The Attack on Marriage Is Nothing New, as These Poets Reveal

Writings by 18th-century romantic poets anticipated today’s cultural attack on family, marriage, and religion in the name of freedom, justice, and authenticity.

by Patricia Engler on May 19, 2023

The city was London, England, and I (as usual) was lost. Sure, I had the GPS on my phone—the phone with the newly cracked screen, thanks to a patch of VERY UNEVEN SIDEWALK near Big Ben. But the address at which the GPS insisted I had “arrived” looked nothing like the destination I’d expected. Apparently though, somewhere amidst the glassy buildings which now rose above the neighborhood in which I’d landed, there had once stood the home of eighteenth-century poet William Blake.

Why had I embarked on this ill-fated pilgrimage to Blake’s neighborhood? It was another stop along my backpacking journey to trace the history and consequences of Marxism. Blake and his fellow English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had been two key members of the “Romantic” movement,1 which marked another milestone on the road to the neo-Marxian “sexual humanism” pervading Western culture.2 Who were these provocative poets, and how has their thinking helped pave that cultural pathway?

William Blake (1757–1827)

Born and raised in London among a family of non-conformists,3 Blake helped open a print shop and worked with the publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s business served as a social epicenter for a circle of influential political radicals including chemist and Unitarian theologian Joseph Priestley and feminist forerunner Mary Wollstonecraft,4 whom some scholars interpret as pioneering the “free love” movement alongside Blake.5

Although sometimes referred to as a “Christian socialist” or a “committed Christian,” Blake hardly embraced a biblical worldview. For instance, instead of accepting the Bible’s core salvation doctrines that humans are fallen and only Jesus can save us, Blake wrote that “Men are admitted into Heaven  . . . because they have cultivated their understandings.”6 In fact, Blake endorsed the original lie, “You [can] be like God” which Satan wielded in Genesis 3:5. He believed “men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast”7 and was quoted by an acquaintance as blasphemously declaring that “[Jesus] is the only God  . . . and so am I, and so are you.”8

Having rejected God’s Word, Blake also famously shunned a biblical view of sexuality founded in the Genesis passages which Jesus cited when questioned about marriage.9 Contrary to the truth revealed in Scripture, Blake criticized purity as an unnatural stricture associated with “pale religious lechery.”10 The church, according to Blake, therefore functions as an oppressive force suppressing sexual “freedom.”11

In Blake then, we clearly see the early themes of sexual revolution, which later movements would leverage as a means to destabilize society by undermining family.

In Blake then, we clearly see the early themes of sexual revolution, which later movements would leverage as a means to destabilize society by undermining family.12 The marriage and family institutions which God ordained in Genesis serve as pillars of civil stability, and it’s no secret that an efficient way to demolish a building is to weaken its pillars. Still, the extent to which Blake personally pursued this destabilization is debated. Historian E. P. Thomson states, “Blake was not a hurrah-revolutionary, as he is sometimes represented, nor was he a premature practitioner of Marxist dialectic.”13 Even so, Blake has been claimed as a figure of socialism. As an entry on states,

Blake was a political radical for his times, being a democrat, a republican, a supporter of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, a free thinker, a critic of industrial capitalism, a fierce opponent of slavery, empire and imperialism, a champion of free love and women’s rights, and committed to a proto form of Anarchism and of Socialism . . . . Blake was a left-wing radical and is still respected today within the British Left and the British Radical movement.14

Furthermore, another entry on notes that both Blake and Marx structured their thinking around a vision for the future transformation of humanity—a vision later picked up by today’s transhumanists.

