William Law, Scholar, Mystic, Non-Juror and Wit


Was it that he measured things so differently from the rest of them, so that you never quite knew what his reaction would be if you came to him with a piece of news, or, more daring perhaps, with a piece of scandal? Things shocked him which the rest of the Gibbon entourage found perfectly natural; on the other hand, things which they esteemed irregular and a little regrettable he might smile at and accept. This was quite clear in his new book, which Hester had been reading, not without some searching of heart, for it turned the common way of looking at things upside down.

Such were the thoughts of Hester as she looked at William Law across the dining table in the Gibbon household where he was tutor. She was the brother of the famous historian Edward Gibbon who described Law as a Non-juror and a wit, a scholar and a mystic, and one whose life in every way did honour to his principles. He combined in himself so many different gifts and strands of piety which had developed in the Church of England since the Reformation, but his sympathies were wider. His clear mind and incisive reason were a product of the eighteenth century but in the nature of his religious feeling he stood outside it.

He was born at Kingscliffe in Northamptonshire in 1686. His father was a grocer and like many boys from tradesmen’s families William went up to Emmanuel College Cambridge as a sizar, a poor scholar, in 1705. He drew up a rule of life, eighteen rules for his own personal way of living that foreshadowed his teaching in the best known of his books A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. After graduation in 1711 he was ordained and elected to a fellowship. When Queen Anne died in 1714, it was inevitable that Law could not take the oath of loyalty to George I, and the deprivation of his fellowship followed. He remained a Non-juror for the rest of his life, but was regular in his attendance at the services of the Established Church.

Turning point

At this turning point in his spiritual journey he wrote to a brother, ‘My prospect is melancholy enough, the benefits of my education seem partly at an end, but that same education had been much more miserably lost, if I had not learnt to fear something worse than misfortune.’ This man is prepared to make sacrifices for the intangible. From now on his life was founded upon a sacrifice, which must have engaged all his spiritual muscles. The next seven years, probably in London, he was writing to defend the Church.

Between 1717–19 he published his first work, a brilliant series of Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor. Hoadly was rather like the revisionists of today who promote a reductionist Christianity. Law’s work was welcomed as a convincing reply. Hoadly, who always had plenty to say for himself, never attempted an answer, probably because he knew Law to be unanswerable. Law opposed those who undermined Christian morals and attacked those who insisted that no revelation was necessary from God to man, that human reason could of itself conceive all that had been given by revelation.

The spiritual temper of his age

Elizabeth’s reign had vindicated the Catholic nature of the English Reformation and assured the continuity of church life in faith and government in the face of continued attempts by Separatists to introduce a Presbyterian discipline. Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity was a learned justification of these principles. William Laud implemented the practical discipline of church life, which was more external discipline than a renewal of the spirit of devotion.

There was not that inner sense of religion and personal consecration among Churchmen, which could have given immediate and lasting vitality to the work of Laud. For the most part intellectual interest was low and spiritual earnestness was almost dead in the life of the clergy, though there were exceptions. There was no real personal grip of spiritual realities, either in priest or people, as the heart of the nation lay sleeping after the strife.

Treatise on Perfection

Law began to use his powers to deepen the convictions of merely nominal church people. As time went on, he became more inclined to stress the Christian’s personal response to the Gospel along the lines he had indicated in his eighteen rules. In 1726 he published his Treatise on Perfection. This and the Serious Call, are the ones that made him best known to his contemporaries, the ones that made the greatest differences to the religion of his century, and they are the climax of the first period of his life. The Treatise on Perfection is a sort of rehearsal for the Serious Call, and it is addressed to the so-called Christian. Law does not speak to the notorious evil liver. His concern is with people whom the world holds to be respectable and good.

Law has hit upon the great device, which he developed further in the Serious Call, of observing real characters, giving them fictitious names, and using them to illustrate his meaning. He is rather like Charles Dickens in that London pub by the Thames watching London’s life and characters; these he used as the materials for his novels. To the characters Law observed, who professed to be Christians, he is saying that they mistake the nature of their Christian profession. He aims at such people as Crito who

buys Manuals of Devotion … yet is not able to keep pace with them; with Publius, who goes to Church sometimes and reads the Scriptures, but knows not what he reads or prays, his head is so full of politics; as Matrona who has been fifty years eating and drinking, dressing and undressing, paying and receiving visits, she has no profaneness, and if she has no piety it is owing to this, that she never had a spare half hour in her life to think about it. [For Patronus who is] an enemy to dissenters and loves the Church of England because of the stateliness and beauty of its buildings; he never comes to the Sacrament, but will go forty miles to see a fine Altar Piece.

