A little over 200 years ago, in 1811, the British writer Hannah More published a book called "Practical Piety." Its title seems daunting, but it was in many ways "The Purpose-Driven Life" of its day. Widely read throughout the U.K. and America, it went through 12 editions in 10 years in Britain alone. In this book, as with so many of her writings, More was a herald for the heart of the Anglican faith. Her friend William Wilberforce was among many who had a great admiration for her gifts.
And if "Practical Piety" enjoyed something like the popularity of "The Purpose-Driven Life," Hannah More wielded a pen reminiscent of C. S. Lewis. Her style was winsome, learned, and wise.
More was a published poet, and her best prose sentences were also crafted in fine rhythm. Read aloud, they reveal the care she took over them—and they read very well. Consider the following lines, which contrast the lifeless formalism of many churches in her time, with a genuine, biblical sense of consecration. "Christianity," she maintained—
"is not a religion of forms, and modes, and decencies. It is being transformed into the image of God. It is being like-minded with Christ. It is considering Him as our sanctification, as well as our redemption. It is endeavouring to live to Him here, that we may live with Him hereafter. It is desiring earnestly to surrender our will to His, our heart to the conduct of His Spirit, our life to the guidance of His word."
In concert with this elegant passage, More had a deep understanding of the need for repentance in coming to faith. When she wrote about this, she spoke from the place of first principles. As such, she proved a compelling lay theologian in an era when very few, if any women, had that kind of platform. So it was that she wrote—
"The mistake of many . . . appears to be that they do not begin with the beginning. They do not lay their foundation in the persuasion that man is by nature in a state of alienation from God. They consider him rather as an imperfect, than as a fallen creature. They allow that he requires to be improved, but deny that he requires a thorough renovation of heart."
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More’s reflections on prayer, the love of God, and holiness are the best elements of her book. To read them is to linger in a chapel of her making. There, a spirit of devotion breathes in lines of great beauty and reverence. “Prayer,” she tells her readers,
"is the application of want to Him who alone can relieve it, the voice of sin to Him who alone can pardon it. It is the urgency of poverty, the prostration of humility, the fervency of penitence, the confidence of trust. It is not eloquence, but earnestness; not the definition of helplessness, but the feeling of it; not figures of speech, but compunction of soul. It is the 'Lord, save us, we perish,' of drowning Peter—the cry of faith to the ear of mercy."
Reading these lines, I find myself wondering if I’ve ever found a finer description of prayer. I don’t know that I have.
Turning to her thoughts to the love of God, More takes us further in the halls of faith. "Our love to God," she writes with telling honesty, "arises out of want," or need. But God's love comes "to us out of fulness." In that love, rests a "power which can relieve," and a "goodness which can bless." It holds "the richer communications of His grace."
In More’s chapter on holiness, we find a stirring reflection on our greatest good, and its continual origin in our heavenly Father. She wrote, with profound insight, about how it is that in God "we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Without Him, she knew of a surety, we can do nothing—we can have nothing. So she tells us that
"our very happiness, therefore, is not our independent property; it flows from that eternal mind which is the source and sum of happiness. In vain we look for felicity in all around us. It can only be found in that original fountain, whence we, and all we are and have, are derived."
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Some years ago, I traveled to England and visited All Saints Church in Wrington, where Hannah More is buried. Her grave, sheltered by a yew tree, is a quiet and moving place. The gothic spires of All Saints seem to draw heaven down. I like to think they do, there in a place of ancient faith.
The picture I have of the church was taken on slide film, which deepened the colors of the image. Somehow, through some trick of the developer’s art, or the light of that day—or a bit of both—the church seems set in textured glass of a deep cloudy blue. It’s a wonderful keepsake.
I stood at the graveside for some time, and my thoughts turned to passages from Hannah More’s books. So many have hallowed my journey of faith. I offered a prayer of thanks—for a saint who had such a beautiful mind, and a writer who bestowed so many gifts. Bless God for her life and work.
My visit to Wrington took place nearly ten years ago. As I remember that, I remember too that Hannah More died in 1833. One hundred eighty years have flown since her passing. Yet still, she has gifts for those who read her writings. One need only turn the pages of a classic text to find them.
Image courtesy of Regency History.
Kevin Belmonte is the author of several books, most recently “Miraculous: A Fascinating History of Signs, Wonders, and Miracles.”