Law, William (1686–1761)
English mystic and theologian. William Law was born in
1686, at King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England. His father,
a grocer, managed to send William to Cambridge University in
1705. Entering Emmanuel College, he became a fellow in
1712, but on the accession of George I in 1714, felt himself unable
to subscribe to the oath of allegiance. As a result, Law forfeited
his fellowship.
In 1727 he went to Putney to tutor the father of Edward Gibbon,
the historian of the Roman Empire. He held this post for
10 years, winning universal esteem for his piety and theological
When his employer died in 1737, Law retired to his native
village of King’s Cliffe and was chiefly supported by some of his
devotees, notably Hester Gibbon, sister of his guardian pupil,
and the widow Mrs. Hutcheson. The two women had a united
income of fully 3,000 pounds a year, so Law must have been
comfortable, and wealth and luxury did not corrupt him. It is
recorded that he rose every morning at five and spent several
hours before breakfast in prayer and meditations.
Early in his career, Law began publishing theses on mysticism
and on religion in general. After he retired, he acquired
fresh inspiration from reading the works of Jakob Boehme, of
which he was an enthusiastic admirer, and produced year after
year a considerable mass of writing until his death April 9,
Law’s works comprise some 20 volumes. In 1717 he published
an examination of the recent tenets of the bishop of Bangor,
which were followed soon after by a number of analogous
writings. In 1726 his attack on the theater was published as The
Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment Fully Demonstrated.
In the same year he issued A Practical Treatise upon Christian
Perfection, followed shortly thereafter by A Serious Call to a Devout
and Holy Life, Adapted to the State and Condition of All Orders
of Christians (1728), considered his best-known work.
Other well-regarded works include The Grounds and Reason
of Christian Regeneration (1739), The Spirit of Prayer (1749), The
Way to Divine Knowledge (1752), The Spirit of Love (1752), and Of
Justification by Faith and Works (1760).
Most of Law’s books, especially A Serious Call, have been reprinted
again and again, and a collected edition of Law’s works
appeared in 1762, a year after his death. In 1893 an anthology
was brought out by Dr. Alexander Whyte. In his preface Whyte
spoke of Law’s ‘‘golden books,’’ declaring that ‘‘in sheer intellectual
strength Law is fully abreast of the very foremost of his
illustrious contemporaries, while in that fertilising touch which
is the true test of genius, Law stands simply alone.’’
Law, William. The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment
Fully Demonstrated. Reprint, New York Garland Publishing,
———. The Grounds and Reason of Christian Regeneration.
Philadelphia Andrew Bradford, 1741.
———. A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection. Newcastle
upon Tyne J. Gooding, 1743.
———. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Adapted to the
State and Condition of All Orders of Christians. London W. Innys,
———. The Spirit of Love. London W. Innys and J. Richardson,
———. The Spirit of Prayer. London W. Innys, 1750.
———. The Works. Brockenhurst G. Moreton, 1892–93.
Rudolph, Erwin Paul. William Law. Boston Twayne, 1980