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Thursday, May 01, 2014
Blake's Christianity IV
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.
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 Friends:
The Friends were anti-sacramentarian; they did not practice Baptism or Holy Communion, the two Protestant sacraments. In 'A 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, & Receiving Truth or Wise Men into our Company continually."
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 used 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".