Saturday, October 09, 2010


Tue 10 Nov 2009 11:30:59 AM EST




No commited Christian ever had a more antagonistic relationship to the church than William Blake. This, probably more

than anything else, has prevented wider recognition of his spiritual genius. Like Paul he became an apostle to the gentiles and

suffered the attacks of the orthodox. In his non-allegiance to

the organized church Blake is in good company: Milton, Emerson,

Whitman, Lincoln, and Gandhi all refused the church for essentially the

same reasons--it never was what it purported to be.

       In this chapter we
examine in some detail Blake's relationship to the church.

Part One , a survey of church history

from Blake's point of view, we trace some of the sources of his

ideas and attitudes.

In Part Two we take a closer look at the

contemporary scene with sections on the State Church, the Society

of Friends, the Methodists, and the Deists.

In Part Three we

examine Blake's personal associations as they relate to religious

community, and we conclude with his statements about the church

and the uses which he made of the word in his poetry.


A Blakean View of Christianity

       The immediate followers of Jesus were accused of turning the world upside down. They followed him in challenging all

forms of worldly power including death. One can

make a good case for the idea that the Christian by definition

challenges the powers of the world; that's certainly the meaning

of 'radical Christian'.

       Blake perceived the legacy that Jesus left behind in

two ways. On one hand the church as the mystical body of Christ

consists of those who continually challenge the authority or

powers of the world. On the other hand the Church as an institution becomes one of the powers of the world. The tension between these two principles probably exists within the breast of

anyone seriously interested in Christ.

       In the second century href="" target="-blank">Ignatius of Antioch
eloquently embodied that tension with his

life. Ignatius died a martyr to the secular power of the Roman

Empire. Before that happened, he had spent much of his time as

an eccleiastical authority rooting out dissenters, whom he called

heretics; he did this in the course of establishing the institutional authority of what became the Roman Church.


these two streams of authority came

together. In 312 A.D. the new emperor declared himself a Christian and assumed control of the Church. He exercised that control through the simple device of naming his most trusted servant

as bishop. The Church became an arm of the political power of

the empire.

       From that day to this the Church has been primarily one

of the powers of the world. The power of the Church has been expressed through ecclesiastical hierarchies and creeds, both imposed upon the rank and file by various coercive techniques essentially identical with those of other worldly powers. This

means that the spiritual reality of Christ vis-a-vis the Church

is only actualized through the same sort of dissent that Jesus

made in the beginning.

These conclusions of course may be debated, but they represent the basic and lifelong viewpoint underlying the radical protest which was Blake's art.


The Early Church

       After the departure of Christ converts to the new faith

gathered together in small groups awaiting the bodily return

of Christ, which they expected momentarily. Paul and the other

missionaries organized these brotherhoods throughout the Roman

world. Paul's letters usually contain two sections:

poetic images created to encourage their faith as they awaited the

return of Christ at the end of the age and practical advice for the

Christians' life together.

       He wrote for example to the

that they were "buried with him in baptism [and]

risen with him through the faith". No one could interpret that as a

statement of material fact, but rather as a powerful poetic

identification of the faithful with Christ. In spite of Paul's

encouragement the years went by disappointing their hopes for

the second coming and requiring adjustment to changed expectations.


Two classes of leaders arose, whom we may call priests
and poets. The priests dedicated their efforts to
preserving the heritage of the apostles. They clearly
spelled out the facts and implications of the faith
which they had received from the first generation of
believers. They claimed the authority of their
forebears, and they required uniformity of belief
and obedience as a condition of membership in the
. Paul's practical advice to struggling
congregations became the rules of order; href="notes.htm#dogma" target="-blank"> his poetic
images became dogma. The

priests imposed their order and dogma upon the majority
of their followers and cast out the others. The
priests go by the name of the Church Fathers, and the
institution which they organized became the orthodox

       The other class of leaders we have called the poets.

The earliest Christian poets largely manifested themselves in a

movement called

. While the Church Fathers transformed

doctrine into dogma, these Christian Gnostic poets moved in the

opposite direction. Instead of focusing on the letter they listened to the Spirit, and they heard a wide variety of things.

They believed in "letting a thousand flowers bloom". Many of them

enjoyed Greek or oriental learning, which they combined with

Christian thought, much to the dismay of the priests.

       What did the Church Fathers find so threatening about

the Gnostics? First of all it was a matter of temperament;

priests and poets are temperamentally at opposite poles;
it has

always been so. The priestly enterprise requires a conforming

flock; poets simply don't conform. The Gnostic poets came up

with all sorts of radical ideas which severely threatened the

emerging orthodoxy.

       They became the first of a long line of non-conforming Christians, a line that comes straight down to William


Obviously a movement like Christian Gnosticism, creative

as it may have been, didn't make for order. The Church Fathers

were much better organized, and they successfully cast out the

Gnostics, naming them heretics. Bowing to their conforming zeal

the Christian Gnostics went underground but emerged periodically

offering a radical alternative to the established way. The


the Waldensians and many other groups

through the ages experienced a grace that freed them both from

the law and from much concern about this world.

