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
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
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.