19 02

Hannah More and the Moral Imagination An Example for the Post-Objectivity Press by Clara York

Journalistic objectivity is falling from favor. A recent Washington Post op-ed by Leonard Downie Jr. questioned the validity of “bothsidesism,” or giving each side of an issue an equal voice. He argued that covering both sides on topics like LGBTQ+ rights or race hinders the pursuit of truth. Some stories need no balance because one side is clearly in the wrong. This shift from a pretense of detachment to overt moralism may alarm Christians who fear their viewpoints will be erased from mainstream media. But Downie Jr. was honest enough to insist that rightness and wrongness, as defined by his worldview, matter enough to shape stories. Christians believe in objective truth, so shouldn’t they insist the same?

Edmund Burke coined the term “moral imagination:” an ability to discern right and wrong through intuition of the heart, in alignment with reason. Burke explained in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that moral imagination forms by exposure to stories that prompt proper emotional reactions to good and evil. Christian writers should cultivate the moral imagination by crafting excellent stories, both true and fictional, that beautify truth and expose evil. The writing of Hannah More provides a pattern of such stories.

More, born in 1745, placed a high premium on imagination from her days as a young schoolteacher until her death as an acclaimed poet and playwright. Her vibrant Christian faith shaped her strong convictions, but it also drove and deepened her creativity. Her contemporaries credited her writing as essential to abolishing slavery and preventing a bloody revolution in England. She was not a mere mouthpiece of pious positions, however. The greats of her time – Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and poet William Cowper, among others – lauded More as a brilliant wit and author.

Like Christians today, More found herself in an increasingly anti-religious and morally blind society. The slave trade underpinned England’s economy. More’s writing tackled the dulled imaginations of citizens who thought slavery was essential to their way of life. She wrote a series of tracts containing true stories of the horrors endured by slaves. She publicized these moving accounts not to be sensational, but to reveal evil. She realized that imaginations must be shaped, and stories would shape them. “So many go to a play who will never go to church,” More wrote in a 1788 letter.

She wrote the poem “Slavery” the same year to influence parliamentary votes on Wilberforce’s reforms. The poem was wildly successful. Wilberforce considered More’s writing an indispensable accompaniment to his legislative efforts. She appealed to conscience in the poem through vivid imagery of infants torn from their parents, homesickness, and physical suffering. “Slavery” kindled the imaginations and pricked the consciences of citizens who had never seen slaves, as Eric Metaxas explained in Seven Women: And the Secret of their Greatness. More’s peers also saw the influence of her work. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley credited Christian poets like More with ending slavery by letting readers share the experiences of others. “The great instrument of moral good,” he wrote in Defense of Poetry, “is the imagination.”

More would have agreed with Downie Jr. – giving an equal voice to two sides may often cloud the truth. In the waning of “bothsidesism,” Christians should not toss the standards of modern journalism that strive for accuracy and fairness. But they should recognize with More that a morally blind society needs bold imagination, not bland detachment. We need not cling too tightly to modern standards that demand neutrality where neutrality would deny moral clarity. More’s writing shaped readers who oriented to goodness and recoiled at evil, and ours can do the same.

[This essay won first place in the Essay Competition hosted by WJI Network.]