There is no need to repeat: Marx is not Blake. But while ‘Marxism’ merely sought some changes in economic structure, Marx was concerned with ‘self-alteration’ [Selbstveränderung], ‘the alteration of men on a mass scale’. This question of self-alteration – the aspect which Marx has in common with Blake – is not an aspect but the whole point of Marx.15

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

Blake’s fellow Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, anticipated certain elements of Marxist thinking even more directly. For instance, both Shelley and Marx remarked that the social systems of their days needed to be overthrown.16

Not all scholars interpret Shelley as a forerunner of Marxism so much as a voice for anarchism.17 But regardless of how directly his ideas may have connected with Marx’s, Shelley clearly stood alongside Blake in the path toward the “sexual humanism” we see today. And just like our culture’s messages about sexuality are symptoms of society basing its thinking on man’s word rather than God’s, so Shelley’s views about sexuality arose from his rejection of God’s Word.

Instead of basing his thinking on Scripture, Shelley dabbled in the occult as a youth before becoming a vocal atheist.18 Although Charles Darwin had not yet popularized evolutionary thinking, Shelley read the evolutionary writings of Darwin’s grandfather19 and promoted ideas which have been called “evolutionary pantheism.”20 Karl Marx’s daughter and her common-law partner even praised Shelley for possessing “a certain conception of evolution long before it had been enunciated in clear language by Darwin, or had even entered seriously into the region of scientific possibilities.”21

From his unbiblical worldview foundation, Shelley advocated for “free love,” calling purity “a monkish and evangelical superstition.”22 And like Blake, he viewed Christianity as a storm cloud of oppression hovering over society in general and sexuality in particular.23

In a helpful analysis of these themes in Shelley’s writings, Carl Trueman explains how Shelley believed that a key to political liberation was to “free” humanity from marriage.24 Shelley viewed marriage as a restrictive, unnatural, and inauthentic institution that thwarted human happiness.25 Like Marx, he thought that inequality and oppression resulted from society’s economic system, which kept its stability thanks to marriage.26 Because marriage rests on the biblical doctrines founded in Genesis, “freeing” society would therefore require rejecting God’s Word.

So, Shelley promoted the idea that freedom, justice, and authenticity demanded the erosion of marriage and “religion”—themes we also see in contemporary culture. And like today’s culture harnesses popular media to convey these themes to the public, Shelley harnessed poetry as a weapon of social transformation.27

Rather, these attacks mark the continuation of lies as old as Eden—the message that God’s Word is not completely true and that humans can become “like God,” serving as their own authorities for truth.

Summing Up

Ultimately, the writings of eighteenth-century romantic poets like Blake and Shelley remind us that today’s attacks on family, marriage, and religion in the name of freedom, justice, and authenticity are nothing new. Rather, these attacks mark the continuation of lies as old as Eden—the message that God’s Word is not completely true and that humans can become “like God,” serving as their own authorities for truth.

Embracing these lies leads only to destruction, as Adam and Eve learned all too well. Following the broken compasses of our fallen hearts leads to more than the temporary lostness I experienced in London. It leads to eternal death. But thanks be to God that Jesus, the Son of God himself, took on human flesh to pay the death penalty for the sins of all who believe in him (John 3:16). As the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Jesus offers the hope and freedom which the Romantics missed—and which our lost culture is searching for today.


