Thursday, December 07, 2017

Church 1

      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 to be.

       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

  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 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

       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 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 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 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 orthodox Church.

       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.

Jerusalem, Plate 52, (E 201) 
 " Those who Martyr others or who cause War are Deists, but never
can be Forgivers of Sin.  The Glory of Christianity is, To
Conquer by Forgiveness.  All the Destruction therefore, in
Christian Europe has arisen from Deism, which is Natural
Wikimedia Commons
A Large Book of Designs
The Accusers
I saw a Monk of Charlemaine 
Arise before my sight 
  I talkd with the Grey Monk as we stood  
In beams of infernal light

  Gibbon arose with a lash of steel       
And Voltaire with a wracking wheel
  The Schools in clouds of learning rolld
Arose with War in iron & gold.

  Thou lazy Monk they sound afar          
In vain condemning glorious War           
  And in your Cell you shall ever dwell   
Rise War & bind him in his Cell.

  The blood. red ran from the Grey Monks side
His hands & feet were wounded wide
  His body bent, his arms & knees          
Like to the roots of ancient trees

  When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent
  He forgd the Law into a Sword
And spilld the blood of mercys Lord.
  Titus! Constantine!  Charlemaine!
O Voltaire! Rousseau! Gibbon! Vain
  Your Grecian Mocks & Roman Sword
Against this image of his Lord!

  For a Tear is an Intellectual thing;              
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King
  And the bitter groan of a Martyrs woe 
Is an Arrow from the Almighties Bow!"

       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 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.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Church 2


       The Church Fathers congregated in Rome, but Gnosticism had its center in Alexandria, a marketplace of competing religious and philosophical ideas. There in the third century a man named Plotinus 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 Emperors.

       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 Renaissnce 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. Jeremiah 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 tradition. 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'. Years 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 doctor, Paracelsus.

    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 king.

       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.

       The anabaptists 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.

Jerusalem, Plate 52, (E 201) 
 "Man must & will have Some Religion; if he has not the Religion
of Jesus, he will have the Religion of Satan, & will erect the
Synagogue of Satan. calling the Prince of this World, God; and
destroying all who do not worship Satan under the Name of God. 
Will any one say: Where are those who worship Satan under the
Name of God! Where are they? Listen! Every Religion that Preaches
Vengeance for Sins the Religion of the Enemy & Avenger; and not
the Forgiver of Sin, and their God is Satan, Named by the Divine
Name   Your Religion O Deists: Deism, is the Worship of the God
of this World by the means of what you call Natural Religion and
Natural Philosophy, and of Natural Morality or
Self-Righteousness, the Selfish Virtues of the Natural Heart. 
This was the Religion of the Pharisees who murderd Jesus.  Deism
is the same & ends in the same."

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Church 3

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 control".

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 long had a State Church. Although many scholarly 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 Crown.

America, Plate 2, (E 52)
"I know thee, I have found thee, & I will not let thee go;
Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa;
And thou art fall'n to give me life in regions of dark death.
On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions          
Endur'd by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep:
I see a serpent in Canada, who courts me to his love;
In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru;
I see a Whale in the South-sea, drinking my soul away.
O what limb rending pains I feel. thy fire & my frost            
Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by thy lightnings rent;
This is eternal death; and this the torment long foretold.

[The stern Bard ceas'd, asham'd of his own song; enrag'd he swung
His harp aloft sounding, then dash'd its shining frame against 
A ruin'd pillar in glittring fragments; silent he turn'd away,   
And wander'd down the vales of Kent in sick & drear lamentings."
America, Plate b, [Canceled Plates], (E 58) 
"Reveal the dragon thro' the human; coursing swift as fire
To the close hall of counsel, where his Angel form renews.

In a sweet vale shelter'd with cedars, that eternal stretch
Their unmov'd branches, stood the hall; built when the moon shot forth,
In that dread night when Urizen call'd the stars round his feet; 
Then burst the center from its orb, and found a place beneath;
And Earth conglob'd, in narrow room, roll'd round its sulphur Sun.

