In 'Songs of Experience' Blake expressed some biting truths about the place of the church in the lives of ordinary people:
- 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)
In 'Europe' , 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)
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 druidic (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; Frye 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 may 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 Religion and War)