Saturday, November 24, 2012

Church 4

                              Blake and Quakers

Blake undoubtedly knew something of the power embodied in the Quaker movement. After 
The Moment of Grace the Quaker term 'self-annihilation' became a key construct of his 
theology. We could relate other Blakean expressions to the Quaker language. 
Although Blake preferred to engrave his human forms nude, when he did represent man 
clothed, the traditional Quaker garb appeared as a symbol of the good and faithful man. 
Study of Blake's works and his biographers has revealed no formal connection with the 
Quaker community. Nevertheless many of Blake's values  clearly resemble those of the 


The proliferation of radical believers brought forth by the Puritan Revolution included a 
group called Ranters who had descended from the the 16th Century Familists of Holland. 
The direct guidance of the Holy Spirit freed the Ranters from most or all legal  restraints, 
and they were given to extreme statements (and demonstrations!) of their freedom. The 
Society of Friends grew out of this fertile soil. 

In the 17th Century George Fox, an idealistic young man, explored the wide variety of 
religious options present in the Commonwealth. From a strictly scriptural view point he 
found something lacking in each of them. For example Jesus had insisted that there should 
be no preeminence among the faithful ("Call no man father"). Fox found an unchristian 
preeminence in every religious group which he observed. 

After several years of spiritual travail Fox came into an experience of grace. Thereafter he 
enjoyed the direct and continuous presence of the Holy Spirit guiding his words and actions; 
he recognized no other control. The ultimate anti- authoritarian, Fox began going to what he 
called the steeple houses, where he proceeded to denounce the preeminent in each of 
them. Naturally he won a lot of trouble for his pains. He saw the inside of many jails (like 
Paul had done), but he started something that's still going on. Modern Quakers still try to be 
the church together without preeminence. Fox and his friends refused to doff their hats and 
discarded all titles of honor in favor of the familiar 'thee'. Both of these postures were
solid blows aimed at the demise of hierarchical society in favor of the brotherhood of man. 

Through the centuries the idea of the inner light in a man's heart has caused various 
excesses, but Fox's heart was good and the Holy Spirit led him to gather numbers of people 
around the most admirable moral and social values. The strong anti-authoritarianism of the 
Friends incurred wrath and persecution from many directions; still they multiplied, 
witnessing to their spiritual power. By the late 18th Century they had become numerous, 
prosperous and respectable, and no doubt more conformed to the world than Fox's
generation had been. 

The Friends were anti-sacramentarian; they did not practice Baptism or Holy Communion, 
the two Protestant sacraments. In 'Vision of the Last Judgment'  Blake put an apostle on 
each side of Jesus representing respectively Baptism and the Lord's Supper, but he 
proceeded to define them as follows: "All Life consists of these Two, Throwing off Error and 
Knaves from our company continually, & Receivng Truth or Wise men into our company 

He also said "The outward Ceremony is Antichrist." And in the famous lines of "My Spectre
he identified the bread and wine with forgiving and being forgiven, without which we can 
only commune unworthily. 

As already noted Fox and his disciples had no use for priests. Blake used priests 
repeatedly as objects of derision. In his "French Revolution" for example the archbishop 
attempts to speak but finds that he can only hiss. In 'America' Blake has the "Priests in 
rustling scales Rush into reptile coverts". Other examples could be given to show that Blake 
generally thought of priests as serpents though he did not apply this evaluation to the poor 
and powerless priests of the people. 

The Quakers have always been noted for their refusal to participate in war. Blake's similar 
perspective on war is treated elsewhere. Throughout the 18th Century the Quakers 
vigorously opposed the slave trade, which had become a profitable element of England's 
commercial life. Unlike much of the establishment they had enough integrity to see clearly 
the spiritual implications of human bondage. They formed the first abolitionist society in 
England and disowned any Friend involved in the slave trade. John Woolman, perhaps the 
outstanding Quaker of the century, devoted his life to achieving the abolition of slavery. 
Blake was no Woolman, but one of his earliest prophetic works, 'Visions of the Daughters of 
Albion', is among other things a spirited outcry against slavery. 

The Quaker oriented reader who becomes familiar with Blake will find other significant 
correspondences. (Look at the Pendle Hill document Woolman and Blake.) Of all the 
religious groups in existence today the Quakers in their theology most nearly approximate 
the thought forms and theology of William Blake. Borrowing a phrase from Northrup Frye 
the Quakers and Blake both understood "the central form of Christianity as a vision rather 
than as a doctrine or ritual".

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