       The priestly

party, who usually controlled the sword, assisted thousands of

them in their exit from this world. The Church through the

centuries combined a rigidly orthodox view of Christian theology with a bloodthirsty reaction toward their theological opponents.

       Blake, like many other thoughtful people, discounted

the orthodox theology on the basis of the bloodthirsty spirit,

which he perceived as an obvious contradiction to the spirit of

Christ. "Though I speak with the tongue of men and angels and have

not love"
. The Church had done that, and Blake knew it. He

therefore listened to the tongues of other men and other angels.



       While the Church Fathers congregated in Rome, Gnosticism

had its center in Alexandria, a marketplace of competing religious

and philosophical ideas. There in the third century a man named

gave birth to Neo-platonism, an amalgam of the best of

Greek thought with the ethical teachings of Christ. Extremely

eclectic, drawing on currents of thought from Rome to India, Plotinus's teachings became the religion of some of the later Roman


       During the fourth century the religion of Neo-platonism

disappeared as a rival of the Church. However it deeply influenced the shape of Christian theology, most notably through the

mind of St. Augustine. Augustine in his spiritual journey passed

through a Neo-platonic stage, which left its mark upon his Christian life and writing. Augustine occupies an anomalous position

in the history of the Church: he is both a Church Father of impeccable reputation and the spiritual forebear of many theologians

whose Neo-platonic bent put them on the fringe of orthodoxy:

       Erigena, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Meister Eckhart are a few

of these Neo-platonic Christians. Some of these thinkers succeeded in remaining within the umbrella of the authorized tradition; some were partially or totally cast out. Among them they

preserved to theology a breadth and a poetic dimension that burst

open the priestly cocoon with the 15th Century Renaissance and

the 16th Century Reformation.


The Middle Ages

Through the Middle Ages the successors of the Church

Fathers, most notably the authorities at Rome, maintained a

fairly firm grip on the shape of theological and intellectual

activity. They presided over an age of stability with a gradual

leavening of creative change. They aborted many changes in the

name of orthodoxy; the aborted change usually went underground to

reappear at a more open time and place. The openness most often

proved momentary. Creative truth struggled against rigid institutional necessities.

       In spite of all the Church periodically gave birth to

men and women who, from the platform of the orthodox tradition,

were elevated to a direct vision of God. Most of the creative

change in the Church originated with such types. The Church rather uniformly discouraged mystical visions of God unless they

conformed in full detail to the orthodoxy of the moment. God

refused such limitations; the entire period witnessed recurring

visions of great diversity. Many of these prophetically judged

the priestly position. A long volume could be written about the

many prophetic visions which in one way or another resemble that

of our poet.

       The Church was broad enough to include and even honor

many of these free spirits, but the works which followed them in

the hands of their more militant disciples generally fell into

ill repute. The early Franciscan movement is a case in point.

St. Francis preached to his little sisters the birds; he shared

the stigmata of Christ and suggested that to share Christ's poverty might be fitting for his disciples, an extremely radical

idea which an extremely wealthy pope indulged. But many of Francis' disciples faced persecution of various sorts.

Roughly contemporary with Francis another monk named

Joachim of Flora rediscovered for the nth time the dominance of

the Spirit over the letter. Preaching what he called the Everlasting Gospel Joachim proposed to dispense with the corrupt and

worldly political structures of the establishment and move into

a New Age, the era of the Holy Spirit. The New Age would replace

the age of the Church; it would be an age of freedom with everyone led
directly by the Spirit.


had foretold this.

Even Moses had said, "would to God that all the Lord's people were

prophets". For the creative poet the New Age represented freedom

at its best, exactly what Jesus had come to bring us. For most

of the priests it represented
antinomianism at its worst.

The Everlasting Gospel and the New Age came down the

centuries through the various subterranean channels of the heterodox
Swedenborg announced its advent in 1757, which

happened to be the year of Blake's birth; Blake noted this with

obvious delight in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'.


later, in the autumn of his life, Blake filled his spiritual

journal with a fragmentary poem called 'The Everlasting Gospel'.

It was his systematic attempt to set forth in the most direct

terms possible his precise view of Christianity and its founder.

He probably never concluded the project to his full satisfaction.


The Reformation

       To many of us the Protestant Reformation represents a

breaking free from the oppression of ecclesiastical tyranny. Unfortunately the tyrannies of Luther and Calvin soon replaced

those of the Pope, and the conflicts among the various orthodoxies brought about in the 16th and 17th Centuries perhaps the most

satanic bloodletting the church has ever experienced.

       The Protestant authorities in general were no less

rigid theologically than the Romans from whom they had separated.

When a German cobbler named

Jacob Boehme

started talking directly

to God, his pastor had him exiled. However the Lord got Boehme's

ear and proceeded to talk to him about Oneness, about the emanations coming from the One, the dark side and the light side. The

Lord graced Boehme with a fantastically vivid and voluminous
imagination; his visions resembled in many ways those of the Christian
Gnostics and of Plotinus. They also owed much to the alchemical


       Boehme went a long way beyond the

orthodoxy of either Catholic or Protestant authorities, but a

sweetness of spirit pervaded his mind reminiscent of St. Francis

and of other simple souls who have walked with God.

