William Law, born in 1686, became a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1711, but in 1714, at the death of Queen Anne, he became a non-Juror: that is to say, he found himself unable to take the required oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian dynasty (who had replaced the Stuart dynasty) as the lawful rulers of the United Kingdom, and was accordingly ineligible to serve as a university teacher or parish minister. He became for ten years a private tutor in the family of the historian, Edward Gibbon (who, despite his generally cynical attitude toward all things Christian, invariably wrote of Law with respect and admiration), and then retired to his native King’s Cliffe. Forbidden the use of the pulpit and the lecture-hall, he preached through his books. These include Christian Perfection, the Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration, Spirit of Prayer, the Way to Divine Knowledge, Spirit of Love, and, best-known of all, A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, published in 1728.
The thesis of this last book is that God does not merely forgive our disobedience, he calls us to obedience, and to a life completely centered in Him. He says: “If you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but because you never thoroughly intended it.” The immediate influence of the book was considerable. William Law died in 1761 just a few days after his last book, An Affectionate Address to the Clergy, went to the printers.
Dr. Samuel Johnson said: “I became a sort of lax talker against religion, for I did not think much against it; and this lasted until I went to Oxford, where it would not be suffered. When at Oxford, I took up Law’s Serious Call, expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. 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.”
Gibbon (as mentioned above) said: “If Mr. Law finds a spark of piety in a reader’s mind, he will soon kindle it into a flame.”
John Wesley calls it one of three books which accounted for his first “explicit resolve to be all devoted to God.” Later, when denying, in response to a question, that Methodism was founded on Law’s writings, he added that “Methodists carefully read these books and were greatly profitted by them.” In 1744 he published extracts from the Serious Call, thereby introducing it to a wider audience than it already had. About eighteen months before his death, he called it “a treatise which will hardly be excelled, if it be equalled, either for beauty of expression or for depth of thought.”
Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Henry Venn, William Wilberforce, and Thomas Scott each described reading the book as a major turning-point in his life. All in all, there were few leaders of the English Evangelical movement on whom it did not have a profound influence.
The above biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer