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
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
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 Religion.
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.