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The nonjuring writer of a spiritual bestseller

10 April 2015

Adrian Leak introduces the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, who practised what he preached


Love thy neighbour: Law lived close to the church at King's Cliffe.

Love thy neighbour: Law lived close to the church at King's Cliffe.

SAMUEL JOHNSON said about Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: "I took it up at Oxford, expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are) and perhaps to laugh at it. But found Law quite an overmatch for me."

The 18th century was not without its popular manuals of devotion. The Whole Duty of Man (c.1658) was still widely read in 1790, by which time it had gone through 28 editions. What made Law's Serious Call stand out was its mixture of deep seriousness - the reader was not left in any doubt about the demands of the Gospel - and the author's wit.

Law created characters to illustrate his message. Flatus, for example, is the shallow worldling, driven off course by every suc-ceeding breeze of fashion. The ballroom, the gaming table, the hunting field, a self-improvement course in Italian, a season's craze for garden design, even a spell of vegetarianism and jogging: nothing endures, nothing satisfies the restless soul of Flatus.

"Prayer", wrote Law, "is the nearest approach to God and the highest enjoyment of Him, that we are capable of in this life. . . When our hearts are full of God . . . we are then in our highest state, we are upon the heights of human greatness."

Here were words echoing the great mystics of the English Church - Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe, George Herbert - a deep spring bubbling up in the dry Augustan landscape of Addison and Pope.

Law's devotional practice was anchored in the shared life of a small, domestic community, and shaped by the language and forms of the Book of Common Prayer. For the last 20 years of his life, he lived close to the parish church in King's Cliffe. He shared his home and his resources with a wealthy widow, Mrs Elizabeth Hutcheson, and with Hester Gibbon, the sister of his former pupil. Together they lived under a rule comprising prayer, study, and works of charity.

He rose at 5 a.m., and spent the first hours of the day in private devotion. His breakfast was a cup of chocolate. The household came together five times a day for prayer, usually based upon the appointed psalms and the collect. At afternoon prayers, one of the servants would be asked to read from the Bible. They attended the parish church next door for Sunday worship, and for morning prayer and litany on Wednesday and Friday.

Visitors to King's Cliffe recalled the stocky figure and florid countenance of their host, as they took tea with him, and he discoursed fluently, all the while walking up and down the parlour, munching raisins from his pocket.

Charitable works included sustenance of the poor (a pot of broth was kept warm on the stove), gifts of clothing and money to beggars (the vicar disapproved and preached against the practice), education (he and his two companions established schools for the boys and girls of the parish), and the administration of the almshouses that they had founded in the village.

"In our family," the historian Edward Gibbon wrote, "he had left the reputation of a worthy and pious man, who believed all that he professed, and practised all that he enjoined."

William Law of King's Cliffe, devotional writer and nonjuror, 1686-1761

WILLIAM LAW was born in 1686 in the Northamptonshire village of King's Cliffe, and educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was elected a Fellow. He was ordained deacon in 1710 and priest in 1727. On the accession of George I, Law, with other nonjurors, refused to take the oath of allegiance. Consequently, he was deprived of his fellowship and any further preferment in the Church of England. He entered the household of Edward Gibbon (a wealthy stockbroker, and grandfather of the historian) as tutor and chaplain, and remained there from 1723 to 1737.

From 1740 to his death in 1761, he lived on his patrimony in King's Cliffe, devoting himself to prayer, study, writing, and works of charity. His book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, became a classic of Anglican spirituality. The Church commemorates him on this day.

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