Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible (1796) was written as a response to Thomas Paine’s trenchant attack on Christianity in The Age of Reason (1794/1795), which had attracted huge popular attention and become a best-seller in America. Paine had challenged both the historical accuracy of the Bible and its morality, and offered as an alternative the more ‘rational’ (and therefore more eighteenth-century) religion of ‘Deism’.
For Deists, God created the universe but remains separate from it: human beings can know God via reason and the observation of nature, not by supernatural (and therefore unprovable) revelation. Blake admired Paine and shared his antipathy to kings (“A king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places”, observed Paine) and the related concepts of divine right and hereditary right (“A French bastard landing with an armed banditti,” continued Paine, “establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. – It certainly hath no Divinity in it.”).
However Blake disagreed with Paine’s deism and the form of self-enclosed rationality that lay behind it. This might perhaps have brought him into alliance with the prominent Anglican clergyman’s orthodox rebuttal of Paine, but in fact Blake disagrees even more strongly with the arguments of Bishop Watson than those of Paine – whose honesty and lucidity he felt were more valuable to humanity than the interest-ridden justifications of a corrupt Church, in the way that all good corrosives were. Blake’s electrifying annotations to his copy of Watson’s Apology reveal these lineaments of thought in full fiery flow. They are remarkable for several reasons: Paine’s view of Christianity still sounds surprisingly modern: like many later cultural historians he traces the stories of the Bible to much earlier ‘heathen’ mythology, thereby apparently undermining their validity and uniqueness; he regards “Nature” as the true revelation of God – not some “Book” cobbled together centuries ago; and he sees the history of religion as a system of organised control and deception of populations (“set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”, as Paine succinctly put it). Blake responds energetically to all these valid points, and he considers them with much more genuine respect, and insight, than does the bishop.
Blake is as plain-spoken as Paine in his condemnation of “State Religion” – frequently raging in the margins against Watson’s “Priestly Impudence” and “Serpentine Dissimulations” – and his intense and personal responses to Watson’s apologia allow us a vivid insight into Blake’s own brain as he struggles to define an authentic spiritual position between the Scylla and Charybdis of Oppressive Religion on one hand and Flattening Rationalism on the other. This is valuable because it is the mindset that many of us inhabit today: critical of orthodox religion, supportive of rationality and science, and yet struggling to articulate our apprehensions of more transcendent and revelatory dimensions to life.
Above all, Blake’s annotations are a revelation – a revelation of both his energetic engagement with, and startling re-reading of, the Bible. It is extraordinary to witness the sparks of thought flying out and landing on the margins of these pages – the coruscating ripostes that fired out of the furnace of his reading – where we can catch a glimpse of the immediacy and vibrancy, and power, of his thought.
Blake’s comments were written as responses to passages in Watson’s text, which are unfortunately too lengthy to include here. But it is perhaps appropriate that the Bishop’s words have faded, even as Blake’s seem even more contemporary and alive than ever.
To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life
The Beast & the Whore rule without controls
It is an easy matter for a Bishop to triumph over Paine’s attack but it is not so easy for one who loves the Bible
The Perversions of Christ’s words & acts are attackd by Paine & also the perversions of the Bible; Who dare defend either the Acts of Christ or the Bible Unperverted?
But to him who sees this mortal pilgrimage in the light that I see it. duty to his country is the first consideration & safety the last
Read patiently take not up this Book in an idle hour – the consideration of these things is the entire whole duty of man & the affairs of life & death trifles sports of time. But these considerations business of Eternity
I have been commanded from Hell not to print this as it is what our Enemies wish
Paine has not Attacked Christianity. Watson has defended Antichrist.
Read the XXIII Chap of Matthew & then condemn Paine’s hatred of Priests if you dare
God made Man happy & Rich but the Subtil made the innocent Poor
This must be a most wicked & blasphemous book
I have not the Charity for the Bishop that he pretends to have for Paine. I believe him to be a State trickster
Contemptible Falshood & Detraction
Presumptuous Murderer dost thou O Priest wish thy brother’s death when God has preserved him
Mr Paine has not extinguishd & cannot Extinguish Moral rectitude. he has Extinguishd Superstition which took the Place of Moral Rectitude. what has Moral Rectitude to do with Opinions concerning historical fact
To what does the Bishop attribute the English Crusade against France. is it not to State Religion. blush for shame
Folly & Impudence! I should Expect that the man who wrote this sneaking sentence would be as good an inquisitor as any other Priest
Conscience in those that have it is unequivocal, it is the voice of God. Our judgment of right & wrong is Reason. I believe that the Bishop laughed at the Bible in his sleeve & so did Locke
Opinion is one Thing. Principle another. No Man can change his Principles. Every Man changes his opinions. He who supposes that his Principles are to be changed is a Dissembler who Disguises his Principles & calls that change
Paine is either a Devil or an Inspired man. Men who give themselves to their Energetic Genius in the manner that Paine does are no modest Enquirers.
