William Law(1686-1761); Biography and famous books

William Law(1686-1761) was a priest and devotional writer. He was born at King’s Cliffe in Northamptonshire and educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1711 to 1716 he was a fellow of Emmanuel and curate at Haslingfield, Cambridgeshire, but lost his fellowship after refusing to take the oath of allegiance to George I. From 1723 to 1737 he lived with the family of Edward Gibbon at Putney, for part of this time as tutor to his son, father of Edward Gibbon the historian. In 1728 he was ordained a priest in the nonjuring church, which refused allegiance to the Hanoverian dynasty, believing that the Stuarts were the legitimate rulers of the United Kingdom.

His early writings include brilliant attacks on Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), Bernard de Mandeville, and the religious writer Matthew Tindal (bap. 1657, d. 1733), but he is chiefly remembered for his devotional handbooks of this period, A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection (1726) and especially A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729). Their uncompromising message is enlivened with satirical portraits of the lives of the godless rich, contrasted with idealized ones such as Ouranius the country priest and Miranda the charitable gentlewoman.

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In 1740 Law returned to King’s Cliffe with two companions, one of them the historian’s aunt Hester, to live a life of charity, celibacy, prayer, reading, and writing. He had long been a student of mysticism, but from the 1730s on he made a detailed study of Jacob Boehme, whose influence is reflected in his most important later works, The Spirit of Prayer (1749-50) and The Spirit of Love (1752-4).

The widespread influence of Law’s writings was furthered by the many cheap abridgments published by his one- time disciple John Wesley, even though the two quarreled publicly over his theology. His friend and admirer John Byrom versified passages from his works and kept detailed accounts of his reading and conversation in his diaries.

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