Blake's religious world

The dominance of the Church of England

The Church of England was the ‘established' Church, the national church governed by the monarch. Its religious outlook did not The House of Commonssuit many, who instead formed associations and churches with similar ‘dissenters'. Those who did not belong to the Church of England had fewer rights, including lack of access to membership of the House of Commons and to the universities (at that time only Oxford and Cambridge). Non-members like Blake were therefore more or less excluded from public life.

Beliefs of Dissenters

Because they could not go to university, access to the professions was denied to members of Dissenting churches. Instead, many such members tended to thrive in business. Some became wealthy merchants; the majority were moderately prosperous craftsmen like Blake. They were literate people whose minds were steeped in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.

Typical attitudes of Dissenters included:

  • Rejection of the system of monarchy and aristocracy (political radicalism)
  • Rejection of the prevailing rationalism
  • The belief that Christians are guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, rather than by human reason
  • A focus on ‘God within' rather than on ‘God beyond' human beings
  • Some denied the existence of an ‘external' God altogether. For them, God existed only in human beings who were full of the Holy Spirit (suffused with the nature of God).

This was the religious world from which Blake came and in which he moved.

Dissenting attitudes to Locke

Blake agreed with many Dissenters who saw the philosophy of John Locke (see Religious / philisophical background > Attitudes to man and God in the Age of Reason > John Locke) as being in opposition to their vision of humanity in two areas:

  1. Locke believed that the mind at birth is a ‘blank slate' and that all knowledge comes through experience
    • Dissenters felt that this denied the possibility of inspiration (the ‘inbreathing' of God's Spirit) and the human capacity to sense / be attuned to God.
  2. According to the Dissenters, Locke's beliefs must lead to supporting the class structure and slavery, since:
    • If there are no innate ideas, there can be no inborn sense of right and wrong, so everything must be learned
    • Learning requires sufficient time, resources and intellectual ability
    • Since only a relative few have all these, it follows that these few will be better equipped to rule those who have less ability, time and possibility of education.
      • This contradicted the Dissenters' conviction regarding human equality and the right to be self-governing.

Blake was a passionate advocate of such dissenting views.

The Church of England's response

  • In the eighteenth century, the Church of England accepted the prevailing emphasis on natural religion (that is, on religious ideas being acquired through experience, observation and reason)
  • In doing so, it appeared to accept the Age of Reason's view of the world as a mechanism. (Previously, the traditional attitude regarded the world as a living entity, pervaded by the life of God.)
  • The Church's emphasis therefore shifted to providing proofs of the existence of God. Accordingly, the miracles and resurrection of Jesus Christ were seen purely as proofs of his divinity.

The Church of England at this period was at a low ebb. Socially it was seen as an arm of the State, akin to the armed forces. Appropriate religious observance ensured that the people were kept in good order, obeying the law and maintaining their station in society (without undue expressions of devotion or fervour). The ‘enthusiasm' of the Dissenters, that is, their belief in being inspired by the Holy Spirit, was regarded with suspicion.

Anglican revival movements

Not everyone in the Established Anglican Church was content with the status quo:

John Wesley

  • John Wesley (1701 – 1791), with his brother Charles, also began an Anglican renewal movement. He met great opposition and was not allowed to preach inside churches
  • In 1784, John Wesley issued his Deed of Declaration as the charter of Methodism. This was the beginning of the Methodists as a separate church
  • In 1783, Charles Simeon (1759 – 1836) inaugurated the Evangelical Movement in Cambridge. This aimed to rouse personal devotion and commitment amongst members, from within the Church of England.

These movements were reactions against the formalism of the Established Church. Instead, they affirmed the Christian priority of spiritual experience over rationalism. Unlike the Dissenting groups, the Evangelical Movement and Methodism were not forces associated with political radicalism.

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