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Saturday, May 03, 2014
Blake's Christianity V
All historians agree that the most vital spiritual movement in 18th Century England came with the Methodist Revival. John Wesley, born and nurtured in the bosom of the Church, reacted against the peurility of the established way. At the age of 35, after much struggle with various forms of religious unreality, he found a new level of truth; at Aldersgate"his heart was strangely warmed". Soon he followed his fellow Methodist, George Whitefield, to Bristol where he began field preaching. (This happened some two decades before Blake's birth.) For the next fifty years Wesley averaged two sermons a day and led thousands, primarily from the underclass, into a heartfelt experience of grace.
Wesley remained until his death an Anglican priest, but after his heart warming experience he rapidly lost standing in conventional religious circles, and one by one the doors of England's churches closed against his enthusiasm. In response he claimed the world as his parish and proceeded to organize his converts in Methodist Societies. They became after his death the second largest English denomination.
Many historians believe that the Methodist Revival prevented a social and political revolution in England. The Methodists filled the vacuum of spiritual authority manifested by the dead formalism of the established Church and the lukewarmness of the ageing dissenting groups.
Blake and Wesley had a great deal in common. Each combined high intelligence and spiritual vision with an uncompromising temperament. These qualities led both men to a spiritual struggle continuing into middle life and reaching its climax in what I have called a Moment of Grace.
Wesley described his as a heart warming experience. Afterward his preaching led to a similar experience in the lives of thousands. It became in fact the normative religious experience of the spiritually vital segment of the English population, both in and out of the established Church. The resemblance to the experience of George Fox is both obvious and remarkable. (The same could be said of Paul and Augustine.)
The poem which Blake wrote in October of 1800 to his friend, Butts, certainly describes what we may call a heart warming experience. Always an individualist Blake had too critical a mind to identify himself consciously with the Methodists (who wanted to found a new denomination), but without question his Moment of Grace owed much to the Methodist movement.
In the most fundamental spiritual progression of their lives Wesley and Blake were twins. Uncompromising individuals they both refused the easy spiritual path of the majority of their fellows and struggled alone until the light came. Each achieved a breakthrough to an outstanding level of spiritual creativity.
Quite close in background and basic values, the two men were miles apart in the style of their response. Both of Wesley's grandfathers had been non-Conforming ministers. His father had returned to the established Church and served the Anglican parish of Epworth; John helped him with it for several years. Wesley knew the Church as an insider; he believed in the established procedures, and remained a part of them. But with his heart warming experience he won the freedom to break the rules when the Spirit so directed. Two instances deserve special attention:
First, his irregular preaching was in defiance of the Church's rules; like Luther he could do no other. Second, when the American Revolution caused a shortage of Anglican priests in America, Wesley decided that he as a presbyter had authority to ordain ministers for his American societies. This more than anything else led to the creation of the Methodist Church.
In spite of these infractions Wesley believed in and belonged to the Anglican Church. He had made free with some of its rules, but he was rigid about the rules which he imposed upon his converts. And right there of course he and Blake parted company. Blake just didn't believe in rules; he thought they all came from the devil. He admired Wesley's spirit and held his rules in contempt.
Blake and Wesley each had an an acute social conscience; they were both friends of the common man, but in different ways. Wesley wanted to improve men's lot using religious means. Blake felt that men were victimized by tyranny, and he wanted it stopped. Neither of them shared the conventional genteel attitude that the lower classes, ordained by God to their station, should be encouraged to remain docile and expect their reward in the hereafter. They believed rather that men have the freedom to rise to whatever level their gifts and character may allow.
Blake suffered intensely from the subtle forms of economic oppression and railed against them. His anger sparked the most searching critique of the restrictive structures of society and of the psychic attributes associated with those structures.
Wesley lacked Blake's prophetic mind, but he had a concern for souls that led his converts first to an elevation of character and soon to an elevation of economic station. In the simplest natural terms Wesley's converts replaced drinking and gambling with praying and singing hymns--and became prosperous, just as the Quakers had done in earlier generations.
Wesley held extremely conservative political views, but unlike most Tories he loved the poor. He devoted his life to helping them raise their circumstances, all of course a byproduct of his concern for their souls! While Blake denounced and railed against the social evils of the day, Wesley picked up one by one the fallen members of the underclass and instilled in them a means of lifting themselves up into the middle class.
He taught them for example to "gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can". The admonition won sufficient adherents to make a tremendous contribution to the humanitarian movement. Blake wrote about the prisons of the mind; Wesley systematically visited real prisons his entire life and organized helping institutions to address the needs of prisoners and to ameliorate their distress.
Wesley had a life changing message and organizational genius as well. Through his religious message and his Methodist societies he contributed significantly to the relief of economic distress and oppression. In contrast Blake's message was virtually incomprehensible to the kinds of people most responsive to Wesley's. In fact it is incomprehensible to most people today because it requires a level of consciousness impossible for the materially minded.
Wesley and Blake may have been the two greatest men produced by England in the 18th Century. The work of Wesley and his fellow evangelists had immediate and far reaching consequences in the life of the world. For example his preachers exercised a great civilizing influence on the American frontier. The Methodist Church today represents the best of the American way, theologically and socially enlightened beyond the generality of the population.
Blake's work in contrast was far ahead of his time. It had no immediate visible influence, yet it offers the best hope of the future for the English speaking world to break out of the strait jacket of dead materialism. The present age needs a spiritual revival as desperately as did Wesley's. But the Wesleyan style of revival has less to offer the modern mind than it did to the 18th Century underclass. The Blakean vision has a great deal to offer to the best minds of this century, the relatively few minds capable of an individual form of spiritual creativity. The mind of Blake offers the strongest possible protection against the mindless conformity that threatens the human race.
Although Blake did have a copy of a Wesleyan hymnbook, we lack evidence of direct first hand experience with a Methodist group. Most certainly he would have found the discipline distasteful. But Methodism was one of the rare forms of English religious life that Blake had good words for.
In the prose introduction to Chapter Three of 'Jerusalem' he defended Methodists and Monks against what he deemed to be the hypocritical attacks of Voltaire and the other philosophes. He named Wesley and Whitefield as the two witnesses of Revelation 11.3 , the archetypal image of the rejected and despised prophet of God (cf Milton 22:61; Erdman 118). He grouped Whitefield with St. Teresa and other gentle souls "who guide the great Winepress of Love".