Throughout the early and middle 18th Century deism largely belonged to the gentry. 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".
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 conequence 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 philosophers, 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.
Illustrations to Young's Night thoughts
Jerusalem, Plate 77, (E 232)
I stood among my valleys of the south And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel Of fire surrounding all the heavens: it went From west to cast against the current of Creation and devourd all things in its loud Fury & thundering course round heaven & earth By it the Sun was rolld into an orb: By it the Moon faded into a globe, Travelling thro the night: for from its dire And restless fury, Man himself shrunk up Into a little root a fathom long. And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-One Its Name? he answerd. It is the Wheel of Religion I wept & said. Is this the law of Jesus This terrible devouring sword turning every way He answerd; Jesus died because he strove Against the current of this Wheel: its Name Is Caiaphas, the dark Preacher of Death Of sin, of sorrow, & of punishment; Opposing Nature! It is Natural Religion But Jesus is the bright Preacher of Life Creating Nature from this fiery Law, By self-denial & forgiveness of Sin. Go therefore, cast out devils in Christs name Heal thou the sick of spiritual disease Pity the evil, for thou art not sent To smite with terror & with punishments Those that are sick, like the Pharisees Crucifying &,encompassing sea & land For proselytes to tyranny & wrath, But to the Publicans & Harlots go! Teach them True Happiness, but let no curse Go forth out of thy mouth to blight their peace For Hell is opend to heaven; thine eyes beheld The dungeons burst & the Prisoners set free."