Deism, 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 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 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 spiritually religious.
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 by Forgiveness".
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.
Blake and 'Church'
In this conlcuding section we look at Blake's relationships and at the uses he 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 Priestley, 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 worshipping 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 the social agency by which 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 worshipping fellowship beyond that of his wife, his lot might have been happier and his witness plainer to others.
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)."