Kingdom of God – Kingdom of Man: Freedom, Identity, and Justice in Charles Wesley and William Blake

This paper was presented at the 2011 North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference in Park City, UT – August 12, 2011

As the Eighteenth century drew to a close, the Lockean philosophy of the individual autonomous subject endowed with inalienable rights was increasingly manifested in the political revolutions in America and France and the aesthetic revolutions of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  As Makdisi argues, this brand of liberalism generally attempted to rid itself of “its other, which for its part summoned forth a world of visionary prophecies and divine interventions… a world, in short, in which ‘eternity is in love with the productions of time’” (301).  In doing so, these radicals attempted to erase any type of alterity that threatened individual autonomy and property or threatened to spill over into religious “enthusiasm.”

Nevertheless, though both the liberal radicals and the state strived to suppress such visionary religious enthusiasm that threatened the status quo, subversive cultural voices still existed who challenged the supremacy of the autonomous subject and instead constructed freedom and identity in alternative, communitarian terms.  Coming from radically different traditions and cultural perspectives, both Charles Wesley and William Blake used their religious, “enthusiastic” poetry to articulate a definition of human freedom and agency founded upon the Biblical construct of the “kingdom of God” which they variously develop as an intersubjective experience with the other that comes to define human actions and relations in the world and create true justice.  Justice, in this sense, is not an impartial judgment in the interest of order and individual rights, but a radical embrace of the other.

At first glance, speaking about Wesley and Blake together may seem like a rather odd decision. In fact to date Martha Winburn England’s Hymns Unbidden, remains the only study that takes seriously the similarities between Wesley and Blake, pointing out that Blake seems to have admired elements of the Evangelical Revival (including John Wesley and Whitefield in Milton) and in fact owned copies of Charles’ work.  Still, the differences are significant – the two men never met and Wesley’s life and career were ending just as Blake’s poetic work was beginning.  Wesley was a Tory Church and King man to his dying day, while the radical Blake excoriates both Church and King throughout his work.  Wesley’s hymns and poetry are largely conventional (in a good sense), while Blake’s are wildly experimental.

That said, it is precisely because of these seeming contradictions that I think the two poets are so interesting in conversation for, despite their radically different religious inclinations, both men were painted as “enthusiasts” throughout their lifetime – both claimed to directly hear from God and proclaim that message in their poetry.  For this reason the work of Wesley and Blake is unique in that its conjunction between religion and poetry works to explore the tensions between internal religious experience and public social action in ways that reinvent the subject itself.

Crucial to this fundamental redefinition of the subject is the way both Wesley and Blake use religious poetry to redefine both the experience of the self and the relationship between the self and the community.  In doing so both men work to break down the ideal of the autonomous self based on individual rights – instead locating freedom in the experience of the community and otherness.  It is this concept that I am terming the “kingdom of God,” for though the ideal meant different things for both men – both seem to have firmly believed, with Christ, that the “kingdom of God is within you.”  In doing so I hope to suggest that the ideals of freedom and agency need to be redefined within a religious context and that both Wesley and Blake use their poetry to express and emotive and affective encounter with the other that finally leads outward into life and community – the kingdom of God come down and embodied in the kingdom of Man.

Charles Wesley’s Affective Hymns and Methodist Community

For John and Charles Wesley the kingdom of God was fundamental to their attempt to renew the Church of England.  Crucial to their theology was the idea that humans could be saved instantaneously by faith and both know and feel that their sins were forgiven.  This element of feeling, or spiritual sense, comes to pervade almost every aspect of Methodism, and Charles’ hymns are no exception. Take, for example, Hymn 130 which begins:

Jesu, if still the same thou art,
If all thy promises are sure,
Set up thy kingdom in my heart,
And make me rich for I am poor:
To me be all thy treasures given,
The kingdom of an inward heaven.

Instead of the kingdom of God (or heaven) being something literal that the Christian waits and hopes for – performing good works in expectation of heaven, in the hymns the kingdom becomes something that is lived and experienced.  As John Wesley writes in his preface to the 1777 Hymns and Spiritual Songs, “none but those who either already experience the kingdom of God within them, or, at least, earnestly desire so to do, will either relish or understand them [the hymns].  But all these may find either such prayers as speak the language of their souls (JWW 14:339).

Tied up in this sense of the kingdom as something embodied, is the deeply Wesleyan (and Lockean) idea that all knowledge is based on the evidence of the senses and experience.  In fact, in his preface to the seminal 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists Wesley famously describes the hymnal as “a little body of experimental and practical divinity.” Likewise in his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, he argues that faith cannot be based on natural sense, but spiritual.  It is this spiritual sense that is granted upon conversion and allows the believer to experience God in a way that is incomprehensible and indescribable to the non-believer. Thus faith is intimately connected to sense and even in the case of spiritual sense Wesley describes it primarily in terms of natural sense and emotion as a means to validating experience.  He thus treads a careful line between “enthusiasm” and “experience” – validating the supernatural, while testing it via Lockean empiricism.  For this reason Methodist hymns are full of the language of sensory perception and emotion – though the experience of faith is ultimately ineffable these men, and especially women, use the language of sensibility to describe faith.

