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 on William Law

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 Biography Sources

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

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