Article

Helping Christians bloom: The legacy of Hannah More

Dec 15, 2014

In a post-Christian culture such as ours, it’s easy to see society as comprised of two classes: believers and non-believers. There is no doubt that our culture is being shaped more and more by non-believers. Accordingly, we believers expend much energy and spill much ink in our efforts to keep the forces of secularism at bay.

But perhaps the best way to stem secularism is to help Christians bloom.

Reforming the rich and fashionable

In such an approach, we can take a lesson from the British reformer Hannah More (1745-1833). She too lived in a world divided into two classes, in this case, rich and poor. While More sought to help and lift the poor, her greatest efforts at reform were aimed at the rich and fashionable. Few in More’s lifetime thought to improve society as a whole by reforming the upper class first. But More did. “Reformation must begin with the GREAT, or it will never be effectual,” she wrote, continuing:

Their example is the fountain whence the vulgar draw their habits, actions, and characters. To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt, is to throw odours into the stream while the springs are poisoned.

While this idea of the responsibility of the upper classes to set the example for the rest of society would become a defining characteristic of the later Victorian age (to the point of being later satirized, famously, by Oscar Wilde in works such as The Importance of Being Earnest), it was an embryonic idea in More’s time. The prevailing notion was expressed by one popular clergyman who  told the aristocratic members of his congregation that they were not expected to uphold high standards of virtuous behavior because they could make up for such lapses with generous charitable giving. More was infuriated. She did not believe that there was one standard for the rich and another for the poor. How could one expect the lessons in pious, responsible living she brought to the poor to have any lasting effect when every day their “betters” acted worse? She became convinced that the most powerful reforms of society would come from reforming the powerful.

Challenging the lifestyles of the rich and famous

In 1788 More published her Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society. By “manners,” of course, More was talking about more than mere politeness and table etiquette: she meant morality. Manners were understood to be more than mere surface matters; outward manners expressed and helped shape the inward spirit. The book challenged the very lifestyles of the rich and famous of eighteenth century Georgian England. Then, as now, the habits and values of those in the most elevated positions of society were on display for all to see, whether they wished for this or not; thereby setting the example, whether for good or ill, they set the example. Thoughts on the Manners of the Great served as an expose of the habits of the fashionable, not by uncovering what was unknown, but rather by holding up a mirror by which the powerful might see themselves.

A common excuse for impiety among the fashionable—who tended still to claim a nominal Christianity in those days—was the desire to avoid religious extremism. But More wasn’t buying it: "'We must take the world,’ say they, ‘as we find it; reformation is not our business; and we are commanded not to be righteous overmuch’,” she explained. “But,” More countered, “these admonitions are contrary to every maxim in human affairs. In arts and letters the most consummate models are held out to imitation. We never hear any body cautioned against becoming too wise, too learned, or too rich.” Besides, More argued, the risk of extreme piety among the fashionable was but a phantom. Indeed, “he who declaims against religious excesses in the company of well-bred people, shews himself to be as little acquainted with the manners of the times in which he lives, as he would do who should think it a point of duty to write another Don Quixote.”

Yet, More cautioned against excess in the other direction as well. A great impediment to the embrace of religion, More argued, “that garment of sadness in which people delight to suppose her dressed; and that life of hard austerity, and pining abstinence, which they pretend she enjoins her disciples.” The “mischief,” she wrote, “arises not from our living in the world, but from the world living in us; occupying our hearts, and monopolizing our affections.”

Thoughts on the Manners of the Great was a striking success, particularly considering the unpopularity of the subject. The first edition of Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great sold out like ice in a sweltering heat; the third edition sold out within hours; seven editions were published within three months. At least one of More’s contemporaries claimed that the book resulted in “the abandonment of many of the customs which it attacked." In a sweet irony, this book calling for high morality among the fashionable itself became fashionable.

Christians today might take a page from More’s book. Just as More argued that the most powerful way to change society was to change the powerful, so, too, the influence of Christianity in our culture might be strengthened most by strengthening Christians.

Excerpted and adapted from Karen Swallow Prior's book Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More— Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.