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William Law

William Law

The English devotional writer, controversialist, and mystic William Law (1686-1761) wrote works on practical piety that are considered among the classics of English theology.

William Law was born in King's Cliffe, North-amptonshire, the son of a grocer and one of 11 children. In 1705 he was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1708, was ordained in 1711, and became a fellow of Emmanuel in 1712. In 1713 Law was suspended from his fellowship for delivering a speech in which it appeared he supported the Stuart pretender to the throne rather than the future George I of Hanover. In 1714 at the accession of George I, he refused to take the oath of allegiance, becoming, in the nomenclature of the day, a nonjuror. As a result, for the rest of his life he occupied no benefice in the Church of England and appears to have officiated at no religious services.

In 1727 Law became tutor at Putney to the father of the eminent historian Edward Gibbon and was considered a respected member of the family circle. In 1740 Law returned to King's Cliffe, soon to be joined by Hester Gibbon, the aunt of the historian, and another lady of quality, Mrs. Hutchenson. Through their assistance Law was able to devote himself to study and charitable activities until his death. He set up schools, provided food for the poor, and became a spiritual adviser renowned as a man of singular compassion and simplicity.

Law's chief fame, however, rests on his writings. In an age when much theological thought was deeply affected by the rationalism of John Locke and Isaac Newton, Law became a vocal spokesman for the need to return to a religion of piety and feeling. As a result, Law entered into a number of controversies with leading thinkers of his day. In 1717 he attacked Bishop Hoadly's contention that the visible church and priesthood had no claim to divine authority. In 1723 a critique of Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees appeared, in which Law defended morality against Mandeville's argument that man was motivated completely by self-interest. In 1731 Law published a forceful rejoinder to the deist Mathew Tindal, in which Law denied the total efficacy of reason.

It is, however, Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) which is regarded as his most enduring work. Emphasizing the need to be a Christian in spirit and deed as well as in name, the tract is an uncompromising demand for continual and heartfelt Christian dedication. Beautifully written, this work had a tremendous impact in its day, carrying its message to such diverse 18th-century figures as Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Wesley, and Edward Gibbon.

Through his concern for the religion of the heart and through the reading of mystical literature, Law in his later years developed a unique and personal mysticism. Dwelling on the "inner spirit" of Christ within man, his thought became less orthodox and his conception of religion less formal, though he never left the Church of England.

Further Reading

Law receives comprehensive treatment in J. H. Overton, William Law, Non Juror and Mystic (1881). There is a skeptical but sympathetic account of him in Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the 18th Century (2 vols., 1876). See also W. R. Inge, Studies of English Mystics (1906); Stephen Hobhouse, William Law and Eighteenth Century Quakerism (1927); and J. B. Green, John Wesley and William Law (1945).

Additional Sources

Rudolph, Erwin Paul, William Law, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. □

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Law, William (1686-1761)

Law, William (1686-1761)

English mystic and theologian. William Law was born in 1686, at King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England. His father, a grocer, managed to send William to Cambridge University in 1705. Entering Emmanuel College, he became a fellow in 1712, but on the accession of George I in 1714, felt himself unable to subscribe to the oath of allegiance. As a result, Law forfeited his fellowship.

In 1727 he went to Putney to tutor the father of Edward Gibbon, the historian of the Roman Empire. He held this post for 10 years, winning universal esteem for his piety and theological erudition.

When his employer died in 1737, Law retired to his native village of King's Cliffe and was chiefly supported by some of his devotees, notably Hester Gibbon, sister of his guardian pupil, and the widow Mrs. Hutcheson. The two women had a united income of fully 3,000 pounds a year, so Law must have been comfortable, and wealth and luxury did not corrupt him. It is recorded that he rose every morning at five and spent several hours before breakfast in prayer and meditations.

Early in his career, Law began publishing theses on mysticism and on religion in general. After he retired, he acquired fresh inspiration from reading the works of Jakob Boehme, of which he was an enthusiastic admirer, and produced year after year a considerable mass of writing until his death April 9, 1761.

