Anymore, when we talk about a person as being ‘pious’ I’m not sure we always mean it as a compliment. More often, I think, we have in mind some kind of “put on” religious-ness that is meant as a form of passive judgement and for which we passively judge others.
William Law was a 17th century champion of personal piety, but certainly not of the type or form that would match many contemporary views on the subject. A contemporary of many of the “founding fathers” of the United States, Law had his own problems with the ascension to the throne of George I and, because he would not swear allegiance, was inhibited in his ministry as a priest for most of his career. The lack of formal and expanding duties gave him ample opportunity for study and writing on his own growing sense of the importance of a deep, disciplined and personal piety for anyone who sought a deeper union with God.
Law was deeply suspicious and severely critical of the kind of outward-facing religious-ness of his day, whether in the form of structured church or the growing tendency toward rational deism in his culture. Following a similar path to that of the Dominican Meister Eckhardt , who preceded him, and Charles Wesley, who followed, Law explored what might be called an English Pietism that both flourished within the Church of England and ultimately inspired others in more protestant traditions.
A discipline of personal prayer and temperance toward worldly pleasures formed the core of Law’s spirituality. Now, I know that this might not be the flashiest sort of “spiritual movement” that one could imagine, but it is important to recall the context in which Law practiced. While the rest of his culture was experiencing the hyper-rational pinnacle of the Enlightenment, Law was talking about prayer that made you “have all the feels.”
Crazy, I know.
So, while we might not bale to call William Law the founder of the modern spirituality movement, we can certainly think of him as its precursor. While much of English Christianity, on both sides of the protestant divide was retreating more and more into the heads of its practitioners, folks like William Law were encouraging folks to engage, through their piety, a God who wanted their heart, too.