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Reviewed by:
  • Witness Against the Beast, William Blake and the Moral Law
  • Dan Latimer
Witness Against the Beast, William Blake and the Moral Law, by E. P. Thompson; xxi & 324 pp. New York: The New Press, 1993, $30.00.

The social context from which William Blake arose was fundamentally hostile to the grandiose projects of Court and official Church. So modest were the ambitions of Blake’s working-class forebears that their historical oblivion would be assured, had they not professed theological views irksome to those whose job it was to enforce uniformity. The eccentric theology of this nonconformist class earned them the name antinomian, from “anti-nomos,” “against the law,” a term which carried the sense of both “heretic” and “terrorist.”

Antinomians emerged from the Puritan Interregnum of the 1650s. They went quiet during the Restoration of Charles II, then were given a second life in the 1790s when the energies of Jacobinism refocused working-class frustrations on the hegemonic alliance of Court and Church. Eventually, sedition laws drove the antinomians underground to stay. Abhorring all official places of worship, they met over pints of beer in public houses, singing songs composed by themselves out of their home-made hymnals set to such unthreatening melodies as “God Save the King” to delude the casual passer-by.

One such sect was the Muggletonians, whose very name ensured groans of genteel ridicule from the educated and powerful. They never numbered more than two hundred members in all of England. Taking their name from a seventeenth-century sectary, Ludowick Muggleton, they kept largely to themselves, did not evangelize, and did not pray, since they considered prayer servile. They met for fellowship, song, and hours of intricate theological discussion. For three hundred years, the faithful preserved the manuscripts of their prophets, records of discussion and debate, song books and membership lists, until Thompson tracked it all down in 1975 to a furniture depository in Tunbridge Wells. What Thompson wanted to show was some empirical connection between Muggletonian theology and the eccentric mythos of William Blake, since the two systems had so many already obvious antinomian similarities. It must have been discouraging for him to get no closer than “Hermitage,” the name of Blake’s mother’s first husband, a hosier named Thomas. In the Muggletonian song books are compositions from the 1750s by a George Hermitage, who in Thompson’s working hypothesis is a possible uncle of Blake. Thompson admits, however, that the image of Blake’s mother singing nonconformist family songs over the cradle of her infant son will have to remain a pretty fiction.

Why does Thompson specifically want the Muggletonians in the Blakean picture? There are four pertinent articles of Muggletonian belief. The first is that they repudiate moral law, that is, the notion of religion as a system of discipline and punishment for sin. They substitute love and generosity as [End Page 412] characteristic of the divine principle. The second is that Reason is explicitly identified as a Satanic item, binding, constraining, and inhibiting the imaginative vision of God. The third article is the doctrine of the Two Seeds, according to which Satan, in the form of the serpent, had carnal relations with Eve, who subsequently gave birth to Cain, the serpent’s child and half-brother to Abel and Seth, the legitimate offspring of Adam. Henceforth, though, the Satanic and divine seeds are mixed in all human beings. The persistent Satanic element, the humanum maternum, gives our worshippers occasion, not only for an indictment of the rich and powerful, serpent-spawn all, but for a gnostic hostility for all material creation, including the body, implying, one need hardly say, a robust sense of woman’s addiction to the secret and forbidden, the worm that flies in the night.

The fourth article deals with the divine influx of God into man on the occasion of Christ’s birth. For the Muggletonians, this incarnation (and eventual extinction) was entire. There weren’t any other parts of God left over somewhere else. Thompson sees here elements of a radical humanism which may have motivated such notions as “the human form divine” in Blake. On the other hand, the doctrine of the...

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