Cast out by his church, Boehme still won the respect

and support of many serious thinkers, products of the liberating

currents of Renaissance and Reformation. His friends published

his work widely, and it endured the test of time. Almost two

hundred years later, in the late 18th Century, it appeared in

an English translation attributed to William Law.

       This work became one of Blake's primary sources. He seized on Boehme's visions with delight; he recognized in Boehme a creative servant

of God who held the imagination as highly as he did himself.

Speaking of a series of anthropomorphic metaphysical designs

which appeared in Law's Boehme he told Crabb Robinson that

"Michaelangelo could not have done better". Much of the Neo-platonic flavor of Blake's work came down to him through Boehme,

his most immediate fountain for the

heterodox tradition

       For a great many peasants in Germany the Reformation

meant little more than a change of masters; nothing really happened. They had been accustomed to doing what they were told by

the Pope's priests; now they did what they were told by Luther's

priests. Likewise Geneva afforded no real relief from the pervasive spiritual repression, what Blake referred to as the "mind

forg'd manacles". Soon after he won power, Calvin had a child beheaded for striking his father; he executed a man named Servetus

for denying the Trinity. He and his contemporaries inaugurated

a new round of bloodthirstiness decimating the population of Europe,
all in the name of Christ! Blake observed all this without

the usual conventional blindness and concluded that the Reformation arose through envy of power--a plague on both houses!

       But some of the devout did go further than their masters.

Some peasants decided that a believer should be baptized after

the age of consent; he should even elect his own priest. The

Holy Spirit swept across Europe with the

Radical Reformation.

Free churches arose here and there and were stamped out with

great vigor by Catholics and (right wing) Protestants alike.

The Romans had never shown such brutality. It was a century to

to be thankful you were not born in.

       In their efforts to escape extermination the free

churchmen wandered across the face of Europe. They found refuge

in a few islands of political sanity amidst the general theological madness: Switzerland, Bohemia, Holland. Another of these islands was England. The non-Conformist tradition in England

swelled to a climax in the 17th Century. The Puritans came to

power about 1642 and six years later went so far as to behead a


       During the Civil War the anabaptists and radicals--

Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchists, etc. etc.--came within an inch of taking over England.

For a few years censorship collapsed, and free thought had open

season. Every conceivable idea about God and man had its day.

The Levellers even questioned the idea of private property. Their religious and social theories were so radical

that Cromwell and his confederates found it necessary, for the

protection of their middle class values, to return the Crown to

the son of the man whom they had beheaded. John Milton had

warned them that they would do this unless they learned to control their greed.



and Milton both exercised an overwhelming influence on the mind of William Blake; call them his spiritual grandparents. Milton shared much of the radical theology of

the left wing. Even before the Civil War he had expressed his

strong anti-priestly bent: "The hungry sheep look up and are not

fed". Milton believed that the Church had become hopelessly corrupted by Constantine.


       We can summarize this "Blakean vision of Christianity"

with the conclusion that Blake thought of the institutional church

as one of the

powers of the world
, under the dominion of the God

of this World. He described it with the colorful though not original phrase, "the Synagogue of Satan". Bear in mind that in

Blake's eternal vision differences of time and space had little

meaning; he made no distinction between the Sadduccees of the

Sanhedrin who had condemned Jesus and the Anglican bishops of his

own day, one of whom condemned his friend, Tom Paine.


The Contemporary Scene

       Shortly after the publication of Paine's Age of Reason

with its deist critique of the Bible, a certain Bishop Watson

replied with an "An Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters

addressed to Thomas Paine". George III commented that he wasn't

aware the Bible needed an apology. Blake noted in his "Annotations to Watson's Apology" that "Paine has not attacked Christianity; Watson has defended Antichrist". On the back of the

title page Blake wrote: "To defend the Bible in this year 1798

would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without


       The Beast and the Whore, two of the more flamboyant

images of Revelation, in Blake's vernacular symbolized respectively the State and the Church.


A State Church

England has always had a State Church. Although many

fat books have been written about it, the English Reformation

primarily signified Henry VIII's declaration of independence

from the papacy. Through the Middle Ages religious and temporal

authority had existed side by side in continuous alliance and

usually with a minimum of tension. At the high point of papal

authority in 1077 a Holy Roman Emperor waited for three days in

the snow outside the door until Pope Gregory VII saw fit to receive him. The Pope considered the kings and princes of Europe

his spiritual children.

       Henry VIII was a child who grew up. When the Pope

denied him permission to put away his wife in favor of a later

romantic interest, Henry declared himself in effect the pope of

the English Church and gave himself the necessary dispensation.

