Enlightenment England was a strange mixture of freedom and intolerance. When Henry VIII severed the Church of England from Rome, a vigorous confluence of politics, economics and religion produced a reformation quite different from that released by Luther and Calvin. In the seventeenth century, thinkers tended towards opposite poles. Enthusiasts, "filled with God", believed in direct spiritual communion with God, rejected the efficacy and doubted the value of priests, rituals and hierarchies. Since the king was head of the Church of England, enthusiasts of every kind were harassed and persecuted. George Fox, founder of the Quakers, was admired for his courage, conviction and purity of life; nonetheless, he spent many years in filthy jails on mendacious charges. Seekers, Anabaptists and Ranters were scorned in the same breath with Methodists and Papists.
The second group of religious thinkers were more comfortable in the Anglican Church. When John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, promulgated the views that religion existed to make humans happy and that religion was never in conflict with reason, the Latitudinarians – those who argued for freedom of belief and action – found a home. Deists could be upstanding Anglicans, so long as they espoused a genial social conformity. Thus, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the English church had less to fear from rejected fundamentalists and reformers than from decadence. Authentic religion was less threatened by fanaticism than by platitudinizing acceptance. William Law grew up during this decline and combatted it by denying the dichotomy taken for granted in the English temperament of his day.
William Law was born in King's Cliffe, a village in Northamptonshire, in 1686. His father was a prosperous grocer, and William found himself in a family that grew to include seven brothers and three sisters. In 1705 he alone of all his siblings was sent to Cambridge University, where he entered Emmanuel College. Though it had been the seedbed of Puritanism during the reign of Elizabeth I and later the centre of the Cambridge Platonists, neither of these movements directly affected Law. He was too serious to involve himself in worldly disputes, and he found theological debate spiritually degrading. Just before arriving at Cambridge, he drew up eighteen Rules for my Future Conduct:
Law received his Bachelor's degree in 1708, and he was elected a fellow of Emmanuel in 1711, before he received his Master's degree. Around this time he was ordained by a nonjuring bishop of the Anglican Church, but since Queen Anne was already on the throne, he was not called upon to profess allegiance to her. Law believed that the rule of England belonged to the Stuarts by divine right, and when George I, Elector of Hanover, acceded to the throne in 1714, Law could not take the oath of allegiance. His position was theoretical, and the politics of the anachronistic Jacobite movement held no interest for him. Nonetheless, as a nonjuror he had to resign his fellowship in 1716 and renounce any expected preferment in the church. He could find no employment save as a private chaplain, tutor or writer, and the next ten years are largely lost to history.
During this period he wrote compelling treatises against laxity in the church, beginning in 1717 with Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor. When Bernard de Mandeville argued in Fable of the Bees that personal vices were actually public benefits, Law replied in his Remarks upon the Fable of the Bees. In a rigorously logical argument, he showed that the canons of morality can never be based upon sophistry. When, several years later, Matthew Tindal held that reason alone is the criterion for truth, Law recognized the limits of logic in The Case of Reason. Because reason cannot test every possible truth, Law held, the advocates of natural religion are faced with the same parameters as those who accept the idea of revelation. Whilst his standpoint could never prove the intrinsic superiority of faith, Law joined Berkeley and Joseph Butler in bringing a closure to the deistic debate.
Although Law was a formidable commentator on the views of his time, he first attracted general attention with the publication, in 1726, of A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection, which he characterized as "the right performance of our necessary duties". The following year he was taken as tutor into the household of Edward Gibbon, father of the historian of the same name. Though the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was sceptical of religious professions, he later wrote of Law that "he left the reputation of a worthy and pious man who believed and practised all that he enjoined". In 1728 Law published his most famous work, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. His simple piety and his refusal to dilute the concept of the Christian life in the name of either freedom or human weakness involved an implicit mysticism which surfaced in the following years as he read the works of Jacob Boehme. During this time a number of people were attracted to him as disciples to a teacher. Amongst their number were John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, and though a quarrel over faith and the necessity of a system undermined their friendship, the three always spoke of one another in terms of profound respect.
At about 1739 Edward Gibbon died and his household broke up. In 1740 Hester Gibbon, the historian's aunt, and Mrs. Hutcheson, a rich widow and friend, took a house in King's Cliffe. Law moved into the house, and the three constituted a celibate spiritual commune until his death. They reserved one-tenth of their joint income of £3000 annually for themselves, and used the remainder for charity. They displayed such utter freedom, though not lavishness, in their giving that King's Cliffe became a haven for professional beggars. Eventually the local rector protested and greater discrimination was practised. Nonetheless, Law insisted that charity should not be tied to desert.
During his long retirement, while instructing his two ardent companions and ministering to the needy, he wrote his most mystical works, including An Appeal to All that Doubt, The Spirit of Prayer, The Way to Divine Knowledge and The Spirit of Love. Altogether, he found semi-monastic life at King's Cliffe satisfying and worthwhile. Just before he died on April 9, 1761, he was reported as saying to Hester Gibbon that "he had such an opening of the divine life within him that the fire of divine love quite consumed him".
