A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
From the Introduction to the Methuen edition,
This edition was originally published in November 1899
Of the Present Edition [N.B., this note applies to the Methuen edition only].
WHAT is here offered to the reader is a reprint of he First Edition of the Serious Call, published by William Innys in 1729. Our pages are smaller, but the contents of each page are the same, and in every respect -- with the exception of some unimportant details of typography -- this edition may be regarded as a facsimile of the Editio princeps.
Law's writing is so transparently clear that no notes, beyond such as are embodied in this Introduction, appear to be either necessary or desirable. In the case of so modern and so English a book, the object of scholarly fidelity is best attained by presenting the text as nearly as possible in the exact shape in which it left the hands of the author.
Even the spelling, and the archaic use of capital letters and italics have been carefully preserved. They will serve to remind the reader that Law wrote in the eighteenth century, not in the nineteenth -- a fact which, as is pointed out in the following pages, is in many respects of importance.
Of the Life of William Law
FOR a much richer account of the Life and Opinions of the Reverend William Law, A.M., than can be given here, the student must be referred to the elaborate work of Canon Overton, published by Longmans in 1881. Canon Overton writes with a fulness of knowledge of English religion in the eighteenth century which is possessed by very few; and Law, more than most men, bears the impress of the time in which his lot on earth was cast. Here it will not be possible to do more than sketch the salient features of his remarkable character and history.
William Law was born in 1686, at King's Cliffe, a considerable village near Stamford, in Northamptonshire. His father, Thomas Law, was a grocer and chandler -- kept, that is to say, the village shop. It is a position, as all country people know, of some importance in the rustic hierarchy, and in those days was more important than it is now. Both the father and the mother -- her name was Margaret -- were good, religious people. Some have thought that they were the models for Paternus and Eusebia in the Serious Call.
Their son, William -- he was the fourth of eight sons, and there were three daughters as well -- entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as sizar, or poor scholar, in 1705; took his B.A. degree in 1708; was elected Fellow and ordained in 1711; and graduated as M.A. in 1712. While at Cambridge he drew up a set of "rules for my future conduct." The first rule was "to fix it deep in my mind that I have one business upon my hands -- to seek for eternal happiness by doing the will of God." "Doing the will of God" sums up the earlier part of Law's history, as freedom and peace in the Holy Spirit sums up the later. Through the one he rose to the other, like Origen and many other saints. Yet, when Law was a curate in London -- the exact date is unknown, he is said to have courted fashionable society, and to have been "a great beau." It is possible that about 1720 there was a final act of self-renunciation.
In 1713 Law was for a time suspended from his degrees for a Tripos speech. Part of the ceremonies attending the Bachelors' commencement at Cambridge was a burlesque oration, delivered in the schools on Ash Wednesday, by a bachelor seated on a three-legged stool, and hence known as Tripos. He was expected to be "witty, but modest withal"; but it was difficult for sprightly young men to hit the golden mean. Some of these licensed jesters indulged in gross personalities, some ventured on political satire, and suspensions were not infrequent. Law could not keep the Pretender out of his tirade.
But at the time Law was not Bachelor but Master. If it were safe for an alien to meddle with the arcana of Cambridge life, a suspicion might be expressed that Law was really not Tripos but Praevaricator -- a personage who played the same part, as Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason, at the Masters' commencement. However, we learn here three facts about Law: first, that he was a convinced Jacobite; second, that he was not discreet, or, at any rate, not worldly wise; third, that he was regarded at Cambridge as a man who could and would make an amusing speech. Indeed, as we can see from his books, Law had a pretty gift of wit, though he was absolutely devoid of humour. The difference is that wit sees the absurdities of others, while humour is conscious of its own.
Shortly afterwards Law testified to the sincerity of his political convictions in a much more serious fashion. On the accession of George I., in 1716, he refused to take the oaths of allegiance and abjuration, and was accordingly deprived of his Fellowship, and of all prospect of employment in the Church.
