The Power of a Disguised Pen

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Dear friends:I discovered while studying in England last fall that the dramatic spiritual and cultural transformation of the 1800's in that country was in large measure due to the influences of a handful of highly committed and visionary lay people. It has inspired me to begin writing a book on how people change their times. I thought you might like a sneak preview of one of the chapters. -- Bob Lupton, 4/2000

The bells pealed out joyfully at Clifton Parish Church in Bristol. It was the wedding day of the lovely Hannah More. Her four sisters, adorned in wedding finery, waited excitedly with Hannah at the church, for she was the first of the five girls to be married. And what a wedding it would be! The bridegroom was none other than Mr. Edward Turner, the dashing squire of the Belmont House of Somerset.

They waited in vain. Word came from Mr. Turner that he wished to postpone the wedding. And a humiliating word it was. For this was the third time the ambivalent bachelor had backed away from wedding vows with Hannah More. It would be his last. The devastated Hannah would never become the mistress of a Somerset estate, nor the bride of any man. She would return, along with her adoring, tearful sisters, to their modest family home in Fishponds to gather up the pieces of her broken dreams.

Hannah, born in 1745, the fourth of five girls born to Jacob and Mary More, had always been the beauty of the family. Although young girls were seldom allowed in the classroom in the mid 1700's, Jacob, a well-respected educator, made sure that his daughters gleaned the benefits of his knowledge. Hannah was something of a child prodigy. By age three she had learned to read. At four she recited the catechism in the parish church and wrote her first verse about the road that passed by her home:

This road leads to a great city, Which is more populous than witty.

She learned the classics while sitting on her father's knee and outstripped in Latin and mathematics the boys in her father's class. Somewhat alarmed by her ability, her father suspended her lessons, believing the popular myth that "the female brain was more delicate than the male and could be damaged by too much book learning at an early age." But Hannah's mother was keen that her promising daughter should receive the fullest education. She and Hannah badgered Jacob to continue her studies in the softer subjects of art and literature.

Education was a scarce commodity in England before the dawn of the enlightened 19th century. It would be 1836 before the first college would admit female students. Hannah grew up in a time when the wealthy had governesses and tutors, and the rest of the population had nothing. It was most unusual, then, for Hannah and her sisters as mere teenagers to set up a select school for young girls. No one could have known how this early passion for teaching would someday be used to impact the values and standards of the entire nation.

The reputation of a superb educator, even though a female, was difficult to conceal in Hannah's day. The demand for her services drew her into the circles of the landed gentry and posh society. Her natural charm and way with words endeared her to a growing network of aristocrats, relationships that proved valuable when she ventured to London to launch a literary career. Hannah's ability as writer soon attracted the attention of London society. From local writer to published poet to produced play-wright her work emerged, giving her visibility and public voice, even though in her writings she always referred to herself in the masculine.

Hannah's strong faith and professional platform gave her an increasing boldness to speak out against the godlessness and decadence of London society. Her fiery, well-turned phrases stirred up much controversy in the city. She became both vilified and admired for her unveiled criticism of public leaders - including clergy - who turned a blind eye to the immoral and unjust treatment of the poor. It was this righteous passion that attracted the attention of the young parliamentarian William Wilberforce who himself was consumed with passion to eradicate the inhuman slave trade that was the mainstay of the British maritime economy. Wilberforce discretely invited Hannah to join him and several other "subversives" for dinner where an anti-slavery strategy discussion was planned. Her life would never be the same again.

The Clapham Sect, as they eventually became known, was a small group of well-positioned evangelicals who had committed themselves to the eradication of slavery and slave-like labor conditions that prevailed throughout the United Kingdom. Ignited by the spiritual fervor of the Wesleyan revival and guided by the mature wisdom of slave-trader-turned-minister John Newton, these bold visionaries had set about to transform their society in the name of the Lord. Wilberforce was the group's most visible leader. They had often discussed the need for a skilled writer to help champion their cause and Hannah More's talents had not escaped their attention.

Writing, it would turn out, was not Hannah's first Clapham Sect assignment. Wilberforce had been horrified to discover the grinding poverty in the small village of Cheddar outside of London where "farmers were as ignorant as beasts that perish, intoxicated every day before dinner, and plunged into such vice that I begin to think London a virtuous place." He implored Hannah to accompany him on a carriage ride to see first hand the people of this rugged farming community who suffered under the petty tyranny of a dozen hard-hearted and ignorant farmers. Hannah was as horrified as Wilberforce in seeing the squalor of village-tenants who languished in virtual slavery, devoid of any spiritual or social leadership. "Miss Hannah More," said Wilberforce, "Something must be done for Cheddar. If you will be at the trouble I will be at the expense." But his offer was hardly necessary. The Miss Hannah More had been deeply touched by a divine call that would determine the course of the rest of her life.

