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 and 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."

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