XII. William Law and the Mystics

It was a time of theological pamphleteering, and the famous Bangorian controversy is a good specimen of the kind of discussion which abounded in the days of George I. It is, on the whole, good reading, clear, pointed and even witty, and, if compared with similar controversies in the reign of Charles I, presents an admirable object lesson as to the advance made during the intervening years in the writing of English prose. 13

When queen Anne died, and the claims of the Stewarts were set aside in favour of a parliamentary king from Hanover, the church, committed absolutely to the hereditary, as opposed to the parliamentary, principle, found itself on the horns of a dilemma. High churchmen were forced either to eat their own words, or to refuse to take the oaths of allegiance to the new king and of abjuration to the pretender. 15 Law is a prominent example of this latter and smaller class, the second generation of non-jurors. Feeling naturally ran very high when, in answer to the posthumous papers of George Hickes, 16 the non-juring bishop, who charged the church with schism, Benjamin Hoadly, bishop of Bangor, the king's chaplain, came forward as champion of the crown and church. 14

Hoadly was an able thinker and writer, and, in his Preservative against the Principles and Practices of the Non-Jurors, he attempts to justify the civil power by reducing to a minimum the idea of church authority and even that of creeds. He tells Christian to depend upon Christ alone for their religion, and not upon His ministers, and he urges sincerity as the sole test of truth. On this last point he dwells more fully and exclusively in his famous sermon, The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ, preached before the king on 31 March, 1717. Hoadly's pamphlet and sermon raised a cloud of controversy; 17 but by far the ablest answer he received on the part of the non-jurors was that contained in Law's Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717-19). The bishop never replied to Law, and, indeed, he gave strong proof of his acuteness by leaving his brilliant young opponent severely alone. 18 15

Law instantly detected that Hoadly's arguments tended to do away altogether with the conception of the church as a living spiritual society, and his answer is mainly directed against the danger of this tendency. 19 He begins by pointing out that there are no libertines or loose thinkers in England who are not pleased with the bishop, for they imagine that he intends to dissolve the church as a society; and, indeed, they seem to have good grounds for their assumption, since the bishop leaves neither authorised ministers, nor sacraments, nor church, and intimates that "if a man be not a Hypocrite, it matters not what Religion he is of." 20 16

Law deals with church authority, and shows that if, as Hoadly says, regularity of ordination and uninterrupted succession be mere niceties and dreams, there is no difference between the episcopalian communion and any other lay body of teachers. 21 He demolishes Hoadly's remarks on the exclusion of the papist succession, and he ends the first letter by refuting the bishop's definition of prayer, as a "calm, undisturbed address to God," 22 in a passage which is one of the finest pleas in our language for the right use of passion, and which admirably sums up the fundamental difference of outlook between the mystic and the rationalist temper in the things of the spirit. 17

Law's next work, Remarks on the Fable of the Bees (1723), is an answer to Mandeville's poem, 23 the moral of which is that "private vices are public benefits," and Law, characteristically seizing on the fallacy underlying Mandeville's clever paradoxes, deals with his definition of the nature of man and of virtue in a style at once buoyant, witty and caustic. 18

The Case of Reason (1731) is Law's answer to the deists, and, more especially, to Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730). To reply to such arguments as those of Tindal and the deists in general was, to a man of Law's insight and intellect, an easy task. He brings out well the fundamental difference between his and their points of view. Deists saw a universe governed by fixed laws, a scheme of creation which was "plain and perspicuous," 24 capable of accurate investigation, and they believed in a magnified man God outside the universe, whose nature, methods and aims were, or should be, perfectly clear to the minds of his creatures. Law saw a living universe, wrapped in impenetrable mystery, and believed in a God who was so infinitely greater than man, that, of His nature, or of the reason or fitness of his actions, men can know nothing whatsoever. Why complain of mysteries in revelation, he says, when "no revealed mysteries can more exceed the comprehension of man, than the state of human life itself?" 25 19

Tindal asserts that the "fitness of things" must be the sole rule of God's actions. "I readily grant this," says Law, "but what judges are we of the fitness of things?" We can no more judge the divine nature than we can raise ourselves to a state of infinite wisdom; and the rule by which God acts "must in many instances be entirely inconceivable by us … and in no instances fully known or perfectly comprehended." 26 20

In short, the fundamental assumption of the deists, that human reason is all-sufficient to guide us to truth, is the great error which Law, in his later writings especially, set himself to combat; in his opinion, it is devilish pride, the sin by which the angels fell. 27 21

In the further development of his position in The Case of Reason, we can see many indications of the future mystic; for the crudely material thought of his opponent seems to have called into expression, for the first time, many of Law's more characteristic beliefs. There is, throughout, a strong sense of man's capacity for spiritual development, and a settled belief that the human mind cannot possibly know anything as it really is, but can only know things in so far as it is able to apprehend them through symbol or analogy. Things supernatural or divine, he says, cannot be revealed to us in their own nature, for the simple reason that we are not capable of knowing them. If an angel were to appear to us, he would have to appear, not as he really is, but in some human bodily form, so that his appearance might be suited to our capacities. Thus, with any supernatural or divine matter, it can only be represented to us by its likeness to something that we already naturally know. 28 This is the way in which revelation teaches us, and it is only able to teach so much outward knowledge of a great mystery as human language can represent; 29 reason is impotent in face of it, and only by the spiritual faculty that exists in us can the things of the spirit be even dimly apprehended. 30 22


  • Note 15. For an excellent illustration of the principles and arguments on both sides, compare Law's letter from Cambridge, written to his brother at the time, with that of his future friend Byrom at the same date. Both are quoted by Overton, J. H., William Law, Nonjuror and Mystic, 1881, pp. 13-16.
  • Note 16. The Constitution of the Catholick Church, and the Nature and Consequences of Schism. 1716.
  • Note 17. In the course of July, 1717, 74 pamphlets appeared on the subject, and, at one crisis, for a day or two, the business of the city was at a standstill, little was done on the Exchange and many shops were shut. See Hoadly's Works, vol. II, pp. 385, 429; also Sir Leslie Stephen's English Thought in the 18th Century, vol. II, p. 156.
  • Note 18. See Hoadly's Works, vol. II, pp. 694-5, where he gives his reasons for not answering Law.
  • Note 19. For some of the side issues which were vehemently discussed by other writers see Leslie Stephen, vol. II, p. 157.
  • Note 20. Works, vol. I, letter I, pp. 6, 7.
  • Note 21. Ibid., pp. 14, 15.
  • Note 22. So defined by Hoadly in his sermon The Nature of the Kingdom or Church of Christ, p. 7.
  • Note 23. The Grumbling Hive, first printed 1705, republished with explanatory notes under the title The Fable of the Bees, 1714.
  • Note 24. Christianity as Old as the Creation, p. 20.
  • Note 25. The Case of Reason, Works, vol. II, p. 9.
  • Note 26. Ibid., p. 7.
  • Note 27. The Case of Reason, p. 3.
  • Note 28. The Case of Reason, p. 37.
  • Note 29. Ibid., p. 39.
  • Note 30. Ibid., pp. 16, 17. 

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