Book Excerpt: Fierce Convictions by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior

Here’s a moving excerpt from Dr. Karen Prior’s Fierce Convictions. A vital aspect of moral apologetics involves the power of God to transform lives, but such transformation is not just at the level of the individual. Whole societies have been radically transformed by the faithful witness and changed lives of followers of Christ, which is an evidential consideration for the truth of Christian theism. In this light, enjoy this selection from Dr. Prior’s recent book about Hannah More, and if it sparks your interest, by all means read the whole book!  

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Christians in the British Empire were just beginning to turn their efforts toward widespread evangelism of unbelievers. In the middle of the 1780s, William Carey, later known as the father of modern missions, was beginning to develop a sense of the Christian’s duty to bring the gospel to all places. Missions had not been an emphasis of the Church of England since its inception during the tumultuous era of the Reformation. But in 1792 Carey would publish his famous missionary manifesto, a pamphlet titled, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This work helped form the basis for the kind of global missionary work that continues to this day. As evangelization emerged at this time as a focus for the practice of the Christian faith, those beginning to think about it generally had their sights set on bringing the Gospel to faraway lands like Africa and the West Indies—not the remote villages right there at home. But this was exactly where Hannah More would concentrate her efforts.

As it turns out, there were similarities between the faraway lands and the villages close at hand, particularly in their spiritual and intellectual states. Over the next several years, More and her sister Patty sojourned upon hills and fields, on foot and on horseback, knocked on doors and butted heads with landowners, cajoled, begged, bribed, ate and fed—all in the attempt to bring Christian doctrine to bear in unreached and uncivilized pockets of the world: the villages right outside the doorstep of More’s rural home outside England’s seaport city of Bristol.

The conditions of the villages were deplorable. Shocked at what they found, the sisters recorded their findings in their journals.

The poverty was crippling. The work—for those who had it—among the laboring class in these villages usually was in mining, stone quarrying, glass manufacturing, or farm labor. Earnings usually amounted to a mere shilling a day.[1] The poverty in one village was so great that “a single cup of broth cannot be obtained for there is none to give, if it would save life,” More reported.[2] “I am ashamed of my comforts when I think of their wants,” she said.[3]

The immorality they found in the villages also shocked them. Patty More described Nailsea, a village filled with laborers in the glass-houses and mines, as “abounding in sin and wickedness.”[4] The people lived in tiny cottages outside the glass factory. Inside where the furnaces blazed, “the swearing, eating and drinking of these half-dressed, black-looking beings, gave it a most infernal and horrible appearance.”[5] No wonder the village inhabitants called the place “Little Hell.” In Shipham, efforts to hold morning and evening prayers failed because, Patty More said, “not one could read’ but alas! every one could, and did, swear.”[6] Patty wrote of one hamlet that it was “so wicked and lawless, that they report thieving to have been handed down from father to son for the last forty years.” Where the churchwardens themselves feared to tread, they instead sent “two nervous women, really for the above reason of personal fear.”[7]

The abandonment of these villages by the church had devastating effects. Cheddar had been without a resident clergyman for decades, and the results were dramatic. Two thousand poor villagers lived under the virtual rule of several farmers. More reported after their first gathering of all the parents of the parish before the school’s opening that it was “a sight truly affecting.” They were “poor, miserable, and ignorant,” and More witnessed there “more ignorance than we supposed existed anywhere in England.”[8] The villagers they encountered were as uneducated “as the beasts that perish,” More wrote, “intoxicated every day before dinner [the mid-day meal], and plunged in such vices as make me begin to think London a virtuous place.”[9] In another parish, the clergyman was reported to be in a state of intoxication six times a week and often “prevented from preaching by black eyes, earned by fighting.” More said of the same village, “We saw but one Bible in all the parish, and that was used to prop up a flower-pot.”[10] The village had no resident minister and there was “as much knowledge of Christ in the interior of Africa as … in this wretched, miserable place,” Patty More lamented.[11] Such neglect by the state-assigned clergy was rampant. Rectors who collected tithes but neglected their parishes were all too common. In one village where they began a school, More was outraged that the clergyman had “claimed the tithes for fifty years, but had never cathechised a child or preached a sermon for forty.”[12] In at least one case, the village had no curate and the farmers told the Mores that although they had the right to appeal for one, they did not “for fear their tithes should be raised.”[13] No wonder some of the fiercest opposition More would face would come from some of the clergy. In one village, the laboring men were so feared that “no constable would venture to arrest” one, “lest he should be concealed in one of their pits, and never heard of no more.”[14] The sisters were warned not to even enter the village, “lest our persons should be endangered.”[15]

