Book Review: Fierce Convictions

Biography book reviews can be difficult because it is hard to separate what you feel about the subject from how you feel about the biography itself. In Fierce Convictions, Karen Swallow Prior has done a great service: reintroducing the nearly forgotten English abolitionist Hannah More to a contemporary audience. (And I have to confess right from the beginning: I was excited for the chance to review this one, because I admire Prior’s other writing.)

The author does a fantastic job presenting her subject as a real, living human being complete with faults and idiosyncrasies. More was not a perfect woman, since such a thing does not exist. But she does not deserve the censure she received in the years after her death, and she certainly deserves to be remembered for her tireless work for the abolition of slavery, the reform of manners, and the setting up of schools so that all classes might know how to read. Prior sorts out the details, correcting some errors when the evidence is clear, and always treating More as a real person instead of a stock cut-out. There are aspects of More’s life which seem odd to modern eyes: 5 unmarried sisters living out their lives together, a fiance who jilts More several times but then sets her up with money that will enable some of her efforts, and incongruous friendships with David Garrick (legendary Shakespearean actor), Dr. Johnson (author of the “standard-setting English dictionary) and Horace Walpole (noted eccentric). More also suffered periods of ill health and what we would probably describe as depression.

After reading Eric Metaxas’Amazing Grace (a biography of William Wilberforce), I lamented to my husband about how our time needs a Wilberforce: a principled man in politics who is willing to spend his fortune, his reputation, and his life if need be for the controversial issues that plague our culture. Now that I’ve read Fierce Convictions, I’m convinced we don’t just need a Wilberforce, we need a Hannah More, and others like the group that has become known as the Clapham Sect. These are people who moved in all circles of society, from the highest to the lowest. They influenced art. They wrote books. They published papers. They worked almost tirelessly at the causes they believed in. They were winsome: by which I mean winning others to their way of thinking by earnest discussion and by living their lives as faithfully to their beliefs as they could. They were willing to be unpopular, but they were not, as a general rule, needlessly antagonistic.

This book caused me to admire in More is her devotion to “Sunday Schools”, which were quite different from what we know as Sunday School. In her time, laborers only had Sunday “off”. So More, and others, set up Sunday Schools for teaching those who had no other time for learning. She was committed to each and every person knowing how to read, because she knew that reading is what makes a person truly capable of learning whatever else they need and how to improve their morals (manners) on their own. In our own time, when the educational system in the U.S. seems so incapable of producing truly educated adults, I wonder if Christians might need to return to the true roots of the Sunday School and start once again teaching children how to read.

The book does bog down a time or two. It’s not strictly chronological, which can occasionally make it difficult to remember the context in which some events happened. Some facts of More’s life are lost, simply due to the amount of time that has passed, poor record keeping (or loss of records), and errors in previous biographies by both her friends and her enemies. But over all, Fierce Convictions is  a solid, welcome addition to a list of biographies of people who have changed the world, even if they’ve been forgotten or neglected over the years.

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I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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