Sunday, February 01, 2015



       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 & requires a New Selfhood continually & must 
continually be changed into his direct Contrary". 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 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 

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