He is telling them that devotion is founded in great humility and a full sense of the vanity and smallness of everything but God. Christianity is not a school for the teaching of moral virtue, the polishing of manners, or forming us to live a life of this world with decency and gentility. It is deeper and more divine in its designs and has much nobler ends than these; it implies an entire change of life, a dedication of ourselves, our souls and bodies unto God, in the strictest and highest sense of the words.

The Tutor

From 1727–37 Law was tutor in the Gibbon household and during these years he develops his teaching with the same style and method. His characters were drawn from many guests assembled to eat the lamb and trimmings, the gooseberry pie and drink the good wine. He has one question to ask of his fellow guests at table. How can you reconcile what you profess to believe and what you do?

These people whom Law portrays in the Serious Call all think that they are Christians, but only two or three are prepared to live consistent Christian lives according to what Law envisaged as Christ’s standard. Could he stab his friends into knowledge of their state? Could he paint their portraits and invite them to read in them the measure of their unfaithfulness? These pen sketches of the ordinary men and women of his day, reveal the inconsistencies and weaknesses that could be seen in the most familiar actions of daily life and conduct. Each character has his or her own fictitious name, which in most cases is a Latin one, suggesting the virtue or the vice which is the subject of illustration.

He hoped that every particular folly that is seen would naturally turn itself into an argument for the wisdom and happiness of a religious life.

Julius, the formal Christian, is very fearful of missing his prayers, and whom the parish consider to be sick if he is not in church. Caecus is the rich man, of good breeding and very fine parts and the embodiment of self-conceit. He no more suspects himself of pride than he suspects his wants of sense. Calidus, the busy merchant, lives in perpetual rush and whirl, that must have killed him long ago and resolves to leave town on Saturday and make Sunday a day of quiet and refreshment in the country. Flavia would be a miracle of piety if she was as careful of her soul as she is of her body. Caelia, the grumbler, is an exhortation to contentment. Fulvius, the youth of leisured disorder, preaches the disciplined life. Mundanus, the successful man of business, teaches the necessity of heavenly mindedness. Susurrus, the unkind gossip, becomes an argument for the habit of kindly intercession.

[But there are other characters, which portray with great attractiveness the beauty of the Christian life] like Ouranius, the good priest and holy priest, full of the spirit of the Gospel, watching, labouring and praying for a poor country village. Every soul in it is as dear to him as himself, and he loves them all as he loves himself; because he prays for them all as often as he prays for himself. Cognatus is a sober clergyman of good repute in the world and well esteemed in his parish. All his parishioners would say; he is an honest man, and very notable at making a bargain. Taxes, losses, crosses, bad mortgages, bad tenants, and the hardness of the times are frequent subjects of his conversation, and a good or bad season has a great effect upon his spirits. His overriding concern is to leave a sizeable sum of money he has raised from his two livings for his niece.

Law then considers the many kind things that Cognatus might.have done with his money, including paying his curate a living wage, and caring for his people as much as for the state of the markets, and finally ends:

Could it be said that a life thus governed by the spirit of the Gospel must be dull and melancholy, if compared with that of raising a fortune for a niece?

What wonderful types these figures are of everyday insincerity. Gibbon’s judgement is correct,

His precepts are rigid, but they are founded on the gospel. His satire is sharp, but it is drawn from the knowledge of human life. If he finds a spark of piety in his reader’s mind, he will soon fan it into a flame. And a philosopher must allow that he exposes with equal severity and truth the strange contradiction between the faith and the practice of the world.

The Serious Call is a direct attack on the pseudo-Christian life of the eighteenth century, on the ideals set before young people, on the comfortable concern with money and getting rich, on the fatuousness of those who have achieved this much desired end. It is aimed at the cultured and educated society of the day. ‘Would you know who is the greatest saint of the world?’ writes Law.

It is not he who prays most, or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms, or is most eminent for temperance, chastity or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God willeth, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College, a writer and a lecturer.