The Power of a Poem: Hannah More and the Abolition of the Slave Trade
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- 2015 Sep 25
It’s been said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In other words, culture influences us. Books, films, television, and even advertisements often drive us to alter our thinking, and ultimately, our laws.
These days, of course, too few people read poetry. But a poem written more than two hundred years ago had such a tremendous impact that it led to one of the most important laws ever passed.
The poem was written by Hannah More, a British poet, playwright, and author. When I learned more about Hannah More, I was so impressed that I included her in my new book, “7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness.”
Hannah More was born in 1745 in Gloucestershire, England, the daughter of a schoolmaster. Unlike most parents of that time, Hannah’s gave their four daughters an excellent education at home. Hannah was known for her quick wit, and her writings had a distinct moral bent.
At age sixteen she began teaching at her sisters’ boarding school for girls in Bristol, a city that drew the smart and the fashionable. Hannah’s sparkling personality and poetry attracted the attention of prominent people of the day. In addition to teaching, Hannah wrote plays—always with a moral theme—and eventually began spending time in London, where she befriended the most famous actor of the day, David Garrick. The actor and his wife introduced Hannah to London’s great cultural figures: Samuel Johnson, playwright Richard Sheridan, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon. One of her plays, “Percy,” was even a smash hit.
But in time, Hannah began to tire of her glittering lifestyle. Slowly, her Christian faith became more important to her. Determined to use her gifts to forward God’s kingdom, Hannah wrote Sacred Dramas--Bible stories in verse. As I write in my book, “She did not wish to retreat from culture into a religious sphere, but rather to advance with the wisdom and truth of religion into the cultural sphere.” Amen.
Hannah soon met two men who would change the course of her life: former slave-trader John Newton and William Wilberforce, who carried the battle against slavery into the British Parliament. Hannah put her remarkable gifts to work by writing a poem, titled ‘Slavery,’ which helped readers visualize the humanity of slaves. One passage, describing slave traders capturing Africans, reads:
The burning village, and the blazing town:
See the dire victim torn from social life,
See the sacred infant, hear the shrieking wife!
She, wretch forlorn! is dragged by hostile hands,
To distant tyrants sold, in distant lands:
It is impossible to overstate the impact of this poem on the British people. Most of them had never seen a slave. Now, they realized that Africans mothers, fathers, and children were no different from themselves, and that slavery caused great misery. The poem ignited the conscience of thousands of people, who signed petitions demanding an end to the slave trade.
It would be a long battle, of course. Hannah wrote books and authored dozens of political pamphlets, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Like Wilberforce, Hannah turned her attention to other social problems, such as illiteracy among the poor. She opened schools for them, including the children of freed slaves.
It is no exaggeration to say that Hannah More was the most influential woman of her day—one of those “unacknowledged legislators.” Her life is a reminder that we Christians are called to live out our faith in the public square, in the culture—to use the gifts God has given us to bless our neighbors, our communities, and our nation.
For more on Hannah More and on six other great women, please check out my new book, “7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness.” We have it for you at the BreakPoint.org online bookstore.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: September 25, 2015