Law, William (1686-1761) (DNB00)

LAW, WILLIAM (1686–1761), author of the 'Serious Call,' son of Thomas Law, grocer, by his wife Margaret (Farmery), was born at Kings Cliffe, near Stamford, Northamptonshire, in 1686. He was the fourth of the eight sons in a family of eleven children. He probably had a religious education from his parents, who have been identified with the 'Paternus' and 'Eusebia' of his 'Serious Call.' He must have shown unusual promise to encourage them to send him to the university. Some rules drawn up by him, apparently upon entering college, begin by saying that the 'one business upon his hands' is 'to seek for eternal happiness by doing the will of God,' and embody resolutions for frequent prayer and self-examination. He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a sizar, 7 June 1705. He graduated B.A. 1708, M.A. 1712, and in 1711 was ordained, and elected fellow of his college. He studied the classics, and acquired some mathematical and philosophical knowledge at Cambridge (Byrom, vol. i. pt. i. p. 23). He kept his act upon Malebranche's doctrine, 'Omnia videmus in Deo.' On 17 April 1713 he was suspended from his degrees for a 'tripos speech' in which he gave offence by asking certain questions, e.g. 'whether the sun shines when it is in eclipse,' where the sun clearly meant the Pretender (ib. vol. i. pt. ii. pp. 20, 21; Wordsworth, University Life, p. 231; Hearne, Diary). On 7 July 1713 he preached a sermon at Haslingfield, near Cambridge, in support of the peace of Utrecht, with a loyal and ultra-tory apostrophe to Queen Anne. Another sermon, dated 1718, is mentioned by Walton, but does not appear to be extant. Upon the accession of George I he declined to take the oaths of allegiance and abjuration, and retained through life his sympathy for the exiled dynasty. His father died 10 Oct. 1714; his mother died in 1718, leaving six surviving children, each of whom appears to have received 115l. from the estate (Walton, p. 354). Law seems also to have inherited some house property from his father (Byrom, vol. i. pt. ii. p. 512). It is said that Law was for a time curate at Fotheringay; he certainly had a pupil at Cambridge. He mentioned that he had been a curate in London (Okely, Memoirs of Behmen), and it is said that he refused offers of preferment from his friend, Dean Thomas Sherlock (afterwards bishop of London). If so, Sherlock must have been under the erroneous impression that Law was capable of abandoning his nonjuring principles. In 1717 Law published his 'Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor' (Hoadly), which are probably the most forcible piece of writing in the Bangorian controversy. They express the essence of the high church position. In 1723 he attacked Mandeville's 'Fable of the Bees,' arguing with remarkable power against the cynical theory of his opponent which reduced virtue to a mere fashion 'begot by flattery on pride.' This excellent tract was republished (with a preface) by F. D. Maurice, at the suggestion of John Sterling, in 1846. In 1726 appeared his unsparing attack upon the stage, which he condemns more unequivocally than Collier, and with less knowledge of the facts. John Dennis [q.v.] replied with some advantage derived from the unreasonable austerity of his opponent. In the same year appeared the first of his practical treatises on 'Christian Perfection,' which impressed Bishop Wilson as well as Wesley and the early methodists. It is said that an anonymous stranger presented him with 1,000l. after reading it. In 1727 Law founded a school for fourteen girls at Kings Cliffe, which is supposed to have been an application of this gift. It is difficult to see how he could have obtained the money otherwise.

