Lessons in Christian History: William Law

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William Law (1728)

William Law was born at King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, to a family of substantial means. He attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he became a fellow. In 1712, a year after his ordination, he earned a master of arts degree, following intensive study in the classics and philosophy. It was probably at this time that he began to read the early English mystics and became acquainted with classical devotional writers, such as Saint Francis de Sales and Thomas Kempis.

When the Hanoverian King George I came to the throne, Law refused to take an oath of allegiance. In consequence, he forfeited his fellowship at the university and permanently lost the right to preach in the Church of England.

Little is known of Law’s actions after that disappointment, but it is believed that he went to London. In 1723 Law became affiliated with the Gibbon family in Putney, where he served as tutor and chaplain to the household. After Edward Gibbon died, the household broke up in 1737, and Law returned to his native King’s Cliffe, where he remained for the rest of his life. In his later years, Law, together with Sarah Hutchinson and Hester Gibbon, founded several almshouses and a school.

Law wrote a number of works throughout his lifetime. His first significant writing was Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717), an effective apologetic for orthodox Christianity. In his Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726), he laid down rules for achieving a life of piety. Law’s most notable work, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, was published in 1728. Though Law’s writings lack an emphasis upon Christ’s redemptive ministry, their insight into devotional life influenced such evangelists as George Whitefield and John Wesley.

William Law wrote A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life while still in his early thirties. In it he raised a formidable challenge to his unbelieving age and profoundly influenced many minds of his time. Samuel Johnson commented on his encounter with A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life while a student at Oxford. He said, “I expected to find it a dull book . . . but I found Law quite an overmatch for me.” Law presented his arguments in a way that made it credible to believe in Christianity without losing intellectual integrity.

The basic premise throughout A Serious Call assumes that the devout person is centered in God. He said that a devout life is “a better sacrifice to God than any forms of holy and heavenly prayers.” Law believed that devotion to God is humanity’s highest attainment and that true freedom is expressed in the believer’s devotion to the Redeemer-God. This devotion is a sign of true genius, “a soul in its highest state of knowledge.”

The first half of the book sets a standard for honoring God in outward affairs. The second half is a guide to prayer and the ordering of the inner life. Law gives specific instructions for prayer and for the right use of money. For Law, every area of life should reflect the believer’s devotion to God.