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William Law

English spiritual writer and mystic

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Summary

William Law (1686 – 9 April 1761) was an English cleric, divine and theological writer.

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1686
April 9, 1761
Christian life, Christianity, Clergy, Early works, Mysticism
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Biography

Law was born at King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire. In 1705 he entered as a student 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 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, who says that Law became "the much honoured 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. 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 an old friend, who recommended her on his death-bed 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 wrote in three areas. In the area of controversial writings the first 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. 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.

In the area of practical divinity he wrote such works as The Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), together with its predecessor, A Treatise of Christian Perfection (1726), which deeply influenced the chief actors in the great Evangelical revival. 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.

. Though the least popular, by far the most interesting, original and suggestive of all Law's works are those which he wrote on mysticism in his later years, after he had become an enthusiastic admirer (not a disciple) of Jacob 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 till 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. These include The Spirit of Prayer (1752); The Way to Divine Knowledge (1752); The Spirit of Love (1754); A Dialogue between a Methodist and a Churchman (1760 ); and An Humble, Earnest and Affectionate Address to the Clergy (1761).

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Works by William Law

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William Law saw many changes during his lifetime: the laws and authorities of his British homeland underwent a major shift, he switched from one career to another, and his personal spiritual philosophies evolved dramatically over time. Among his many writings, Law wrote polemical tracts, practical devotional books, and, later in his life, mystical reflections. His work influenced some of the greatest minds of the 18th century, including Samuel Johnson, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. An Appeal to all that Doubt the Truths of the Gospel was the last piece he published before his shift toward mysticism nine years later. As well as a devotional book, it serves as a work of apologetics to the lay reader. Law defends the central doctrines of the Christian faith. His defense culminates in declaring the necessity of salvation for all people, calling them to repent and accept Christ’s love.

William Law saw many changes during his lifetime: the laws and authorities of his British homeland underwent a major shift, he switched from one career to another, and his personal spiritual philosophies evolved dramatically over time. Among his many writings, Law wrote polemical tracts, practical devotional books, and, later in his life, mystical reflections. His work influenced some of the greatest minds of the 18th century, including Samuel Johnson, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. William Law’s personal letters to friends, clergymen, and family give readers a unique insight into his fascinating and complex mind. One can trace the development of Law’s relationships and ideas as his life unfolds. Just as he emphasizes holy living and obedience to Christ in his published works, so also does Law emphasize it in his everyday affairs.

William Law saw many changes during his lifetime: the laws and authorities of his British homeland underwent a major shift, he switched from one career to another, and his personal spiritual philosophies evolved dramatically over time. Among his many writings, Law wrote polemical tracts, practical devotional books, and, later in his life, mystical reflections. His work influenced some of the greatest minds of the 18th century, including Samuel Johnson, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. This particular essay responds to a book promoting deist and rationalist perspectives on Christianity and Christian teaching. Law argues that one cannot reduce Christian faith to mere facts and propositions. “Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world,” he wrote, “It is only, ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’”

William Law saw many changes during his lifetime: the laws and authorities of his British homeland underwent a major shift, he switched from one career to another, and his personal spiritual philosophies evolved dramatically over time. Among his many writings, Law wrote polemical tracts, practical devotional books, and, later in his life, mystical reflections. His work influenced some of the greatest minds of the 18th century, including Samuel Johnson, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. This short essay, addressed to deists, argues that God does not merely exist, but that human beings need a relationship with him. According to the deist philosophy popular among Law’s contemporaries, God created the world, then left creation to itself—there was no need for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. However, Law reminds his readers of sin’s reality and the fallen nature of all people. Only being born again into a new life in Christ can vindicate people of their sin. One cannot reduce Christian faith to mere facts and propositions. “Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world,” he wrote, “It is only, ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’”

William Law saw many changes during his lifetime: the laws and authorities of his British homeland underwent a major shift, he switched from one career to another, and his personal spiritual philosophies evolved dramatically over time. Among his many writings, Law wrote polemical tracts, practical devotional books, and, later in his life, mystical reflections. His work influenced some of the greatest minds of the 18th century, including Samuel Johnson, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. Law sent his last work, his Address to the Clergy, to the press just a few days before his death in 1761. With the mystical passion of his later years, he entreats Christian leaders to focus on the fundamentals of the faith: repentance of sin, dependence upon Christ, and leading renewed, holy lives in obedience to the Holy Spirit. As Christ’s primary teachers and representatives, clergy members have a unique responsibility for the salvation of their congregations. Law’s final words reaffirm the Christian message, and call all Christians to share that message with others.

External Work.
91 editions published.

View on: WorldCat | Amazon

External Work.
15 editions published.

View on: WorldCat | Amazon

"...Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God." So begins William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Originally published in 1729, Law's book stands as a powerful challenge to Christians. Law teaches that if God is "our greatest good," then the wisest way to live is to please God through a life of worship, adoration, and devotion. Since many fail to live this way, Law diagnoses why and suggests certain concrete practices as a remedy. Thus, no one interested in becoming more devout can ignore this dynamic book. Law's call has encouraged several generations, and does not fail to encourage believers even today with a serious call to a devout and holy life.

"...Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God." So begins William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Originally published in 1729, Law's book stands as a powerful challenge to Christians. Law teaches that if God is "our greatest good," then the wisest way to live is to please God through a life of worship, adoration, and devotion. Since many fail to live this way, Law diagnoses why and suggests certain concrete practices as a remedy. Thus, no one interested in becoming more devout can ignore this dynamic book. Law's call has encouraged several generations, and does not fail to encourage believers even today with a serious call to a devout and holy life.

External Work.
49 editions published.

View on: WorldCat | Amazon

Influenced by the writings of German mystic, Jacob Boehme, William Law wrote two related works of mysticism: The Spirit of Love and The Spirit of Prayer.  Written by Law in the 1750’s, these books emphasize Law’s own creative interpretation of mysticism, which relies heavily on the indwelling of Christ in the believer’s soul. The Spirit of Prayer contains a series of prayers and dialogues which focus on the profound love of God. Law intended his writings to help readers renew their understanding of the holy life. He encourages his readers to follow God’s calling in this poetic passage:  “When therefore the first spark of a desire after God arises in thy soul, cherish it with all thy care, give all thy Heart into it, it is nothing less than a touch of the Divine. Get up therefore and follow it as gladly, as the Wise Men of the East followed the Star from Heaven that appeared to them. It will do for thee, as the Star did for them, it will lead thee to the birth of Jesus, not in a stable at Bethlehem in Judea, but to the Birth of Jesus in the dark centre of thy own fallen Soul.”  Law is sensitive and wise in his words.  Readers find themselves at first convicted and then comforted by Law’s The Spirit of Prayer

External Work.
110 editions published.

View on: WorldCat | Amazon

William Law's career was one of many changes. He wore many hats: teacher, religious guide, dissenter, and mystic writer. This last shift from traditional, evangelical treatise and doctrine writer to student and scholar of mysticism is perhaps the most curious. After almost a decade of silence from his pen, Law published several volumes of Christian mystical study, one of which was Way to Divine Knowledge. The piece is a dialogue among speakers Academicus, Rusticus, Humanus, and Theophilus. They discuss the spiritual yearning that humans have deep within, and the importance of divine union. "Your business is now to give Way to this heavenly Working of the Spirit of God in your Soul, and turn from every things either within you, or without you, that may hinder the farther Awakening," says Theophilus in the first dialogue. This literature from Law's later work is a creative and readable discussion of Christian mystic union, and will be instructive for readers interested in the more intangible side of union with God.

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