Hearing Lost Voices: Risky Friendships and Faithful Presence
Main image: Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo // Photo
by National Portrait Gallery, London /CC BY
Beth Green: One of the things you've done with Hannah More is—and I don't mean this in a fictitious way—you have given a woman a voice again. You have written a woman into the history whom nobody knew about. You didn't know about it until you found this obscure reference. That must have been exciting.
Karen S. Prior: When I first discovered Hannah More in the context of the rise of the novel, I knew nothing about her abolitionist role. It was such a wonderful discovery. Everyone remembers William Wilberforce and everyone remembers all the men who played a public role. But at the time, Hannah More's role was quite significant. It doesn't have the measurable outcome that enacting a piece of legislation has. Fortunately, her poem "Slavery" has been rediscovered and has found its way back into anthologies of Romantic literature and minor women writers. So I'm seeing it out there again, but she was there all along.
BG: And she is there because she is willing to go into spaces that would have been considered, at the time, quite racy. To be in London and to be associating with playwrights and actors; you know, from a very puritanical perspective, these are places that you don't go.
KSP: Yes, and I think she always had that conservative, moral, pious bent even when she was hobnobbing in London. Her friendships are important to notice. She had a close friendship with William Wilberforce. He came to visit her, and they partnered together on many projects. And it's interesting that conservative evangelicals are so nervous today about friendships—opposite-sex friendships—and women leading in the ways that Hannah More led. It's just very refreshing and empowering to read, to learn of a woman and her male friends who supported and empowered her, and the flourishing that resulted for them individually and their society because of that work together.
BG: Right, and not being married myself, I think one of the things that I found refreshing in Hannah was somebody who was not a married woman but who was able to inhabit these spaces that, more so then than now, were predominantly male spaces. She had intimate—in the right sense of that word—friendships with men and with couples. That's how Christian community is supposed to work, right?
KSP: Exactly. Those intimate and supportive relationships empowered her to cultivate the gifts she had.
BG: I'd like to pick up on her use of her gifts and her experience as a woman and ask: Are there insights we can learn today from the way she networked and used those gifts?
KSP: Well it's interesting that she was brought into the abolitionist fold through her relationship with the Middletons, who were an older, established family. She saw Mrs. Middleton as a mother figure. So More's abolitionist views were already well-established at least a decade before she ever met Wilberforce and John Newton. Once all of those folks converged, there was a confluence of power and giftings and abilities.
I think what the Clapham Sect did so well is that they supported each person in the use of his or her gifts as they had them, as opposed to insisting that everyone do the same thing the same way. There was no attempt to homogenize everyone's gifts and callings. Of course, More's gift was writing, and as a woman, she wouldn't have had the ability to do some of the other things the men did, but they supported her writing. They underwrote her writing, not only her famous antislavery poem but even the Cheap Tracts, which included abolitionist views, as well as other Christian and conservative views. There was this mutual support, one for another, for gifts and the use of those gifts.
BG: I'm also thinking that there's financial resources for that too. If her community worked to ensure her stability. I mean, she obviously had what must have been a painful separation, if not a broken engagement, but out of that emerges a settlement, so she can actually have financial independence. So often our ability to use our gifts actually depends on other people resourcing us. It might not be financially, but that is a significant piece in this case of an unmarried woman without an independent fortune—now I'm sounding like Jane Austen—but what do you do?
KSP: Right. I mean, it's true even today for continued ministry work. And just as a side note, there's a book by John Rinehart called Gospel Patrons, and he's going to Oxford, actually, to study this further; this idea of work that's been done by the church throughout history because somebody was there to underwrite and support it. That underwriting, that financial support, is in fact a calling for some in the church.
BG: My colleague Brian Dijkema very famously tweeted something I said in the office once, which went: "I wanted to be like the Medici, only nicer." But seriously, it's having that capacity to actually support people to follow their dreams and their callings and to make the political connections for them or create the spaces.
KSP: Patronage is an important calling and gift and one that the church needs.
BG: How much did this idea about gifts and about being well-equipped to use them shape the setting up of the school and the thinking about women's education, which was pretty far ahead of its time even if we might now balk at some of the common assumptions about how you form women?
KSP: She started writing about education, particularly the education of middle- and upper-class girls, even before she opened the Sunday Schools. It's interesting because Mary Wollstonecraft, a liberal and radical leftist, was her contemporary, but if you read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and then you read Hannah More's works, two main works on female education, you can see their ideas are not that different, at least on the surface.
BG: Which is funny, because I love your quote of her reaction to having to read Mary Wollstonecraft. She basically says, “Why have I got to read this rubbish?”
KSP: Right! I think her writings on educating girls and women are probably some of the works I would most recommend that people read from More. She argued for more math, which was quite progressive. She wanted women to read meaty works of literature; she admonished them for reading just Reader's Digest–type versions of literary works. She wanted them to just stop focusing on the kinds of things that only gave women ornaments to make them more marriageable, but then didn't serve any function after marriage.
