Christian Divinety and Slavery

Although most literature from the Romantic period did not engage with or challenge popular religious ideology, writers still used religious references and comparisons to enhance their ideas about humankind and sublime experiences. Both William Blake, in “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence, and Ann Yearsley, in “Death of Luco”, reference Christianity, however Blake emphasizes religious divinity in the ordinary world while Yearsley criticizes religious hypocrisy. Using a religious lens to examine these two poems highlight the distinction between what Christianity should represent, and what it actually represents. 

In “The Divine Image”, Blake conceptualizes four main tenets of Christianity- mercy, pity, peace, and love- as parts of a divine being as well as parts of a human being. He writes that these virtues are both “God our father dear” and “man, his child and care” (l. 6-8). Mercy, pity, peace, and love inherently have divine connotations in the Church, as it is believed that only God can perfectly uphold these virtues, but Blake explicitly personifies these virtues to show their presence across humanity. Blake writes that “Mercy has a human heart”, “Pity, a human face”, “Love, the human form”, and “Peace, the human dress”; he intentionally capitalizes each virtuous word to emphasize its importance and transcendental nature (l. 13-16). By describing the presence of these otherwise divinely religious concepts in average human forms, Blake challenges the strict separation between God’s perfection and humanity’s imperfection. This optimistic perspective suggests that the religious ideals of mercy, pity, peace, and love, while divine in concept, are ordinary in appearance and can be found within “every man of every clime” (l. 13). Rather than reserving Christianity for only the most pious individuals, Blake supports the notion that anyone and everyone can participate in the Christian faith. 

As a part of the collection Songs of Innocence, the inclusive Christianity depicted in “The Divine Image” represents an idealistic, and even naive, understanding of Christianity rather than the reality. Yearsley, however, presents a less idealistic depiction of Christianity in “Death of Luco”. This poem tells the story of Luco, an enslaved man, and the violent and hateful actions directed toward him by his Christian slave owners. Yearsley explicitly refers to Luco’s master as the “remorseless Christian” and the “rude Christian”, and she later extends her criticism to all of slave owners that “dare avow to God” (l. 253, 259, 285). Her criticism of slave-owning Christians speaks to the hypocrisy of those who believe in a kind, forgiving God while simultaneously owning, torturing, raping, and killing enslaved human beings. Unlike Blake’s depiction of Christianity, Yearsley uses the sociopolitical issue of slavery to contextualize the contradictory reality of Christianity. Therefore, Blake presents the perfect image of Christianity, based upon God’s divinity and the principles of mercy, pity, peace, and love, and Yearsley describes the same Christianity, only after it has been appropriated by humankind. Where Blake shows humanity’s potential for divine goodness, then, Yearsley shows humanity’s actual dismissal of divine goodness.

2 thoughts on “Christian Divinety and Slavery”

  1. Excellently structured argument. Very well done. I felt almost obligated to take a look into Songs of Experience at “A Divine Image,” the companion piece to “The Divine Image.” Here “Cruelty,” “Jealousy,” “Terror,” and “Secrecy” have a human form (Blake 1-4). I wonder whether Blake is doing something similar to what you’ve identified Yearsley doing in “The Death of Luco,” particularly since the first stanza of the Experience poem is basically just the third stanza of its Innocence counterpart, even including the phrase “human form divine.”

  2. Dear rices,
    Forgive me if I sound pretentious but I believe that your reading of Blake’s “The Divine Image” is slightly off. You state that “Rather than reserving Christianity for only the most pious individuals, Blake supports the notion that anyone and everyone can participate in the Christian faith.” As someone who is focusing on William Blake and social justice for the final paper, I happened to find out that Blake rebelled against “catechism” (principles of the Christian faith) because it was meant to maintain “class distinctions”. Therefore, Blake is actually subverting the authority of the Christian faith. You can see this especially in the last stanza of “The Divine Image” when Blake writes: “And all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew.” Blake isn’t saying that everyone can participate in the Christian faith but rather than there is no need for Christianity to draw distinctions from other religions that have different values in faith because we’re all humans.

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