Blake and Methodists
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 evangelist, George Whitefield, to Bristol where he began field preaching. (This happened some two decades before Blake's birth.) For the next fifty years Wesley delivered 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 heartwarming experience. Always an individualist Blake had too critical a mind to identify himself consciously with the Methodists (who founded a new denomination),but without question his Moment of Grace owed much to the Methodist movement.
Songs of Experience
Letters, (E 712)
"To my Friend Butts I write My first Vision of Light On the yellow sands sitting The Sun was Emitting His Glorious beams From Heavens high Streams Over Sea over Land My Eyes did Expand Into regions of air Away from all Care Into regions of fire Remote from Desire The Light of the Morning Heavens Mountains adorning In particles bright The jewels of Light Distinct shone & clear-- Amazd & in fear I each particle gazed Astonishd Amazed For each was a Man Human formd. Swift I ran For they beckond to me Remote by the Sea Saying. Each grain of Sand Every Stone on the Land Each rock & each hill Each fountain & rill Each herb & each tree Mountain hill Earth & Sea Cloud Meteor & Star Are Men Seen Afar I stood in the Streams Of Heavens bright beams And Saw Felpham sweet Beneath my bright feet In soft Female charms And in her fair arms My Shadow I knew And my wifes shadow too And My Sister & Friend. We like Infants descend In our Shadows on Earth Like a weak mortal birth My Eyes more & more Like a Sea without shore Continue Expanding The Heavens commanding Till the jewels of Light Heavenly Men beaming bright Appeard as One Man Who Complacent began My limbs to infold In his beams of bright gold Like dross purgd away All my mire & my clay Soft consumd in delight In his bosom sun bright I remaind. Soft he smild And I heard his voice Mild Saying This is My Fold O thou Ram hornd with gold Who awakest from sleep On the sides of the Deep On the Mountains around The roarings resound Of the lion & wolf The loud sea & deep gulf These are guards of My Fold O thou Ram hornd with gold And the voice faded mild I remaind as a Child All I ever had known Before me bright Shone I saw you & your wife By the fountains of Life Such the Vision to me Appeard on the Sea"
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.