Revisiting Anglican Classics 4: Hannah More’s Practical Piety

            There can’t be many readers of this post who have heard of, let alone read, Hannah More’s Practical Piety (1811).    It’s not a work of great literary merit, nor is it particularly original theologically.  It is not available today in a modern critical edition.  Although it was reprinted many times in the nineteenth century, it probably passed out of wide usage sometime around the middle of the century.  Today, apart from a few, mostly quite expensive, antique copies, it can be bought relatively cheaply only because of the wonders of photo-printed ‘on demand’ editions.  And the quality of those is very variable.  My own copy is a print-on demand version read by a machine, full of mis-transcriptions and lacking any useful points to page numbers – hence the absence of them in my quotations below.

            So it’s not possible to argue that Hannah More’s book has had much long-term effect on the Church of England’s modern theology and life.  But it is possible to argue, I think, that like a number of other publications of the Evangelical revival, such as William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System (on which I’ll write in the future), it has the merit of typicality, and helps to understand just how complicated and nuanced was the current of Evangelical Anglicanism which swept up Hannah More and others like her in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In her day she was an immensely influential writer, and this was one of her most successful religious books. 

            More was born in Bristol in 1745, to a High Church family in which, unusually for the time, she and her four sisters were highly educated by their father so that they could be financially independent and run their own school.  She was precocious as a child, and matured into an astute critic and writer of verse and plays.  She became part of the circle of Samuel Johnson, and was a member of the group of women writers and intellectuals who formed the original ‘bluestockings’.  But although always loyal to the Church of England, her faith was increasingly influenced by Evangelicals such as the former slaver John Newton, who also influenced Wilberforce.  Practical Piety was written towards the end of her life (she died in 1833), during the Napoleonic wars, when she had wholeheartedly committed herself to the inculcation of religious faith as a means of buttressing the established order of society against the Revolutionary ideals emanating from France.

            Practical Piety was, in its day, something of a bestseller.  Like most of More’s religious writing, it was aimed mainly at the middle and upper classes.  She aimed to reform the faith and piety of the elite, on the assumption that the influence of true religion would percolate down to the lower orders of society.  It’s not that she disparaged or despised educational work with the poor – on the contrary.  But writing for the educated was, as she saw it, her special vocation.  So there is something paradoxical about More – a woman who pioneered women’s education and was herself a strong and lively character, and yet who affirmed conventional views of women’s duties as lying in the ‘domestic sphere’; and a laywoman who commended the hierarchy of the Church of England.  Her political values were deeply conservative.  But it would be a mistake to assume simply that she was conservative through and through, just as it would be a mistake to make the same assumption about other Evangelicals of her time.  Inasmuch as there was a hierarchy of value for her, Christian faith was at the summit; from it radiated other values.  And faith for her was genuinely transformative.  Her vision of society was not simply static and patriarchal; it assumed that the full evangelisation of the English people would bring social transformation in its wake.  That was the prompting spirit of all her educational and philanthropic work.

            The clue to what is distinctive about More’s work lies in the subtitle – ‘The influence of the Religion of the Heart on the Conduct of Life’.  More’s book is avowedly practical – it is about the difference true religion makes to personal motivation and conduct.  But her way of characterizing this true religion is to describe it in terms patently influenced by other Evangelical writers as a stirring in the heart, an inner personal transformation that – in echoes of contemporary reassessment of emotion – genuinely evokes feelings of awe, wonder and devotion to God.  The contrast for More, as with other Evangelicals, was with formal religion, or, as she calls it in the first book, ‘periodical [i.e. irregular or occasional] religion’.  The vast majority of More’s contemporaries were observant Christians of one shade or another: few disclaimed the term ‘Christian’, most availed themselves of the pastoral services of the Church from time to time, and a high proportion of the population were at least occasional attenders.  Without doubt, Britain was a Christian country.  Yet, More contended (as did Wilberforce), their faith seemed to make little difference to their standards of behaviour, and especially their behaviour towards others.  The religion of the heart was, for her, ‘the fountain of the spiritual life’, the ‘vital principle’ which animated ‘the whole being of a Christian’.  It was constant in its striving: ‘True religion is of an aspiring nature, continually tending towards that Heaven from whence it was transplanted.’

            All this fits perfectly with conventional Evangelical views of faith, conversion, and the spiritual life, and it mandated, for More, a careful, deliberate cultivation of habits of self-examination and introspection to study and counter the inroads sin could make into a soul.  More’s book is effectively a manual of devotion and morality.  In that it sits comfortably alongside other classics of Anglican moral theology such as Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.  And yet there’s another side to it that gives away its context immediately – it is suffused with the language of system and rationality.  This is particularly striking in her description of the love of God as the ‘powerful spring’ which actuates ‘all the movements of the rational machine [i.e. human being]’.  So along with what we think of as the ‘Romantic’ language of the heart, there is also the thoroughly ‘Enlightenment’ notion of reason, predictability and control; in fact these labels are hardly helpful if we treat them as anything other than approximate descriptions of contrasting moods and affinities.

            The overall approach, then, focuses on the cultivation of habits of piety that will raise the moral life of the believer who is moved by what More calls at one point ‘the sober earnest of heaven’.  This is not in itself uniquely Anglican, of course, though as I’ve suggested it does sit well in a particular stream of Anglican popular piety aimed at inculcating habits and standards of moral behaviour.  But the final feature it’s worth noting that does put Hannah More firmly in the Anglican ‘canon’ is her simple assumption that she is writing out of, and predominantly for, the Church of England.  There’s no examination or defence of historic church order here; this is not a work of ecclesiology.  But time and again she does simply assume that the bishops of the Church of England are its appointed leaders and authorities, presumably to be respected and obeyed – at least that is the implication of her readiness to quote approvingly from particular bishops of widely varying views, such as Warburton and Secker.  In rejecting the suggestion that ‘heart religion’ might be fanatical, she refers to a long line of witnesses who could be accused of fanaticism if that were true, including Hooker, Taylor, Herbert, Leighton, Usher, Doddridge, Jewell [sic] and others, as well as Chrysostome [sic] and Augustine.  It was of a piece with Hannah More’s conservatism that she supported the establishment of religion; but then what she demonstrates in the book is the successful evolution of an Evangelical piety thoroughly at one with the Church of England, within a generation of the final rupture with Wesleyanism.

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