On a cold December night in 1785, a young, fidgety man loitered outside a London clergyman's house in Charles Square, Hoxton. Passersby gave him little notice, but the rich, dashing, and well-connected William Wilberforce took great care that no one would recognize him here. For this was the home of John Newton—the man slandered in some quarters as an "enthusiast"—and hardly fit company for a promising young Member of Parliament.

But "enthusiast" or no, Newton was the man Wilberforce wanted to see. As a boy of eight years, he'd sat at the feet of the fascinating sea-captain, drinking in his colorful stories, jokes, songs—and perhaps most importantly, lessons of faith. Yet Wilberforce's mother disliked Newton's "methodism" and forbade her son to visit Newton in Olney. Newton feared he'd lost the boy. He wrote to his poet friend William Cowper that religious sentiments in Wilberforce "seem now entirely worn off, not a trace left behind."

Now, in a moment of spiritual crisis, wondering whether his reborn faith in God required him to leave politics, Wilberforce knew who could help him most. Rounding the corner for the second time, he mustered his courage and strode to the front door to call on his old friend.

For all his hesitation, Wilberforce had good reason to confide in John Newton. A man both experienced in the world and now a minister of the gospel, Newton stood uniquely poised to advise men like Wilberforce. He knew how to relate to and counsel many people, including politicians, clergy, middle-class bourgeoisie, and country artisans. How did Newton acquire such influence and ability? And what distinguished him as a "director of souls?"

Newton understood the importance of spiritual accountability and friendship. Early in ...

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