Today is the 265th anniversary of William Blake’s birth, and I enjoyed the quote from Blake posted by Mark Lambert on Twitter earlier this afternoon:
The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.
That line has proved so popular a quotation that it is quite difficult to track down the source (which I wanted to do, to avoid this sort of problem). It comes from “To the Deists”, which is a section of Blake’s poem Jerusalem the Emanation of the Great Albion (not to be confused with Jerusalem…), and which makes for interesting, if also uncomfortable, reading.
Blake begins with a ringing declaration that could have come straight from Martin Luther:
He never can be a friend to the Human Race who is the preacher of Natural Morality or Natural Religion; he is a flatterer who means to betray, to perpetuate tyrant Pride and the Laws of that Babylon which, he foresees, shall shortly be destroyed with the Spiritual and not the Natural Sword. He is in the State named Rahab; which State must be put off before he can be the Friend of Man.
This preaching of “Natural Morality or Natural Religion” was, in Blake’s day, the province of Deists such as “Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Hume”. Blake gives short shrift to the Deist view of human beings as inherently righteous:
your Greek Philosophy, which is a remnant of Druidism, teaches that Man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre—an opinion of fatal and accursed consequence to Man.
After defending Christians against the charge of hypocrisy (“Foote, in calling Whitefield hypocrite, was himself one; for Whitefield pretended not to be holier than others, but confessed his sins before all the world.”), Blake concludes with the following paragraphs, which give an interesting context to the quote with which this post started:
But you also charge the poor Monks and Religious with being the causes of war, while you acquit and flatter the Alexanders and Cæsars, the Louises and Fredericks, who alone are its causes and its actors. But the Religion of Jesus, Forgiveness of Sin, can never be the cause of a war, nor of a single martyrdom.
Those who martyr others, or who cause war, are Deists, but never can be Forgivers of Sin. The glory of Christianity is to conquer by Forgiveness. All the destruction, therefore, in Christian Europe has arisen from Deism, which is Natural Religion.
In other words, whatever the crimes of “Christian Europe” over the centuries (against which the Enlightenment rightly protested), the Deist remedy of a “natural morality” based on human goodness was just a continuation of the true cause of that destruction under a new guise – an assertion which subsequent history (not to mention the wars of Blake’s own time) can be seen as having vindicated.
Setting aside this polemic, Blake switches into verse, ending with the following expression of what (in Lutheran terms) we might call the theology of the cross overcoming the theology of glory:
Titus! Constantine! Charlemaine!
O Voltaire! Rousseau! Gibbon! Vain
Your Grecian mocks and Roman sword
Against this image of his Lord;
For a Tear is an Intellectual thing;
And a Sigh is the sword of an angel king;
And the bitter groan of a Martyr’s woe
Is an arrow from the Almighty’s bow.