banker, as treasurer—to oversee what became an extraordinary response: more than 2 million copies of the tracts had been sold.

Naturally, these tracts were both moralistic and patriarchal. She emphasized the importance of visiting and instructing the poor and criticized those women who forsook the home in pursuit of pleasure. Hannah championed submission to authority and resignation in the face of want and adversity as much as she called for moral and spiritual regeneration. The dangers she foresaw of abandoning these “principles, not opinions” were political and moral. In 1817, Hannah was approached by the government to help counteract radical ideas in the nation. She responded by starting a new series of cheap tracts: Stories for the Middle Ranks of Society and Tales for the Common People.

Perhaps due to her closeness to William Wilberforce, Hannah became involved in the campaign against the slave trade. She published a widely circulated poem, in 1788, coinciding with the first parliamentary debate on the slave trade, setting out that the immortal principles of God within a person do not change with the color of the skin.

In 1828, Hannah, always of delicate health, not least migraine, moved to Clifton, a Bristol suburb. In retirement she kept an open house, welcoming many leading evangelical figures to her home. She outlived all her sisters. She died the same year as William Wilberforce, but like him, to whom we will turn in our next instalment, lived just long enough to see Parliament abolish the institution of slavery itself, some 25 years after outlawing the evil trade in human beings.

When the full extent of her life and accomplishments are understood, Hannah More deserves to be better known.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.