Karen Swallow Prior and the Fierce Convictions of Hannah More

Let’s talk about Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More? Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior. Dr. Prior is a Professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. She is also the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press 2012) and a contributing writer for Christianity TodayThe AtlanticIn Touch, Her.meneutics and Think Christian.  Ms. Prior is a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States, living out a fierce commitment to her family of dogs, horses, and chickens in rural Virginia, along with her husband, Roy.

I’m scanning an endless row of browser tabs, populated by legitimate reviews of Dr. Prior’s latest offering, by people who write professionally and know good literature (and, who received complimentary copies of Fierce Convictions). Some tend toward a breviate of the life of Hannah More, while others present a CliffsNotes retelling of Dr. Prior’s work! You may find those reviews helpful. But, my aim is to go light on literary criticism and steer clear of a mini-bio of Hanna More in bullets. I would rather focus on the merits of Christian biography and point you to this one, in particular. That’s where we’re going. After all, why would you want to hear about More from me, when you will find much more in Fierce Convictions?

But, let’s get the usual review stuff out of the way. First, this biography was a pleasant read – it held my interest and was easy to follow. Ms. Prior shrewdly follows the strategy of John the Revelator, bypassing a linear timeline to tell More’s story again and again, presenting major themes or different aspects of her multifaceted life in each reiteration, chapter by chapter. I don’t recall being tipped off to this plan at the beginning of the book and I didn’t need to, because the author’s narrative stream flows easily through the format. I never felt lost or confused. Biographies of this kind are particularly suited to their subjects and Dr. Prior deftly weaves the various strands and textures of More’s soul into a lively fabric of color, contrast, and movement that is engaging in its execution, pleasing in its composition, and fascinating in its detail.

Fierce Convictions is not hagiography or “faith-promoting history” (the euphemistic tag for sanitized legends about LDS historical figures I was fed as a Mormon). Nor, is it the post-modern deconstruction of a cherished Evangelical classic rock star. This is a serious biography. But, it’s not a dry-as-dust, arcane academic text. I found it to be a work that is accessible to a popular audience, written by someone as comfortable in the academy as she would be addressing a class of eighth graders. The Hannah More Dr. Prior portrays is a progressive woman of Christian character who inspires imitation, while remaining stubbornly tethered to some negative attitudes of class and privilege, common to her age. This is a biography particularly suited to our times, when Evangelical Christians are wrestling with the notion of what it means to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

So, Fierce Convictions occupies a place alongside a good number of other volumes in the “Goldilocks” section of my library. Is that supposed to be a compliment, you may wonder? Am I saying Dr. Prior’s life of Hannah More is a fairy tale, suitable for children? Heavens, no! This is my characterization, for lack of a better, to describe books that offer material of real substance to a broad, contemporary audience, without compromising artistically or academically. Fierce Convictions is a biography that’s just right, capturing the life of a true original, in just the right amount of detail, through form and language that is approachable to a huge swath of readers. And, for those who want to go deeper, the book is loaded with citations occupying over 30 pages of endnotes! It also includes a helpful index. In other words, it’s not too big: and, it’s not too small. At around 250 pages, Fierce Convictions is just right. Writing a book like this is a difficult, almost impossible task. So, I am paying the author a huge compliment!

Now, a few tidbits about Hannah More: In case you didn’t know, (and, to most reviewers, her obscurity seems to be her most captivating quality), More was, in her time, a leading Evangelical reformer, poet, play write, author, educator, and “the first Victorian woman.” She, along with Granville Sharp and other notables, was a member of the Clapham Sect and a leading voice in the British abolitionist movement. She was a pioneer in the field of social media, voicing concerns and pressing for societal transformation, through new and innovative methods. Her friends included major players like William Wilberforce, Samuel Johnson, David and Eva Garrick, John Newton, and Horace Walpole. Hannah More is someone from the past you will want to know.

