“The chief glory of any people arises from its authors,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the preface to his Dictionary (1755). Johnson could well have been thinking of, among others, his contemporary William Law, who had been instrumental in Johnson’s and in John Wesley’s conversion. In fact, Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) with the earlier work A Treatise of Christian Perfection (1726) profoundly influenced all the main characters of the great Evangelical Revival from the Wesleys onward. Called by Johnson “the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language,” the Call appeared the year before Wesley set up his famous Holy Club at Oxford; and the gifted organizer of Methodism throughout the English-speaking world said early in his career that Law’s writings had opened the eyes of his soul to the exceeding height and breadth and depth of Christian truth so that everything appeared new in that Light which poured in so mightily upon him. Wesley was, he said, convinced afresh of the impossibility of being half a Christian. For William Law was as vehement as Kierkegaard about total commitment to Christ.
Dr. Johnson, whose primary literary-criticism rule was “Clear your mind of cant!,” had been drawn to Law by the clarity and accuracy of his critiques of the naturalism and rationalism that seemed bent on denying Christ in the eighteenth century. Centuries earlier St. Augustine, who had gone to Milan to hear St. Ambrose speak because of the perfection of his style, had found himself listening to what he was saying (beyond how he was expressing his Christian message); and so too did Johnson’s admiration for Law’s clear terms about God’s love of man through Christ bring him to full acceptance of the profound truth behind the words. Certainly the period’s severest literary critic owed much to William Law, and more than once he admitted his debt to him.
Born at King’s Cliffe, Northhamptonshire, in 1686, William Law entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705; six years later he was elected fellow of his college and was ordained. After living as a curate in London for several years he became tutor to Edward Gibbon, father of the historian, who recorded that the man who was to become an eminent English divine was “the much honored friend and spiritual director of the whole family”; accompanying his pupil to Cambridge, Law returned to his college in 1727, remaining there for four years. Later, Law lived in the Gibbons’ house at Putney for more than a decade, acting as religious guide for the family and for many other serious-minded persons. The best known of the latter were John and Charles Wesley. After 1740 Law returned to his birthplace, King’s Cliffe, where he was house chaplain of Hester Gibbon, whose brother he had educated. He spent the rest of his life there, never marrying, and died in 1761.
In the Gibbon household Law was known as one who believed all he professed and practiced it as well. He is said to have refused some of the best preferments in the Bishop of London’s see as rewards for some of his writings; and with little means of his own he was remarkably charitable to his poorer neighbors. He set so small a value on money that he gave away the copyrights of all his publications—seventeen in all. In one instance, however, his publisher insisted on his accepting a hundred guineas for his work. A Serious Call, his acknowledged masterpiece, was read as a popular and powerful book of devotion for many years, going through numerous editions in both England and America. “His precepts are rigid,” wrote Edward Gibbon, the noted historian-son of Law’s pupil,
but they are formed and derived from the Gospel; his satire is sharp, but his wisdom is from the knowledge of human life.… If there yet exists a spark of piety in his reader’s mind, he will soon kindle it into a flame; and a philosopher must allow that he is more consistent in his principles than any of the tribe of mystic writers. He handles with equal sincerity and truth the strange contradiction between faith and practice in the Christian world.
His controversial, devotional, and mystical writings over the years covered a variety of topics. First brought to public attention in 1717 by his three letters to the Bishop of Bangor (whose impugning of the existence of a visible Church produced a war of pamphlets known as the Bangor Controversy), William Law derided that prelate’s empty “sincerity” and proved himself the ablest contributor on the side of the Church. Six years later (1723) his Remarks on Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, rejecting the satiric Mandeville thesis (that men’s actions cannot be divided into higher and lower; that the higher life is a fiction invented by rulers to simplify government and social relations), revealed Law’s own ability as a satirist in his championing of Christian virtue. He wrote Mandeville:
If you would prove yourself to be no more than a brute or an animal, how much of your life you need alter I cannot tell; but at least you must forbear writing against virtue for no mere animal ever hated it.
Here we find Law vindicating morality on the highest ground and insisting on the spiritual quality of reason, which had turned him from the empiricism of Locke and others. With sure insight he knew the tendency of such empiricism to sensualize both the mind and the soul. Thus he told Mandeville that moral virtue began with the first man. He added:
It is the will of God that makes moral virtue our law. Away then with your idle and profane fancies about the origin of moral virtue! For once turn your eyes to heaven, dare but own a just and true God, and then you have owned the true origin of religion and moral virtue.
Law’s Case of Reason (1732) is a critique of Tindal’s deism, which, rampant in the eighteenth century, was bent on usurping the rightful place of revealed Christianity. In this treatise Law anticipated the great Analogy of Bishop Butler as he urged the vital importance of revelation in connection with reason. Law’s Either/Or, in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s more than a century later, reads:
There are only two possible states in life; the one is nature, the other is God manifested in nature. We must choose one or the other. We cannot stand still without deciding, for life goes on and it is always bringing forth its realities which way soever it goes.
