April 10: William Law, Priest, 1761

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

“If we are to follow Christ, it must be in our common way of spending every day. If we are to live unto God at any time or in any place, we are to live unto him in all times and in all places. If we are to use anything as the gift of God, we are to use everything as his gift.” So wrote William Law in 1728 in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

This quiet schoolmaster of Putney, England, could hardly be considered a revolutionary, yet his book had near-revolutionary repercussions. His challenge to take Christian living very seriously received more enthusiastic response than he could ever have imagined, especially in the lives of Henry Venn, George Whitefield, and John Wesley, all of whom he strongly influenced. More than any other man, William Law laid the foundation for the religious revival of the eighteenth century, the Evangelical Movement in England, and the Great Awakening in America.

Law came to typify the devout parson in the eyes of many. His life was characterized by simplicity, devotion, and works of charity. Because he was a Non-Juror, who refused to swear allegiance to the House of Hanover, he was deprived of the usual means of making a living as a clergyman in the Church of England. He therefore worked as a tutor to the father of Edward Gibbon, the historian, from 1727 to 1737. He organized schools and homes for the poor. He stoutly defended the Sacraments and Scriptures against attacks of the Deists. He spoke out eloquently against the warfare of his day. His richly inspired sermons and writings have gained him a permanent place in Christian literature.


I    O God, by whose grace thy servant William Law, enkindled with the fire of thy love, became a burning and shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II     O God, by whose grace your servant William Law, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Philippians 3:7-14

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Psalm 103:1-4, 13-18

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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17 thoughts on “April 10: William Law, Priest, 1761

  1. He needs a ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement; and a ‘He died in 1761.’statement.

  2. The first paragraph is a “who he is and why he is important” statement, even if it doesn’t use those phrases. The writers of HW/HM assume that the readers are smart enough not to need to be whapped upside the head to get the point.

    • Thank you … I needed ‘whapping’. A two sentence quote from something he wrote is sufficient?

      Me thinks, that you attribute more theological education to the average person in the pew than s/he might possess.

      For that matter there are a number of seminary graduates who might not be able to answer the question: ‘Who is William Law and why is he imporant?’ I just sayin’.

    • I don’t understand the “we assume our clients are smart enough not to complain about our product limitations” response. Shouldn’t that be a Dilbert cartoon?

      • Wow, y’all.

        I do think it’s a dangerous assumption, about the clients/readers. Best we/they write for the reasonably educated person; nowadays and especially in the US, not a lot of British history– ecclesiastical or otherwise– is included there. I thought the quote was just the literary intro, and the next paragraph was intended as “who & why;” as such, though, it’s kind of sketchy. Many/most will know John Wesley, but the other 2 gentlemen are probably not as recognizable.

        As far as kindling the Evangelical Movement, here’s what I found: “Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Henry Venn, William Wilberforce, and Thomas Scott each described reading William Law as a major turning-point in his life. All in all, there were few leaders of the English Evangelical movement on whom he did not have a profound influence.” This is from “An Introduction to William Law,” http://www.iinet.com/~passtheword/William-Law/wl-intro.htm.

        Anyone about whom the famously grumpy Dr. Samuel Johnson said, “But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion after I became capable of rational inquiry” has to have been pretty impressive. It seems, though, that “Priest” is (as often) an insufficient term to explain why he’s honored here. Most of his influential work was done after he was forced to stand down from his clerical functions. “Theologian,” perhaps? “Writer and Spiritual Director”?

  3. If is non-COE where did he preach ? What “chapel” tradition did he follow/lead , if any ? Born – when &
    where ? Education background ? There’s a loty missing herein ? More clearly- how did he lay the
    foundation for the Evangelicals ? Did the Gibbon family serve as his patrons ?

    • He was in fact ordained in the C of E, and was a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1711 until the accession of George I in 1714. At that point, as a known Jacobite & non-juror, he was dismissed from his post and rusticated– sent down to the countryside (I almost never get to use that word!). After some wandering about he ended up with the Gibbon family and remained in one capacity or another (tutor, spiritual director) for the rest of his life. Many people came to him for spiritual direction, including both Wesley brothers. Even in retirement he took a house with a wealthy widow, Mrs. Hutcheson, whose husband had recommended her to his (Mr. H’s) late spiritual director, and with the spinster sister of Edward Gibbon (Edward III, the writer we know).

      He produced copious works of both “practical” theology (how to live) and theological commentary, including /Letters to a Lady inclined to enter the Church of Rome/, a trenchant commentary on the relationship between High Church Anglicanism and Rome. (Mind you, this was the better part of a century before Catholic Emancipation or the controversies of the Oxford Movement.)

    • I felt the write-up recognized a significant person for commemoration in the calendar, but stopped short of HWHM’s level of conveying a fuller impression. Richard Lewis’ questions go a long way to specify what it needs. Lin Jenkins’ information is extremely helpful, as well.

      Some of the conclusions presented could be “unpacked” (told about) so as to demonstrate, rather than simply assert, Law’s contributions. Some examples:
      1) He organized schools and homes for the poor. (No example or instance to illustrate?)
      2) He stoutly defended the Sacraments and Scriptures against attacks of the Deists. (A little elaboration?)
      3) He spoke out eloquently against the warfare of his day. (No other comment on this?)

      The collect seems limited by the same over-generalized approach, i.e., metaphor of flame & light applied to Law, metaphor of flame & light applied to us. It’s legitimate, just thin. I didn’t pursue the scripture selections.

  4. I was inspired by this man and these readings. It is difficult to be challenged and defend yourself for what you believe. God gives us all many gifts. The knowledge of Godly things in never ending and we should never resist the challenge to learn a new way to understand our connection with God. I do believe that God is the maker of all things seen and unseen. Thoughts are unseen until we put them down on paper or in this age post them on the internet. I believe God and I will meet someday and that for me is my gift from God. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has promised this to me and on Easter Sunday we will celebrate that gift. I also believe that the Big Bang that created all things was God dividing God’s self into the peices of this universe and all that surounds it. When all is right with the human race and God we will all be one again in god.

  5. This year he was preempted by Lent 5, but he should not be overlooked. His influence was tremendous.

  6. William Law was born in 1686 in King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire and he returned there in 1740 because he had inherited a small property and house from his father. It was here that the Rev. Law lived with Miss Hester Gibbons and the widowed Mrs. Hutchenson, the two ladies mentioned above.

  7. I suggest that the subtitle be simply “Reformer”. The fact that he was a priest is irrelevant.

    Many sources indicate that William Law died on April 9. I suggest that his commemoration be moved to that date, especially as we now have another commemoration on April 10.

    I recommend that a new first paragraph be added, as follows: “William Law was born in 1686 at Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England. He was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, being elected a Fellow of that college in 1711, and was ordained in the same year.”

    Add a final paragraph as follows: “William Law retired to the town where he was born, and died there on April 9 in 1761.”

  8. The phrase ‘evangelical movement’ in the bio should be replaced by ‘evangelical revival’. The evangelical movement had been around since the beginning of the English reformation (even before if you count Wycliffe’s followers, which I would), but it was at a low ebb in the early 18th century.

    I would think ‘mystic’ would be the correct title to use for him.

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