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)."
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)