That was the major event of the English Reformation; thereafter

the ultimate authority of the Church of England resided with the


       By Blake's standards a State Church is the ultimate

abomination. He was aware that in the second century at least

one Emperor had attempted to enforce the worship of his person

as God throughout the Roman Empire, resulting in considerable

persecution of those Jews and Christians who refused. Much of

the New Testament addressed the problem. In 312 A.D. Constantine

took over the Church and made it an arm of the State. That's the

way Blake saw it in the 18th Century.

       In America we take for granted the separation of Church

and State as a constitutional principle. This limits the sort of

power that corrupted Henry VIII. In England many people feel
comfortable with a State Church, but traditions of freedom have
limited its power. A large proportion of the population exist in
religious groups outside of the State Church, and probably an even larger proportion have no significant religious attachment.

       Even in Blake's day the tradition of dissent was an

accepted part of the established order. True,the State Church

operated Oxford and Cambridge for its own purposes, primarily

preparing clergymen. But dissenting academies had arisen to

provide a form of education in many ways superior to that of the

established universities, especially in the new areas of science

and industry. Dissenters largely carried out the Industrial Revolution.

       The 17th Century had witnessed an explosion of dissent

in which the head of State and Church had lost his own head. But

the Restoration in 1660 reinstated the former arrangements. The

Commonwealth struggle had led to a general disgust with religious

controversy. Enthusiasm came to be despised and feared by clergy

and laity alike. Conventional 18th Century religion had little to

do with the feelings. It was rather an intellectual and political


One of Blake's four zoas,


aptly portrays the God of the majority of Anglicans during Blake's age. The State Church existed as a facade or

symbol of order and authority, but with limited power, temporal

or spiritual.

       The State Church, like the Jewish Sanhedrin, represented

a minority of the people, the conservative establishment types,

the squirearchy, the people who for centuries had controlled society. Frequently the landowner's younger son became the priest,

though his character may have been dissolute. Politics dictated

clerical appointments. Pluralism was common, the same man being

appointed to a number of church positions. He would hire a curate

to look after each parish's affairs, often at a tenth of the income which the parish provided him.

       The bishops served primarily as political officials;

they spent most of their time in London sitting in the House of

Lords, where they generally provided a faithful voting block for

the Crown. Tithes were the law of the land and enforced much as

the income tax is today, much of the proceeds going to the clergy. It

was a convenient arrangement, but it could not last; there was

too much dissent, too much growth, too much creativity. Change

was overtaking all England's institutions, and the Church was

no exception.

The religious changes had been quietly gathering force

for centuries.

       Side by side with Henry VIII's Reformation had

existed a grass roots movement which we may call the

Radical Reformation

It was made up of less worldly types than Henry,

people who took their religion more seriously. One such group

departed England in 1619 aboard the Mayflower. Their descendants

became the Established Church in New England and spun off dissents

from their dissent, like that of Roger Williams.

       William Penn brought shiploads of other irregulars to

found a new colony. The Pilgrims, the Baptists, the Quakers of

necessity learned to coexist--with one another, with other Eurpoean religious groups, and with the Cavaliers of Virginia, who

were solidly Anglican. All cooperated in throwing off the yoke

of the mother country. In this melting pot religious groups

learned to compete in an ecclesiastical form of free enterprise.

It represented quite an improvement over the religious wars that

had decimated Europe in previous centuries.

       The same fluid climate existed in the mother country.

Every group that immigrated contained members who remained behind

and found a place in English society. The State Church, with its

large and unwieldy ecclesiastical bureaucracy, existed alongside

an infrastructure of non-Conformist groups. What these groups

lacked in political clout they made up for in creativity, character, industry, and commercial acumen. Each group has a fascinating story. In this chapter we look at two of them which had a

specific relationship to the mind of William Blake.



       The proliferation of radical believers brought forth

by the Puritan Revolution included a group called Ranters, who

had descended from the the

16th Century Familists
of Holland.

The direct guidance of the Holy Spirit freed the Ranters from

most or all legal restraints, and they were given to extreme

statements (and demonstrations!) of their freedom. The Society

of Friends grew out of this fertile soil.

In the 17th Century George Fox, an idealistic young man, explored the wide variety of religious options

present in the Commonwealth. From a strictly scriptural view point he found something lacking in each of them. For example

Jesus had insisted that there should be no preeminence among

the faithful ("Call no man father"). Fox found an unchristian

preeminence in every religious group which he observed.

After several years of spiritual travail Fox came into

an experience of grace. Thereafter he enjoyed the direct and

continuous presence of the Holy Spirit guiding his words and

actions; he recognized no other control. The ultimate anti-

authoritarian, Fox began going to what he called the steeple

houses, where he proceeded to denounce the preeminent in each

of them. Naturally he won a lot of trouble for his pains. He

saw the inside of many jails (like Paul had done), but he started

something that's still going on. Modern Quakers still try to be

the church together without preeminence. Fox and his friends

refused to doff their hats and discarded all titles of honor in

favor of the familiar 'thee'. Both of these postures were solid

blows aimed at the demise of hierarchical society in favor of the

brotherhood of man.

