William Law

This article is about the British theological writer. For other people, see William Law (disambiguation).
William Law
Born 1686
Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire
Died 9 April 1761
Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire
Venerated in Anglican Communion
Feast 10 April

William Law (1686 – 9 April 1761) was a Church of England priest who lost his position at Emmanuel College, Cambridge when his conscience would not allow him to take the required oath of allegiance to the first Hanoverian monarch, George I. Previously William Law had given his allegiance to the House of Stuart and is sometimes considered a second-generation non-juror (an earlier generation of non-jurors included Thomas Ken). Thereafter, Law first continued as a simple priest (curate) and when that too became impossible without the required oath, Law taught privately, as well as wrote extensively. His personal integrity, as well as mystic and theological writing greatly influenced the evangelical movement of his day as well as Enlightenment thinkers such as the writer Dr Samuel Johnson and the historian Edward Gibbon. Law's spiritual writings remain in print today.

Early life

Law was born at Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire in 1686. In 1705 he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a sizar; 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. As a non-juror, he was deprived of his fellowship.

For the next few years Law is said to have been a curate in London. By 1727 he lived 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 family. In the same year he accompanied his pupil to Cambridge and lived 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 10 years, acting as a religious guide not only to the family but to a number of earnest-minded people who came to consult him. The most eminent of these were the two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, William Wilberforce, John Byrom the poet, George Cheyne the physician and Archibald Hutcheson, MP for Hastings.

The household dispersed in 1737. Law by 1740 retired to Kings Cliffe, where he had inherited from his father a house and a small property. There he was joined by Elizabeth Hutcheson, the rich widow of his old friend (who recommended on his death-bed that she place herself under Law's spiritual guidance) and Hester Gibbon, sister to his late pupil. For the next 21 years, the trio devoted themselves to worship, study and charity, until Law died on 9 April 1761.

Bangorian controversy and after

For more details on this topic, see Bangorian controversy.

The first of Law's controversial works was Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717), a contributions to the Bangorian controversy on the high church side. It was followed by Remarks on Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1723), in which he vindicated morality; it was praised by John Sterling, and republished by F. D. Maurice. Law's Case of Reason (1732), in answer to Tindal's Christianity as old as the Creation is to some extent an anticipation of Joseph Butler's argument in the Analogy of Religion. His Letters to a Lady inclined to enter the Church of Rome are specimens of the attitude of a high Anglican towards Catholicism.

Writings on practical divinity

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), together with its predecessor, A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726), deeply influenced the chief actors in the great Evangelical revival. John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Henry Venn, Thomas Scott, and Thomas Adam all express their deep obligation to the author. The Serious Call also affected others deeply. Samuel Johnson,[1] Gibbon, Lord Lyttelton and Bishop Home all spoke enthusiastically of its merits; and it is still the work by which its author is popularly known. It has high merits of style, being lucid and pointed to a degree.

In a tract entitled The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment (1726) Law was agitated by the corruptions of the stage to preach against all plays, and incurred some criticism from John Dennis in The Stage Defended.

His writing is anthologised by various denominations, including in the Classics of Western Spirituality series by the Catholic Paulist Press.


In his later years, Law became an admirer of Jakob Böhme, the German Christian mystic. From his meeting with the works of Böhme, about 1734, mysticism appeared in his works. These mystical tendencies separated Law from the practical-minded Wesley.


Law is honoured on 10 April with a feast day on the Calendar of saints, the Calendar of saints (Episcopal Church in the United States of America) and other Anglican churches.

List of works


  1. "I became a sort of lax talker against religion, for I did not think much against it; and this lasted until I went to Oxford, where it would not be suffered. When at Oxford, I took up Law's Serious Call, expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion after I became capable of rational inquiry.", Samuel Johnson, recounted in James Boswell's, Life of Johnson, ch. 1.

2. "William Law made a lasting impact upon 18th-century England with his book, 'A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life'. In it Law urges that every day should be viewed as a day of humility. And how does he suggest that we do this? By learning to serve others." Foster, Richard J. Celebration Of Discipline, p. 131. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.


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