T. Hyrkas put her finger on what may be the most extraordinary facet of More’s incredible life and achievements in a five star review on Amazon.com:

“Ms. More wrote acclaimed poetry, plays and a novel, started a school for women, spoke persuasively to the upper classes of England about moral reform, and reached out to the poor of her area by starting Sunday schools, which were vehicles for teaching literacy. One should remember that Hannah More did all these things at a time in history when being a woman was a liability, and to be seen doing any public work at all was considered unseemly. Astounding.”

Yep. Astounding! Now, let’s get to why I am pointing you toward this book.

Christian biography has played a huge part in my Spiritual formation, helped me navigate some very difficult times, and provided flesh-and-blood illustrations of Scripture in the lives of people I can identify with. Perhaps Fierce Convictions will do the same for you. Here are some ways Christian biography has helped me.

A 17th century eccentric, the puritan pastor Richard Baxter, taught me how to suffer before I ever really had to. Like many people, I’d experienced life’s ups and downs into my 40s but, overall, I would have to say I had lived a relatively happy and healthy life. In May of 1998, after working about 20 years without calling in sick, I was thunderstruck by a fairly rare disease and found myself giving final instructions to family and friends, while slipping in and out of consciousness, waiting to be transported to a university hospital an hour away. I awoke from a coma 10 days later in a burn unit: I was immobilized, skinned from my chest down to my toes, practically naked, with a feeding tube up my nose. I’d suffered overwhelming sepsis and multiple organ failure, as a result of necrotizing fasciitis (the flesh-eating bacteria). The prognosis was years of pain, suffering, hard work, and healing, both emotionally and physically — if things went well. A person can never completely prepare for such a devastating experience, but I had a huge advantage. Years earlier, a friend asked me to research and write a brief biography of Baxter. I was shocked and spellbound by what this man had suffered for over 50 years and my hours of reflection upon his misery and afflictions prepared me for what was waiting on the other side of the coma.

In Fierce Convictions, Hannah More reminded me once more what it means to really suffer through both the generic sorts of trials common to everyone, as well as those particular troubles that come upon Christians, untimely born and out of step with the contemporary culture. My recovery began by lying completely still on my back for nearly three months and it was sheer torture. Hannah was confined to her room for two years during one of a number of illnesses! How was she able to do that and remain positive, persevering, and prolific? You’ll have to pick up a copy of Fierce Convictions to find out (remember, this wasn’t going to be like all those other reviews you’ve seen — no plot spoilers in this review).

Even though I was still dealing with the long-term effects from my life and death struggle with necrotizing fasciitis, I soon entered into one of the most challenging seasons of my ministry as a bi-vocational pastor. We had planted a church back in 1988, which meandered off mission and into the downward side of the church lifecycle. We were struggling to “return to our first love” and back to health, as a Body. I was working 60 – 70 hours a week, including 40+ hours out of town with over 7 hours of commuting time. Many of those hours, particularly in my car, were spent listening to materials for sermon prep, doctrinal or Biblical teaching, and even Koine Greek vocabulary. But, it came to a point when I needed a broader perspective and wisdom outside my immediate circle to steer through the troubled waters. It was about that time  I was pointed to the biographies of people like David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Simeon, which were written and recorded annually by John Piper. Through Christian biography and the relatively new technology of podcasting, I was counseled by Christians outside of my own century, who had themselves served congregations or ministries for decades, often working to the point exhaustion, at great personal cost (physical, mental, even emotional well-being). Their stories made my task seem doable in the strength of Christ, by the power of His Spirit. Sometimes, after we’ve passed through a particularly hard time, we are dealt even greater disappointments and change. No sooner did it look as if our church had turned around, I experienced an unexpected and traumatic turn of events. Some friends asked me afterwards if I was disappointed (I suppose I didn’t appear appropriately devastated). I replied, “Well: I read Christian biography and the Scriptures – isn’t this how it goes?” That was my paraphrase of Jesus:

In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33 ESV)

Hannah More’s struggles, sacrifice, and sufferings make my own meager troubles seem insignificant by comparison. She reminded me that there is a cost to be counted in following Jesus and, if I am suffering with Him, I am probably right where I need to be, because He is right there suffering, too. As she moved into her 60s and 70s, Hannah could have throttled back. So, why didn’t she retire in her sixth, seventh or even eighth decade of life and leave the work of reform (and, trouble) to a new generation of Evangelicals? Why wasn’t she content to live at a more reasonable, normal pace? You’ll need to read the book to find that out.

