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William Law

William Law (1686–1761) was born at Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England. He was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and went on teaching there. He lost his teaching position when he could not take the required oath of allegiance to George I.  He began to tutor privately in the Edward Gibbon household. He was a consultant to the Wesley brothers. In 1740, he moved to his father’s house where he wrote and was a tutor to his friends. His writings influenced Thomas Scott, George Whitefield and Henry Venn. His major work was A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

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Extended Biography of William Law

William Law was born in 1686, at Kingscliffe, in Northamptonshire, in which village his father was a grocer. He was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705, and took the degree of B.A. in 1708, and of M.A. in 1712, having become fellow of his college in 1711. At this time, therefore, he was not a non-juror. But after the accession of George I, the abjuration oath was rigorously enforced. This led him to examine the question; and, refusing to take the oath, he lost his fellowship. Still, as a man of peace, he remained in communion with the Church attending divine service at his own parish Church, and receiving there the Holy Communion. After resigning his fellowship, he resided at Putney, as tutor to Edward Gibbon, Esq., father of the eminent historian. In 1727, he founded an alms-house at Cliffe, for the reception and maintenance of two old women, either unmarried and helpless, or widows; and a school for the instruction and clothing of fourteen girls. It is thought that the money thus applied was the gift of an unknown benefactor, and given to him in the following manner:—While he was standing at the door of a shop in London, a person unknown to him asked whether his name was William Law, and whether he was of Kingscliffe; and after having received a satisfactory answer, delivered a sealed paper, directed to the Rev. William Law, which contained a bank note for £1000. But as there is no proof that this was given to him in trust for the purpose, he is fully entitled to the merit of having employed it in the service of the poor; and such beneficence was perfectly consistent with his general character.

At what time Mr. Law quitted Mr. Gibbon's house at Putney, his biographer has not discovered, but it appears that some time before 1740 he was instrumental in bringing about an intimacy between Mrs. Hester Gibbon, the pupil's sister, and Mrs. Elizabeth Hutcheson, widow of Archibald Hutcheson, Esq., of the Middle Temple. Mr. Hutcheson, when near his decease, recommended to his wife a retired life, and told her he knew no person whose society would be so likely to prove profitable and agreeable to her as that of Mr. Law., of whose writings he highly approved. Mrs. Hutcheson, whose maiden name was Lawrence, had been the wife of Colonel Robert Stewart; and when she went to reside in Northamptonshire, was in possession of a large income, from the produce of an estate which was in her own power, and of a life interest in property settled on her in marriage, or devised to her by Mr. Hutcheson. These two ladies, Mrs. Hutcheson and Mrs. H. Gibbon appear to have been of congenial sentiments, and now formed a plan of living together in the country, far from that circle of society generally called the world, and of taking Mr. Law as their chaplain, instructor, and almoner. With this view they took a house at Thrapston, in Northamptonshire; but that situation not proving agreeable to them, the two ladies enabled Mr. Law, about 1740, to prepare a roomy house near the church at Kingscliffe, and in that part of the town called "The Hall-yard." This house was then possessed by Mr. Law, and was the only property devised to him by his father. Here the whole income of these two ladies, after deducting the frugal expenses of their household, was expended in acts of charity to the poor and the sick, and in donations of greater amount to distressed persons of a somewhat higher class.

In the Bangorian controversy, a distinguished part was borne by William Law. His Three Letters to the heretical Bishop Hoadley, are a master-piece of sound argument; he overpowers the Bishop in a manner which amuses, while it convinces. These Letters are still read with advantage. They have been reprinted in "The Scholar Armed," and have been published again within the last few years, under the editorship of a layman, whose services to the Church of England have endeared him to her members.

Law was also one of the most zealous writers in opposition to the sentiments of that prelate, in his "Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper." On the appearance of "The Fable of the Bees," he drew his pen against the licentiousness of the doctrine of that writer; and morality and religion must rejoice in his applause and victory. Mr. Law's master-piece, "The serious Call to a devout and holy Life, adapted to the State and Condition of all Orders of Christians," in 8vo., is still read as a popular and powerful book of devotion; as is, likewise, his "Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection," 8vo. The author's precepts in them are strict. His satire is sharp, but his wisdom is from the knowledge of human life; and many of his portraits are not unworthy the pen of La Bruyere. Besides these pieces, he published "The Absolute Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainments fully demonstrated," 8vo.; "The Case of Reason, or Natural Religion fairly and fully stated," 8vo.; "An earnest and serious Answer to Dr. Trapp's Discourse of the Folly, Sin, and Danger of being righteous over much," 8vo.; "The Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration," Svo.; "A Demonstration of the gross and fundamental Errors of a late book, called 'A Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Lord's Supper,' affectionately addressed to all orders of men, and more especially to all the Younger Clergy," 8vo,; "An Appeal to all that doubt or disbelieve the truths of the Gospel," 8vo.; "The Spirit of Prayer, or the Soul rising out of the Vanity of Time into the Riches of Eternity," in two parts, 8vo.; "The Spirit of Love, etc." in two parts, 8vo.; "The Way to Divine Knowledge, being several Dialogues, etc., preparatory to a new edition of the works of Jacob Behmen, and the right use of them," in 8vo.; "A short but sufficient Confutation of the Rev. Dr. Warburton's projected Defence (as he calls it) of Christianity, in his Divine Legation of Moses, in a Letter to the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of London," 8vo.; "A Collection of Letters on the most interesting and important subjects, and on several occasions," 8vo.; "Of Justification by Faith and Works, a Dialogue between a Methodist and a Churchman," 8vo.; and "An humble, earnest, and affectionate Address to the Clergy," 8vo. In the latter part of his life his mind became tinged with the mystic enthusiasm of Jacob Behmen, and he made himself master of the German language, that he might the better understand his writings. Of this enthusiasm some of his later writings savor so strongly, that it is difficult to conceive of them otherwise than as the effusions of a disordered intellect. But these errors of intellect did not interfere with the calm serenity of his saintly life. He died April 9, 1761.—Richard Tighe. Gibbon. Jones of Nayland.

Source: Walter F. Hook. An Ecclesiastical Biography, Containing the Lives of Ancient Fathers and Modern Divines, etc. Vol. 7. London: F. and J. Rivington, 1851.