Law, Edmund 1703-1787, bishop of Carlisle, was born in the parish of Cartmel in Lancashire on 6 June 1703. His father, Edmund Law, descended from a family of yeomen or statesmen, long settled at Askham in Westmoreland, was son of Edmund Law, of Carhullan and Measand (will dated 1689), by his wife Elizabeth Wright of Measand. He was curate of Staveley-in-Cartmel, and master of a small school there from 1693 to 1742. He married at Kendal 29 Nov. 1701 Patience Langbaine, of the parish of Kirkby-Kendal, who lies buried in Cartmel Churchyard. He seems on his marriage to have settled on his wife's property at Buck Crag, about four miles from Staveley (Cumb. and Westm. Antiq. Soc. Trans. vii. [new ser.] 108-9). There his only son, Edmund, was born. The boy, educated first at Cartmel school, and afterwards at the free grammar school at Kendal, went to St. John's College, Cambridge (Bachelor of Arts 1723). Soon elected fellow of Christ's College, he proceeded M.A. in 1727. He was always an earnest student. At Cambridge his chief friends were Dr. Waterland, master of Magdalene College, Dr. Jortin, and Dr. John Taylor, the editor of Demosthenes. His first literary work was his Essay on the Origin of Evil, a translation of Archbishop King's De Origine Mali, which Law illustrated with copious notes in 1731. In 1734, while still at Christ's College, he prepared, in conjunction with John Taylor, T. Johnson, and Sandys Hutchinson, an edition of R. Stephens's Thesaurus Linguæ Latinæ, and in the same year appeared his Enquiry into the Ideas of Space and Time, an attack upon à priori proofs of the existence of God, in answer to a work by John Jackson (1686-1763) [qv.] entitled The Existence and Unity of God proved from his Nature and Attributes. In 1737 he was presented with the living of Greystoke in Cumberland, the gift of which at this time devolved on the university, and soon afterwards he married Mary, the daughter of John Christian of Unerigg in Cumberland. In 1743 he was made archdeacon of the diocese of Carlisle, and in 1746 he left Greystoke for Great Salkeld, the rectory of which was annexed to the archdeaconry.
The work by which he is perhaps best known, Considerations on the State of the World with regard to the Theory of Religion, was published by him at Cambridge in 1745. The main idea of the book is that the human race has been, and is, through a process of divine education, gradually and continuously progressing in religion, natural or revealed, at the same rate as it progresses in all other knowledge. In his philosophical opinions he was an ardent disciple of Locke, in politics he was a whig, and as a churchman he represented the most latitudinarian position of the day, but his Christian belief was grounded firmly on the evidence of miracles (cf. Theory, ed. 1820, p. 65 n.) The Theory of Religion went through many editions, being subsequently enlarged with Reflections on the Life and Character of Christ, and an Appendix concerning the use of the words Soul and Spirit in the Holy Scripture. The latest edition, with Paley's life of the author prefixed, was published by his son, George Henry Law [qv.], then bishop of Chester, in 1820. A German translation, made from the fifth enlarged edition, was printed at Leipzig in 1771.
In 1754 Law advocated in his public exercise for the degree of Doctor of Divinity his favourite doctrine that the soul, which in his view was not naturally immortal, passed into a state of sleep between death and the resurrection. This theory met with much opposition; it was, however, defended by Archdeacon Blackburne. In 1756 Law became master of Peterhouse, and at the same time resigned his archdeaconry. In 1760 he was appointed librarian, or rather proto-bibliothecarius, of the university of Cambridge, an office created in 1721, and first filled by Dr. Conyers Middleton [qv.], and in 1764 he was made Knightbridge professor of moral philosophy (Luard, Cat. Grad. Cant. p. 623). In 1763 he was presented to the archdeaconry of Staffordshire and a prebend in the church of Lichfield by his former pupil, Dr. Cornwallis; he received a prebend in the church of Lincoln in 1764, and in 1767 a prebendal stall in the church of Durham through the influence of the Duke of Newcastle. In 1768 Law was recommended by the Duke of Grafton, then chancellor of the university, to the bishopric of Carlisle. His friend and biographer, Paley, declares that Law regarded his elevation as a satisfactory proof that decent freedom of inquiry was not discouraged.
In 1774 the bishop published anonymously an outspoken declaration in favour of religious toleration in a pamphlet entitled ‘Considerations on the Propriety of requiring Subscription to Articles of Faith.’ It was suggested by a petition presented to parliament in 1772 by Archdeacon Blackburne and others for the abolition of subscription, and Law argued that it was unreasonable to impose upon a clergyman in any church more than a promise to comply with its liturgy, rites, and offices, without exacting any profession of such minister's present belief, still less any promise of constant belief, in particular doctrines. The publication was attacked by Dr. Randolph of Oxford, and defended by ‘A Friend of Religious Liberty’ in a tract attributed by some to Paley, and said to have been his first literary production. In 1777 the bishop published an edition of the ‘Works’ of Locke, in 4 vols. 4to, with a preface and a life of the author. Law also published several sermons. His interleaved Bible, with many manuscript notes, is preserved in the British Museum. He died at Rose Castle on 14 Aug. 1787, in the eighty-fifth year of his age. He was buried in the cathedral of Carlisle, where the inscription on his monument commemorates his zeal alike for Christian truth and Christian liberty, adding ‘religionem simplicem et incorruptam nisi salva libertate stare non posse arbitratus.’ His biographer, who knew him well, describes the bishop as ‘a man of great softnesse of manners, and of the mildest and most tranquil disposition. His voice was never raised above its ordinary pitch. His countenance seemed never to have been ruffled.’
Law's wife predeceased him in 1772, leaving eight sons and four daughters. His eldest son, Edmund, died a young man; four younger sons, John, bishop of Elphin, Edward (afterwards Lord Ellenborough), George Henry, bishop of Bath and Wells, and Thomas, are noticed separately.
The bishop's portrait was three times painted by Romney: in 1777 for Sir Thomas Rumbolt; in 1783 for Dr. John Law, then bishop of Clonfert; and a half-length, without his robes, in 1787 for Edward Law, afterwards lord Ellenborough (Memoirs of G. Romney, by Rev. J. Romney, 1830, pp. 188, 189).
Life by Dr. William Paley
Leslie Stephen's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, i. 406 sq.
Hunt's Religious Thought in the Eighteenth Century, iii. 313, 315, 355
art. ‘Laws of Buck Crag’ in Trans. of Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiq. Soc. vol. ii. 1876
cf. Aspland's Guide to Grange-over-Sands, p. 58
Le Neve's Fasti
Brit. Mus. Cat.
Contributor: T. G. L. [Thomas Graves Law]