The loss to Law was very great. His stiff conscientiousness cost him not only influence but work, and he was condemned henceforth to eat his heart as a looker-on. Further, he was exposed to the full force of that sour trial which besets the martyr who is not wanted. The history of Non-jurism, like that of Jacobitism in general, is not edifying. But affliction tries the righteous man, and very pure reverence is due to those who, like Ken, Nelson, and Law, retained their saintliness in a world which had cast them out, and which they could not understand.
Almost immediately after the resignation of his Fellowship, Law began to make his mark in the world of literature. The Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor appeared in 1717; the Remarks upon the Fable of the Bees in 1723; and the Case of Reason in 1731. Mandeville was a silly, scoffing creature; but Hoadly, the latitudinarian bishop, and Tindal, the philosophical Deist, were formidable antagonists, and Law showed himself a match for both. In 1726 appeared the treatise on The Absolute Unlawfulness of Stage Entertainments. Of this, we may notice in passing, that it was suggested by a piece that had been acted "almost every night one whole season," in which Venus, Pan, Silenus, Bacchus, and a number of other "filthy demons of the heathen world" were brought upon the stage to talk in keeping with their character, or want of character. Law, no doubt, was carried too far; he forgot that he was not living in the age of Tertullian, and on this, as on many other questions, he showed a want of balance. But his disgust at "wanton songs and impure rant" was natural enough in days when the Restoration drama held the stage; and there is much that might be said about the morality of the footlights in any age.
In 1726 appeared the first of Law's devotional works, the Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection. It is significant that Law uses "perfection" here, not, as the old fathers, of love, but of obedience. One result of the book was probably that connection with the Gibbon family which shaped the whole of Law's after-life. About this time Mr Edward Gibbon, the grandfather of the historian, was seeking a tutor for his only son. Law was selected for this office, attended the younger Gibbon to Cambridge, and in 1730, when his pupil went abroad to make the grand tour, found a home in that "spacious house with gardens and land at Putney," where his patron resided, "in decent hospitality." Here he lived, "as the much honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole family," till the establishment was broken up some little time after Mr Gibbon's death in 1736.
In 1729 the publication of the Serious Call had set the seal on Law's reputation, and he was visited and consulted at Putney by a little circle of disciples. Chief among them were Dr Cheyne, the two Wesleys, and Byrom. The Wesleys drifted away from him; but the good and flighty John Byrom, squire of Kersall, near Manchester -- poet, mystic, Jacobite, physician -- remained his faithful friend and worshipper through life. But Law was one of those men who have many admirers and few friends, and whose friends are markedly inferior to themselves. They are men who cannot bear contradiction.
In 1737, according to Mr Moreton, in 1740, according to other authorities, we find Law settled at King's Cliffe, his birthplace, in a good house known as King John's Palace, or the Hall Yard. Here, in 1744, he was joined by Miss Hester Gibbon, the daughter of his old patron, and Mrs Elizabeth Hutcheson, the widow of a wealthy country gentleman; and here he died in 1761.
Law's life at King's Cliffe was wholly uneventful. The only dates that emerge are those of the writings which he sent to the Press from time to time, down to the very year of his death. It cannot have been a wholesome existence for so able a man to have been thus immured as domestic chaplain with two women of limited understanding and eccentric character. He seems to have had scarcely any contact with the outside world. Certainly he suffered through the absence of larger duties and converse with his equals. The little household was strictly ordered. The Bible and books of theology were the only literature admitted; nor was any form of recreation tolerated beyond conversation, a little music, and an occasional drive or ride. The historian Gibbon, who is oddly divided between dislike of Law's ways and pride in having been, in a sense, the proprietor of so famous a man, speaks of the house at King's Cliffe as "a hermitage," and the term is not inappropriate.
The Christian duty most insisted upon by Law was charity. He himself was the soul of munificence. He built and endowed a girls' school at King's Cliffe, possibly with the thousand pounds which had been sent to him anonymously by some person who was grateful for spiritual profit received from the Christian Perfection. In 1745 the foundation was increased by Mrs Hutcheson, till it included also a school for boys, almshouses, and a library, which still exist.
