Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Overton
William Law (16861761)
[William Law was born in 1686 at Kings Cliff in Northamptonshire, where his father was a grocer. He entered as a sizar at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705, took his B.A. degree and was elected Fellow of Emmanuel in 1708, and received holy orders in 1711. For some years he resided at Cambridge, taking pupils; but in 1714 he had to resign his Fellowship because he could not conscientiously take the oaths of allegiance and abjuration which were imposed on the accession of George I. For some years it is not easy to trace the course of his life, but some time before 1727 he became an inmate in the house of Mr. Gibbon at Putney, the grandfather of the historian, as tutor to his son, whom he accompanied to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His pupil left the university without a degree, and Law returned to Mr. Gibbons house, his whole stay there lasting more than twelve years. On the death of Mr. Gibbon the Putney establishment was broken up, and Law returned to his native county, and settled first at Thrapston, and then in a house of his own at Kings Cliff. Two pious ladies, Miss Hesler Gibbon, a sister of his pupil, and Mrs. Hutchison, widow of an M. P., joined him for the sake of his spiritual direction; and the Hall Yard (the name of Laws residence) became the centre of an establishment not unlike that at Little Gidding under Nicolas Ferrar. Almshouses and schools were built and endowed, and Laws outer life consisted mainly in attending to these, and in ministering to the poor of the parish. He attended every service at the Parish Church, and observed regularly all the canonical hours of devotion. He strongly disapproved of clerical marriages, and remained a bachelor until his death in the spring of 1761. His whole life was an endeavour to follow out literally the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.
AS a writer of English prose, William Law holds a very high rank; but the reasons why his writings, with one or two exceptions, have been, until quite recent years, so little known and appreciated are not far to seek. In his various phases of mind he was quite out of sympathy with the popular current of thought all through the Georgian era. He began as a marked high churchman and nonjuror, and, indeed, never lost his sympathies in that direction to the end of his life, though they were certainly crossed by another influence in his later years. There were of course numbers, especially of the clergy, who would agree with him generally in these views. But few would take quite the same line that he did. That odd mixture of the methodist (in the 18th century sense of the term) and the high churchman, though intelligible enough now, was a strange anomaly then. Even his strictly practical treatises, the Christian Perfection and the Serious Call, though they produced, directly or indirectly, an immense effect, did not quite harmonise with any of the phases of religious thought that were then rife. They savoured too much of enthusiasm to suit the orthodox, and too much of legalism to suit the evangelical. His later and (so called) mystic works, which to many are now by far the most interesting and suggestive of all his writings, appeared to the plain, matter of fact, and rather prosaic age in which they were written, sheer nonsense, and hardly consistent with sanity. Of course there were exceptions, and the few who did admire Law, admired him enthusiastically; but mysticism, and especially mysticism tinctured with Behmenism, was quite alien from the tone of that sæculum rationalisticum, and still more so from the popular evangelicalism which followed. And Law was not less out of sympathy with the philosophy than with the religion of his age. He set himself steadily against the dominant school of Locke, which he thought responsible for the unspiritual tone of the period. A writer who is thus antagonistic in every way to the spirit of his time can scarcely expect to be popular; and probably Law neither expected nor desired to be so. It is wonderful, however, to observe how, more than one hundred and thirty years after his death, the interest in him seems to be awakened. From the point of view of the present work, such an awakening must be looked upon as a hopeful sign. Masters of English Prose are not so plentiful that we can afford to allow one who stands in the very first rank to slip into oblivion. And it would be difficult to find many who combine as Law does so much vigour and raciness of thought and diction, so pure and luminous a style, such brilliant, if somewhat grim, humour, such pungent sarcasm, such powers of reasoning. There is, indeed, a stern severity about the writer which is very characteristic of the man; but it is equally characteristic that amid this sternness he sometimes breaks out into passages of sweet tenderness, which are all the more touching from their contrast with the ruggedness of their surroundings. Like many other men and writers, Law became softened and mellowed with age, as any one may see who compares, say, The Spirit of Love with the Letters to the Bishop of Bangor.
It is difficult to do full justice to Law by giving extracts from his writings; because one of his chief merits lies in the conscientiousness of his reasoning. He never loses sight of his subject, and, granting his premisses, it is impossible to put a pins point between his deductions from them. He is, moreover, a singularly equal writer; unlike the good Homer, he never nods, never descends below himself. One might take passages almost at random, and yet convey as favourable an impression of him, as by carefully selecting specimens which shew him at his best. The following selections, therefore, have been made, not on the principle of picking out the plums, but simply as illustrations of the various stages in the development of his very remarkable mind.