Blake and 'Church'
Here we look at the uses Blake made of the word 'church' in
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.
We 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 others.
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)."