Law, William

views updated May 29 2018


LAW, WILLIAM (16861761), was an English devotional writer. Born at King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire, William Law came from a family "of high respectability and of good means." He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705 to prepare for the Anglican ministry; he achieved the B.A. in 1708 and the M.A. in 1712, the same year in which he received a fellowship and ordination. He read widely from the classics, the church fathers, and the early mystics and devotional writers, and he studied science and philosophy as well. Law's refusal to take oaths of allegiance and abjuration upon the accession of George I deprived him of his fellowship and his right to serve as minister in the Church of England. He remained loyal to the state church, however, throughout his life. After an extended period as tutor to Edward Gibbon, father of the historian, Law took up permanent residence at his birthplace, King's Cliffe, where he served as spiritual adviser to many, engaged in acts of charity to the deprived of the community, and wrote the nine volumes that make up his major works.

Law's early writings include Remarks upon the Fable of the Bees (1723), a refutation of Bernard Mandeville's work; The Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainment (1726); The Case of Reason or Natural Religion (1731); and two better-known works, Treatise upon Christian Perfection (1726) and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729). These latter contribute significantly to a tradition of devotional prose literature that includes such writers as Augustine, Richard Baxter, Jeremy Taylor, John Donne, and Lancelot Andrewes. Law's devotional writing has as its controlling purpose the aiding of persons in their quest of the "godly life," and it reveals several distinguishing themes: preoccupation with the scriptures and Christ as the bases and models for perfection; self-denial as a necessary antidote to vainglory and passion; prayer and meditation; and ways and means for implementing Christian doctrine in practical affairs.

Among Law's later work were responses to various religious writers: The Grounds and Reason for Christian Regeneration (1739), An Appeal to All Who Doubt the Truths of the Gospel (1740), An Answer to Dr. Trapp's Discourse (1740), and A Refutation of Dr. Warburton's Projected Defense of Christianity (1757). More influential, however, were the mystical writings The Spirit of Prayer (1749), The Spirit of Love (1752), and The Way to Divine Knowledge (1752). These three works reveal the influence of Jakob Boehme, who professed visionary encounters with God. Many Christian critics have objected to the oversubjectivism and implicit universalism in Law's later writings, branding them as "mystical," a term often held as opprobrious by traditional religious thinkers. However, if one considers an intuitive approach to reality, awareness of unity in diversity, and a passion for a spiritual reality that underlies and unifies all things to be typical of mysticism, one realizes that this desire for union with God lies at the root of all religious devotion. In this light, Law's "mystical" works reflect his earlier theological beliefs and have a close kinship with his Christian Perfection and A Serious Call.

Many readers have paid tribute to Law's simple, clear, and vivid prose style, and scholars have pointed to his pronounced religious influence on such minds as Samuel Johnson, John Wesley, John Henry Newman, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis. His intellectual power, incisiveness, and piety wielded a marked influence both within and without organized church ranks. Law's major achievement lay in his significant contribution to the English tradition of devotional prose literature.


Primary Source

Law, William. The Works of the Reverend William Law, M.A. (1762). Reprint, 9 vols. in 3, London, 18921893.

Secondary Sources

Baker, Eric. A Herald of the Evangelical Revival. London, 1948. Examines basic views of Law and Jakob Boehme and shows how Law kindled in Wesley a passion for an unimpaired "ethical ideal."

Hopkinson, Arthur. About William Law: A Running Commentary on His Works. London, 1948. Recognizes works with different subjects: religious controversy, morality, mysticism, and theology. Sketchy but informative.

Overton, John H. William Law: Nonjuror and Mystic. London, 1881. Still the best single source for Law's life and thought.

Rudolph, Erwin P. William Law. Boston, 1980. Examines the range of Law's thought and contribution to devotional prose literature.

Walker, Arthur K. William Law: His Life and Thought. London, 1973. Examines Law's intellectual biography, focusing on the people whom Law knew and the writings with which he was familiar. Sometimes digressive and biased but generally useful.

Erwin P. Rudolph (1987)

Law, William (1686-1761)

views updated May 23 2018

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."


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.

William Law

views updated May 29 2018

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. □

Law, William

views updated May 23 2018


High Anglican ecclesiastic and spiritual author; b. Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire, 1686; d. there, April 9,1761. He was the son of a grocer. He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705. After ordination, he was elected a fellow of his college in 1711 and taught at Cambridge until the accession of George I in 1714, when he was suspended from his degree and deprived of his fellowship for his Jacobite sympathies. From 1727 to 1737, Law resided with the family of Edward Gibbon, grandfather of the historian, as tutor and as spiritual guide for the family and their friends, among whom were Archibald Hutcheson and John and Charles wesley. After 1743 Hutcheson's widow and Gibbon's sister joined Law at Kings Cliffe in a life of simplicity, devotion, and prayer inspired by ideals set forth in Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728). They maintained two small schools and used their considerable incomes for charity. Law was the ablest High Church writer of his day: direct, simple, and logical in his exposition of Christian ideals. His influence was limited, however, because he wrote in opposition to the prevailing tendencies of his time. In the Bangorian Controversy of 171617, he opposed the party supported by the crown. He wrote forcefully against deism at a time when the deist and rationalist approach to religious studies, popularized by John locke, was in its heyday. In 1726 he wrote a work condemning the contemporary theater.

Law had always been interested in such late medieval mystics as thomas À kempis, tauler, and ruysbroeck, whose influence appears in the Serious Call. He advocated a full Christian life, with attention to meditation, ascetical practices, and moral virtues, especially those of daily lifeeverything being directed to the glorification of God. The Serious Call was the most influential spiritual work, apart from Pilgrim's Progress, after the English Reformation. In 1737 Law fell under the influence of the Moravian mystic Boenler and the German Jacob bÖhme. His later works, The Spirit of Prayer (174950) and The Spirit of Love (175254), which emphasize the indwelling of Christ in the soul, led the Wesleys to break with him, although they continued to admire him. Law's doctrine tended toward the Quaker conception of the Inner Light.

Bibliography: Works, 9 v. (London 189293). s. h. gem, The Mysticism of William Law (London 1914). l. stephen, Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 (London 18851900) 11:677681. j. b. green, John Wesley and William Law (London 1945). e. w. baker, A Herald of the Evangelical Revival (London 1948). m. schmidt, John Wesley, tr. n. p. goldhawk (London 1962) 1. m. schmidt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 4:245. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 791.

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Law, William

views updated May 14 2018

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

Law, William

views updated May 29 2018

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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