The only notice of Law during these years is a statement that his reply to Hoadly was published by a subscription promoted by orthodox divines (Account of Pamphlets in the Bangorian Controversy, by Philanagnostes Criticus, 1719). By 1727 he entered the family of Edward Gibbon (1666–1736) as tutor to the son Edward, afterwards father of the historian [see under Gibbon, Edward]. As his pupil, Edward, was born in 1707, it is tolerably certain that the connection had begun earlier. The elder Gibbon was a strong tory, and for that reason likely to be favourable to Law. He lived in a comfortable house at Putney, with pleasant grounds. The son went to Cambridge, accompanied by his tutor, at whose college (Emmanuel) he was entered 10 July 1727. After leaving college, Gibbon travelled abroad, while Law remained at Putney, and became 'the much honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole family' (Gibbon, Autobiography). This included two daughters—Catharine, said by Gibbon to be the 'Flavia,' and Hester, said to be the 'Miranda' of the 'Serious Call;' while Law's pupil has been identified with the 'Flatus.' These identifications, however, seem to be merely guesses not confirmed by dates. The 'Serious Call' was published at the end of 1728, when Law would hardly have made an intentional portrait of his young pupils. The publication of the 'Serious Call' brought him a visit (4 March 1729) from John Byrom [q. v.], who has preserved many accounts of this and later conversations. Law spoke to him about the mystical writers, praising Tauler, Rusbroek, and à Kempis, but apparently held Mme. Bourignon and Mme. Guion to be dangerous guides. John and Charles Wesley also became disciples. John first visited him at Putney in 1732, was led to some study of the mystics, and was influenced by Law's advice in going to Georgia in 1735. When, after his return in 1738, he had come under the influence of the Moravian, Boenler, Wesley reproached Law in a curious letter for not having taught the true doctrine of faith in Christ, which he had now learnt from Boehler. Law replied to this and a subsequent letter, pointing out that he had commended Thomas à Kempis, the most forcible teacher of the doctrine, to Wesley (who published a translation of the 'De Imitatione' about 1736), and had constantly insisted upon the same truth. Wesley's eminently practical mind was already out of harmony with Law's mystical tendencies; but he frequently speaks of Law with high admiration in his sermons (see Overton, p. 87). John and Charles, who took the same view as his brother, ceased from this time to be disciples. Dr. George Cheyne [q. v.] also corresponded with Law, and recommended to him some mystical writings, which incidentally led to Law's acquaintance with Behmen.

After the death of the elder Gibbon in 1737, Law remained for a time at Putney, till the household was broken up. He was afterwards at Somerset Gardens, at the back of the Strand, where Byrom frequently called upon him, and found him occasionally in a rather irritable frame of mind.

It was apparently towards the end of his stay at Putney (Overton, p. 179) that Law first began to study the works of Jacob Behmen. He became an ardent disciple, learnt 'high Dutch' to study the original words of the 'blessed Jacob,' proposed a new edition and translation, and studied all the literature of the subject which he could procure. The first of his books to reveal Behmen's influence is his answer (1737) to Hoadly's 'Plain Account' of the Lord's Supper. The later writings are expositions or applications of the mysticism thus imbibed. Towards the end of 1740 Law retired to Kings Cliffe, where his eldest brother, George, bailiff to the Earl of Westmorland, still lived, and where he owned a house. During the next years he paid occasional visits to London. Archibald Hutcheson, M.P. for Hastings, had known Law at Putney. He died in 1740, leaving a widow, and on his deathbed expressed a wish that she should lead a retired and religious life under Law's guidance. Miss Hester Gibbon proposed to join her. Law took a house for them at Thrapston, ten miles from Kings Cliffe, where they settled in 1743. Mrs. Hutcheson had an income of 2,000l., and Miss Gibbon some 500l. or 600l. a year. They proposed to carry out literally the precepts of the 'Serious Call,' and to spend in charity all that was not strictly necessary. Thrapston being at an awkward distance, they removed in 1744, and settled in Law's house at Kings Cliffe. This house, which still remains, was anciently a royal manor-house in the forest of Rockingham, and was called 'King John's Palace.' The plan of life was strictly carried out. To the girls' school already founded by Law, Mrs. Hutcheson in 1745 added a school for eighteen boys (increased in 1746 to twenty), besides almshouses. Law added other almshouses and a school building. The rector of Kings Cliffe was always to be one trustee, and the others were to be chosen from the gentry and clergy within four miles. Various regulations (see Overton, pp. 228–32) show Law's desire that the children should be brought up in church principles, and pay due respect to their superiors.

Law rose at five for devotion and study; the household assembled for prayers at nine; dinner was at twelve in summer and at one in winter, and was followed by devotion. At tea-time Law joined the family, eating only a few raisins, and talking cheerfully, without sitting down. After tea the servants read a chapter of the Bible, which Law explained. He then took a brisk walk in the fields, and after another meal, again followed by prayers, he retired to his room, took one pipe and a glass of water, and went to bed at nine. They attended the church services on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays; saw a few friends, and occasionally took an airing, Mrs. Hutcheson in her 'coach,' Law and Miss Gibbon riding on horseback. Law, in order to begin the day by an act of charity, distributed the milk of four cows to his poor neighbours. He tasted the soup which was daily prepared for the poor, and his only displays of irritability were on occasions of its being not well enough made. He loved music, and maintained that every one could be taught to sing well enough for devotional purposes. He was fond of dumb animals, and liked to free birds from their cages. He was a lover of children, and has devoted much space in his writings to advice upon their education. He had a small room for a study, which Canon Overton describes (p. 242) as part of 'a most commodious bedroom,' and altogether a 'most convenient little snuggery.' He had a large library, chiefly of theological books, and was an untiring student in several languages. The hearthstone of his room was worn away in two places by the rubbing of his chilly feet.