The Man who pretends to be a modest enquirer into the truth of a self evident thing is a Knave.
The truth & certainty of Virtue & Honesty i.e Inspiration needs no one to prove it. it is Evident as the Sun & Moon
no man can do a Vicious action & think it to be Virtuous. no man can take darkness for light. he may pretend to do so & may pretend to be a modest Enquirer. but he is a Knave
To me who believe the Bible & profess myself a Christian a defence of the Wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under pretence of a command from God is altogether Abominable & Blasphemous.
Was not Christ murderd because he taught that God loved all Men & was their father & forbad all contention for Worldly prosperity.
Christ died as an Unbeliever . & if the Bishops had their will so would Paine.
The Bible says that God formed Nature perfect but that Man perverted the order of Nature since which time the Elements are filld with the Prince of Evil who has the power of the air.
Horrible the Bishop is an Inquisitor. God never makes one man murder another nor one nation
That mankind are in a less distinguishd situation with regard to mind than they were in the time of Homer Socrates Phidias. Glycon. Aristotle &c let all their works witness
Paine says that Christianity put a stop to improvement & the Bishop has not shewn the contrary
[Watson: “when I consider how nearly man, in a savage state, approaches to the brute creation, as to intellectual excellence …’]:
Blake: Read the Edda of Iceland, the Songs of Fingal, the accounts of North American Savages (as they are calld). Likewise Read Homer’s Iliad. he was certainly a Savage, in the Bishop’s sense. He knew nothing of God in the Bishop’s sense of the word & yet he was no fool
The Bible or Peculiar Word of God, Exclusive of Conscience or the Word of God Universal, is that Abomination which like the Jewish ceremonies is for ever removed & henceforth every man may converse with God & be a King & Priest in his own house
Is not this Illiberal – has not the Bishop given himself the lie in the moment the first words were out of his mouth? Can any man who writes so pretend that he is in a good humour. Is not this the Bishop’s cloven foot. has he not spoild the hasty pudding
The trifles which the Bishop has combated in the following Letters are such as do nothing against Paine’s Arguments, none of which the Bishop has dared to Consider. One for instance, which is That the books of the Bible were never believd willingly by any nation & that none but designing Villains ever pretended to believe That the Bible is all a State Trick, thro which tho’ the People at all times could see they never had. the power to throw off
Another Argument is that all the Commentators on the Bible are Dishonest Designing Knaves who in hopes of a good living adopt the State religion. this he has shewn with great force which calls upon His Opponent loudly for an answer. I could name an hundred such
[Watson: “If it be found that the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, and Samuel, were not written by Moses, Joshua, and Samuel. . . . they may still contain a true account of real transactions . . .”]:
Blake: He who writes things for true which none could write but the actor, such are most of the acts of Moses, must either be the actor or a fable writer or a liar. If Moses did not write the history of his acts, it takes away the authority altogether it ceases to be history & becomes a Poem of probable impossibilities fabricated for pleasure as moderns say but I say by Inspiration.
If Paine means that a history tho true in itself is false When it is attributed to a wrong author. he’s a fool. But he says that Moses being proved not the author of that history which is written in his name & in which he says I did so & so Undermines the veracity entirely. the writer says he is Moses if this is proved false the history is false Deut xxxi v 24 But perhaps Moses is not the author & then the Bishop loses his Author
Jesus could not do miracles where unbelief hinderd. hence we must conclude that the man who holds miracles to be ceased, puts it out of his own power to ever witness one. The manner of a miracle being performd is in modern times considerd as an arbitrary command of the agent upon the patient but this is an impossibility not a miracle, neither did Jesus ever do such a miracle.
Is it a greater miracle to feed five thousand men with five loaves than to overthrow all the armies of Europe with a small pamphlet.
