affairs of men, pervaded the intellectual life of Blake's age. The deists were the
true spiritual descendants of Bacon, Newton, and Locke as Blake understood
them. Early in the 18th Century Voltaire, much taken with the English deists, had
spread their peculiar faith around the intellectual circles of Europe. Deism
became the fashionable faith of the upper classes in England and on the
continent as well. Many Anglican clergy of that day had strong deistical
leanings. Most historians believe that Washington and his associates were deists
as well as vestrymen, much as recent Mexican presidents have been Masons as
well as Roman Catholics.
Throughout the early and middle 18th Century deism largely belonged to the
gentility. During Blake's lifetime it filtered down to the masses. In America the
deist patricians, our forefathers, used the deist staymaker, Thomas Paine, as an
inflammatory propagandist for their cause. This identification of deists with
political reform explains the ambiguity Blake felt and expressed toward them.
He despised their Natural Religion, but admired their enlightened political views.
He counted Thomas Paine a friend and found his religion relatively
non-threatening and his political views refreshing. It was natural for him to
react defensively against the attack on Paine of Bishop Watson, whom Blake
considered a lackey of the State.
Nevertheless Blake refuted the deist doctrine. One of his earliest theological
statements was his Tractate, "There is No Natural Religion" . He dedicated the
third chapter of 'Jerusalem' to the deists, and in the prose introduction
addressed them very straightforwardly: the deist, he said, is "in the State named
Blake went on to make two primary charges. First, the deist "teaches that
Man is Righteous in his Vegetated Spectre: an Opinion of fatal & accursed
consequence to Man". Blake in contrast maintained that "Man is born a Spectre
or Satan, & is altogether an Evil". Blake's second charge stems from the first:
these "originally righteous" deists promote War and blame it on the spiritually
Blake deplored the hypocrisy of the philosophes, who did indeed "charge
the poor Monks & religious with being the causes of War, while you acquit and
flatter the Alexanders & Caesars, the Lewises & Fredericks, who alone are its
causes and its actors" (Portion of Jerusalem, Plate 52)
Blake himself had blamed war on the religious, not the poor monk, but the
bishop and archbishop. At a deeper level Blake knew that the man righteous in
his own eyes is the man who kills, while "the Glory of Christianity is to Conquer
Probably the prevalent opinion of the well to do churchly of deistical
inclinations held that religion is a good thing to keep the masses content; they
supported the Church as a primary bulwark of social stability. This attitude more
than anything else motivated Blake's radical anti-churchly stance. He knew it as
a perversion of everything Jesus stood for. In the great "Wheel of Religion" poem
opening the fourth chapter of 'Jerusalem' he gave his final and considered
opinion of the deists' Natural Religion.
made of the word 'church' in his poetry.
To the best of our knowledge Blake belonged to no organized church. We do
know of two groups which might generically qualify as churches, using the word
in its broadest possible sense. The first gathered around the radical publisher,
Joseph Johnson, Blake's primary employer and the friend of Mary
Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestly, Richard Price, Thomas Paine and other radical
intellectuals. While the conventional church exists as a primary bulwark of the
status quo, Joseph Johnson's group by and large conceived of Christ as a
revolutionary. Dissenters of a variety of persuasions, they were united by their
awareness of the need for social and political change. They considered this the
primary agenda of any truly spiritual communion.
Blake was in accord with these ideas. The Johnson group nurtured him and
provided the communal support which we generally associate with church
groups. The second group gathered around Blake in his last decade. It was made
up of young artists, some of them devout. They looked to Blake for aesthetic
and spiritual guidance and provided him the communal support that lent grace
to his last years.
After Blake's Moment of Grace around 1800 he might have joined a church
if he could have found one whose primary doctrine was the forgiveness of sins.
But like Milton before him and Lincoln after him he never discovered a church
that met his qualifications.
Anyone who loves Blake and has had a happier experience of the church
could wish for him more in the way of community. Alienated from the
worshiping community by its partial theology and partial practice, he was
confined to his own visions and the nurture he could find at the outer fringes of
the church. In addition he learned from the Christian classics of the ages,
particularly the off beat ones. St. Teresa was a favorite. We know little or nothing of how the Ranter tradition came down to him.
All of these are elements of the Universal Church upon which
Blake drew and to which he belonged. Blessed with a worshiping fellowship
beyond that of his wife, his lot might have been happier and his witness plainer
Even so the church is fortunate to have his contribution. Isaiah and
Jeremiah, not to mention Jesus, also suffered alienation from their communities.
At the deepest level none of the four men rejected the church, but rather the
church rejected them. Blake was too deeply attached to the priesthood of the
believer to be able to submit to any spiritual authority politically assigned: Let
every man be "King and Priest in his own house". In the words of Foster Damon
"The Church Universal was the only church that Blake recognized. Its doctrine is
the Everlasting Gospel, its congregation the Brotherhood of Man, its symbol the
Woman in the Wilderness, its architecture Gothic (p.82)."