Such wise generosity could bear none but good fruits. But the rule of the house was that all surplus income should be given away in alms. As Mrs Hutcheson enjoyed two thousand a year, while Miss Gibbon had inherited half her father's large property, and Law himself possessed some means, the sums thus disposed of must have been very considerable. The natural result was the demoralisation of the whole countryside. King's Cliffe was crowded with undeserving mendicants, and the evil became so serious that the rector preached against it, and the parish made representations to the magistrates. Here, too, there is a characteristic feature. Law lived just before the iron age of Political Economy set in. Smith's Wealth of nations appeared in 1776. Perhaps the rector of King's Cliffe was a magistrate. But Law's heart was fixed on the letter of the Gospel, and what he thought to be -- though it by no means was -- the practice of primitive Christianity. Here also, as in his politics, he stood at the parting of the ways, and failed to see that the old road had come to an end. It was an age of giving. Kings gave pensions; ministers bestowed sinecures; noblemen rained showers of guineas on troops of gaping dependants; and so the ideal country priest, as he is painted in Goldsmith's Deserted village, gave all he could to all who asked.
Pleased with his guests the good man learned to glow, And quite forgot their vices in their woe.
Law would never suffer his portrait to be taken; but Mr Tighe, who visited King's Cliffe some time before 1813, and received information from "a kind person" there, tells us that he "was in stature rather over than under the middle size; not corpulent, but stout made, with broad shoulders; his visage was round, his eyes grey, his features well-proportioned and not large; his complexion ruddy, and his countenance open and agreeable. He was naturally more inclined to be merry than sad . . . He chose to eat his food from a wooden platter, not from an idea of the unnecessary luxury of a plate, but because it appeared to him that a plate spoiled the knives."
He was a thorough Englishman in person and mind, with the English touch of whimsy about him. Yet he is a noble figure. In all his numerous controversies he never used a discourteous word or used a disingenuous argument. He never fought for trifles, nor for any cause that did not lie very near to the heart of religion. He made great sacrifices, and made them in vain. He found himself condemned to a life of isolation, yet he never lost heart or temper, or showed the least trace of bitterness, though he was naturally of a masterful and positive disposition; indeed, he grew in sweetness and largeness of view to the very end. And certainly no one could be more consistent or thorough. "He left," says Gibbon the historian, "the reputation of a worthy and a pious man, who believed all that he professed and practised all that he enjoined," and these words are just.
Of the Opinions of William Law
SOME readers possibly may wish to have a brief account of Law's intellectual position. It changed very greatly as his life went on.
At Cambridge he wrote a thesis on Malebranche and the Vision of all Things in God. From the first Mysticism had an attraction for him; but he was never a Platonist. Nor, indeed, though one of the keenest and most logical of men, was he ever a clear and consistent thinker on first principles.
We see his early position best in his controversies with Mandeville and Tindal. In his criticism of the Fable of the Bees he insists on the "eternal fitness of actions." But he immediately proceeds to explain this phrase away. Actions are fit or good when they promote that happiness which is "the perfection of every being" -- "the only reasonable end of every being."
But upon what does happiness depend? We learn this from the Case of Reason, the reply to Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation. Happiness is relative to our condition, and depends on what we are. And what we are, both in mind and body, depends wholly on the will of God. No action is moral or immoral in itself. "To instance, in the case of Abraham, required to sacrifice his son, the killing of a man is neither good nor bad, considered absolutely in itself." But, when God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac, the act became necessary to Abraham's happiness, and therefore right.
It is curious to notice that this is exactly the position of Duns Scotus. But it is more important to observe that we have here the key to the tremendous emphasis laid by Law, in the Serious Call, on the virtue of obedience. All duty resolves itself into a command of the Almighty, and we have no course but to submit. Virtue is, as Law expressed it in his Cambridge rule, not likeness to God, but "doing the will of God."
Again, "we know," says Law, "our moral and social duties, which have their foundation in the conveniences of this life, and the several relations we bear to one another." But our relation to God we do not know; "this is a question which God alone can resolve. Human reason cannot enter into it; it has no principle to proceed upon in it."
