Originally published in 1728 at the beginning of the Enlightenment, when rational criticism of religious belief was at its peak, William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life succeeded in inspiring the most cynical men of the age with its arguments in favor of a spiritual life.
Law’s challenge of conventional piety and emphasis on Christian perfection directly influenced literary critic Samuel Johnson and historian Edward Gibbon, as well as Cardinal John Henry Newman. John Wesley called it one of three books that accounted for his first “explicit resolve to be all devoted to God.” Also, Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Henry Venn, William Wilberforce, and Thomas Scott each described reading the book as a major turning point in his life.
More than simply a set of rules to live by, Law’s book examines what it means to lead a Christian life and criticizes the perversion of Christian tenets by secular and spiritual establishments. Proclaiming that God does not merely forgive our disobedience, but directly calls us to obedience and to a life completely centered in him, he chides, “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.” Law’s prose is fresh and vivid as he illustrates the Christian life as one lived completely for God. His thoughts on prayer, personal holiness, stewardship, pride and humility, and service to the poor will resonate with contemporary readers.
William Law (1686–1761) was educated at Cambridge, took a teaching position there, and was also ordained in the Church of England. He lost his access to university venues and the parish ministry when he was unable to swear allegiance to the Hanoverian dynasty that replaced the Stuarts as the rulers of Great Britain. Although forbidden the use of pulpit and lecture hall, he preached through his books, including Christian Perfection, The Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration, Spirit of Prayer, and Spirit of Love.