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 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."