But for Methodists this internal transformation was not enough – the true evidence of the kingdom of God in heart and life was in how it worked outward into community.  This ideal is reflected in the structure of the 1780 Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodists, which leads the reader from inward devotion to outward action – the five major sections move from “exhorting the believer to return to God” and “describing the pleasantness of religion,” to “inward religion,” to “prayer,” and then outward in the final two sections first to believers acting in a variety of life circumstances to finally hymns explicitly for the society meeting.  It was in the classes, bands, and society that Methodists truly came together for fellowship and renewal, but also to organize action in the world.  As Phyllis Mack writes, “Methodist hymns…enabled communication between self and community and between self and God, and they stood as models of sincere speech and authentic emotion.  Taken together, their impact was to instill in the worshipper a movement toward self-effacement and surrender to God’s power on one hand, and a heroic energy, both in conquering the self and in serving God, on the other” (48).

This reality is reflected in the hymns themselves take, for example, hymn 489 in the 1780 Collection which reads:

Help us to help each other Lord,
Each others cross to bear;
Let each his friendly aid afford,
And feel his brother’s care

Or hymn 495:

Why hast thou cast our lot,
In the same age and place?
And why together brought
To see each other’s face;
To join with softest sympathy,
And mix our friendly souls in thee?

Didst thou not make us one,
That all might one remain;
Together travel on
And bear each other’s pain?
Till all thy utmost goodness prove,
And rise renewed in perfect love!

In both of these cases the singers come together in community to express their sense of what God has done in their lives and how this has transformed their relationship with others in the community and the world.  Embedded in these two hymns is a sense in which the Methodists, though individuals, are one through and in Christ – they have found a new family.  As Hindmarsh argues, “the convert felt connected through Methodism to a shared experience with others and to larger, unitary patterns of belief and practice.  If the converts of the early Evangelical Revival appear as individualists of a sort, they were also communitarians of a sort” (150).

Ultimately these two elements – affective experience of faith and outward connection with community come to define a uniquely Methodism religious subjectivity – a subjectivity founded not upon individual autonomy and rights but on the freedom to do God’s will, to enact the kingdom on earth.  This is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Wesley’s famous hymn, “And can it be:”

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell of, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Packed within these seemingly simple lines is both a complex theology and subjectivity.  Not only do we have the images of imprisonment and freedom from chains, but also a liberated heart and an impetus to follow out into the world.  This, likely written after his own conversion, was the kingdom of God for Charles Wesley.

William Blake’s Radical Embrace of Justice

Likewise Blake also uses the symbol of the kingdom of God throughout his work – building a conception of the millennium as an ontological space for freedom and justice that lies outside of individual subjectivity.  Especially in Jerusalem Blake locates this space within the symbol of embrace of otherness that nevertheless does not erase heterogeneity.  Indeed, he writes that, “We cannot experience pleasure but by means of others, who experience either pleasure or pain thro us” (E 600).  Thus for Blake the Enlightenment notions of selfhood cut the individual off from this intersubjective experience with the other that makes freedom and justice possible in the first place.  Like Wesley, Blake is concerned to restore human relations within a community of love that is based on a recognition of the other’s fundamental otherness and an understanding of justice that elevates the marginal.

By pushing back against contemporary definitions of millennium that are bound up in temporal political and revolutionary progress towards a new world order, Blake is thus able to interrogate and disrupt all narratives of power that seek to conspire against the marginal.  As Makdisi points out, Blake not only interrogates the Church and King ideology of conservatives like Burke, but also the rational radicalism of Tom Paine and Mary Wollstoncraft, which reifies existing property relations through the constitution of the Lockean individual subject (19). True liberty and the kingdom of God is, for Blake, properly located within the individual and the individual’s power to enact justice within the community.

This vision of justice is primarily concerned with the marginal and the other not the protection of property rights for citizens.  In this Blake anticipates Levinas, who argues that justice is founded not on traditional notions of “freedom” but on a relationship with the other.  “Ontology, which reduces the other to the same,” he writes, “promotes freedom – the freedom that is the identification of the same, not allowing itself to be alienated by the other” (42). Instead, Levinas argues that “The presence of the Other, a privileged heteronomy, does not clash with freedom but invests it” (88) and that it is only by inviting the other, in all its heterogeneity, into conversation that justice can be enacted:

The other qua other is the Other.  To “let him be” the relationship of discourse is required; pure ‘disclosure,’ where he is proposed as a theme, does not respect him enough for that.  We call justice this face to face approach, in conversation.  If truth arises in the absolute experience in which being gleams with its own light, then truth is produced only in veritable conversation or in justice. (71)

Thus truth cannot be known nor true freedom and justice produced without the acceptance of the other as other – without acknowledging the difference of the other and inviting it into conversation with the self.  Thus justice is not an impartial judgment in the interest of order, but a radical embrace of the other.  It also refuses to fall into the cycle of revenge and retribution against the oppressor, but works to restore him or her to the community through the action of embrace. Furthermore, this is not an embrace that erases difference, but celebrates radical alterity. Thus it is in this space for the other that true justice and forgiveness are located, in the gesture of radical embrace; and it is in this space that Blake ultimately locates the kingdom of God.

