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 favorite 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 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 equaled, 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 sympathize 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 skeptical 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.”