Soft Moss and Relentless Time

A poet, abolitionist, and philanthropist, Hannah More is proof that our obedience to God can leave a lasting legacy.

We ambled through the ancient churchyard, wandering among rows of tombstones, looking for one, but drawn to all. The dates engraved on many of the markers went back centuries. Some monuments have lain so long their words have been erased by hundreds of cold British winters. We passed a mound of loose, dark soil marked only by fresh flowers, their faces turned toward the sun. It was chilly, even on this July day. At last, we found the plot we sought, the burial place of Hannah More—a poet, reformer, and abolitionist who lived in this Somerset region of England from 1745 to 1833.

My husband and I traveled to Bristol, England, in search of the marks Hannah More left on the world. When she was born in Fishponds, a nearby seaport city, Bristol was a thriving center for the lucrative transatlantic slave trade. The wealth generated by that industry enabled More—born to a poor schoolmaster—to make a way for herself. Providentially, she would use her elevated station to abolish that same trade.

But first More flirted with the fashionable life, traveling from Bristol to London, where she became a celebrated dramatist and poet who hobnobbed with the greatest names of the day. However, when she came under the influence of Rev. John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” More embraced a devout faith. Joining forces with Newton and his friend William Wilberforce, she applied the power of her pen and considerable political acumen toward widespread reform.

She opened Sunday schools to teach the poor to read the Bible. She wrote moral tracts and treatises for both high and low. She composed passionate poems about the evils of slavery to move the heart of the kingdom. Nearly all her efforts succeeded, and she helped usher in the British Empire’s age of progress. At the time of her death, she was one of Britain’s most celebrated and beloved matriarchs. But when the values and beliefs she held fell out of fashion, her name faded from memory, much like the barely discernible letters etched in the stones we walked among.

The world is filled with visible reminders of men and women who have much to teach on the all-surpassing power of God.

Though she has been relegated to the footnotes of history, by faith Hannah More toiled among the poor, advocated for slaves, and helped reform the upper classes. Traveling in her homeland, I discovered her presence lingers still in quaint rural villages, urban parishes, and university archives; along meandering byways; and in local lore and among area residents. Back home, I had spent much time reading and writing about her, but in England, this amazing woman remains tangible, audible, and visible. Here, artifacts of a life lived in service to the Lord call to mind the encouraging biblical promise that a great cloud of witnesses does indeed surround us (Heb. 12:1).

Retracing More’s life taught me a valuable lesson: that no act done in faith will ever truly perish. The world is filled with visible reminders of men and women who, like her, are no less real for having gone before us and whose lives still have much to teach on the all-surpassing power of God.

On this trip, we visited all the places More called home, including the country house nestled below the Mendip Hills. Its lawns bordered by thick foliage and its driveway barred by an iron gate, the only sign of the place is a tiny plaque announcing its name, Cowslip Green. At the moment my husband and I pulled in, another car drove up to the gate, as if by divine appointment: It was the owner, and she asked if we’d like to be let in.

We spent the next hour walking the grounds. Two mighty trees spread long branches like angel wings across the front lawn. The little tree house in one would have pleased More, who was known to welcome frolicking children into her home. The front lawn stretched out like a green carpet toward the rolling hills where she held her famous feasts for the students.

But the most beautiful and powerful reminder of Hannah More’s life was the long grassy rectangle, lined with the flower gardens she planted so many years ago. “I spend almost my whole time in my little garden,” More wrote in a letter from Cowslip Green in 1787. Quoting John Milton in Paradise Lost, she continued, “‘From morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve’ I am employed in raising dejected pinks, and reforming disorderly honeysuckles.” Her words described not only her gardening but also her efforts at societal reform, and while she might have coaxed both into full bloom, it was God who provided the growth. (See 1 Cor. 3:6-7.) More’s garden beds flourish still, a reminder that seeds planted long ago bear blossoms well after the planter has gone.

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What happens to my notes

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.

7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.

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