The Deists maintained that those who have reason do not want revelation, because reason teaches us our duty both to God and man. Further, that if revelation is not reason, reason cannot test, and therefore cannot accept it. Further, that the Bible revelation is bad, because the conduct of Abraham was not reasonable. These are the objections that Law had to meet, and he meets them by falling back upon the arbitrary will of God
In effect, he replies Christianity is true because it is true. Obviously, it is not a satisfactory reply; but it is not even acute.
Let the reader compare here the answer given by St Augustine. The same difficulty as to the Old Testament morality that was forced upon Law by the Deists was forced upon Augustine by the Manichees. Augustine replies (Conf. iii. 9) that all men have some knowledge of God, and that this is the criterion of right and wrong. This knowledge grows in the individual and in the world, and the law which it supplies is not capable of absolutely perfect expression in conduct. Hence we must distinguish motive from action, times earlier from times later; we must take account of history, and recognise the fact of moral evolution. Augustine admits that God may command "some strange and unexpected act," but adds the significant words, "Blessed are they who know that Thou hast commanded." Law confines the distinction of right and wrong to action, admits no criterion but that of happiness, and has no historical sense at all. As to revelation, Augustine would have answered that it is simply more reason; that it leads us higher, but on the same lines; that it sheds light on what we knew before, and brings completer harmony into previous experience: hence, that though we do not know beforehand what it will be, as Tindal fancied we ought, we can recognise it when it comes, as Newton recognised the laws of motion when he had discovered them, or when they had been "revealed" to him. Law says, "The credibility of any external divine revelation with regard to human reason, rests wholly upon such external evidence as is a sufficient proof of the divine operation or interposition . . . I appeal, therefore, to the miracles and prophecies on which Christianity is founded."
Law, in fact, held a thoroughly empirical view of Reason, derived neither from Descartes nor from Malebranche, but from Locke. His intellectual position was Agnosticism. To this in his earlier days he added Authority; in his later Mysticism, or special revelation; but in both periods his creed was external -- was, we may say, an appendix to his philosophy -- and was not linked by any vital process to his theoretical opinions.
The most fatal mistake a theologian can make is to set Will above Reason. The next worst is to set Love above Reason. Law fell out of one of these errors into the other. He never altered his views of Reason; indeed, in his later writings he speaks of it with a passionate scorn.
Is theology a matter of temperament? Law was not wise, but he had a strong will and a tender heart, and when he found that his earlier views would not accord him the assurance that he needed, he threw himself into the arms of one who was even more tender-hearted than himself, Jacob Behmen, the illuminated cobbler of Gorlitz.
Even before he wrote his reply to Tindal, Law was a diligent reader of mystical books. His special favourites appear to have been a Kempis, Ruysbroek, Tauler, and the Theologia Germanica, who all preach the religion of the heart. The French mystics of the seventeenth century -- Madame de Guyon, Madame Bourignon, and the rest -- he knew but did not like; there was too much hysteria about them to suit his manly temper. But somewhere about 1733 he fell in with Behmen, who took him by storm. Thus Law, who, in his Three Letters to Hoadly, had scornfully lumped together Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, and Socinians as "Enthusiasts," became an enthusiast himself.
Behmen's works had existed in English since 1641. They gave birth to more than one mystical sect, and, in particular, inspired George Fox. They led also to a great increase in that love for alchemy, which, as we know from Aubrey's Lives, was so common at the time. They induced Isaac Newton to waste three months in reaching for the philosopher's stone, and suggested the line of inquiry which issued in the discovery of the Laws of Motion. It was the mystic belief in the unity of Nature that guided Newton in either case.
In the eighteenth century Behmen was widely read. "In winter evenings," says Rusticus in the Way to Divine Knowledge, "when John the shepherd comes out of the fields, his own eyes being bad, the old woman, his wife, puts on her spectacles, and reads about an hour to him, sometimes out of the Scriptures, and sometimes out of Jacob Behmen. I sat by him one evening, when my old dame, reading Behmen, had much ado to get on. "John," said I, "do you understand all this?" "Ah," says he, "God bless the heart of the dear man, I sometimes understand but little of him; and mayhap Betty does not always read aright; but that little which I often do understand does me so much good that I love him where I do not understand him."
