The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
The Surprising Relevance of William Law
The Feast of William Law, Wednesday April 10
Today we celebrate the feast of William Law, an English priest from the 18th century whose admirers are as diverse as the philosopher Aldous Huxley, the mystic William Blake, John and Charles Wesley, and the writer Samuel Johnson.
Law was a priest, theologian, philosopher, and writer on spirituality. Admirably, although he remained a priest in the Church of England for his entire career, he was hard to pin down. He loved the sacraments in our faith, but he also expressed Quaker views, was a pacifist, and in his later years became a follower of Jacob Boehme, a German mystic whose views could sometimes be way out there. In other words, William Law was a good, comprehensive, open-minded and eclectic Anglican priest, someone we might very well recognize today. For instance, at a clergy retreat a few years ago I happened to find myself sitting with a group of about twelve young(ish) fellow priests in this diocese. We got to chatting, and one by one we all started confessing our heterodox views on such matters as spirituality, healing, Eastern medicine, and so on. If this was a representative sampling of Episcopal clergy, we would seem to be a more eclectic and perhaps unorthodox group than many people may realize. Very much (I think) in the spirit of William Law.
Law was born in 1686, just before the Glorious Revolution in England, which restored the monarchy to the Stuarts after the English Civil War. As a young man Law began to teach at Cambridge; however, the last Stuart who was Protestant (English law at that time said that only a Protestant could become a monarch) died, and the throne was handed over to a distant relative, George I, a German of the Hanoverian line. Law would not swear allegiance to the Hanoverians, remaining loyal to the Stuarts, and so lost his post at Cambridge. He wound up becoming a tutor to the Gibbons (he tutored the father of Edward Gibbons of the famous Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). So although he lost his post at Cambridge, he did pretty well for himself. In fact, had he remained in the good graces of the monarchy and government, he probably would not have had the liberty to range theologically the way he did. And we would be the much worse off for it.
Eventually Law wound up connected to a wealthy widow, an acquaintance of the Gibbons family, and lived out the last twenty years of his life with her and her daughter, writing some of his best known works. The one book that he’s really known for today is A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. It very much influenced the Wesley brothers with its rigorous piety and belief that the Christian life should be lived out in everything that we do. (Methodism was born partly from this belief that Anglicans were too morally lax in their day-to-day lives.)
Law’s writing is so lucid and easy still today to read. I like this particular paragraph, which sounds like it could have been written yesterday.
“[W] e see such a mixture of ridicule in the lives of many people. You see them strict as to some times and places of devotion, but when the service of the Church is over, they are but like those that seldom or never come there. In their way of life, their manner of spending their time and money, in their cares and fears, in their pleasures and indulgences, in their labour and diversions, they are like the rest of the world. This makes the loose part of the world generally make a jest of those that are devout, because they see their devotion goes no farther than their prayers, and that when they are over, they live no more unto God, till the time of prayer returns again; but live by the same humour and fancy, and in as full an enjoyment of all the follies of life as other people. This is the reason why they are the jest and scorn of careless and worldly people; not because they are really devoted to God, but because they appear to have no other devotion but that of occasional prayers.”
I should add to this that Law was not a strict moralist like the Wesleys or the preachers of the Great Awakening who were also influenced by him. His views were much more expansive and subtle. He demanded a lot but wasn’t dogmatic or judgmental. What a great thing to have said of you: that you demanded a lot of your faith without being dogmatic and judgmental. I think this is what made him appealing to people like Aldous Huxley, and makes him so appealing to people still today. Here’s what Huxley said of him, and I’ll conclude with his words:
Granted that the ground of the individual soul is akin to… the divine Ground of all existence…what is the ultimate nature of good and evil, and what the true purpose and end of life? The answers to these questions will be given to a great extent in the words of that most surprising product of the English eighteen century, William Law…a man who was not only a master of English prose, but also one of the most interesting thinkers of his period and one of the most endearingly saintly figures in the whole history of Anglicanism.
Amen to that. We give thanks for William Law–a true prophet and saint.