Charles Dickens, whose bicentennial is celebrated this year, was both a literary giant and a Christian activist. Like William Wilberforce a generation earlier, Dickens took on the overwhelming social and moral problems of his day. Motivated by his Christian faith, Dickens used the power of his pen to awaken compassion, change public opinion, and inspire social reform. Christians 200 years later could learn from his example.

Although “Victorian” has become a synonym for moral rectitude and middle class propriety, 19th-century England also had rampant prostitution, sickness, and starvation. Those lucky enough to find work labored as much as 16 hours a day in toxic factories, earning just enough to stay alive. Thirty people sometimes crowded into a single room in disease-ridden tenements.

Unwanted children—orphans, the offspring of prostitutes, and those whose parents simply abandoned them—roamed the city in packs. Boys as young as 5 earned a few coins cleaning chimneys or working in factories, but others made their living picking pockets. Little girls might also find work, but many eventually entered the sex trade with “Victorian” gentlemen as their customers.

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