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Law and Gibbon the Historian.
in the character of the historian ; but, so far as Christianity was concerned, he never had a fair chance. His experiences at Magdalen College, Oxford, were not likely to give him a very exalted opinion of the established religion. M. Pavilliard, the worthy Swiss pastor who was employed to win him back from Romanism, though a man of respectable abilities and attainments, was not a strong enough man to deal with such a mind as Gibbon's. And, so far as is known, Gibbon never was brought into contact with sufficiently powerful Christian influences until he had drifted away from the Christian faith. What the influence of a Christian of real genius, as well as of intense earnestness and blameless life, like Law, might have done for him, can of course only be a matter of conjecture. On the one hand, Gibbon had little of what the Germans call 'religiosität' in his composition, and it is therefore quite possible that the austere and uncompromising character of Law's religion might only have precipitated the catastrophe which subsequently befel his faith. But then, on the other hand, if Gibbon had not a very strong sense of piety, he had a very keen relish for intellectual questions connected with Christianity; from his earliest youth he had always a hankering after religious controversy ; and his enthusiastic exclamation in describing his conversion to Romanism through the instrumentality of Bossuet, . Surely I fell by a noble hand,' &c., shows what a hold a powerful controversialist could gain upon his mind. No man living was more competent to gain this hold than Law; one can fancy into what ribbons he could have torn the arguments which Gibbon's boyish mind loved to frame. Gibbon's own account of the curious sort of arithmetical process by which he was reconverted from Romanism, while it shows the interest he took in such questions, shows also how crude and unformed his views were. As one reads the
Law never associated with his Equals.
sad story of what a Christian cannot help calling the wreck of a noble character, one is tempted to cry 'exoriare aliquis' to lead this great but erring spirit from darkness into light. And the 'aliquis' was at hand in the honoured friend and spiritual director of the family, William Law.
Nor would the advantages of such a connexion as we have imagined between these two great men have been all on one side. It was distinctly a misfortune to Law that he never came into close personal relationship, except upon paper, with a man of real genius. John Wesley was the nearest approach to such a man who knew Law intimately; but Wesley's genius was, as we shall see presently, not at all of the kind which Law was likely to appreciate. As a rule, Law was a very Saul among his Christian brethren, intellectually taller by the head and shoulders than any of them. At no period of his life, so far as we know, did he make any friends who could converse with him on at all equal terms. He was invariably the oracle of his company, and oracles are not wont to be contradicted. This manifest superiority to his surroundings rather tended to encourage a certain peremptoriness of tone and abruptness of manner which were natural to him. Had he been brought into that intimate relationship which subsists between a conscientious tutor and an intelligent pupil, with a young man of the calibre of Gibbon, and continued the intimacy when the relationship ceased, the result might have been beneficial to him. Such, however, was not his good fortune ; his lot was cast with the feeble father, not with the strong son.
Law's pupil quitted the University without taking a degree, and commenced his travels, leaving his tutor behind him in the spacious house' at Putney. The historian cannot resist a sneer at this arrangement. “The mind of a saint is above or below the present world, and while the
Law failed to mould his Pupil's Character.
pupil proceeded on his travels, the tutor remained at Putney;' but he does Law the justice to add, the much honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole family ;' and at a later period he acknowledges his obligations to the tutor for some valuable editions of the classics and the fathers, the choice, as it should seem, of Mr. Law.' These he found in his father's study at Buriton, which was also stuffed with much trash of the last age, with much High Church divinity and politics, which have long since gone to their proper place’;-possibly this · High Church divinity and politics,' which he is pleased to call trash, may also have been the choice of Mr. Law. Not a trace, however, of the influence of Mr. Law can be found in his pupil's character and after career. It is difficult to conceive a greater difference than between the life of Mr. Gibbon and the ideal life sketched by Law in the ' Serious Call’at the very time when Gibbon was under his charge. Law did not succeed in making his pupil even tolerant of Jacobitism ; for Gibbon the historian tells us of a certain unhappy Mr. John Kirkby, who exercised about eighteen months the office of my domestic tutor ;' and adds, 'His learning and virtue introduced him to my father, and at Putney he might have found at least a temporary shelter, had not an act of indiscretion again driven him into the world. One day, reading prayers in the parish church, he most unluckily forgot the name of King George ; his patron, a loyal subject, dismissed him with some reluctance, and a decent reward.' Well might the pupil of Mr. Law show some reluctance' in punishing a man for doing inadvertently what his tutor had no doubt always done deliberately!
Law's life at Putney, which lasted at least twelve years, was by no means an inactive or useless one. Besides being busy with his pen during this period, he acted as a
58 Law's Fitness for Office of Spiritual Director.
sort of spiritual director, not only to the family of the house, but also to a coterie of earnest men who, in that time of spiritual torpor, both inside and outside the national church, might well require some more religious guidance than either church or conventicle could supply them with. The widespread and profound impression which Law's two practical treatises had produced, caused him to be greatly sought after as a kind of ductor dubitantium. In many respects he was admirably adapted for the office. In the first place, he was always accessible. He appears to have had what in this day we should call the 'run of the house' at Putney, with full liberty to receive his friends there, as well as to correspond with them, as often as he chose. Nothing can better illustrate the force of Law's character than this curious arrangement. When we remember that too many domestic chaplains, especially nonjurors, held a very subordinate, not to say degrading, position at this period, when we bear in mind that the master of the house was evidently a strong-willed old gentleman, and one moreover whose pursuits and habits were not of the kind which lead a man to do homage to a scholar and a divine simply as such ; when we further take into account that, from a worldly point of view, the obligations were entirely on one side, we shall see what a strong man Law must have been, to have become, as he obviously did, complete master of the situation. But the power he obtained he never abused ; he employed it, as was his invariable way, for no selfish purposes, but for the spiritual good of all who came within its sphere.
Again, oracle as Law was, he never expressed himself oracularly. You might disagree with him, but you could not mistake what he meant. Neither could you doubt the thorough genuineness of the man. He varied his opinions not unfrequently, and his disciples must have found some
Law, Wesley, and Dr. Johnson compared. 59
difficulty in keeping pace with his various changes ; but from first to last he was manifestly desirous only to discover the truth and to glorify the God of truth.
Perhaps, too, he was all the more calculated to fascinate, because there was always a certain amount of fear mingled with the love which his disciples bore him. His natural temper was cheerful and very kindly ; but there was an asperity of manner, a curtness of expression, an impatience of everything that appeared to him absurd and unreasonable,—and he had a wonderfully keen perception of what was absurd and unreasonable,—which made most men with whom he came into contact rather afraid of him. Indeed, if this natural asperity had not been softened by Divine grace, he would have been, in spite of his greatness and goodness, a somewhat repelling man. Even as it was, he was rather a Gamaliel to be looked up to by a select few than a friend to be loved by a large number.
If we compare him with two of his contemporaries, who in many respects greatly resembled him-.John Wesley and Dr. Johnson-we shall at once see the difference. All three were good Christians, of a very different type indeed, and by no means reaching the same spiritual standard, but all genuine in their way. All three exercised a vast influence for good in their generation. They were, each of them, the centre of a circle of admiring disciples. There were many personal characteristics common to the three. A certain massiveness and strength of character, a rather grim sense of humour, a real benevolence of nature concealed under an external roughness which made them feared at least as much as loved—these belong to all. But Johnson and Wesley are still household words in the mouth of every educated Englishman ; Law is almost forgotten. And yet in their many excellences Law was fully equal to the other two; while in point of purely intellectual power