       Through the centuries the idea of the inner light in a

man's heart has caused various excesses, but Fox's heart was good

and the Holy Spirit led him to gather numbers of people around the

most admirable moral and social values. The strong anti-authoritarianism of the Friends incurred wrath and persecution from many

directions; still they multiplied, witnessing to their spiritual

power. By the late 18th Century they had become numerous, prosperous and respectable, and no doubt more conformed to the world than

Fox's generation had been.

       Blake undoubtedly knew something of the power embodied

in the Quaker movement. After the Moment of Grace the Quaker

term 'self-annihilation' became a key construct of his theology.

We could relate other Blakean expressions to the Quaker language.

Although Blake preferred to engrave his human forms nude, when

he did represent man clothed, the traditional Quaker garb appeared

as a symbol of the good and faithful man. Study of Blake's works

and his biographers has revealed no formal connection with the

Quaker community. Nevertheless many of Blake's values clearly

resemble those of the Friends:

The Friends were anti-sacramentarian; they did not practice

Baptism or Holy Communion, the two Protestant sacraments. In

'A Vision of the Last Judgment ' Blake put an apostle on each side

of Jesus representing respectively Baptism and the Lord's Supper,

but he proceeded to define them as follows: "All Life consists of

these Two, Throwing off Error and Knaves from our company continually, & Receiving Truth or Wise Men into our Company continually."

He also said "The outward Ceremony is Antichrist." And in the

famous lines of

"My Spectre"
he identified

the bread and wine with forgiving and being forgiven, without

which we can only commune unworthily.

As already noted Fox and his disciples had no used for

priests. Blake used priests repeatedly as objects of derision. In

his "French Revolution" for example the archbishop attempts to

speak but finds that he can only hiss. In 'America' Blake has

the "Priests in rustling scales Rush into reptile coverts". Other

examples could be given to show that Blake generally thought of

priests as serpents though he did not apply this evaluation to

the poor and powerless priests of the people.

The Quakers have always been noted for their refusal

to participate in war. Blake's similar perspective on

is treated elsewhere. Throughout the 18th Century

the Quakers vigorously opposed the slave trade, which had become

a profitable element of England's commercial life. Unlike much

of the establishment they had enough integrity to see clearly the

spiritual implications of human bondage. They formed the first

abolitionist society in England and disowned any Friend involved

in the slave trade. John Woolman, perhaps the outstanding Quaker

of the century, devoted his life to achieving the abolition of

slavery. Blake was no Woolman, but one of his earliest prophetic works,

'Visions of the Daughters of Albion'
, is among other
things a spirited outcry against slavery.

The Quaker oriented reader who becomes familiar with

Blake will find other significant correspondences.
(Look at the Pendle Hill document

Woolman and Blake

Of all the

religious groups in existence today the Quakers in their theology

most nearly approximate the thought forms and theology of William

Blake. Borrowing a phrase from Northrup Frye the Quakers and Blake

both understood "the central form of Christianity as a vision rather than as a doctrine or ritual".



All historians agree that the most vital spiritual

movement in 18th Century England came with the Methodist Revival. John Wesley, born and nurtured in the bosom of the Church,

reacted against the peurility of the established way. At the

age of 35, after much struggle with various forms of religious

unreality, he found a new level of truth; at
"his heart was strangely warmed". Soon he followed his fellow Methodist, George Whitefield, to Bristol where he began field preaching. (This happened

some two decades before Blake's birth.) For the next fifty years

Wesley averaged two sermons a day and led thousands, primarily

from the underclass, into a heartfelt experience of grace.

Wesley remained until his death an Anglican priest, but

after his heart warming experience he rapidly lost standing in

conventional religious circles, and one by one the doors of England's churches closed against his enthusiasm. In response he

claimed the world as his parish and proceeded to organize his

converts in Methodist Societies. They became after his death

the second largest English denomination.

Many historians believe

that the Methodist Revival prevented a social and political revolution in England. The Methodists filled the vacuum of spiritual authority manifested by the dead formalism of the established

Church and the lukewarmness of the ageing dissenting groups.

Blake and Wesley had a great deal in common. Each combined high intelligence and spiritual vision with an uncompromising temperament. These qualities led both men to a spiritual

struggle continuing into middle life and reaching its climax in

what I have called a

Moment of Grace

Wesley described his as a

heart warming experience
. Afterward his preaching led to a similar

experience in the lives of thousands. It became in fact the normative religious experience of the spiritually vital segment of the

English population, both in and out of the established Church.

The resemblance to the experience of George Fox is both obvious

and remarkable. (The same could be said of Paul and Augustine.)



which Blake wrote in October of 1800 to his

friend, Butts, certainly describes what we may call a heart

warming experience. Always an individualist Blake

had too critical a mind to identify himself consciously with the

Methodists (who wanted to found a new denomination), but without question his Moment of Grace owed much

to the

Methodist movement

In the most fundamental

spiritual progression of their lives Wesley and Blake were twins.

Uncompromising individuals they both refused the easy spiritual

path of the majority of their fellows and struggled alone until

the light came. Each achieved a breakthrough to an outstanding

level of spiritual creativity.