Jerusalem Plate 76 - Illustration of Gesture of Embrace

In this light, Blake’s epic Jerusalem works throughout to both criticize the existing order and create a space within which his vision of justice is possible.  For example, after Albion falls asleep, his sons and daughters, under the veil of Vala, utilize the moral law to oppress and impoverish:

The Twenty-eight Cities of Albion stretch their hands to thee:
Because of the Opressors of Albion in every City & Village:
They mock at the Labourers limbs! they mock at his starvd Children.
They buy his Daughters that they may have power to sell his Sons:
They compell the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts;
They reduce the Man to want: then give with pomp & ceremony-
The praise of Jehovah is chaunted from lips of hunger & thirst!
(J 44: 27-33, E 193)

This brutal oppression is thus the direct result of law and justice based upon the rule of the powerful over the weak.  It is based on a notion of social progress that relies on the labor of the poor and weak to create stability and order. Driven from their land and literally compelled to live on crusts of bread distributed by “charity,” the poor and marginal are constant victims of a logic of control ostensibly based on justice and stability.  For Blake this was the result, not of injustice, but the “progressive” definitions of justice and rationality upon which society was founded.

This brand of order and justice also has the effect of perverting human nature.  Albion’s error is not simply rejecting Jerusalem, but embracing the self over the other.  Thus Albion enters the “State of Satan” (J 35, E 181), which is characterized by the embrace of self over the sacrifice of self for the other.  This has the effect of perverting humanity even further, of turning man into a fiend:

O! how the torments of Eternal Death, waited on Man;
And the loud-rending bars of the Creation ready to burst:
That the wide world might fly from its hinges. & the immortal mansion
Of Man. for ever be possess’d by monsters of the deeps:
And Man himself become a Fiend. wrap’d in an endless curse.
Consuming and consum’d for-ever in flames of Moral Justice.

A nether-world must have recievd the foul enormous spirit.
Under the presence of Moral Virtue. fill’d with Revenge and Law.
There to eternity chain’d down, and issuing in red flames
And curses. with his mighty arms brandish’d against the heavens
Breathing cruelty blood & vengeance, gnashing his teeth with pain
Torn with black storms, & ceaseless torrents of his own consuming fire:
(J 36: 26-31, 35-40, E 182)

Thus humanity, left to the influence of selfhood and moral law devolves into a state of perpetual, bloody vengeance under the guise of “Moral Justice.”  Because the ethic of embrace and forgiveness, embodied by Jerusalem, has been abandoned the only option left is the revenge of the law, which is “Consuming and consum’d for-ever;” a cycle of vengeance and oppression.

The solution to this problem is the forgiveness of sins, the radical embrace of the other (both oppressed and oppressor) and the absolute rejection of a definition of justice based on retribution.  It is only through these apocalyptic methods that the millennium can be brought to earth and Albion awoken from his slumber.  It is also only through these methods that a mental apocalypse can be performed in the minds of the reader that spurs them to actively bring Jerusalem to earth.  Thus the key to this radical apocalyptic turn is to create the millennial space within which the other can be embraced unconditionally, severed from cultural and political power structures. This creation of a space for radical justice is reflected in Blake’s representation of the “Spaces of Erin,” which are located West of Albion and come to stand for the hope provided by otherness:

Then Erin came forth from the Furnaces, & all the Daughters of Beulah
Came from the Furnaces. by Los’s mighty power for Jerusalems
Sake: walking up and down among the Spaces of Erin:
And the Sons and Daughters of Los came forth in perfection lovely!
And the Spaces of Erin reach’d from the starry heighth, to the starry depth.
(J 11: 9-13, E 154)

Thus Erin (Ireland), with its literal distance and alterity becomes the space within which Los and his children can work for Jerusalem’s regeneration.

Conclusion

The lines of connection I have traced here between Charles Wesley and William Blake are preliminary at best.  I have no intention of arguing for something as simplistic as “influence” or “causality.”  However I do think that these two great poets can be put into productive conversation in ways that have eluded us in the past.  Both operated within the dynamic nexus of religion, politics, and subjectivity that animated the late eighteenth century and this common landscape pervades their poetry.  They may have come from opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum, but both were men who firmly believed that an individual man or woman could hear directly from God and both privileged the subjectivity gained through this experience over any liberal political or economic policy. As such, both Charles Wesley and William Blake use their poetry to subtly critique the spirit of the age and the discourses of liberty that dominated the late eighteenth century.  By developing the kingdom of God as a communal space for the embrace of the other, both men in their own way manage to locate freedom and justice outside the categories of individuality and autonomy – pointing the way towards a definition of identity rooted in a community of love and forgiveness.

Works Cited

Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Anchor, 1988.

Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2007.

Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790’s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Wesley, John & Wesley, Charles. A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. London: Paramore, 1780.

Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Ed. Thomas Jackson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.

One response to “Kingdom of God – Kingdom of Man: Freedom, Identity, and Justice in Charles Wesley and William Blake

  1. Pingback: Agnes Bulmer – Methodist Poetess | 18th Century Religion, Literature, and Culture

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