She really wanted a rigorous, demanding education for women and girls. And it was not for its own sake, but was tied to Christian piety and moral virtue and strength of character. Then when she opened the schools, the Sunday Schools, they were of course for both boys and girls of the labouring classes, and eventually for their parents too. It's an interesting paradox: here is this very conservative, very Tory woman who was very anti–French Revolution (or any revolutionary spirit), yet here she was, doing this revolutionary thing in teaching the poor to read.
She didn't teach them to write. That would have been even more revolutionary, but she faced a lot of opposition for teaching the poor to read. Of course, her motivation and her purpose was so that they could read the Bible for themselves and have that same authentic conversion experience that she had. Again, there is something inherently radical about the Christian faith in every time and place.
BG: We've talked a lot about Hannah More. I'd like to segue a little bit into your own teaching and learning and scholarship and education. I've been thinking a lot about the concept of excellence in teaching and learning and what it means and what it looks like. Hannah More was part of a very privileged group who used the excellence of their education to shape and inform and influence others, and influence culture. I think sometimes as Christian teachers we can be a little bit worried about the language of excellence. It can make us feel uncomfortable because we don't associate that with servanthood and service—
KSP: And mercy. And forgiveness.
BG: Yes. I wonder what you think makes an excellent teacher, an award-winning teacher, and what advice you might have for me, as I try to think about excellence in teaching and how to think about that rightly. What might be the practices of excellence?
KSP: Well, let me start by talking a little bit more about Hannah. You mentioned that she came from a position of privilege. But she didn't really start out that way. I think, in some respects, it was her constant positioning as sort of an—
KSP: Outsider. You know, one foot in, one foot out. That was her strength and her weakness. It was her strength, in the sense that having a foot in both worlds, the upper and lower class, the middle class sort of emerging, is what allowed her to speak to such vastly disparate audiences.
BG: She can be a cultural translator.
KSP: Yes, exactly.
Having a foot in both worlds, the upper and lower class, the middle class sort of emerging, is what allowed her to speak to such vastly disparate audiences.
I would say that, for me, I think that is the source of my success in teaching as well. I'm the first and only in my family to get an advanced degree, let alone a PhD. I didn't inherit an academic background or a pedigree. I actually—and I tell this to my students—I actually find reading and critiquing and even writing itself hard, and not something that comes naturally to me as it seems to come to others, so I have to work hard at it. I think that gives me a place where, you know, I can translate my own struggles to my students and so it informs my teaching style. I just have to take everything apart and be very intentional and conscious about what I'm reading and studying and writing, and so I share that process with my students. That's one thing I think that Hannah More and I have in common, that sort of outsider perspective that we bring with us.
The other thing, and it seems like this is true of Hannah, although it's a little bit more internal so I can't speak to that as confidently; but I think it is true. For me, I bring my whole self to my teaching. It's not compartmentalized. It's everything. There's a great book by Parker Palmer called The Courage to Teach. He found that there was no one teaching method that was the one that students loved, but what made their favourite teachers their favourite teachers was how the teachers taught in a way that brought the integrity of their whole person to the classroom. That's what I do. On our student course evaluations, there is always a place to rate the professor for using a variety of methods, and I always get low points on that because students don't know what methods are, and they don't know that even the way that I dress is a method.
It isn't fake; it is me, but I bring my whole person to it and my whole love of everything to the love of literature, and so I integrate Christian worldview and integrate life. Even my first book, Booked, is really a lot of just what I talk about in the classroom. I have an evangelistic enthusiasm for literature. Sometimes I would even jokingly have “altar calls” when a student would say that they wanted to be an English major. I would just say, "Hey, someone's decided to be an English major so let's have her come forward." For me, it's not to mock the real altar call, in which someone makes an important profession of faith in Christ, but it is an example of how finding God's purpose in our life and living life passionately in pursuit of the abundant life that God promises is all part of one package.
BG: Yes, and it's important that, as a community, we affirm that for one another as well. One of the things at Cardus we're thinking about as I design a teacher excellence award is that awarding excellence is not just an apple for the teacher; it's about the practices of teaching and learning that bless this community, this class, this school, this neighbourhood where this school is, for the flourishing of this city.
You know, you spoke about abundant life, and I'm thinking, "You can't do that if you can't articulate a story about what education is for, or a Christian story of personhood because, otherwise, how do you know what it means to bring the whole of yourself and how to explicitly reflect on what those practices of dress, habit, pedagogies might be? I think I agree with you that it doesn't lie in method and in ticking a set of competencies that we can say, "If this teacher fulfills these, we will say that they are excellent."
KSP: Just one little anecdote. Just a few weeks ago, a student from my first semester of teaching, seventeen years ago, posted on my Facebook feed.
She wrote, "I remember the first day of class. You told us that you had been told not to expect much of us students at Liberty University." And then she wrote, "Thank you for not listening. You told us that you weren't going to listen to them. And you didn't. Thank you." I don't even remember that.
Students want to flourish. There isn't one way to achieve excellence or to demonstrate excellence, but we all want excellence, and so we need to demand it of them. Our students appreciate it when we demand that of them.
BG: Because we all want to live out the call that God has given us and our personhood. For Hannah More, that looked one particular way. For Beth Green, it looks one particular way. For Karen, it looks one particular way. That's a wonderful place to end. Thank you very much, Karen.
KSP: You're welcome.