Quite close in background and basic values, the two

men were miles apart in the style of their response. Both of

Wesley's grandfathers had been non-Conforming ministers. His

father had returned to the established Church and served the Anglican parish of Epworth; John helped him with it for several years.

Wesley knew the Church as an insider; he believed in the established procedures, and remained a part of them. But with his

heart warming experience he won the freedom to break the rules

when the Spirit so directed. Two instances deserve special attention:

First, his irregular preaching was in defiance of the

Church's rules; like Luther he could do no other. Second, when

the American Revolution caused a shortage of Anglican priests in

America, Wesley decided that he as a presbyter had authority to

ordain ministers for his American societies. This more than anything else led to the creation of the Methodist Church.

In spite of these infractions Wesley believed in and

belonged to the Anglican Church. He had made free with some of

its rules, but he was rigid about the rules which he imposed upon

his converts. And right there of course he and Blake parted company. Blake just didn't believe in rules; he thought they all

came from the devil. He admired Wesley's spirit and held his

rules in contempt.

Blake and Wesley each had an an acute social conscience;

they were both friends of the common man, but in different ways.

Wesley wanted to improve men's lot using religious means. Blake

felt that men were victimized by tyranny, and he wanted it stopped.

Neither of them shared the conventional genteel attitude that the

lower classes, ordained by God to their station, should be encouraged to remain docile and expect their reward in the hereafter.

They believed rather that men have the freedom to rise to whatever

level their gifts and character may allow.

Blake suffered intensely from the subtle forms of economic oppression and railed against

them. His anger sparked the most searching critique of the restrictive structures of society and of the psychic attributes

associated with those structures.

Wesley lacked Blake's prophetic mind, but he had a concern for souls that led his converts first to an elevation of

character and soon to an elevation of economic station. In the

simplest natural terms Wesley's converts replaced drinking and

gambling with praying and singing hymns--and became prosperous,

just as the Quakers had done in earlier generations.


held extremely conservative political views, but unlike most

Tories he loved the poor. He devoted his life to helping them

raise their circumstances, all of course a byproduct of his

concern for their souls!

While Blake denounced and railed against the social

evils of the day, Wesley picked up one by one the fallen members

of the underclass and instilled in them a means of lifting themselves
up into the middle class.

       He taught them for example to

"gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can". The admonition won sufficient adherents to make a tremendous contribution to the humanitarian movement. Blake wrote about the prisons

of the mind; Wesley systematically visited real prisons his entire life and organized helping institutions to address the needs

of prisoners and to ameliorate their distress.

Wesley had a life changing message and organizational

genius as well. Through his religious message and his Methodist

societies he contributed significantly to the relief of economic

distress and oppression. In contrast Blake's message was virtually incomprehensible to the kinds of people most responsive to

Wesley's. In fact it is incomprehensible to most people today

because it requires a level of consciousness impossible for the

materially minded.

Wesley and Blake may have been the two greatest men

produced by England in the 18th Century. The work of Wesley and

his fellow evangelists had immediate and far reaching consequences

in the life of the world. For example his preachers exercised a

great civilizing influence on the American frontier. The Methodist Church today represents the best of the American way, theologically and socially enlightened beyond the generality of the


Blake's work in contrast was far ahead of his time.

It had no immediate visible influence, yet it offers the best

hope of the future for the English speaking world to break out

of the strait jacket of dead materialism. The present age needs

a spiritual revival as desperately as did Wesley's. But the Wesleyan style of revival has less to offer the modern mind than it

did to the 18th Century underclass. The Blakean vision has a great

deal to offer to the best minds of this century, the relatively

few minds capable of an individual form of spiritual creativity.

The mind of Blake offers the strongest possible protection against the mindless conformity that threatens the human race.

Although Blake did have a copy of a Wesleyan hymnbook,

we lack evidence of direct first hand experience with a Methodist

group. Most certainly he would have found the discipline distasteful. But Methodism was one of the rare forms of English religious

life that Blake had good words for.

       In the prose introduction

to Chapter Three of 'Jerusalem' he defended Methodists and Monks

against what he deemed to be the hypocritical attacks of Voltaire

and the other philosophes. He named Wesley and Whitefield as

the two witnesses of

Revelation 11.3

, the archetypal image of the

rejected and despised prophet of God (cf Milton 22:61;

Erdman 118). He grouped Whitefield with

St. Teresa and other gentle souls "who guide the great Winepress

of Love".



Deism, a form of Natural Religion denying the intervention of God in the affairs of men, pervaded the intellectual

life of Blake's age. The deists were the true spiritual descendants

Bacon, Newton, and Locke

as Blake understood them.

Early in the 18th Century Voltaire, much taken with the English

deists, had spread their peculiar faith around the intellectual

circles of Europe. Deism became the fashionable faith of the

upper classes in England and on the continent as well. Many

Anglican clergy of that day had strong deistical leanings. Most

historians believe that Washington and his associates were deists

as well as vestrymen, much as recent Mexican presidents have been

Masons as well as Roman Catholics.

