Hannah More: Powerhouse in a Petticoat

Meet the heart of William Wilberforce's abolitionist movement.
Hannah More: Powerhouse in a Petticoat
Image: Frances Reynolds / Bristol Museum and Art Gallery / Bridgeman

Imagine yourself seated at a fashionable London dinner party in 1789.

The women are wearing hoops several feet wide, their hair dressed nearly as high and adorned with fruit or feathers. In between hips and hair, bosoms overspill. The men sport powdered hair, ruffled shirts, embroidered waistcoats, wool stockings, and buckled shoes. Politeness and manners reign around a table laden with delicate, savory dishes.

As guests wait for the after-dinner wine to arrive, a handsome but demure woman pulls a pamphlet from the folds of her dress. “Have you ever seen the inside of a slave ship?” she asks the natty gentleman seated next to her. She proceeds to spread open a print depicting the cargo hold of the Brookes slave ship. With meticulous detail, the print shows African slaves laid like sardines on the ship’s decks, each in a space so narrow, they can’t lay their arms at their sides. The print will become the most haunting image of the transatlantic slave trade—as well as a key rhetorical device used to stop it.

The woman sharing it is Hannah More.

“What William Wilberforce was among men, Hannah More was among women.” So the Christian Observer proclaimed upon More’s death in 1833. Wilberforce, the parliamentarian and politician, was the most public face of the campaign, and today is nearly synonymous with the British abolitionist movement. By contrast, as a woman who could not even vote or join abolitionist societies of the day, More was destined for obscurity. Yet historians agree she was the single most influential woman in the British abolitionist movement. One biographer said her efforts formed “one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English ...

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Hannah More: Powerhouse in a Petticoat
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March 2015

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