Many had no knowledge of the Christian faith whatsoever. A girl in one village, “a beautiful young creature about eighteen,” More said, was “deeply afflicted with a dropsy.” Upon hearing the gospel explained to her, the girl exclaimed, “Oh! Jesus Christ will be very unreasonable if He expects anything of me, for I never heard of Him in my life.”[16] Indeed for a young woman among them to get married in possession of “a fair reputation” was, the sisters said, “an event rare indeed in these villages.”[17]

Spirits in the village were so downtrodden that no one could believe that the “two ladies” who had come to inquire about starting a school would actually do so. After a meeting with the villagers in Yatton about opening a school, Patty More reported, the church bells “were set a-ringing, and the whole village seemed all gaiety and pleasure.” When the school opened the following week, one hundred and thirty children came.[18] More wrote to John Newton, “It is grievous to reflect, that while we are sending missionaries to our distant colonies, our own villages are perishing for lack of instruction.”[19]

Yet the More sisters’ attempt to alleviate such oppressive conditions received far from universal acclaim. Rather, the sisters were met with suspicion by both the rich and the poor. The wealthy feared that educated members of the underclass would strive beyond their station, and the poor, understandably, distrusted the motives of the sisters.

The Mores were savvy enough to know that they couldn’t just descend into a village from out of nowhere with grand plans for what would dramatically alter the status quo by changing community conditions for poor and rich alike. The sisters knew they would need local support and cooperation. They began their inquiries concerning Cheddar by chatting with a penniless rabbit catcher who lived nearby. The man, it turned out, was a Quaker and, upon learning what the women hoped to do, “was visibly struck at the prospect of doing good” in the village. “A tear rolling down his rough cheek seemed to announce there was grace in the heart,” Patty More wrote in her journal.

“You will have much difficulty,” the old man warned them, “but let not the enemy tempt you to go back; and God bless your work.”[20]

His words proved prophetic. In establishing not one but over a dozen Sunday Schools, More and her sister encountered much difficulty and many temptations to give up. Yet, they persevered, and their efforts did indeed seem to be blessed by God. Because of the widespread success and influence of her schools, some have credited More with teaching her nation to read.



[1] Mendip Annals: Or, A Narrative of the Charitable Labours of Hannah and  Martha More in Their Neighbourhood: Being the Journal of Martha More. London: James Nisbet and Co., 1859. Reprint, 64.

[2] William Roberts, Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More.  2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1834. I 397.

[3] Roberts I 397.

[4] Mendip Annals 42.

[5] Mendip Annals 62.

[6] Mendip Annals 48.

[7] Mendip Annals 167.

[8] Mendip Annals 22, 23.

[9] Mendip Annals 18.

[10] Mendip Annals 19.

[11] Mendip Annals 15-16.

[12] Mendip Annals 29.

[13] Mendip Annals 18.

[14] Mendip Annals 28.

[15] Mendip Annals 67.

[16] Mendip Annals, 32.

[17] Mendip Annals 84.

[18] Mendip Annals 40.

[19] Qtd. in Mendip Annals 31.

[20] Mendip Annals 14.


Photo: "Hope" by L. Rosssato. CC License.