Pessimism reigns, and for good reason. Inner cities are war zones. Pornography is manufactured unchecked. Blacks and whites stare at each other across the O. J. Simpson courtroom, each unable to fathom what the other is thinking. The prison population is exploding. The poor are getting poorer. The most helpless and powerless are aborted not just by the thousands but by the millions.

Depending on one's political views, the enemy is on the left-radicals ensconced in the universities and the nation's capitol. Or the enemy is on the right-the business class, sitting in plush offices of multinational corporations. In any case, despair is spreading: our culture is withering before our eyes, so the feeling goes, and there's not a whole lot we can do about it. Might as well go fishing.

In the early 1800s, Britain was a superpower rolling in wealth. Yet impersonal forces-specifically the Industrial Revolution and the international slave trade-conspired to destroy lives. The masses of England seemed doomed to perpetual poverty, and thousands upon thousands of Africans (and more each year) were locked in perpetual servitude. A lot of Britons looked at their world and then looked for their fishing poles.

William Wilberforce did not. Neither did Elizabeth Fry or Robert Raikes or Thomas Chalmers, among others-Christians largely forgotten in our day. Yet before the century ended, nearly everything they touched had improved: prisons, medical care, education, factory conditions, slums. And decades before Americans started shedding uncountable gallons of blood over slavery, the English had simply outlawed it.

If these Christians didn't bring in the kingdom of heaven, they did make England more just. And if they didn't solve every social problem (and certainly, like all successful reformers, they created a few along the way), at least they made life bearable for millions and saved the lives of millions more.

That is no small legacy. And it is a legacy that history shows we can hand on to our children, and to our children's children-as long we decide not to trade social compassion for a fly rod.