  1. “Romantic” here doesn’t refer to the rom-com sense of the word, but to a movement among certain artists, writers, and thinkers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. With a focus on praising nature, emotion, beauty, and the human individual, this movement was filled with the worship of creation rather than the Creator (see Romans 1:25).
  2. See Bodie Hodge, “Introduction,” in The Gender and Marriage War, eds. Ken Ham, Bodie Hodge, and Avery Foley (Hebron, Kentucky: Answers in Genesis, 2021), xi–xii; and Owen Strachan, Christianity and Wokeness (Washington, D.C.: Salem Books, 2021), 75–58.
  3. That is, a church movement which did not conform to the official Church of England. See Keri Davies, “The Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family: Snapshots from the Archive,” Literature Compass 3, no. 6 (2006): 1297–1319,
  4. See Jeffrey Barclay Mertz, “A Visionary Among the Radicals: William Blake and the Circle of Joseph Johnson, 1790–95,” PhD dissertation, University of Oxford, 2010.
  5. E.g., an article in the journal Radical Philosophy Review states, “The free love movement of the mid-twentieth century is linked historically to the philosophies of sexual libertarianism advocated by eighteenth-century marriage abolitionists such as William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft and nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialist utopians such as Charles Fourier and Emma Goldman,” (Shelley Park, “Polyamory Is to Polygamy as Queer Is to Barbaric?” Radical Philosophy Review 20, no. 2 [2017], 297–328, DOI: 10.5840/radphilrev201751277).
  6. William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgement” (1810) in The Complete Writings of William Blake, with Variant Readings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 615.
  7. William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (circa 1790–93)” in The Complete Writings of William Blake (1996), 153.
  8. William Blake, quoted by Henry Crabb Robinson in G. E. Bentley, Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 310.
  9. See Matthew 19:3–9.
  10. Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” 160; and William Blake, “America” in The Complete Writings of William Blake (1996), 199.
  11. E.g., William Blake, “The Garden of Love,” in The Complete Writings of William Blake (1996), 163. The irony of “free” sexuality is that the promised freedom comes with the chains of snares described in Proverbs 7. Meanwhile, Biblical sexual purity brings the genuine flourishing described elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., see Song of Solomon and 1 Corinthians 7). Such irony is hardly surprising considering that Satan is “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and therefore switches the labels on things.
  12. An example is the neo-Marxian radical feminist movement, which has been especially vocal about the abolition of family and marriage. In a book promoting these themes, radical feminist Shulamith Firestone wrote, “Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society” (Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution [New York: William Morrow, 1970], 43; see also pages 232–274).
  13. E. P. Thomson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (New York: The New Press, 1993), 58.
  14. “Blake, William (1757–1827),” Marxists Internet Archive Encyclopedia of Marxism,, accessed April 2023,
  15. Cyril Smith, “Marx and the Fourfold Vision of William Blake,”, accessed April 2023,
  16. By way of specific examples, Marx and Engels declared that communism required “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions,” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party [1848], trans. Samuel Moore, ed. Fredrich Engels, [Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1910], 58), while Shelley stated, “The system of society as it exists at present must be overthrown from the foundations with all its superstructure of maxims and of forms before we shall find anything but disappointment in our intercourse with any but a few select spirits,” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a letter to Leigh Hunt dated May 1, 1820, available in Roger Ingpen, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley vol. 2 [London: G. Bell and Sons, 1914], 777).
  17. E.g., see Paul A. Cantor, “Shelley’s Radicalism: The Poet as Economist,” in Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, eds. Paul A. Cantor and Stephen Cox (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009), 225–261.
  18. Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Flamingo, 1995), 16–25, 50.
  19. See Holmes, Shelley, 75.
  20. Edward and Eleanor Marx-Aveling, “Shelley and Socialism,” transcribed by Ted Crawford,, accessed April 2023, To-Day (April 1888), 103–116,
  21. Pantheism is the idea that God is in all things, in the sense that everything is part of God. While Shelley rejected belief in God, Shelley has been interpreted as viewing nature itself (or some “spiritual” element of nature) as an eternal, life-giving force which exists in all natural things and which drives evolution. See Edward and Eleanor Marx-Aveling, “Shelley and Socialism.” See also Petru Golban, “Nature as a Mode of Existence: Dualism, Escapism, Pantheism and Co-Authorship in English Romantic Poetry,” Ankara Anadolu ve Rumeli Araştırmaları Dergisi 2, no. 3: 89–110.
  22. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab (London: R. Carlile, 1822), 112.
  23. Examples of these themes are clear in Shelley’s profoundly blasphemous poem Queen Mab, as Carl Trueman explains (Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020], 144–158).
  24. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph, 144–158.
  25. E.g., see Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Against Legal Marriage,” in Shelley on Love: An Anthology, ed. Richard Holmes (Berkley: University of California Press, 1980), 45–48; see also Trueman, The Rise and Triumph, 148–149.
  26. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph, 152.
  27. For more on Shelley’s strategy of wielding poetry as an instrument of revolution, see Truman, The Rise and Triumph, 144–148.


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