Culture Shaping Faith
In 1833, the British Parliament voted decisively to abolish the practice of slavery throughout the empire. It was a momentous feat cultivated and championed primarily by a few influential friends who responded to the call of God on their lives. Today, many of us have heard the name William Wilberforce, the politician typically credited with the eventual defeat of the evil of slavery across the English territories. Perhaps more of us would be familiar with the story of one John Newton, the former swash-buckling slave trade captain who was miraculously converted to Christianity and would go on to write the beloved hymn Amazing Grace. However, I would venture to guess that far fewer know the story of Hannah More, the poet, playwright, author, teacher, and close friend of these two men, who would come to be regarded as one of the most quietly influential women of the early 19th century, who was likely even more critical to swaying public opinion on the controversial topic than anyone else.
Hannah More became a remarkable person, but she was born in a fairly unremarkable setting. Her father ran a charity school just outside London, and by the ripe age of 16, Hannah would start her career as a teacher at the school. At 18, Hannah wrote her first play, called The Search After Happiness, which, like much of what would come later in her life, was both entertaining yet illuminating in its message. By the age of 35, Hannah had written several best-selling plays, one of which was found in Mozart's possession upon his death in 1791. Around the same time that her fame was beginning to grow in the circles of the social elite, Hannah began encountering the written works of John Newton, who had become an Anglican minister and wrote with such gospel force that Jesus began to shape Hannah's work. As Eric Metaxas writes in his book 7 Women, "Hannah More understood that the culture in which one lived was as much or more influenced by the arts than by legislation, and she undertook to use her gifts in God's service. 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."
By age 50, Hannah had met John Newton and William Wilberforce personally and started lasting friendships with these guys. Wilberforce would write in his diary that he felt God had called him to the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of the British society, which was at the time adrift and far from God. In these twin missions, Hannah would become one of his closest collaborators. While Wilberforce would fight for decades in the halls of Parliament, arguing, debating, and convincing fellow legislators to see the horrors of slavery, Hannah would set her mind to the public, publishing simple tracts, the 18th century equivalent of blog posts, that would help ordinary citizens see the God-given dignity and humanity of their African brethren. Their labors, though they would take more than 30 years, were eventually successful.
And the way they worked together, the building of structures, laws, and official consensus by Wilberforce, combined with Hannah's flourishing and persuasive prose that filled the minds and motivated the hearts of the people, is in a way, a beautiful illustration of the myriad of ways that men and women contribute in God's plans for humanity. Both were critical. Both were visible. Both were fighting for a mission greater than themselves, seeking to glorify God and love their neighbors, in distinct yet dependent ways. And our world is better for it, and it needs more of it. So our exhortation today is first, to recall the culture-shaping faith of Hannah More and William Wilberforce, and second, in your own life, to seek to apply the simple words of Micah 6:8, "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
And this reminds us of our need to confess our sins.