Law's study overlooked a courtyard, and the appearance of a beggar caused him immediately to descend. The excessive charity of the family naturally attracted beggars of all kinds. The rector, a Mr. Piemont, denounced this indiscriminate charity from the pulpit, and a paper was presented by 'many considerable inhabitants of the town' to the justices of the peace, complaining that Law and his family were one 'occasion of the miserable poverty of the parish.' In an indignant letter dated 21 Feb. 1753, and signed by the three offenders, they declare that they will continue their practice, and threaten an immediate removal. As they remained, the beggars were presumably too strong for the 'considerable inhabitants.'

Law continued his literary activity at King's Cliffe. In the first year of his residence he attacked Dr. Trapp, whose argument against being 'righteous overmuch' was aimed at the methodists and other 'enthusiasts' (in the then accepted sense), and naturally roused Law, who saw more danger in the opposite direction. In 1757 he attacked Warburton, whose whole point of view was totally uncongenial, and who could safely speak of his mystical antagonist with coarse contempt (see Doctrine of Grace). Warburton is again attacked in his 'Appeal to the Clergy.' In 1756 Wesley had published a letter to Law condemning his mysticism. Law made no reply, but in a 'Dialogue between a Methodist and Churchman,' written hastily and in old age, defended the church principles against Wesley's disciple, John Berridge [q.v.]. Law had friends among the neighbouring gentry, and could be sociable and agreeable in company. He received numerous letters from persons interested in his teaching or moved in conscience by his books, and replied in letters of spiritual advice. His correspondence, his writing, and his charities and schools, doubtless kept him fully employed. His later friends were not men of mark, and his life was secluded. He retained his 'piercing eye' and intellectual and bodily vigour to the last. He caught a chill at the annual audit of the school account, when the trustees were always entertained at his house. He died, after a fortnight's illness, on 9 April 1761. He wrote a letter the day before his death making no allusion to his illness, and died almost in the act of singing 'the Angels' Hymn.' He was buried at King's Cliffe. An epitaph was composed by two friends, and a tomb erected by Miss Gibbon. In a will executed just before his death he left five shillings to his nephew, and all the rest of his property to Miss Gibbon. A codicil directed that she should distribute the whole among the descendants of his late brother George.

Law never allowed his portrait to be taken. He is described by Tighe, who visited Kings Cliffe for information, as rather over the middle height, stoutly made, but not fat, with a round face, grey eyes, ruddy complexion, and a pleasant expression. His manners were unaffected, though with a certain gravity of appearance, induced by a 'clerical hat with loops let down, a black coat, and grey wig.' Mrs. Hutcheson died in January 1781, aged 91; and Miss Gibbon in June 1790, aged 86.

Law's remarkable force of mind placed him in opposition to the prevailing tendencies of his time, and his writings have therefore failed to receive due recognition, with the exception of the 'Serious Call.' He had a marked influence upon the Wesleys and Whitefield, and upon the early evangelicals, such as Henry Venn and Thomas Scott, including some who attacked his mysticism, such as James Hervey and John Newton. Johnson's religious convictions were due, he says, to a perusal of the 'Serious Call' at Oxford, and even Gibbon speaks of it with high respect (see Overton, pp. 109–19, and 392–9 for an account of Law's admirers and opponents). His power is due, not merely to the uncompromising simplicity with which he adopts the Christian ideal and gives new life to commonplaces, but to extraordinary merits of style. His writing is transparently clear, vivid, and pungent, and his portraits of character remind us that he was a contemporary of Addison, and a keener satirist, if a less delicate humorist. A certain austerity appears in his writings, as in his life, and he occasionally recalls the puritan doctrine, though his asceticism is of a different type. His attack upon the stage followed that of the high churchman, Jeremy Collier, and the less known work of Arthur Bedford [q.v.].