Biographies are generally written by people with a passion for their subject and there is the temptation to gloss over or take the blue-pencil to the unseemly side of someone of Hannah’s stature. A good biographer invites readers to imitation, in the positive sense, but sometimes they place unrealistic expectations upon their audience, leading them into a form of Christian hero worship. Dr. Prior’s work inspires, while cautioning against naive or unreasonable comparisons. Being a fan-boy of Christian luminaries like Hannah More and other giants of the faith is both unrealistic in its motivation and futile in its application. Richard Baxter, an Evangelical celebrity throughout the 17th century, reminded his admirers:

We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know.

Hannah More had her share of faults, blind spots, and intolerant ideas. Although she was a true innovator and struck out far beyond her contemporaries in many matters, in others she was shaped and formed by the rigid hierarchies of the time, and occasionally she comes off as reactionary and overly rigid. Karen Swallow Prior is careful to provide the reader with plenty of examples of Hannah’s foibles and faults, drawing us in to provide an accurate portrait of her subject, rather than leaving us at an idolatrous distance.

Finally, you and I are penning our own biographies, living day to day in Christ. So, when we size ourselves up alongside someone of More’s stature, a good biography will guide us into both humility, as we seek inspiration, and a kind of worldly wise, contemporary realism, when we move to application. Dr. Prior does not seem to invite unhelpful comparison: rather, she provides inspiration to grow in Christ, through the examples of a person – a real woman, who rose above the rest and modeled a lively and robust Evangelical faith.

As our stories unfold, we will have as much to say about the age we’re living in, as we do about ourselves. The way we engage the world around us will reveal our perception of reality and how we discern where our culture is today, what direction it is taking toward tomorrow, and our role in impacting the world around us for the Kingdom. We often make the mistake of thinking that Christians, like Hannah More, lived in a golden age and held certain advantages we don’t enjoy. After all, Britain had a state church, all but a few regarded themselves “Christians,” the slave trade was abolished, girls and women were educated, manners improved, and the arts flourished. But, if anything came through loud and clear to me in the pages of this biography it was this: a faithful, robust, and missional Christianity has never been, nor will it ever be popular. Hannah More was guided by her convictions and she was incredibly fierce in following those passions, regardless the outcome. I need to know and follow Christians like Hannah More as they follow Christ. We need Christian biography. Karen Swallow Prior has served up a bracing tonic for us in Fierce Convictions: Get it, read it, and – then, follow Hannah More’s example — live out your own fierce convictions, wherever the Lord has placed you!

For more reviews of Fierce Convictions, all positive, see:

The Gospel Coalition

Refresh My Soul Blog

Awaiting the King

Englewood Review of Books

Crystal Hurd

Edge Induced Cohesion

The Well: InterVarsity

Lavish Bookshelf

Tim’s Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

EpicFehlReader

And, be sure to read this interesting blogpost by Tim Fall: Jane Austen Novels and Hannah More’s Life — Intersecting Planes

 

 

2 Comments

  1. said:

    The personal nature of this review makes it one of the best I’ve read on this book. You’ve piqued interest by revealing just enough for those who haven’t yet read about Hannah More.

    P.S. Thanks for the double shout out with the blog links, Bo!

    May 5, 2015
    Reply
    • BoSalisbury said:

      Thank you, Tim. I really, really enjoyed reading your review and the Jane Austen piece was the kind of thing I find most fascinating — intersections, parallels, networks… loved it.

      May 5, 2015
      Reply

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