Throughout the early and middle 18th Century deism

largely belonged to the gentility. During Blake's lifetime it

filtered down to the masses. In America the deist patricians,

our forefathers, used the deist staymaker,

Thomas Paine
, as an

inflammatory propagandist for their cause. This identification

of deists with political reform explains the ambiguity Blake felt

and expressed toward them. He despised their Natural Religion,

but admired their enlightened political views. He counted

Thomas Paine

a friend and found his religion relatively non-threatening and

his political views refreshing. It was natural for him to react

defensively against the

attack on Paine of Bishop Watson, whom

Blake considered a lackey of the State.

Nevertheless Blake refuted the deist doctrine. One of

his earliest theological statements was his Tractate,

"There is No Natural Religion"

. He dedicated the third chapter of 'Jerusalem' to the deists, and in the prose introduction addressed

them very straightforwardly: the deist, he said, is "in the

State named Rahab

, which State must be put off before he can be

the Friend of Man".

Blake went on to make two primary charges.

First, the deist "teaches that Man is Righteous in his Vegetated

Spectre: an Opinion of fatal & accursed consequence to Man".

Blake in contrast maintained that "Man is born a Spectre or Satan,

& is altogether an Evil". Blake's second charge stems from the

first: these "originally righteous" deists promote War and blame

it on the spiritually religious.

Blake deplored the hypocrisy

of the philosophes, who did indeed

    "charge the poor Monks & religious with being the
    causes of War, while you acquit and flatter the
    Alexanders & Caesars, the Lewises & Fredericks, who
    alone are its causes and its actors"
    (Portion of Jerusalem, Plate 52)

Blake himself had blamed

war on the religious, not the poor monk, but the bishop and

At a deeper level Blake knew that the man righteous in

his own eyes is the man who kills, while "the Glory of Christianity is to Conquer by Forgiveness".

Probably the prevalent opinion of the well to do churchly of deistical inclinations held that religion is a good thing to

keep the masses content; they supported the Church as a primary

bulwark of social stability. This attitude more than anything else

motivated Blake's radical anti-churchly stance. He knew it as a

perversion of everything Jesus stood for. In the great

"Wheel of Religion"

poem opening the fourth chapter of 'Jerusalem' he gave
his final and considered opinion of the deists' Natural Religion.


Blake and 'Church'

In this conlcuding section we look at Blake's relationships and at the uses he made of the word 'church' in his poetry.


Blake's Friends

To the best of our knowledge Blake belonged to no organized

church. We do know of two groups which might generically qualify as churches, using the word in its broadest possible sense.

The first gathered around the radical publisher, Joseph Johnson,

Blake's primary employer and the friend of Mary Wollstonecraft,

Joseph Priestly, Richard Price, Thomas Paine and other radical

intellectuals. While the conventional church exists as a primary

bulwark of the status quo, Joseph Johnson's group by and large

conceived of Christ as a revolutionary. Dissenters of a variety

of persuasions, they were united by their awareness of the need

for social and political change. They considered this the primary

agenda of any truly spiritual communion.

Blake was in accord with

these ideas. The Johnson group nurtured him and provided the communal support which we generally associate with church groups.

The second group gathered around Blake in his last decade. It was made up of young artists, some of them devout. They

looked to Blake for aesthetic and spiritual guidance and provided

him the communal support that lent grace to his last years.

After Blake's Moment of Grace around 1800 he might have

joined a church if he could have found one whose primary doctrine

was the forgiveness of sins. But like Milton before him and Lincoln after him he never discovered a church that met his qualifications.

Anyone who loves Blake and has had a happier experience

of the church could wish for him more in the way of community.

Alienated from the worshiping community by its partial theology

and partial practice, he was confined to his own visions and the

nurture he could find at the outer fringes of the church. In

addition he learned from the Christian classics of the ages,

particularly the off beat ones. St. Teresa was a favorite.


know little or nothing of the social agency by which the Ranter

tradition came down to him. All of these are elements of the Universal Church upon which Blake drew and to which he belonged.

Blessed with a worshiping fellowship beyond that of his

wife, his lot might have been happier and his witness plainer to


Even so the church is fortunate to have his contribution.

Isaiah and Jeremiah, not to mention Jesus, also suffered alienation from their communities. At the deepest level none of the

four men rejected the church, but rather the church rejected them.

Blake was too deeply attached to the priesthood of the

believer to be able to submit to any spiritual authority politically assigned: Let every man be "King and Priest in his own

house". In the words of Foster Damon "The Church Universal was

the only church that Blake recognized. Its doctrine is the Everlasting Gospel, its congregation the Brotherhood of Man, its

symbol the Woman in the Wilderness, its architecture
Gothic (p.82)."


What he Said

In 'Songs of Experience' Blake expressed some biting

truths about the place of the church in the lives of ordinary


    A little black thing among the snow,
    Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
    "Where are thy father & mother? Say?"
    "They are both gone up to the church to pray.