Law's works comprise some 20 volumes. In 1717 he published an examination of the recent tenets of the bishop of Bangor, which were followed soon after by a number of analogous writings. In 1726 his attack on the theater was published as The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment Fully Demonstrated. In the same year he issued A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection, followed shortly thereafter by A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Adapted to the State and Condition of All Orders of Christians (1728), considered his best-known work.

Other well-regarded works include: The Grounds and Reason of Christian Regeneration (1739), The Spirit of Prayer (1749), The Way to Divine Knowledge (1752), The Spirit of Love (1752), and Of Justification by Faith and Works (1760).

Most of Law's books, especially A Serious Call, have been reprinted again and again, and a collected edition of Law's works appeared in 1762, a year after his death. In 1893 an anthology was brought out by Dr. Alexander Whyte. In his preface Whyte spoke of Law's "golden books," declaring that "in sheer intellectual strength Law is fully abreast of the very foremost of his illustrious contemporaries, while in that fertilising touch which is the true test of genius, Law stands simply alone."

Sources:

Law, William. The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment Fully Demonstrated. Reprint, New York: Garland Publishing, 1973.

. The Grounds and Reason of Christian Regeneration. Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, 1741.

. A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection. Newcastle upon Tyne: J. Gooding, 1743.

. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Adapted to the State and Condition of All Orders of Christians. London: W. Innys, 1732.

. The Spirit of Love. London: W. Innys and J. Richardson, 1752.

. The Spirit of Prayer. London: W. Innys, 1750.

. The Works. Brockenhurst: G. Moreton, 1892-93. Rudolph, Erwin Paul. William Law. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

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Law, William

Law, William (1686–1761). Law, one of the most influential religious writers of his age, came from a modest family at King's Cliffe, near Stamford, and was elected to a fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. But in 1714 he refused to take the oaths of loyalty to George I and was deprived of his fellowship. He then became tutor to Gibbon's father. His most famous work, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), preached a quiet and meditative Christianity, restrained, humble, and charitable. Johnson spoke of the great effect it had upon him as a student and Wesley and Whitefield were also much influenced. In 1732 he published The Case of Reason, arguing faith against deistical scepticism. From 1740 he established at King's Cliffe a devout household, including the widow of Archibald Hutcheson, MP, and Gibbon's aunt Hester. Most of their income went on schools, almshouses, and the poor, and their charity attracted so many beggars that there was bad feeling in the village. When Miss Gibbon died in 1790 at the age of 84, her nephew wrote, disrespectfully: ‘aunt Hester is gone to sing Hallelujahs, a glory she did not seem very impatient to possess. I received the news of this dire event with much philosophic composure.’

J. A. Cannon

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Law, William

William Law, 1686–1761, English clergyman, noted for his controversial, devotional, and mystical writings. One of the nonjurors, Law was deprived of his fellowship in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and lost all chances for advancement in the church. Unexcelled among the controversialists of his day, he was also a leading devotional writer. In the former role he wrote Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717–19) in the Bangorian Controversy, and The Case of Reason (1731), in reply to Matthew Tindal, the deist. In the field of devotional writings, few books have been given so high a place as his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728). Its influence was acknowledged by John Wesley. In The Spirit of Prayer (1750) and The Spirit of Love (1754) is discernible the influence of Law's study of Jakob Boehme, the mystic. Law's collected works (9 vol., 1753–76) were edited by G. B. Morgan in 1892–93.

See biography by J. H. Overton (1881); W. R. Inge, Studies of English Mystics (1906); S. Hobhouse, William Law and Eighteenth Century Quakerism (1927); J. B. Green, John Wesley and William Law (1945).

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Law, William

Law, William (1686–1761). Christian devotional writer. He was fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, until deprived of his fellowship as a Nonjuror (see DIVINE RIGHT …) at the accession of George I. After a period as tutor to the father of the historian E. Gibbon, he retired in 1740 to his birthplace, Kings Cliffe, Northants., where he gave his remaining years to writing and local social concern, increasingly influenced by Boehme and becoming much more idiosyncratic.

His most famous work, published in 1728, was A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. The simplicity of its teaching and its vigorous style soon established the work as a classic, which has probably had more influence than any other Protestant spiritual book except Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

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