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A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
May 2018
Fred's Rating: 
William Law
Total Pages: 
Westminster Press

This devotional classic, written by William Law (1686 – 1761), an eloquent religious teacher of the eighteenth century, was designed to prod indifferent Christians into making an honest effort to live up to what they professed to believe. It has been appreciated in every succeeding generation because of its innate vigor and virility.

The Amazon website for the paperback edition I bought is:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has two good reviews in the ‘Top customer reviews’ – one by R. Magnusson Davis and the other by Dan Panetti. I found the first of these two reviews to be quite close to what I would have written. This book is an edited and abridged edition by John W. Meister and Others, a group of Christians who aimed to make many corrections to the original edition’s many print errors (like in book 751) and get first rid of a lot of William Law’s side stories of individuals, thereby reducing the book’s length significantly. The first edition of their reduction was printed in 1955. But the question remains of how well they followed the main thoughts of William Law. I do not intend to read the original edition, for I have had my fill of having to correct for the many print errors in Book 751.

I recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to the 4-pp Foreword by Elton Trueblood. The first page is not in Amazon’s preview, so I give it here: ”No history of devotional literature can be complete without some reference to William Law. This mild and literary Englishman of the eighteenth century wrote about the life of devotion so lucidly and so pointedly that he cannot be rightly neglected even by a generation of men and women who live in a condition that appears to be very different from his own. Because Law stated so honestly the elements of the human situation, and because that situation has not changed, he can speak directly to sincere seekers of the twentieth century. He dealt with matters that are not altered in the least by modes of travel or systems of human government or standards of living.

William Law, as a young man, gave every promise of a successful career in either the university or the church or both. Born in 1686, in the family of a prosperous businessman in King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1705 and became a fellow of Emmanuel in 1711. His entire life was altered and his career checked when, in 1714, at the age of twenty-eight, he made a decision that seemed to him a matter of honor. When, on the death of Queen Anne, the Hanoverian prince ascended the throne as George I, holder of academic and ecclesiastical offices were required to swear allegiance to the new monarch, but a minority, including …” [Continue online pp 6-8.] The 2-pp Contents lists the 24 chapters with their long titles. [The titles are omitted in the Kindle preview!] The Contents are followed by a 6-pp Preface by John W. Meister, but the first page of the Preface is not included in Amazon’s preview, so I give it here: “In the autumn of 1951 a certain man in our parish walked into my study with an idea that was destined to transform our church. For several months he had been dwelling in the valley of shadows, and during those months he and I had learned to pray together. Our first lessons were learned in the dark and lonely corridor of the polio ward in a local hospital as he kept vigil outside his daughter’s room. While iron lungs were filling our ears with the eerie but life-giving sounds of their mechanical breathing, my friend and I were crying importunately into the ear of God with quite another language. God, heard our pleading and the prayers of our countless concerned friends. He blessed the skillful efforts of the corps of consecrated doctors and nurses. And at last the day arrived when Kate would return to her home to begin the long years of convalescence.

“It was then that my friend began to visit me in my study almost daily, and virtually every visit included a time of prayer. As I recall it, our prayers never were selfish petitions – even in the hospital corridor. But now that we were free of the shadows and sounds of the polio ward we began to discover new dimensions in the world of prayer. There was a reaching-out quality …” [Continue online pp 12-16.] The 4-pp of Chapter I are included in the Amazon preview, as well as the first few pages of Chapter 2.

While I was reading this book, I sensed that the direction it was heading was not what I had wished to find. I repeat the question I asked myself at the beginning of my review of book 751, since this question also applies to this book 752. Rather than simply doing a cut-n-paste for my (now two) reasons, I extend the reason to include both books:

Why did I get these two books by William Law? Aldous Huxley is the reason. In his 1945 ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ (book 667), Huxley asks two very important questions in Ch. XI on Good and Evil: “Granted that the ground of the individual soul is akin to, or identical with, the divine Ground of all existence, and granted that this divine Ground is an ineffable Godhead that manifests itself as personal God or even the incarnate Logos, what is the ultimate nature of good and evil, and what is the true purpose and last end of human life?”

In the next paragraph Huxley said this about William Law: “The answers to these questions will be given to a great extent in the words of that most surprising product of the English eighteenth century, William Law. (How very odd our educational system is!) Students of English literature are forced to read the graceful journalism of Steele and Addison, are expected to know all about the novels of Defoe and the tiny elegances of Matthew Prior. But they can pass their examinations summa cum laude without having so much as looked into the writings of a man who was not only a master of English prose, but also one of the most interesting thinkers of his period and one of the most endearingly saintly figures in the whole history of Anglicanism.) Our current neglect of Law is yet another of the many indications that twentieth-century educators have ceased to be concerned with questions of ultimate truth or meaning and (apart from more vocational training) are interested solely in the dissemination of a root-less and irrelevant culture, and the fostering of the solemn foolery of scholarship for scholarship’s sake.” With these words from Huxley in his most challenging and insightful book, ‘The Perennial Philosophy,’ which is near the top of the 752 books (so far) that I’ve reviewed. Huxley selects quotes from William Law along with quotes from sages of other well-known religions of the world. I’ve only read these two William Law books (so far).

I am disappointed that neither book 751 nor book 752 are the sources of the William Law quotes that Aldous Huxley used in his profoundly inspiring 1945 book ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ (book 667). I repeat here what I concluded about book 751 – I found Law’s arguments to be convincing that the key and crucial insight is to open one’s heart and mind in order to fully accept and love the Spirit of God that lies within every human. But this vital insight is made over and over and over and over and over again. I thus rate book 751 at just three stars. As for book 752, I can only assume that this edited and abridged edition by John W. Meister and Others were as true to William Law’s original as they could be. But it seemed to me that they created a book of prayer ‘rules’ for how, when, and on what specific subject to pray for by anyone wanting a devout, holy life. There is little flexibility in the rules for seriously answering the call.

One way of looking at this situation is to think of three aspects of William Law’s thoughts. The aspect of book 751 is to stress many times the awakening of a human to the Holy Spirit living within, with a proper response to realizing God’s Spirit can guide us to a devout and holy life. The aspect of book 752 is to convince a seeker that there are well-described rules a Christian must follow to obtain a devout and holy life. The aspect that Aldous Huxley found in William Law and a host of other wise men – all of whom Huxley chose to show that various long-lasting religions all point toward the same concept – a Perennial Philosophy. As I have read Huxley, there are (at least) six Ways (or paths) that lead a human to the same mountain top. Each Way lies within a culture with different languages, liturgies, and scriptures that seem to be very different at the lower level of the path, far from the top. But while ascending the separate paths, truth seekers will begin to realize more and more that the differences are superficial, but the similarities are essential, leading to the love, the truth, the beauty, and the unity at the top of the mountain.

I do not see ‘rules’ in book 752 as the wisest way of spiritual growth, so I rate book 752 at three stars.