The truth is that it is not easy, nor, to be frank, is it possible to understand Behmen, who was rather Theosopher than Mystic. We can see that he was a man of gentle, loving disposition, and when he speaks of the sovereign goodness of God we can follow his meaning. But his visions and revelations are among those that have brought discredit on the name of Mystic -- as if it signified a dreamer who is next door to a charlatan.
To the true Mystic -- Augustine is the most perfect type -- Nature is the staircase by which we climb towards the knowledge of its Author. Reason is the candle of which Love or Faith is the flame. The Many lead on to the One, -- the Visible to the Invisible Earth, in its beauty and intelligibility, is a shadow of heaven; matter guides us towards mind, and is in its turn explained by mind. Thus Mind and Matter, and the reasoning processes in which they meet -- Ethics, Science, Art -- receive their proper due, as parts of one ordered whole. This is what is often called the sacramental view of nature.
But the false or bastard Mystic, of whom Behmen is a type, looks for God in his own soul -- in a faculty specially imparted for this purpose, and not possessed by all men. There he finds God, and in God all knowledge. The One leads to the Many. The inner light teaches him at once all that there is to be known. Thus he discerns the nature and hidden virtues of things; the signatures of plants, and the diseases they will cure; the affinities of metals, and the method by which they may all be transmuted into gold. He casts away true knowledge and deludes himself with false.
It will be seen that this stamp of Mysticism is the exact inversion of the first. Augustine exalts Reason and makes full use of it, Behmen abolishes Reason; Augustine regards the world as a stepping-stone to religion, to Behmen the world has no religious value at all. Hence, the invariable notes of what we call the bastard Mysticism are ignorance, presumption, and division. What the writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Henry More the Platonist, branded as Enthusiasm, is as different from true Mysticism as light from darkness. It produces Faustus, but not Augustine.
Both Fox and Law turned away with English common-sense from the worst extravagances of Behmenism, though Fox was tempted for a moment to set up as a physician on the strength of the inner light. But both took from the Gorlitz cobbler the whole of his wild theory of the Fall and Redemption. Fox went boldly on to the logical consequence of Behmenism, and rejected all forms, including the sacraments. Behmen himself did not take this perilous step. Nor did Law. But Law adopted a whole set of idle fancies, which are best passed by in silence. Those who care to go further into this melancholy topic, may read his Grounds and Reason of Christian Regeneratlon. What is more serious still, Law completely severed his connection with history, which had never been strong. He remained a High Churchman, but without any sort of inner consistency.
Yet what a strange thing Mysticism is, and what power and beauty attach even to its most perverted forms! Behmenism supplied a fruitful idea to Newton, and it made Law a better, a more lovable, and even a wiser man. In his earlier writings virtue appeared as reasonable self-love; in the later he recognises that selfishness in any form is not religious. He had made far too much of mechanism and drill: now he insists that goodness must be "a living thing." He had leant his whole weight on "evidences," on the props and supports of revelation: now he sees that everything must be its own proof, and that life can be known only by life. He had maintained that goodness is mere utility: now he believes that there is but "one God, one Good, and one Goodness."
The Mystic treatises abound in fine sayings. Let us take a few almost at random. "Faith is the power by which a man gives himself up to anything," whether it be to conduct, to science, to art, or even to politics or business. It follows from this profound definition that Reason is not to be regarded as the antithesis of Faith. "Truth, my friend, whatever you may think of it, is no less than the Saviour and Redeemer of the world." "See that your mind be free, universal, impartial."
In fact, a great change had come over Law, and in many ways it was conspicuously for the better. Some readers will think that he gave himself up too unrestrainedly to the worship of Love; that Love, unless guided by Wisdom, is not truly divine; and that here again Law's fear of Reason had brought him to the verge of grave errors. But we have already been too critical. "Oh Academicus," we hear Law saying, "forget your Scholarship, give up your Art and Criticism, be a plain man, and then the first rudiments of sense may teach you that there and there only can goodness be, where it comes forth as a Birth of Life, and is the free natural work and fruit of that which lives within us." These are fine words; only we must not take them quite as Law intended them.