To this deep valley situated by the flowing Thames;
Where George the third holds council. & his Lords & Commons meet:
Shut out from mortal sight the Angel came; the vale was dark     
With clouds of smoke from the Atlantic, that in volumes roll'd
Between the mountains, dismal visions mope around the house.

On chairs of iron, canopied with mystic ornaments,
Of life by magic power condens'd; infernal forms art-bound
The council sat; all rose before the aged apparition;            
His snowy beard that streams like lambent flames down his wide breast
Wetting with tears, & his white garments cast a wintry light.

Then as arm'd clouds arise terrific round the northern drum;
The world is silent at the flapping of the folding banners;
So still terrors rent the house: as when the solemn globe        
Launch'd to the unknown shore, while Sotha held the northern helm,
Till to that void it came & fell; so the dark house was rent,
The valley mov'd beneath; its shining pillars split in twain,
And its roofs crack across down falling on th' Angelic seats."

Wikimedia Commons
Europe A Prophecy
Plate 12
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 matter.

One of Blake's Four Zoas, Urizen 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 European 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 the next post we look at two of them which had a specific relationship to the mind of William Blake.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Church 4

Blake and Quakers

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 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.
 Wikipedia Commons  Book of Urizen
  Copy G, Plate 27 

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  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.

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, & Receivng Truth or Wise men into our company continually."

Jerusalem, Plate 44 [30], (E 193) 
"And Los prayed and said. O Divine Saviour arise
Upon the Mountains of Albion as in ancient time. Behold!
The Cities of Albion seek thy face, London groans in pain
From Hill to Hill & the Thames laments along the Valleys
The little Villages of Middlesex & Surrey hunger & thirst        
The Twenty-eight Cities of Albion stretch their hands to thee:
Because of the Opressors of Albion in every City & Village:
They mock at the Labourers limbs! they mock at his starvd Children.
They buy his Daughters that they may have power to sell his Sons:
They compell the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts:   
They reduce the Man to want: then give with pomp & ceremony.
The praise of Jehovah is chaunted from lips of hunger & thirst!" 

Jerusalem, Plate 90, (E 251)
"Tell them to obey their Humanities, & not pretend Holiness;
When they are murderers: as far as my Hammer & Anvil permit
Go, tell them that the Worship of God, is honouring his gifts
In other men: & loving the greatest men best, each according
To his Genius: which is the Holy Ghost in Man; there is no other
God, than that God who is the intellectual fountain of Humanity; 
He who envies or calumniates: which is murder & cruelty,
Murders the Holy-one: Go tell them this & overthrow their cup,
Their bread, their altar-table, their incense & their oath:
Their marriage & their baptism, their burial & consecration:
I have tried to make friends by corporeal gifts but have only    
Made enemies: I never made friends but by spiritual gifts;
By severe contentions of friendship & the burning fire of thought.
He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children
One first, in friendship & love; then a Divine Family, & in the midst
Jesus will appear; so he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole        
Must see it in its Minute Particulars; Organized & not as thou
O Fiend of Righteousness pretendest;"
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 use 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 war 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 vision."

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Church 5

Blake and Methodists

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 Aldersgate "his heart was strangely warmed".

Soon he followed his fellow evangelist, George Whitefield, to Bristol where he began field preaching. (This happened some two decades before Blake's birth.) For the next fifty years Wesley 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, nd 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.)

The poem which Blake wrote in October of 1800 to his friend, Butts, certainly describes what we may call a heartwarming experience. Always an individualist Blake had too critical a mind to identify himself consciously with the Methodists (who founded a new denomination),but without question his Moment of Grace owed much to the Methodist movement

