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First Edition, March, 1906.
Richard Clay and Sons, Limited, BREAD STREET HILL, E.C., AND
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 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; Fable of the Bees, 1724; Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainments, 1726; On Christian Perfection, 1726; A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, etc., 1728; The Case of Reason, or Natural Religion, etc., 1731; On the Lord's Supper, 1737; Answer to Dr. Trapp's Discourse, 1740; The Spirit of Prayer, 1749; Christian Regeneration, 1750; "Where shall I go to be in the Truth," letter to a friend, 1750 (?); The Way to Divine Knowledge, 1752; The Spirit of Love, 1752; Confutation of Warburton's Defence of Christianity, 1757; Of Justification by Faith and Works, 1760; Letters on Important Subjects, and on Several Occasions, 1760; Address to the Clergy, 1761; Letters to a Lady inclined to enter the Church of Rome (1731–2), 1779; Collected Works, 9 vols., 1762.
A SERIOUS CALL TO
A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
Concerning the nature and extent of Christian devotion.
DEVOTION is neither private nor public prayer; but prayers, whether private or public, are particular parts. or instances of devotion. Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God.
He, therefore, is the devout man, who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God; who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety, by doing everything in the Name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.
We readily acknowledge, that God alone is to be the rule and measure of our prayers; that in them we are to look wholly unto Him, and act wholly for Him; that we are only to pray in such a manner, for such things, and such ends, as are suitable to His glory.
Now let any one but find out the reason why he is to be thus strictly pious in his prayers, and he will find the same as strong a reason to be as strictly pious in all he other parts of his life. For there is not the least shadow of a reason why we should make God the rule and measure of our prayers; why we should then look wholly unto Him, and pray according to His will; but what equally proves it necessary for us to lock wholly unto God, and make Him the rule and measure of all the other actions of our life. For any ways of life, any employment of our talents, whether of our parts, our time, or money, that is not strictly
according to the will of God, that is not for such ends as are suitable to His glory, are as great absurdities and failings, as prayers that are not according to the will of God. For there is no other reason why our prayers should be according to the will of God, why they should have nothing in them but what is wise, and holy, and heavenly; there is no other reason for this, but that our lives may be of the same nature, full of the same wisdom, holiness, and heavenly tem、 pers, that we may live unto God in the same spirit that we pray unto Him. Were it not our strict duty to live by reason, to devote all the actions of our lives to God, were it not absolutely necessary to walk before Him in wisdom and holiness and all heavenly conversation, doing everything in His Name, and for His glory, there would be no excellency or wisdom in the most heavenly prayers. Nay, such prayers would be absurdities; they would be like prayers for wings, when it was no part of our duty to fly.
As sure, therefore, as there is any wisdom in praying for the Spirit of God, so sure is it, that we are to make that Spirit the rule of all our actions; as sure as it is our duty to look wholly unto God in our prayers, so sure is it that it is our duty to live wholly unto God in our lives. But we can no more be said to live unto God, unless we live unto Him in all the ordinary actions of our life, unless He be the rule and measure of all our ways, than we can be said to pray unto God, unless our prayers look wholly unto Him. So that unreasonable and absurd ways of life, whether in labour or diversion, whether they consume our time, or our money, are like unreasonable and absurd prayer, and are as truly an offence unto God.
It is for want of knowing, or at least considering this, that we 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