Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 6. Christian Perfection and A Serious Call

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XII. William Law and the Mystics

§ 6. Christian Perfection and A Serious Call

Law’s practical and ethical works, A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection (1726) and A Serious Call (1728), have been more read and are better known than any other of his writings; moreover, they explain themselves, being independent both of local controversies and of any special metaphysic. For these reasons, comparatively little need be said about them here. Both treatises are concerned with the practical question of how to live in accordance with the teachings of Christ, and they point out with peculiar force that the way consists, not in performing this or that act of devotion or ceremony, but in a new principle of life, an entire change of temper and of aspiration.

Christian Perfection, though somewhat gloomy and austere in tone, has much charm and beauty; but it was quite overshadowed by the wider popularity of what many consider Law’s greatest work, A Serious Call, a book of extraordinary power, delightful and persuasive style, racy with and unanswerable logic. Never have the inconsistency between Christian precept and practice been so ruthlessly exposed and the secret springs of men’s hearts so uncompromisingly laid bare. Never has the ideal of the Christian life been painted by one who lived more literally in accordance with every word he preached. That is the secret of A Serious Call; it is written from the heart, by a man in deep earnest; and in an age distinguished for its mediocrity and easy-going laxness, Law’s lofty ideals acted as an electric current, setting aflame the hearts of all who came under their power.

Few books in English have wielded such an influence. John Wesley himself acknowledged that A Serious Call sowed the seed of methodism, and, undoubtedly, next to the Bible, it contributed more than any other book to the spread of evangelicalism. It made the deepest impression on Wesley himself; he preached after its model; he used it as a text-book for the highest class at Kingswood school; and, a few months before his death, he spoke of it as “a treatise which will hardly be excelled, if it be equalled, in the English tongue, either for beauty of expression or for justice and depth of thought.” Charles Wesley, Henry Whitfield, Henry Venn, Thomas Scott, Thomas Adam and James Stillingfleet are among other great methodists and evangelicals who have recorded how profoundly it affected them. But it did not appeal only to this type of mind. Dr. Johnson, who praised it in no measured terms, attributes his first serious thoughts to the reading of it. “I became,” he says, “a sort of lax talker against religion, for I did not much think against it; and this lasted till I went to Oxford.” When there,

  • I took up Law’s Serious Call to a Holy Life, expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are) … But I found Law quite an over-match for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion.
  • Gibbon and the first Lord Lyttelton (who, taking it up at bedtime, was forced to read it through before he could go to rest), are two among many other diverse characters who felt its force.