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William Law

Born: 1686
Birthplace: King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England
Died: 9-Apr-1761
Location of death: King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Anglican/Episcopalian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

English divine, born at King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire. In 1705 he entered as a sizar at Emmanuel College, Cambridge; in 1711 he was elected fellow of his college and was ordained. He resided at Cambridge, teaching and taking occasional duty until the accession of King George I, when his conscience forbade him to take the oaths of allegiance to the new government and of abjuration of the Stuarts. His Jacobitism had already been betrayed in a tripos speech which brought him into trouble; and he was now deprived of his fellowship and became a non-juror. For the next few years he is said to have been a curate in London. By 1727 he was domiciled with Edward Gibbon (1666-1736) at Putney as tutor to his son Edward, father of the historian Edward Gibbon, who says that Law became "the much honored friend and spiritual director of the whole family." In the same year he accompanied his pupil to Cambridge, and resided with him as governor, in term time, for the next four years. His pupil then went abroad, but Law was left at Putney, where he remained in Gibbon's house for more than ten years, acting as a religious guide not only to the family but to a number of earnest-minded folk who came to consult him. The most eminent of these were the two brothers John and Charles Wesley, John Byrom the poet, George Cheyne the physician and Archibald Hutcheson, M.P. for Hastings. The household was dispersed in 1737. Law was parted from his friends, and in 1740 retired to King's Cliffe, where he had inherited from his father a house and a small property. There he was presently joined by two ladies: Mrs. Hutcheson, the rich widow of his old friend, who recommended her on his deathbed to place herself under Law's spiritual guidance, and Miss Hester Gibbon, sister to his late pupil. This curious trio lived for twenty-one years a life wholly given to devotion, study and charity, until the death of Law on the 9th of April 1761.

Law was a busy Writer under three heads:

1. Controversy. In this field he had no contemporary peer save perhaps Richard Bentley. The first of his controversial works was Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717), which were considered by friend and foe alike as one of the most powerful contributions to the Bangorian controversy on the high church side. Thomas Sherlock declared that "Mr. Law was a writer so considerable that he knew but one good reason why his lordship did not answer him." Law's next controversial work was Remarks on Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1723), in which he vindicates morality on the highest grounds; for pure style, caustic wit and lucid argument this work is remarkable; it was enthusiastically praised by John Sterling, and republished by F. D. Maurice. Law's Case of Reason (1732), in answer to Tindal's Christianity as old as the Creation is to a great extent an anticipation of Bishop Joseph Butler's famous argument in the Analogy. In this work Law shows himself at least the equal of the ablest champion of Deism. His Letters to a Lady inclined to enter the Church of Rome are excellent specimens of the attitude of a high Anglican towards Romanism. His controversial writings have not received due recognition, partly because they were opposed to the drift of his times, partly because of his success in other fields.

2. Practical Divinity. The Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), together with its predecessor, A Treatise of Christian Perfection (1726), deeply influenced the chief actors in the great Evangelical revival. The Wesleys, George Whitefield, Henry Venn, Thomas Scott and Thomas Adam all express their deep obligation to the author. The Serious Call affected others quite as deeply. Samuel Johnson, Gibbon, Lord Lyttelton and Bishop Horne all spoke enthusiastically of its merits; and it is still the only work by which its author is popularly known. It has high merits of style, being lucid and pointed to a degree. In a tract entitled The Absolute Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainments (1726) Law was tempted by the corruptions of the stage of the period to use unreasonable language, and incurred some effective criticism from John Dennis in The Stage Defended.

3. Mysticism. Though the least popular, by far the most interesting, original and suggestive of all Law's works are those which he wrote in his later years, after he had become an enthusiastic admirer (not a disciple) of Jakob Boehme, the Teutonic theosophist. From his earliest years he had been deeply impressed with the piety, beauty and thoughtfulness of the writings of the Christian mystics, but it was not until after his accidental meeting with the works of Boehme, about 1734, that pronounced mysticism appeared in his works. Law's mystic tendencies divorced him from the practical-minded Wesley, but in spite of occasional wild fancies the books are worth reading. They are A Demonstration of the Gross and Fundamental Errors of a late Book called a Plain Account, etc., of the Lord's Supper (1737); The Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Regeneration (1739); An Appeal to all that Doubt and Disbelieve the Truths of Revelation (1740); An Earnest and Serious Answer to Dr. Trapp's Sermon on being Righteous Overmuch (1740); The Spirit of Prayer (1749, 1752); The Way to Divine Knowledge (1752); The Spirit of Love (1752, 1754); A Short but Sufficient Confutation of Dr. Warburton's Projected Defence (as he calls it) of Christianity in his "Divine Legation of Moses" (1757); A Series of Letters (1760); a Dialogue between a Methodist and a Churchman (1760); and An Humble, Earnest and Affectionate Address to the Clergy (1761).

    University: Emmanuel College, Cambridge University (1705-)



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