Law, William (1686–1761)

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William Law, the English devotional writer, controversialist, theologian, and mystic, was a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. As a nonjuror, he refused to take the oath to King George I and thus terminated his career at the university and in the church. For a time he was a tutor in the household of Edward Gibbon, grandfather of the historian. His later life was virtually without incident, and after years of retirement, he died in his native village of King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire.

Law is best known as a devotional writer and especially for his A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728); but his importance in the history of thought lies elsewhere, in his resistance to latitudinarianism, his defense of morality, his attack on deism, and his mystical writings.

Law was a formidable controversialist, and in his Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717) he brought remorseless logic to bear on Benjamin Hoadly's lax view of the nature of the church. Bernard de Mandeville had contended in the Fable of the Bees that private vices are actually public benefits; Law subjected the work to rigorous examination and showed that the canons of morality cannot be understood in terms of such specious sophistries. His most serious and celebrated work was his attack on deism. In Christianity as old as the Creation, Matthew Tindal argued that reason is the only test of truth; insofar as Christianity is valid, it rests on rationalist principles that owe nothing to revelation. Law's Case of Reason was a closely argued refutation of the prevailing rationalism of the period. Human reason is not able, by itself, to encompass all knowledge, nor is it sufficient to test all truth. Those who exalt natural religion are exposed to the same criticism as those who accept revelation without question. The universe is less simple and the ways of God are more mysterious than the arrogance of rationalism admits. Law shared with George Berkeley and Joseph Butler the credit for terminating the active phase of the deistic controversy.

Law's later writings reflect the profound influence that mysticism (especially as expounded by Jakob Boehme) came to exercise over his thought. He reached the conclusion that real knowledge is "the communion of the knowing and the known." To convey his new insights, Law organized his teaching in the form of "myth." He believed that mysticism gives birth to symbols within which its truth can live. Law felt that he had penetrated to a deeper understanding of human nature and that it could best be interpreted through a grasp of the meaning of the myth of the Fall on the one hand and through an understanding of divine self-communication in love on the other ("Love is the first Fiat of God"). Law's mystical teaching about life was related to a restatement of orthodox Christianity. He expounded the atonement with great beauty and insight and believed that the Trinity was the most illuminating way to describe the self-unfolding of the Eternal.

Law's mystical writings were perplexing to thinkers of the eighteenth century (see John Wesley's letter to Law about mysticism), but his Serious Call exercised a profound influence at the time (especially on Samuel Johnson and John Wesley) and is still considered a classic work on the Christian life.

See also Berkeley, George; Boehme, Jakob; Butler, Joseph; Deism; Johnson, Samuel; Mandeville, Bernard; Mysticism, History of; Rationalism; Religion and Morality; Tindal, Matthew.


works by law

The Works of William Law. 9 vols. Edited by G. Moreton. London, 1892.

Selected Mystical Writings of William Law, edited by S. Hobhouse. London: C.W. Daniel, 1938.

works on law

Cragg, G. R. Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Overton, J. H. The Life and Opinions of the Rev. William Law. London, 1881.

Talon, H. William Law. London: Rockliff, 1948.

Gerald R. Cragg (1967)