Again like Kierkegaard (whose teaching resembles closely that of Law on the side of personal holiness), Law was wholly absorbed with man’s real nature and the fact that he cannot have true existence outside a radical encounter with Christ. As sharply anti-secular as his successor, Law indicts lukewarmness in religion where any attempt is made to live by both pagan and Christian morality. The question asked by each is Kierkegaard’s: “Are you living the Christian life or not? Do you hold God a fool, calling the Christianity of the New Testament that which is not the Christianity of the New Testament?” The choice between God and self is an all-or-nothing one: Either faith that the God-Man who died for us can alone save us, or trust in ourselves. Law’s last words, written shortly before his death, dealt with the only way to be reborn:
All that Christ was, did, suffered, dying in the flesh and ascending into heaven, was for this sole end: to purchase for all His followers a new birth, new life and new light, in and by the Spirit of God restored to them and living in them as their support, comforter and guide into all truth. And this was His “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
For, in Law’s phrasing, the whole nature of the Christian religion stands upon these two great pillars: the greatness of our fall and the greatness of our redemption.
The worst offense to truth is pretense to it. But, all unaware of hypocrisy, the various pilloried “Christians” in the Call who fool themselves in what the author termed the “indevotion of ignorance” lead lives in direct opposition to what their Gospel teaches as necessary to salvation. Among them are the worldly clergyman Cognatus, the rich buried-in-business Calidus, the pagan scholar Classicus, the fashionable Flavia, and the punctilious church-goer, yet playboy, Julius; but to offset these and other persons we are shown such true Christians as Miranda (Flavia’s sister), the good father Paternus, and the pious widow Eusebia, whose counsel to her five daughters forms part of Law’s chapter on the education of women. For if some of Law’s examples show men and women who are wise about everything except what is most important—love in deed and in truth—others truly live by the faith they profess.
Ouranius, the country pastor, is presented by Law as having undergone a real transformation (from the ennui he had felt in being sent to a little village) to a life of love for God and neighbor. “Now,” the author says of the changed minister, “his days are so far from being tedious, or his parish too great a retirement, that he wants only more time to do that variety of good which his soul thirsts after.”
He now thinks the poorest creature in the parish good enough and great enough to deserve the humblest attendances, the kindest friendships, the tenderest offices he can possibly show him.… He presents everyone so often before God in his prayers that he never thinks he can … serve these enough for whom he implores so many mercies from God.
The whole nature of virtue, Law wrote in the Call (which Johnson found an “overmatch” for him), consists in conforming to the will of God, and the whole nature of vice in declining from it. Over and over Law appeals to man’s reason as a gift from God to be used in his service. All God’s creatures are created, we are told, to fulfill his will; the sun and moon obey it by the necessity of their nature. When William Blake wrote in his “Auguries of Innocence,” later in the century, “If the sun and moon should doubt/They’d immediately go out,” he was only transcribing Law’s earlier statement in the Call; for, beyond question, Blake too had been impressed with Law’s fervent protests against naturalism, and the rationalism that, far from being reasonable, freezes over the springs of creative imagination and brings havoc to the moral order.
“We are as sure,” said the author of the Call, “that nothing happens to us by chance, as that the world itself was not made by chance.” In a letter written a decade before his death, Law said that the spirit of prayer is for all times and all occasions, a lamp that is always burning, a light that is ever shining. Everything calls for it; everything is to be done in it and governed by it.
There is nothing wise or great or noble in a human spirit but rightly to know, and heartily to worship and adore the great God, Who is the support and life of all spirits whether in heaven or on earth.
He is only one, of course, of the legions of honest defenders of Christianity through the ages; but William Law remains among the most lucid and definitive of those who have presented a reasoned case for it in the English language. His vigorous and simple presentation of traditional Christian spirituality was motivated by a need to share his own experience of Christ and the resulting daily practice of prayer and the moral virtues. In a letter in 1749 Law outlined what he called “a short way to certain success”:
Do not seek it in books and methods of devotion, but offer all you are to God. All that is to help you find Him is best expressed by the distressed state of your heart. “Come to Me,” says the Holy Jesus, “all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.” Here, my dear friend, is more for you to live on, more light for your mind, more of unction for your heart than in volumes of human instruction.
Kierkegaard was to write in Training in Christianity of the full acceptance of our forgiveness on the authority of the God-Man:
When we are tempted to doubt whether our sins are really forgiven, we must find comfort in Christ saying to us in His eternal contemporaneity: “Believe it, nevertheless, for I have laid down my life to procure the forgiveness of your sins; so believe it then: a stronger assurance is impossible.
Some years ago I wrote a poem (published in the verse-magazine Spirit, March, 1938) that suggests something of what both Law and Kierkegaard meant by the subordination of human wisdom to divine faith. Entitled “Beyond Knowledge” (referring to the Christian’s realization of the actual Presence superior to any knowing) it reads:
Acquainted long with love I saw
The oneness of the world, the law
The stars keep, shining by its breath.
I felt it at the couch of death.
Nor wrong below nor cloud above
But veiled a universe of love.
Vague premonition! Till You drew
The diffused radiance to You,
As when the coming of the sun,
Draws all the dawnlights into one,
How could I know Love had a place
(O Light eternal!) in one Face?
That one Face is recognized by the Christian as (in the words of Browning) his “universe that feels and knows,” the eternally contemporaneous Christ to whom William Law appealed with such notable effect in his writings and in his life.
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