John Law (bishop)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

John Law DD (1745–1810) was an English mathematician and clergyman who began his career as a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and went on to become chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Church of Ireland bishop of Clonfert and Kilmacduagh (1782–1787), Killala and Achonry (1787–1795), and finally of Elphin (1795–1810).

He was a lifelong friend and correspondent of the philosopher William Paley.

Early life[edit]

The son of Edmund Law, later Bishop of Carlisle, Law was born at Greystoke in Cumberland, where his father was rector. He was educated at Charterhouse School and Christ's College, Cambridge, where in 1766 he graduated Bachelor of Arts with first-class honours in the Mathematical Tripos and was named as second Wrangler.[1] He proceeded Master of Arts in 1769.[2]


Law became a Fellow of Christ's and an Anglican clergyman, and spent several years as a tutor and lecturer at Cambridge. In 1773 his father gave him his first benefices, as vicar of Warkworth, Northumberland, and as prebendary of Carlisle.[1] In 1777 he was collated Archdeacon of Carlisle. In April 1782, he went to Ireland as chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, who had large estates in Cumberland.[3]

Law was quickly nominated as Bishop of Clonfert and Kilmacduagh on 26 July 1782 and consecrated on 21 September. The same year, he graduated Doctor of Divinity.[3] The appointment to Clonfert was unexpected. It was later reported that the Duke of Portland, after a long legal battle with Sir James Lowther over estates in Carlisle, was anxious to reward a man who had helped him in that matter with other preferments then held by Law.[1]

Law was a lifelong friend of William Paley, with whom he corresponded for decades.[4] Paley and Law had been friends at Cambridge, where Law lectured on mathematics and Paley on metaphysics and morals. When Law became Bishop of Clonfert, Paley was his successor as Archdeacon of Carlisle, and it was the urging of Law which led Paley to expand his Cambridge lectures into his book The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785).[5][6] In that work, the chapter on Reverencing the Deity was ascribed to Law.[1] Among other matters, they corresponded on the scientific proofs which could be used to support a theological argument. In 1797, for instance, Law wrote to Paley: "In your chapter on divine contrivance, you must have an article on the solar system..."[4]

On taking up the post in Clonfert, Law hired the mathematician John Howard as his steward, but dispensed with Howard's services in 1786 after "an unfortunate marriage".[7]

Law was translated to Killala and Achonry on 10 November 1787.[3] On learning that almost the whole population of his new see were Roman Catholics, he commented "That as it was a hopeless task to make them protestants, it would answer every desirable purpose to make them good catholicks." At his own expense, Law then distributed throughout the diocese a new edition of the Rev. John Gother's The Sincere Christian's Guide in the Choice of Religion.[1]

He was translated again to become Bishop of Elphin in 1795, being nominated on 11 March and appointed by letters patent on 27 March. He died in Dublin on 18 March 1810 and was buried in the Chapel of Trinity College, where he had founded prizes for mathematics.[3]


On 17 January 1782, while living in Carlisle, Law married Anne Thomlinson, a daughter of the Rev. William Plaskett and widow of John Thomlinson of Blencogo, Cumberland, but they had no children.[1][3][8] His wife, born on 4 August 1741, was the half-sister of James Wallace, barrister, of Featherstone Castle, Member of Parliament, Solicitor General and Attorney General, and the aunt of Thomas Wallace, 1st Baron Wallace.[9]

Law was the elder brother of Edward Law, 1st Baron Ellenborough (1750–1818), who became Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and of George Henry Law, Bishop of Chester and Bishop of Bath and Wells.[3] Another brother, Thomas Law (1759–1834), was a business man who settled first in British India and then in 1793 in the United States, where he married as his second wife Eliza Parke Custis, a granddaughter of Martha Washington.[10][11] Eliza and Thomas Law divorced in 1811.[12]


  • A Sermon preached at the Visitation of the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of London: in the church of Thaxted, in Essex, on Wednesday, 28 May 1778 (1778)[13]
  • Sermon preached in Christ Church, Dublin, before the Incorporated Society (1796)
  • Sermon preached in St Paul's Cathedral, London, at the meeting of the charity school children (1797)


  1. ^ a b c d e f Enos Bronson, Memoir of the Life and Character of Dr. John Law in Select Reviews of Literature, and Spirit of Foreign Magazines, Vol. 4 (1810), online at
  2. ^ "Law, John (LW762J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Law, John (1745–1810) (DNB00)
  4. ^ a b William Paley, Matthew Eddy, David M. Knight, Natural Theology: or, evidence of the existence and attributes of the Deity, p. 328 online at
  5. ^ Hugh Chisholm, 'Paley, William', in Encyclopædia Britannica (1911), vol. 20, p. 629: "At the suggestion of his friend John Law (son of Edward Law, bishop of Carlisle and formerly his colleague at Cambridge), Paley published (1785) his lectures, revised and enlarged, under the title of The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy."
  6. ^ William Cowper, ed. Thomas Wright, The Correspondence of William Cowper: arranged in chronological order Volume 2 (1904), p. 66 online at (snippet)
  7. ^ R. E. Anderson, rev. Ruth Wallis, 'Howard, John (1753–1799)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) online version, accessed 11 May 2010
  8. ^ Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, Archaeologia aeliana, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity (1885), p. 62 (snippet) online
  9. ^ John Burke, Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, Volume 2, p. 1495 online at
  10. ^ Allen C. Clark, Thomas Law: A Biographical Sketch (Washington, D.C.: Press of W. F. Roberts, 1900), pp. 11–12: "Early in 1796 the engagement with Eliza Park Custis was announced... Thomas Law, youngest son of the late Bishop of Carlisle, to Miss Custis."
  11. ^ Thomas Jefferson, ed. J. Jefferson Looney, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series (vol. 3, 2006), p. 209
  12. ^ "The Papers of George Washington: Documents". The Papers of George Washington. 2009. Archived from the original on 29 August 2007. Retrieved 21 May 2010. 
  13. ^ John Law, A sermon preached at the visitation of the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of London – details online at
Church of Ireland titles
Preceded by
Walter Cope
Bishop of Clonfert and Kilmacduagh
Succeeded by
Richard Marlay
Preceded by
William Preston
Bishop of Killala and Achonry
Succeeded by
John Porter
Preceded by
Charles Dodgson
Bishop of Elphin
Succeeded by
Power Le Poer Trench