The Contemporary Scene
Shortly after the publication of Paine's Age of Reason with its deist critique of the Bible, a certain Bishop Watson replied with an An Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters addressed to Thomas Paine. George III commented that he wasn't aware the Bible needed an apology. Blake noted in his Annotations to Watson's Apology "that Paine has not attacked Christianity; Watson has defended Antichrist". On the back of the title page Blake wrote: "To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without control".
The Beast and the Whore, two of the more flamboyant images of Revelation, in Blake's vernacular symbolized respectively the State and the Church.
A State Church
England has long had a State Church. Although many scholarly books have been written about it, the English Reformation primarily signified Henry VIII's declaration of independence from the papacy. Through the Middle Ages religious and temporal authority had existed side by side in continuous alliance and usually with a minimum of tension. At the high point of papal authority in 1077 a Holy Roman Emperor waited for three days in the snow outside the door until Pope Gregory VII saw fit to receive him. The Pope considered the kings and princes of Europe his spiritual children.
Henry VIII was a child who grew up. When the Pope denied him permission to put away his wife in favor of a later romantic interest, Henry declared himself in effect the pope of the English Church and gave himself the necessary dispensation. That was the major event of the English Reformation; thereafter the ultimate authority of the Church of England resided with the Crown.
America, Plate 2, (E 52) "I know thee, I have found thee, & I will not let thee go; Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa; And thou art fall'n to give me life in regions of dark death. On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions Endur'd by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep: I see a serpent in Canada, who courts me to his love; In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru; I see a Whale in the South-sea, drinking my soul away. O what limb rending pains I feel. thy fire & my frost Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by thy lightnings rent; This is eternal death; and this the torment long foretold. [The stern Bard ceas'd, asham'd of his own song; enrag'd he swung His harp aloft sounding, then dash'd its shining frame against A ruin'd pillar in glittring fragments; silent he turn'd away, And wander'd down the vales of Kent in sick & drear lamentings." America, Plate b, [Canceled Plates], (E 58) "Reveal the dragon thro' the human; coursing swift as fire To the close hall of counsel, where his Angel form renews. In a sweet vale shelter'd with cedars, that eternal stretch Their unmov'd branches, stood the hall; built when the moon shot forth, In that dread night when Urizen call'd the stars round his feet; Then burst the center from its orb, and found a place beneath; And Earth conglob'd, in narrow room, roll'd round its sulphur Sun. To this deep valley situated by the flowing Thames; Where George the third holds council. & his Lords & Commons meet: Shut out from mortal sight the Angel came; the vale was dark With clouds of smoke from the Atlantic, that in volumes roll'd Between the mountains, dismal visions mope around the house. On chairs of iron, canopied with mystic ornaments, Of life by magic power condens'd; infernal forms art-bound The council sat; all rose before the aged apparition; His snowy beard that streams like lambent flames down his wide breast Wetting with tears, & his white garments cast a wintry light. Then as arm'd clouds arise terrific round the northern drum; The world is silent at the flapping of the folding banners; So still terrors rent the house: as when the solemn globe Launch'd to the unknown shore, while Sotha held the northern helm, Till to that void it came & fell; so the dark house was rent, The valley mov'd beneath; its shining pillars split in twain, And its roofs crack across down falling on th' Angelic seats."
Europe A Prophecy
In America we take for granted the separation of Church and State as a constitutional principle. This limits the sort of power that corrupted Henry VIII. In England many people feel comfortable with a State Church, but traditions of freedom have limited its power. A large proportion of the population exist in religious groups outside of the State Church, and probably an even larger proportion have no significant religious attachment.
Even in Blake's day the tradition of dissent was an accepted part of the established order. True, the State Church operated Oxford and Cambridge for its own purposes, primarily preparing clergymen. But dissenting academies had arisen to provide a form of education in many ways superior to that of the established universities, especially in the new areas of science and industry. Dissenters largely carried out the Industrial Revolution.
The 17th Century had witnessed an explosion of dissent in which the head of State and Church had lost his own head. But the Restoration in 1660 reinstated the former arrangements. The Commonwealth struggle had led to a general disgust with religious controversy. Enthusiasm came to be despised and feared by clergy and laity alike. Conventional 18th Century religion had little to do with the feelings. It was rather an intellectual and political matter.
One of Blake's Four Zoas, Urizen aptly portrays the God of the majority of Anglicans during Blake's age. The State Church existed as a facade or symbol of order and authority, but with limited power, temporal or spiritual. The State Church, like the Jewish Sanhedrin, represented a minority of the people: the conservative establishment types, the squirearchy, the people who for centuries had controlled society. Frequently the landowner's younger son became the priest, though his character may have been dissolute. Politics dictated clerical appointments. Pluralism was common, the same man being appointed to a number of church positions. He would hire a curate to look after each parish's affairs, often at a tenth of the income which the parish provided him.
The bishops served primarily as political officials; they spent most of their time in London sitting in the House of Lords, where they generally provided a faithful voting block for the Crown. Tithes were the law of the land and enforced much as the income tax is today, much of the proceeds going to the clergy. It was a convenient arrangement, but it could not last; there was too much dissent, too much growth, too much creativity. Change was overtaking all England's institutions, and the Church was no exception. The religious changes had been quietly gathering force for centuries.
Side by side with Henry VIII's Reformation had existed a grass roots movement which we may call the Radical Reformation. It was made up of less worldly types than Henry, people who took their religion more seriously. One such group departed England in 1619 aboard the Mayflower. Their descendants became the Established Church in New England and spun off dissents from their dissent, like that of Roger Williams.
William Penn brought shiploads of other irregulars to found a new colony. The Pilgrims, the Baptists, the Quakers of necessity learned to coexist--with one another, with other European religious groups,and with the Cavaliers of Virginia, who were solidly Anglican. All cooperated in throwing off the yoke of the mother country. In this melting pot religious groups learned to compete in an ecclesiastical form of free enterprise. It represented quite an improvement over the religious wars that had decimated Europe in previous centuries. The same fluid climate existed in the mother country. Every group that immigrated contained members who remained behind and found a place in English society. The State Church, with its large and unwieldy ecclesiastical bureaucracy, existed alongside an infrastructure of non-Conformist groups. What these groups lacked in political clout they made up for in creativity, character, industry, and commercial acumen. Each group has a fascinating story. In the next post we look at two of them which had a specific relationship to the mind of William Blake.