A call to holiness
Arthur Middleton

William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life 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.

The people Law portrays think that they are Christians, but few want to live consistent Christian lives according to Christ’s standard. He writes pen portraits and invites them to read their unfaithfulness and the inconsistencies and weaknesses in the most familiar actions and daily life of ordinary people. Fictitious Latin names suggest the virtue or the vice being illustrated.

Julius, the formal Christian, fears missing his prayers. Caecus, the rich man of good breeding and full of self-conceit, never suspects himself of pride. Calidus, the busy merchant, lives in a perpetual rush and leaves town on Saturday to keep Sunday a day of 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 grouser, is an exhortation to contentment. The youthful and disorganized Fulvius preaches the disciplined life.

Mundanus, a successful businessman, teaches the necessity of heavenly-mindedness. The unkind gossip Susurrus, becomes an argument for kindly intercession. Cognatus is a priest of good repute esteemed in his parish as honest; his moods fluctuate with the fortunes of the markets because his overriding concern is to raise a sizeable sum from his two livings for his niece. He should have paid his curate a living wage and cared for his parishioners as much as for the state of the markets.

To Law these are types of everyday insincerity. His precepts, though rigid, 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. He exposes with equal severity and truth the strange contradiction between the faith and the practice of the world.

‘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.’

Religion was ridiculed and scorned in the eighteenth century. Bishop Butler claimed that it had ceased to be a subject of enquiry, and was regarded as fictitious. For too long it had interrupted the pleasures of the world.

Some despaired of the Church. Archbishop Leighton saw it as ‘a fair carcase without spirit’ and that no human power on earth could save it. Bishop Butler lost all hope of its continuance because of its weak hold upon the realities of spiritual life and power. Law saw his opportunity. A Serious Call awoke in that dead age the slumbering spirit of devotion.