No committed 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
In these posts we examine in some detail Blake's relationship to the church:
In the first unit we survey church history from Blake's point of view, and we trace
some of the sources of his ideas and attitudes.
In the second 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 the third 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
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 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.
With Constantine 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
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 Colossians 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
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
Church. Paul's practical advice to struggling congregations became the rules of
order; 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
The other class of leaders we have called the poets. The earliest Christian poets
largely manifested themselves in a movement called Gnosticism. 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 Blake. 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 Bogomils, the Albigenses, 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
Blake, like many other thoughtful people, discounted the orthodox theology on
the basis of the bloodthirsty spirit, which he perceived 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.