On Sunday, December 4, 1785, a handsomely dressed young man delivered a letter at the close of services to the rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. The rector, John Newton, could hardly have been more surprised at the sight of this fashionable courier. It had been 15 years, perhaps more, since he had seen William Wilberforce.

With scarcely a word of explanation, Wilberforce handed Newton the envelope and left. Astonished, Newton withdrew to the solitude of his study to see what prompted such an urgent epistolary errand. Wilberforce was in the throes of a spiritual crisis, and his remarkable letter led to a series of consultations with Newton that culminated in Wilberforce's "great change" or embrace of Christianity.

This spiritual transformation, historian John Wolffe asserts in The Expansion of Evangelicalism, was as seminal an event in the history of the evangelical movement as the strange warming of John Wesley's heart in Aldersgate Street had been in 1738. For Wilberforce would become the most prominent lay leader of the evangelical movement in the 50 years before Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837.

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, a struggle led by Wilberforce in Parliament for 20 years. The struggle transcended barriers of class, gender, and race. Among the co-belligerents allied with Wilberforce were the celebrated playwright and poet Hannah More (1745-1833) and the former slave Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797), whose abolitionist autobiography was the most widely influential slave narrative of the struggle. The movement was marked by grass roots agitation via petitions that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It was also international, extending widely throughout the ...

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