Taking up temporary residence at a local Cheddar pub, Hannah set about personally visiting the homes of every one of the 2000 village residents. She encountered poverty and ignorance beyond her imagining. Their hovels were overcrowded and vermin infested. Their clothes were crudely woven from tufts of wool gathered from the briars along sheep paths. For all their hours of backbreaking toil, whole families earned scarcely enough to supply a meager diet of hard bread, potatoes and cheap ale. Hannah wrote: "I believe I see more misery in a week than some people believe exists in the whole world." She met only a handful of residents who could read or write more than their own names. No clergy had lived in the village for forty years, no one to visit the sick or conduct funeral services, and there was only one Bible to be found in the parish - and it was being used to "prop a flowerpot."

Hannah's natural charm and quick smile soon won over the hearts of the women and children and in a few weeks she had ignited enough excitement to start a weekly school for 30 children - an unheard of luxury among the peasantry of England. She began distributing Bibles, prayer books and other books to villagers who showed an interest in reading and started worship and scripture reading classes in a rented ox house she had converted to a schoolhouse. She initiated a credit club for women that taught them thrift and afforded them, in exchange for a weekly penny subscription, a modest income during times of sickness and childbirth when they could not work. Hannah invested the money wisely and over time the fund grew until it was funding proper funerals, wedding celebrations and bridal endowments of cash and clothing. She taught village women and children to spin a higher grade of worsted wool and pursued more profitable markets for their product. In less than a decade school enrollment had reached 200, the economy of the community was much improved and weekly church attendance was averaging an astonishing 700 worshippers. The visionary leadership and practical compassion of Miss Hannah More had turned "this seemingly forgotten people, buried as it were in their own cliffs," into an industrious, educated, spiritually vibrant community rightly described as "an enlightened race."

The new life that had been awakened in Cheddar would not remain in isolation. It was a small blaze of a larger spiritual wildfire being spread across the United Kingdom by Wesley and Whitefield. The spiritually starved peasantry devoured a Gospel message preached in their own vernacular, packing out meeting halls and flooding into makeshift outdoor arenas. The leaders of this Great Awakening recognized, as had Hannah, that new converts must learn to read scripture if they were to mature in their faith. Thus, Sunday schools began to spring up everywhere, teaching an illiterate populous how to read their Bibles. By the time Hannah had established her "greater school" in Cheddar, more than 200,000 children throughout England were being educated in Sunday schools.

It was not long before this newly literate population, hungering to read yet too poor to buy expensive bound books, would attract a new breed of opportunists. Hawkers were soon appearing like lice, peddling "vulgar and indecent penny books" in alehouses and from door to door. The revolutionary gift of reading, intended to open the eyes of common people to spiritual light, was being subverted by character-degrading smut easily affordable to the laboring classes. It would become another moral crisis that the Clapham Sect could not ignore and it was Hannah More who would they would enlist to take on this monumental challenge.

Hannah recognized immediately the tremendous potential for cheap popular literature. With the financial backing of Wilberforce and a number of other affluent friends, Hannah turned her talents as a writer and organizer to producing pamphlets which she called Cheap Repository Tracts. The booklets were colorful ballads and dramatic short stories depicting moral dilemmas, tragedies and triumphs of village people. Writing under the pen name Will Chip, Hannah abandoned any pretext of Johnsonian English in favor of a tongue "understanded of the people." With lively woodcut illustrations and serialized stories told in forceful, unpretentious English, she captivated the imagination of the nation. Her booklets, which sold for a half-penny to a penny-and-a-half, found their way into schools and hospitals, prisons and poorhouses. Gentry bought them in bulk to distribute to their workers. Soldiers and sailors carried them to the far reaches of the Empire. The books "formed a principal part of the English cottager's library" and "for some twenty years the tracts were a staple fare of such village lending libraries as then existed."

In three years time Hannah had created a burgeoning cottage industry that published 114 morally and spiritually uplifting volumes. Between four and six million copies were eventually printed that penetrated every corner of British society. Her success inspired the formation of The Religious Tract Society that would publish millions more pieces of Christian literature for the "common reader." History records a dramatic transformation in domestic life and personal ethics that took place during this period. Professor Harold Perkins writes: "Between 1780 and 1850 the English ceased to be one of the most aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly, tender-minded…" It was the widely held opinion in Victorian England that this great improvement in religion and morals was due to two primary influences: Sunday schools and Hannah More's writings.

Bob Lupton

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