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 New World as well as Europe.

In light of all of these distinguishing characteristics—socio-political reforms, issues of class, gender, and race, and international scope—John Wolffe's accessibly written history of the spread of evangelicalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is a timely addition to the acclaimed History of Evangelicalism series by InterVarsity Press (previous installments have included Mark Noll's The Rise of Evangelicalism, 2004, and David Bebbington's The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 2005).

In 1739, John Wesley wrote, "I look upon all the world as my parish: thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation." Wolffe, professor of religious history at the Open University in England, argues that the explosive results of Wesley's attitude transformed evangelicalism from a European movement into a global phenomenon by the 1840s. And this phenomenon became more diverse and complex than people might think. For every Wilberforce, More, or Equiano, there were men and women from around the world who, though perhaps unknown today, were no less instrumental in ending the slave trade or fostering other far-reaching reforms.

Throughout the book, Wolffe conveys evangelicalism's burgeoning social consciousness while at the same time exploring the more traditional territory of evangelism and foreign missions. Judiciously chosen charts and tables aid this exploration, but in tandem with them appears a too-often-neglected illustrative device: hymns. Selections of verse reflect doctrine, but they are also compelling narratives writ small. For example, chapter 4 closes with two vignettes. The first describes how a dying woman, Anne Dow of New Jersey, found solace in verses recited by her husband: "The world recedes, it disappears/Heaven opens on my eyes." Similarly, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe depicts Uncle Tom in his final crisis finding solace in lines Stowe adapted from hymns written by John Newton and Isaac Watts:

When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I'll bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes

"Verses such as this," Wolffe concludes, "had become the common spiritual currency of English-speaking evangelicalism." He explains, "Hymns were an adaptable and diverse medium, providing an important bridge between collective worship and individual spirituality, and between diverse religious cultures. Some recalled their lines as readily as they did favorite verses of Scripture."

Another strength of the book is chapter 5: "Women, Men and the Family." Here one encounters not only the widely influential writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hannah More (Preachers by Pen) but also the lives of women such as Eliza Barnes and Elizabeth Dart of Canada whose work has received far less attention (Preachers by Voice). Wolffe also examines interfamilial dynamics, notably marriage and relationships between parents and children. We learn, for example, that revivalist Charles Finney's first and second wives, Lydia and Elizabeth, were not his "inconspicuous companions" but "active co-workers" in ministry.

The Expansion of Evangelicalism is a comprehensive and balanced narrative, reflecting all of the elements of modern historiography: social, political and economic trends and issues of gender, class and race. Wolffe's case for the diversity and complexity of evangelicalism from the 1790s to the 1840s is nuanced, compelling, and often moving, putting professors, students and lay readers alike in his debt.

John Wolffe's books include Great Deaths: Grieving, Religion, and Nationhood in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Oxford University Press, 2000). His research interests "all relate in some way to interactions between religion and national identity in the North Atlantic world since the late eighteenth century." His future plans include a major project on William Wilberforce and his long-term influence.

Kevin Belmonte is a Visiting Author at Gordon College and the 2003 Recipient of The John Pollock Prize for Christian Biography for his book William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (revised edition, Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2007).

The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, by John Wolffe, may be purchased at ChristianBook.com and at Amazon.com.

For more information on evangelical Christianity during this era, see Christian History & Biography's
issue 53: William Wilberforce & Abolition of the Slave Trade
issue 81: John Newton
issue 90: Adoniram & Ann Judson