Wikimedia Commons
Songs of Experience
Letters, (E 712) 
"To my Friend Butts I write
     My first Vision of Light
     On the yellow sands sitting
     The Sun was Emitting
     His Glorious beams
     From Heavens high Streams
     Over Sea over Land
     My Eyes did Expand
     Into regions of air
     Away from all Care
     Into regions of fire
     Remote from Desire
     The Light of the Morning
     Heavens Mountains adorning
     In particles bright
     The jewels of Light
     Distinct shone & clear--
     Amazd & in fear
     I each particle gazed
     Astonishd Amazed
     For each was a Man
     Human formd.  Swift I ran
     For they beckond to me
     Remote by the Sea
     Saying.  Each grain of Sand
     Every Stone on the Land
     Each rock & each hill
     Each fountain & rill
     Each herb & each tree
     Mountain hill Earth & Sea
     Cloud Meteor & Star
     Are Men Seen Afar
     I stood in the Streams
     Of Heavens bright beams
     And Saw Felpham sweet
     Beneath my bright feet
     In soft Female charms
     And in her fair arms
     My Shadow I knew
     And my wifes shadow too
     And My Sister & Friend.
     We like Infants descend
     In our Shadows on Earth
     Like a weak mortal birth
     My Eyes more & more
     Like a Sea without shore
     Continue Expanding
     The Heavens commanding
     Till the jewels of Light
     Heavenly Men beaming bright
     Appeard as One Man
     Who Complacent began
     My limbs to infold
     In his beams of bright gold
     Like dross purgd away
     All my mire & my clay
     Soft consumd in delight
     In his bosom sun bright
     I remaind.  Soft he smild
     And I heard his voice Mild
     Saying This is My Fold
     O thou Ram hornd with gold
     Who awakest from sleep
     On the sides of the Deep
     On the Mountains around
     The roarings resound
     Of the lion & wolf
     The loud sea & deep gulf
     These are guards of My Fold
     O thou Ram hornd with gold
     And the voice faded mild
     I remaind as a Child
     All I ever had known
     Before me bright Shone
     I saw you & your wife
     By the fountains of Life
     Such the Vision to me
     Appeard on the Sea"

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.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Church 6

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.

Wesley 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 irtually 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 nd 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 population.

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 philosophies. 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 Wine press of Love".

Jerusalem, Plate 72, (E 227)
"And the Four Gates of Los surround the Universe Within and
Without; & whatever is visible in the Vegetable Earth, the same
Is visible in the Mundane Shell; reversd in mountain & vale
And a Son of Eden was set over each Daughter of Beulah to guard
In Albions Tomb the wondrous Creation: & the Four-fold Gate
Towards Beulah is to the South[.] Fenelon, Guion, Teresa,
Whitefield & Hervey, guard that Gate; with all the gentle Souls
Who guide the great Wine-press of Love; Four precious stones that Gate:"

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 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.

Wikimedia Commons
Illustrations to Blair's The Grave
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 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 how 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."

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Church 7

       Deism, a form of Natural Religion denying the intervntion of God in the affairs of men, pervaded the intellectual life of Blake's age. The deists were the true spiritual descendants of 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 gentry. 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".

      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 conequence 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 philosophers, 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 archbishop. 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.

British Museum
Illustrations to Young's Night thoughts
Jerusalem, Plate 77, (E 232) 
I stood among my valleys of the south
And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel
Of fire surrounding all the heavens: it went
From west to cast against the current of
Creation and devourd all things in its loud                      
Fury & thundering course round heaven & earth
By it the Sun was rolld into an orb:
By it the Moon faded into a globe,
Travelling thro the night: for from its dire
And restless fury, Man himself shrunk up           
Into a little root a fathom long.
And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-One
Its Name? he answerd. It is the Wheel of Religion
I wept & said. Is this the law of Jesus
This terrible devouring sword turning every way    
He answerd; Jesus died because he strove
Against the current of this Wheel: its Name
Is Caiaphas, the dark Preacher of Death
Of sin, of sorrow, & of punishment;
Opposing Nature! It is Natural Religion            
But Jesus is the bright Preacher of Life
Creating Nature from this fiery Law,
By self-denial & forgiveness of Sin.

Go therefore, cast out devils in Christs name
Heal thou the sick of spiritual disease           
Pity the evil, for thou art not sent
To smite with terror & with punishments
Those that are sick, like the Pharisees
Crucifying &,encompassing sea & land
For proselytes to tyranny & wrath,                
But to the Publicans & Harlots go!
Teach them True Happiness, but let no curse
Go forth out of thy mouth to blight their peace
For Hell is opend to heaven; thine eyes beheld
The dungeons burst & the Prisoners set free."