    "Because I was happy upon the heath,
    "And smil'd among the winter's snow,
    "They clothed me in the clothes of death,
    "And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

    "And because I am happy & dance & sing,
    "They think they have done me no injury,
    "And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
    "Who make up a heaven of our misery."

    (The Chimney Sweeper; Songs of Experience)

Surely the church has become more human since Blake's

day, when it could condone the employment of five year olds as

chimney sweepers and in fact their legal sale by their parents

for such a purpose. Even more bald in its ecclesiastical implications is "The Little Vagabond", which sounds very much like

a Ranter's song:

    Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,

    But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;

    Besides I can tell where I am used well,

    Such usage in heaven will never do well.

    But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,

    And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,

    We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,

    Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

    Then the Parson might preach, & drink, & sing,

    And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;

    And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,

    Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

    And God, like a father rejoicing to see

    His children as pleasant and happy as he,

    Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,

    But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

    (The Little Vagabond)



, written about the same time, Blake recounts

the degradation of the church with the cult of chivalry and the

Queen of Heaven:

    Now comes the night of Enitharmon's joy!

    Who shall I call? Who shall I send,

    That Woman, lovely Woman, may have dominion?

    Arise, O Rintrah, thee I call! & Palambron, thee!

    Go! tell the Human race that Woman's love is Sin;

    That an Eternal life awaits the worms of sixty winters

    In an allegorical abode where existence hath never come.

    Forbid all Joy, & from her childhood shall the little female

    Spread nets in every secret path.

    (Europe 5:1ff, Erdman 62)

Enitharmon's grammar in the second line indicates her

essential falsity, assuming the place of the true God (See

Isaiah 6


But after 1800 Blake rehabilitates Enitharmon, and Rahab

becomes his symbol of the false church; she continually afflicts

Jerusalem and finally crucifies Jesus (See 4Z and J).

Blake used the word 'church' in some rather unconventional
ways. In
Milton, Plate 37 and later in 'Jerusalem' Plate
76 he divided human history into 27 Churches, made up of three

groups. The first corresponds to the nine antediluvian patriarchs

(Adam to Lamech) taken from Genesis 5. The second group includes

the patriarchs from Noah to Terah, the father of Abraham. For

the third series Blake chose seven famous religious leaders from

Abraham to Luther; each of these represents for Blake a certain

type or phase of religious history:

The first two groups were


(devoted to cultic

murder), but Abraham began to curtail human sacrifice when he chose

a ram instead of Issac (See

Genesis 22

). Moses brought the Law;

Solomon represents Wisdom. Paul represents the early Christian

Church. Constantine marks its embrace by the highest satanic

power. Charlemayne founded the Holy Roman Empire, and Luther

brings us to the modern age. All of these except Paul resorted

to war; therefore Blake referred to these Churches as "Religion

hid in war".

Blake felt that he had described a natural progression going nowhere for "where Luther ends, Adam begins again

in Eternal Circle", but this "Eternal Circle" is interrupted by

Jesus, who, "breaking thro' the Central zones of Death & Hell,/

Opens Eternity in Time & Space, triumphant in Mercy".

There in its most concentrated form is Blake's 6000

year history of the church.

Bear in mind that 27 is a super

sinister number;


described it as "the cube of thee, the

supreme aggravation of three". A happier constellation of 28

(a composite of the complete numbers four and seven) occurs in

'Jerusalem' where England's cathedral cities are called the

Friends of Albion. With this image Blake recognized that in

spite of all its sins the church had exercised a beneficent

influence upon the course of history. Blake habitually picked

one of these cities to represent an important historical personage.

For example Ely, the cathedral city of Cambridgeshire,

stands for Milton, the greatest man produced by Cambridge.

Verulam, an ancient name for Canterbury, represents

Francis Bacon

, one of Blake's chief devils.

Professor Erdman informed

us that Bath represents Rev. Richard Warner, a courageous minister who preached against war in 1804, when to do such a thing

bordered on sedition. Blake's admiration for Warner led to the

prominence which he gave Bath in the second chapter of 'Jerusalem'.

Aside from these prophetic and poetic excursions the

Blakean doctrine of the church found in the myth is roughly as

follows: The Church is Beulah. The majority of the population

exist beneath it, spiritually asleep, living what Blake called

Eternal Death without even a murmur of discontent. Their eyes

are closed to the spirit. They are seeds that do not generate.

The hungry generally take refuge in a church and surrender their spiritual destiny into the keeping of a priest or a

priestly community.

A few still suffer hunger and eventually


come out into the sunlight

. That chosen few are, like Blake,

compelled to live in a state of tension with the church that

belongs to the world. The best of them continually court martyrdom and may be honored posthumously if at all. But of such is

the kingdom of heaven, where like Blake they cast off the enslavement of other men's systems and create their own.

(Nels Ferre, who may or may not have known Blake, wrote a short
parable that describes the Blakean doctrine of the church as
well or better than Frye did. It appears in the beginning of
a small book entitled

The Sun and the Umbrella
. The image
of the church as an umbrella keeping us from the full force of
the Sun is compelling and quite Blakean.)

(See also href="">Religion
and War)


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