Law, William

Scholar, writer, ascetic and mystic who was an early influence on John Wesley, who was born at King's Cliffe, Northants. He graduated in 1708 and was ordained deacon in 1710, but in 1714 forfeited his fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge by refusing to take the oath of allegiance to George I. Founding a girls' school in 1727 and being ordained priest by a non-juring bishop in 1728, he then became tutor, chaplain and spiritual adviser to the family of Edward Gibbon (father of the historian). In 1740 he retired to King's Cliffe, where he lived a secluded life, offering spiritual direction and practising the strict spiritual disciplines advocated in his Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection (1726) and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729). In hisOxford years Wesley was much influenced by these treatises and by the Theologica Germanica to which Law introduced him. He visited Law in 1732, became a disciple and was encouraged by him to go to Georgia. But after meeting Peter Böhler he became disenchanted with Law's asceticism and in a letter of 14 May 1738 openly reproached him for not having taught him true faith. Law's riposte was: 'Who made me your teacher?' The rift between them widened in Law's later years under the influence of the Protestant mystic Jacob Boehme, to the point where his increasingly mystical stance led Wesley to publish a letter in 1756 (described by Law as 'a juvenile composition of emptiness and pertness') attacking his position. He died at King's Cliffe on 9 April 1761.

See also Devotion and piety.

  • J. Brazier Green, John Wesley and William Law (1945)
  • Harald Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification (1946), pp. 161-70
  • Eric W. Baker, A Herald of the Evangelical Revival (1948)
  • Eric W. Baker, 'William Law', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, April 1961, pp.139-143
  • Frank Baker, 'John Wesley's Introduction to William Law', in WHS Proceedings, 37 pp.78-82
  • Frederick Hunter, 'John Wesley's Intoducton to William Law', in WHS Proceedings, 37 pp.143-50; also 173-77
  • A. Keith Walker, William Law, his life and work (1973)
  • Ron Glithero, 'William Law and the Wesleys', in Ralph Waller and Benedicta Ward (eds.), An Introduction to Christian Spirituality (1999)
  • Oxford DNB

Entry written by: WDH
Category: Person
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