Of the Serious Call
THE Serious Call was published in 1729, when its author was about forty-three years of age. The world has always regarded it as Law's masterpiece, and with good reason. In it Law describes his own life and principles, with all the force of earnest sincerity. The book is, we may say, a part of himself. Some prefer the more philosophical writings, but Law was not really eminent in that department of thought, nor could he ever throw his heart into it. He judged too meanly of reason to wish to excel in speculation. Others, again, would place the mystical treatises first, and it must be admitted that they contain phrases and passages which, both in style and sentiment, rise above anything that is to be found in the Serious Call. On the other hand, every page of the Behmenist writings is marred by touches that to most readers are exceedingly repellent.
The style of the Serious Call is admirably adapted to its subject. It is grave, lucid, strong, but not graceful. There is never the slightest doubt about Law's meaning; he conveys to the reader the exact idea that is in his own mind. He selects the plainest words, the most homely figures, and is not in the least afraid of iteration. A typical instance is to be found in the parable of the Pond, in the eleventh chapter. The picture is as distinct as possible; but it is a picture such as Hogarth drew. Almost the only artistic feature in the book is to be found in the Characters. Some of them are drawn with consummate skill; many of them show how keen a power of sarcasm Law possessed, and how carefully he bridled it.
Attempts have been made to find real personages behind the characters. Paternus and Eusebia have been identified with Law's own father and mother; and Gibbon persuaded himself that Flavia and Miranda represented his two aunts -- "the heathen and the Christian sister" -- Katharine and Hester. But of Paternus we are expressly told that "he lived about two hundred years ago," and the characters are all types, suggested, no doubt, by people whom Law had met, yet not drawn from life. Character painting had been for a century a favourite method of conveying moral instruction, and many famous writers, from Earle to Addison, have left us specimens of their skill in this kind of composition. But how few virtuous characters Law has drawn! He gives us the foolish country gentleman, the foolish scholar, the foolish man of affairs, but not their wise counterparts. The reason is that in Law's view of religion, which leaves the world out altogether, one good person is exactly like another. A pious physician is acceptable to God as pious, but not at all as a physician.
The Serious Call has not escaped criticism, and, indeed, it is easy enough to point out features in which it bears the mark of the eighteenth century. But it is a splendid protest against the spiritual apathy of the times, and no more strenuous plea for consistency and thoroughness was ever delivered.
The book is addressed to Christians, and it is, as its title implies, a Serious Call to be what they profess. The point is inevitable; it is driven home with extraordinary force, and Law's whole life gives weight to every word.
It is not in the least necessary to agree with Law in all the details. The question which he presses upon the reader is, "Are you living the Christian life as you believe it ought to be lived? Are you acting up to your convictions? Are you a sham or not?" Few can face this question, as Law will put it to them, without many qualms of conscience.
As in the Imitation we have a pure man describing purity, so here we have a real man insisting on reality. Every syllable is transparently genuine. This is the secret of the Serious Call. It is remarkable that, of those whom we know to have been deeply affected by the book, not one was in complete sympathy with Law. Nor does Law expect this. He would say to the reader, "If you are wiser than I, thank God for it, but beware that you are not less sincere." Let us take a few conspicuous instances of this fecundity, this catholicity of the book. For, in spite of his primness and eccentricity, Law had a truly catholic mind.
One of the first and most illustrious of his disciples was John Wesley. "Meeting now," says Wesley, -- the time was shortly after his election to the Lincoln Fellowship -- "with Mr Law's Christian Perfection and Serious Call, although I was much offended at many parts of both, yet they convinced me more than ever of the exceeding height and breadth and depth of the law of God. The light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new light . . . I was convinced more than ever of the impossibility of being half a Christian."