The first half of Law's career exhibits an uncompromising, but never harsh, piety which was antithetical to the prevailing atmosphere of Latitudinarianism. The second half is characterized by a Behmenian mystical perspective which does not alter his sense of devotion. The philosophical writings of Boehme provided insight and foundation to Law's views, but Law had already reached the conclusions they supported before encountering the works of the 'Teutonic Theosopher'. A Serious Call begins with a strict definition of devotion: "Devotion signifies a life given or devoted to God." Law immediately drew the untempered conclusion:
For Law, the Christian life consists in applying in every thought and action the counsels of perfection found in the Sermon on the Mount. Priest and parishioner alike are bound by nothing less than the injunction "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." In the course of elaborating these fundamental, if simple, principles, Law drew verbal portraits of typical characters or types found in Christendom. Miranda (wonderful), Classicus, Flavia (extravagant), Calidus (wasteful), Eusebia (reverent), Succus (disheartened), Mundanus (worldly) and Flatus are as recognizable today as when Law sketched them. A few are truly good and a few evil, but most attempt a compromise between Spirit and the world. Each in his own way is permanently restless because he cannot see that there can be no compromise until one can say without a false note, "Not I live, but Christ liveth in me."
For Law, it is neither the flesh nor the devil that most surely ensnares a human being: it is the world. He felt that apostasy and external attacks could never harm the church so much as the favour of the world. But if allegedly innocent amusements and mental peccadillos threaten the Christian, the reactions of fanaticism and extreme asceticism are just as dangerous. In the spiritual life – which, for Law, is the whole of life – a sobriety reminiscent of sophrosyne is essential. The average individual deviates to such a degree from this moral and mental norm that he cannot be expected to understand the happiness and contentment to be found in the life of devotion. Rather than self-righteously judge such individuals or vainly preach hell-fire to them, one should live an exemplary life so that they may be turned around, converted, born again.
In Law's later life, the idea of being born again came to mean a profound and permanent change of heart. Taking broadly the metaphysical perspective of Boehme, Law held that the visible and invisible world is a manifestation of the one Divine Life. "All creatures, whether intellectual, animate, or inanimate, are products or emanations of the Divine Desire." Man in his threefold constitution – body, soul and spirit – is a microcosm of the universe. This implies for Law that Man was created perfect. His fall from perfection, symbolized in the story of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, was not the result of disobedience to a capricious being. Rather, Man separated himself from God in an act of self-alienation from which he must be redeemed. Redemption is nothing less than a new birth of God in the soul".
Law was repelled by the evangelical sophistry that depicts Jesus dying for the sins of the world to appease the wrath of a Deity separated from Man by an unbridgeable chasm. Law saw that the doctrine of Deity referred to by the contemporary phrase "wholly Other" takes redemption out of the hands of the individual human being and leaves him with nothing but faith. The optimistic view of this conception results in the Latitudinarian belief that everyone – or at least all socially decent souls – are redeemed automatically and without effort. The negative view leads to a Calvinist doctrine of predestination in which the optimists are self-righteous and the pessimists sink into fearful hopelessness. Any such view of Christ's Atonement makes a mockery of Divine Love, the sole manifestation of Deity in creation, for it implies that Man should be tormented unless 'saved' by God for reasons unknowable to Man. For Law, just the reverse is true.
God is not adventitiously good, for love is his manifesting nature. Man and Nature are in a fallen state because of the three properties inherent in manifestation – attraction, resistance and whirling about between them. The shadows of Divine Desire are the random and chaotic desires of alienated Nature. But three additional properties also exist in Nature – fire, the form of light and love, and sound, or understanding. These are the entrance of the Divine into the first three properties. Inherent as seeds, they can grow into a purifying, ordering, illuminating force that restores each creature to its unfallen condition. Manifesting Deity in Nature is thus sevenfold (counting the six properties plus the interaction between them), and when balanced, Nature is a perfect microcosm of the Divine. In terms of the human being, the spark or seed of the Divine Essence is in each individual, and because of this quintessential spiritual fact, humans feel restless and tormented in the world.
Spiritual rebirth, the birth of God in the soul, is the growth of this seed into what Paul called "the New Man". God cannot, therefore, feel wrathful towards humanity any more than he could begin to hate himself.
The wrath Man experiences is his own anger turned inwardly and arising from his self-alienation from his Source.
Redemption and every conceivable happiness arise from the will which is the divine seed within. Its 'magic power' is essentially creative and therefore transforming.
Man is fallen because his will is turned away from the Divine and, also, the seed of his true nature. He is at war with himself, and this conflict produces hell, which is a condition and not some place.
The individual can turn his will in a new direction, and each such effort strengthens subsequent efforts until the individual will is in line with and mirrors the Divine Will. This is the new man who is the microcosm of the universe of Divine Love, replacing the man who reflected the discords of fallen nature.
To redirect the will and make it coherent – to effect a permanent change of heart – requires purification of every aspect of man's nature. The will is splintered and whirled about because it is ensnared in the three lower properties of nature. The strengthening and redirection of the will is the descent of the Divine into nature.
To be alive in God is to live in one's true nature, the result of a purification so total that it simultaneously creates a New Man by expunging every profane trait and exhibits such a joyous transforming magic that others are drawn to do the same.
This complete alchemical change of nature is the whole point and substance of the life of devotion. It can be summarized in the idea of prayer.
For Law, private prayer was critical, but public prayer should not be shunned. Turning the mind towards Deity goes hand in hand with rendering good works. Prayer is will in thought, feeling and action, and one's life should come to be one ceaseless prayer. Heaven is the union of the individual with the Divine, and prayer reveals the co-presence of Heaven with the world.
William Law exemplified his beliefs in every aspect of his life. For him the great truth of this world was not that the rewards of the spiritual life are easy of attainment, but that they are possible. They are not some far-away goal contingent on a revealed promise, but a present reality which can be experienced, tested and validated in any human life. Hence Law retired within himself and turned away from the allure of the world even while he reached out to his fellow human beings, whatever their station and condition. He attempted to live the ideal of secular monasticism, and though his language was Christian and even orthodox Anglican, his thought was universal. The Way, for him, depended neither on theology nor reason, for it is to be found in utter simplicity of the heart.