The logical power shown in Law's controversial writings surpasses that of any contemporary author, unless Bentley be an exception. His assaults upon Hoadly, Mandeville, and Tindal could only have failed to place him in the front rank because they diverged too far from the popular theories. He was the most thoroughgoing opponent of the dominant rationalism of which Locke was the great exponent, and which, in his view, could lead only to infidelity. He takes the ground (see especially his answer to Tindal) of the impotence of human reason, and in some points anticipates Butler's 'Analogy.' The sceptical inference from this argument may be answered by an appeal to authority; but Law, though a high churchman to the end of his life, found an answer more satisfactory to himself in the doctrine of the 'inner light,' which, on some points, leads him towards quakerism. His early love of the mystical writers made him accessible to the influence of Behmen, which seems to have affected him as, in later days, Coleridge and his followers were affected by the German philosophy, to which Behmen's writings have some affinity. Englishmen, who have generally (whether rightly or wrongly) regarded mysticism, ontology, and nonsense as convertible terms, and especially the thoroughly English Wesley, were alienated by this tendency; and though many of Law's writings went through several editions, he occupies an isolated position in the history of English thought, and even his singular literary merit has been too little recognised.

His works were collected in nine volumes, with a title-page dated 1762. Each tract was also published separately, and with various dates. The edition comprises all the published works, except two sermons mentioned above and a tract called 'Answer to a Question, Where shall I go ... to be in the Truth?' 1750 (?). In the following list the edition mentioned is that which appears on the title-pages in the collected edition:— 1. Three letters to the Bishop of Bangor, 1717–19; 9th, 5th, and 2nd edit. respectively, vol. i. 2. 'Remarks upon ... the Fable of the Bees' (with postscript on Bayle), 1724; 3rd edit. vol. ii. (1). 3. 'The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment fully demonstrated,' 1726; 6th edit. vol. iii. (3). 4. 'A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection,' 1726; 6th edit. vol. iii. 5. 'A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, adapted to the State and Condition of all Orders of Christians,' 1728; 10th edit. vol. iv. 6. 'The Case of Reason, or Natural Religion fairly and fully Stated in Answer to [Tindal's] Christianity as Old as the Creation,' 1731; 3rd edit. vol. ii. (2). 7. 'A Demonstration of the Gross and Fundamental Errors of ...' ('Plain Account ... of the Lord's Supper'), 1737; 4th edit. vol. v. (1). 8. 'The Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Regeneration,' 3rd edit. 1750; 7th edit. vol. v. (2). 9. 'An Earnest and Serious Answer to Dr. Trapp's discourse of the Folly, Sin, and Danger of being Righteous Overmuch,' 1740; 4th edit. vol. vi. (1). 10. 'An Appeal to all that doubt or disbelieve the Truths of the Gospel. ... To which are added some Animadversions upon Dr. Trapp's Replies,' 1740; 3rd edit. vol. vi. (2). 11. 'The Spirit of Prayer, or the Soul rising out of the Vanity of Time into the Riches of Eternity,' in two parts, the second in dialogue form, 1749; 7th and 5th edit. vol. vii. (1) and (2). 12. 'The Way to Divine Knowledge' (a continuation of the dialogues forming the second part of the 'Spirit of Prayer') '... preparatory to a new edition of the "Works of Jacob Behmen ..."' 1752; 3rd edit. vol. vii. (3). 13. 'The Spirit of Love' (an appendix to the 'Spirit of Prayer,' in two parts), 1752; 3rd edit. vol. viii. (1) and (2). 14. 'A Short but Sufficient Confutation of the Rev. Dr. Warburton's projected defence (as he calls it) of Christianity' (in the 'Divine Legation') '... in a letter to the Bishop of London,' 1757; 2nd edit. vol. viii. (3). 15. 'Of Justification by Faith and Works: a Dialogue between a Methodist and a Churchman,' 1760; 3rd edit. vol. ix. (1). 16. 'A Collection of Letters on the most interesting and important Subjects, and on several Seasons,' 1760; 3rd edit. vol. ix. (3). 17. 'An Humble, Earnest, and Affectionate Address to the Clergy,' 1761 (posthumous); 3rd edit. vol. ix. (2). Letters to a Lady inclined to join the church of Rome (probably Miss Dodwell, daughter of Henry Dodwell, the nonjuror), written 1731–2, were separately published in 1779. Some manuscript letters to dissuade another lady from quakerism (1736) were in possession of Mr. Walton (Memorial, p. 364).

[Short Account of the Life and Writings of William Law, by Richard Tighe, 1813; Notes and Memorials for an adequate Biography ... of William Law (by Christopher Walton), 1854 (privately printed); William Law, Nonjuror and Mystic, by Canon Overton, 1881 (giving all information obtainable, and a very interesting account of Law's doctrines); Gent. Mag. 1800, pp. 720, 1038; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ix. 516–19 (of no importance); Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, 1814, i. 20–2; Okely's Memoirs of Behmen, p. 105 n.; Thomas Hartley's Paradise Restored, 1764, p. 466; Byrom's Journal (Chetham Soc.) passim.]

L. S.