Look over the events of your own life & if you do not find that you have both done such miracles & lived by such you do not see as I do. True I cannot do a miracle thro experiment & to domineer over & prove to others my superior power as neither could Christ. But I can & do work such as both astonish & comfort me & mine. How can Paine the worker of miracles ever doubt Christ’s in the above sense of the word miracle. But how can Watson ever believe the above sense of a miracle who considers it as an arbitrary act of the agent upon an unbelieving patient. whereas the Gospel says that Christ could not do a miracle because of Unbelief
If Christ could not do miracles because of Unbelief the reason alledged by Priests for miracles is false, for those who believe want not to be confounded by miracles. Christ & his Prophets & Apostles were not ambitious miracle mongers
Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed. Jonah was no prophet in the modern sense for his prophecy of Nineveh failed. Every honest man is a Prophet. he utters his opinion both of private & public matters. Thus, If you go on So – the result is So. He never says such a thing shall happen let you do what you will. a Prophet is a Seer not an Arbitrary Dictator. It is man’s fault if God is not able to do him good. for he gives to the just & to the unjust but the unjust reject his gift
Nothing can be more contemptible than to suppose Public RECORDS to be True. Read them & Judge. if you are not a Fool.
Of what consequence is it whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or no. If Paine trifles in some of his objections it is folly to confute him so seriously in them & leave his more material ones unanswered Public Records as If Public Records were True
Impossible – for the facts are such as none but the actor could tell, if it is True Moses & none but he could write it unless we allow it to be Poetry & that poetry inspired
If historical facts can be written by inspiration Milton’s Paradise Lost is as true as Genesis. or Exodus. but the Evidence is nothing for how can he who writes what he has neither seen nor heard of. be an Evidence of The Truth of his history
[Watson: “kings and priests . . . never, I believe, did you any harm; but you have done them all the harm you could”]:
Blake: Paine says that Kings & Priests have done him harm from his birth
I cannot conceive the Divinity of the books in the Bible to consist either in who they were written by, or at what time, or in the historical evidence – which may be all false in the eyes of one man & true in the eyes of another – but in the Sentiments & Examples which whether true or Parabolic are Equally useful as Examples given to us of the perverseness of some & its consequent evil & the honesty of others & its consequent good
This sense of the Bible is equally true to all & equally plain to all. none can doubt the impression which he receives from a book of Examples. If he is good he will abhor wickedness in David or Abraham; if he is wicked he will make their wickedness an excuse for his & so he would do by any other book
All Penal Laws court Transgression & therefore are cruelty & Murder
The laws of the Jews were (both ceremonial & real) the basest & most oppressive of human codes. & being like all other codes given under pretence of divine command were what Christ pronounced them: The Abomination that maketh desolate. i.e State Religion which is the Source of all Cruelty.
They seem to Forget that there is a God of This World. A God Worshipd in this World as God & Set above all that is calld God
The Bishop never saw the Everlasting Gospel any more than Tom Paine
[Watson: “The moral precepts of the gospel …”]:
Blake: The Gospel is Forgiveness of Sins & has No Moral Precepts these belong to Plato & Seneca & Nero
[Watson: “Two precepts you particularize as inconsistent with the dignity and the nature of man–that of not resenting injuries, and that of loving enemies …”]:
Blake: Well done Paine
Who does the Bishop call Bad Men? Are they the Publicans & Sinners that Christ loved to associate with? Does God Love The Righteous according to the Gospel or does he not cast them off.
For who is really Righteous? It is all Pretension
It appears to me Now that Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop
I have read this Book with attention & find that the Bishop has only hurt Paine’s heel while Paine has broken his head. the Bishop has not answerd one of Paine’s grand objections
Blake’s final comments show that he recognised the difference between rhetoric and reality: the Bishop, or the Church itself, might call itself “Christian”—just as Ronald Reagan might call America the Free World—but that it doesn’t mean that it actually is. The true nature of the actual God it worships is perhaps evident in its ongoing support of war (it’s no surprise that the current arch Bishop of Canterbury supports air strikes against Syria, in violation of Jesus’s teachings on nonviolent resistance), its divisive and cruel treatment of gays and women (in violation of Jesus’s teachings on the politics of compassion), and its necessary alliance with the political and economic elites, which is why Blake refers to the Bishop as a “State trickster”. The “awakening” that Blake’s poetry points to involves an awakening to the actual nature of the so-called “Christian” Church.