Want to Change the World? Advice from Hannah More


Hannah More (1745-1833) was an English writer and reformer and is the subject of my new biography, Fierce Convictions–The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Here are just a few lessons from the life of this remarkable woman who helped change the world.

1.Don’t be overcome by obstacles and limitations.

Born in England in 1745 to a poor school master, Hannah More lived in a world in which the idea of women’s equality was ludicrous. Women could not attend university, could not hold political office or even vote. Yet, More became an accomplished poet and dramatist, an abolitionist and activist, and eventually a wealthy philanthropist. Few, if any, of her society faced so many obstacles and limitations yet accomplished so much, not only for herself, but more importantly for her nation and her world.

2.Be open to the opportunity that disappointment can bring.

After breaking off a long engagement with a suitor who repeatedly called off the wedding date, Hannah More was devastated. Yet, the customary annuity her former fiancé gave her offered More the financial independence that led to her ability to seek and achieve literary success. This success allowed her later to pursue her life of activism and reform. If she had married, she likely never would have accomplished any of these things given the realities of the eighteenth century world. That great disappointment not only changed the course of More’s life—but it helped change the course of the nation.

3. Welcome the help of others.

More could not have accomplished these things if others—particularly men of power and influence in her life—had not offered help and support to her. Just as important was More’s willingness to accept such patronage, whether in the form of connections and introductions made or financial underwriting of her various projects related to education and reform. The Lone Ranger is a fictional character. Those who make the most difference in the world never try to do so on their own. Instead More worked with other writers and activists (including John Newton and William Wilberforce) to teach the poor to read, to effect moral and social reforms in England, and to end the slave trade.

4. Return help received with help given.

Just as More was supported by others with greater power and influence than she had, she eventually did the same for others. She mentored and supported a poor, rural milkwoman-turned-poet from her hometown of Bristol, for example. Her greatest efforts went into the numerous Sunday Schools she established throughout the region where the poor were taught to read, a very controversial undertaking at the time. And, of course, she labored for decades with her fellow abolitionists to help end the slave trade. More turned the help she received into help for countless others.

5. Be strong—but be vulnerable, too.

These two words—strong and vulnerable—describe More well. She hiked over field and dale with her walking stick, rode horseback for miles, and journeyed by carriage on countless two-day trips to England and back in order to accomplish her endeavors. Even greater than the physical toll, however, was her spiritual toil. In opening her schools for the poor, in fighting the slave trade, and in resisting revolutionary politics, More faced many critics. Plagued by bouts of illness her entire life, she often suffered more intensely from these attacks than from her bodily labors. She was daunted and dismayed by criticism as her correspondence clearly shows. It affected her in body, spirit, and mind. Yet she persevered. She admitted her weaknesses. And in so doing, she remained strong.

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photo credit: Painting by Felix Emile-Jean Vallotton

Karen Swallow Prior is author of Fierce Convictions–The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More. To order a copy, go to Resources.