A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
From the Introduction to the Dent Everyman edition.
FIRST ISSUE OF THIS EDITION
Law's "Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life" was first published in 1728, when he had been resident tutor for a time in the house at Putney of Edward Gibbon. He accompanied his pupil, a son of the same name, who became father to the great historian, to Cambridge in 1727; and when this son went abroad, he returned to the Gibbon household. According to Gibbon's "Autobiography," Law drew the portraits of Flavia and Miranda in the "Devout Life" from the two daughters of the house, Catherine and Hester. But, as Leslie Stephen pointed out, he would hardly have done this while himself still a member and spiritual adviser of the family. Moreover, he had ample opportunities of meeting the Flavias and Mirandas of his day. On accompanying young Edward Gibbon to Cambridge, Law was already well acquainted with the University, for he had graduated there, and become fellow of Emmanuel College in 1711. Law's "Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor," in 1717, were the first distinct sign he afforded of his intellectual quality and his unique powers as an independent religious thinker. In 1726 appeared his "Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage Entertainment;" also his "Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection," which confessedly influenced John and Charles Wesley, both of whom afterwards visited him at Putney. But they were temperamentally out of sympathy with his mysticism, and they parted company with him definitely as time went on. It was in 1740 that Law settled at King's Cliffe, where, with the aid of Mrs. Hutcheson, widow of a disciple and friend, and Miss Hester Gibbon, he proceeded to carry out in downright every-day practice the ideas of the "Serious Life." Here the rules were homely, hospitable, austere, and simple; and charity to the poor, practices of extreme generosity, kindness to animals, and attention to the smaller virtues, proved the absolute reality of Law's own "Call."
The life at King's Cliffe was not unlike that of the household at Little Giddings described in "John Inglesant." Law latterly had come much under the influence of Jacob Boehme, but the mystics had profoundly appealed to him from the first. His "Way to Divine Knowledge," which was by way of preamble to a new English edition of the works of Boehme, appeared in 1752. We must not forget Dr. Johnson's tribute to the "Serious Call": that it was the first occasion of his "thinking in earnest of religion after he became capable of rational inquiry." William Law was born in 1686, and died in 1761 at King's Cliffe.
The following is the complete table of his published works:--
Letters to Bishop of Bangor, 1717-1719
The Anglican Library, This HTML edition copyright 2000.