DeistsDeism, a form of Natural Religion denying the intervention of God
in the 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
understoodthem. Early in the 18th Century Voltaire, much taken with the
English deists,had spread their peculiar faith around the intellectual circles of
Europe. Deism becamet 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
Rahab , which State must be put off before he can be the Friend of Man".
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
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.