There were "many parts" of the book which Wesley did not approve, even at the first. In 1732 he called upon Law at Putney, consulted him upon religious questions, and took him for "a kind of oracle." But in 1738 the little rift widened into a division. On his return from Georgia, Wesley threw in his lot with the Moravians. But Law could not abide Peter Bohler, whose views of the Atonement, of faith, of instantaneous conversion, and of sinlessness were highly repugnant to him. A sharp correspondence ensued between Wesley and Law (it will be found in Overton or Tyerman), and these two excellent men drifted apart. Later on, Wesley became much more sober in many of his views, but by this time Law had taken up with Behmenism, and this was a new barrier. Yet, within eighteen months of his death, Wesley spoke of the Serious Call as "a treatise which will hardly be excelled, if it be equalled, in the English tongue, either for beauty of expression or for justness and depth of thought."
Again, no good man could well be more unlike Law than Dr Johnson. Johnson held that no non-juror could reason, and would not admit that Law was an exception. He was often too burly and sweeping in his assertions, but he could not sympathise with Law's politics, or his philosophy, or his peremptory exclusion of the "world" from "religion," which was the unfortunate consequence of his philosophy. Further, Johnson was completely agreed with those who spoke of Law's peculiar type of Mysticism as "crack-brained fanaticism." "Law," said he, "fell latterly into the reveries of Jacob Behmen, whom Law alleged to have been somewhat in the same state with St Paul, and to have seen things unutterable. Were it even so, Jacob would have resembled St Paul still more, by not attempting to utter them." There is truth in this jibe; indeed, setting aside the scorn of the expression, it is the truth. Yet Johnson thought that the Serious Call was "the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language." "When at Oxford," he says in another place, "I took it up expecting to find it a dull book, and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an over-match for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion after I became capable of religious inquiry."
Thus Law gave a great impulse to Methodism, and breathed new life into the old-fashioned High Church. But he also affected strongly the rising Evangelical school, though, in this particular, his influence was more distinctly of the Socratic kind: he gave a "torpedo shock," which quickened life, though of a different type from his own. What Hervey, Newton, Venn, and Madan disliked in Law was partly his setting Behmen on a practical equality with Scripture, and partly his view of the Atonement. As to this latter point, it may be said that it is the cause of the depressed tone of all Law's theology. Flying to the opposite extreme from that Calvinism which had wrought such havoc in Church and State, he sedulously eliminated from our Lord's Passion the idea of vicarious suffering; and therefore what he preached was always self-denial and never self-sacrifice. There is nothing in Law at all like St Bernard's "nosegay of myrrh," or that wonderful outburst of mingled sorrow and jubilation which pierced even the sceptical spirit of George Eliot, "the King's High Way of the Cross," in the Imitation. Law's "ethical view" strikes heroism out of religion, casts aside the noblest of motives to which the dullest of men will respond, and turns the spiritual life into a round of unceasing penance. It spoils even his later mystic rhapsodies on the Divine Love. For a love which will not suffer for us is unintelligible, and indeed does not exist.
One other instance may be selected from the history of the Tractarian movement. "Froude told me," says Isaac Williams, "that Keble once, before parting from him, seemed to have something on his mind which he wished to say, but shrank from saying. At last, while waiting, I think, for a coach, he said to him before parting: 'Froude, you said one day that Law's Serious Call was a clever (or pretty, I forget which) book; it seemed to me as if you had said the Day of Judgment would be a pretty sight.'"
There was much in Law that John Keble would not like -- for Keble was a poet; and what a world of difference lies in that one word? There was not a grain of poetry in Law's composition. But Keble, too, was caught by the deep note of absolute sincerity which dominates the Serious Call.
All these instances will help the reader to understand what use he is to make of the book which is here offered to him. Many good men, of widely divergent ways of thinking, have read it with great profit to their souls. The same thing is true of the Imitation, but with a difference. The Imitation deals, upon the whole, rather with the goal of the Christian life; the Serious Call, upon the whole, rather with the threshold -- with that strait gate through which all must pass. Shall we say that the end and the beginning are the same for all believers? that only in the middle part of our course do the roads diverge? Perhaps we may gather this lesson from the widespread love for these two books. But what we are to learn above all things from the Serious Call is that there can be no truth and no wholesome life without perfect sincerity. "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways."
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