the friend online
15 August 2008

The spirituality of William Blake

Rachel Britton explores some of the inspiration for this romantic poet

'There is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find', said Blake, and to reach that hidden moment and keep its quality all day is to live as we should. To live, that is, not by rules, but as Jesus did, according to Blake, 'by impulse'; the impulse which is always right, because it comes from the place in us that mirrors the divine in the creative imagination.

Blake says: '“What”, it will be Question'd, “when the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”.' This is to see the sun with the eye of imagination. For Blake, this did not mean that it is less true. On the contrary, unless you see with the eye of imagination, you miss the truth of things altogether. That is why he hated Newton and Locke and the scientific view of life they represented to him. Science seemed to him to claim that only what you could experience with your five senses counted as truth or reality. Blake believed in revelation.

In Blake's pamphlet There is No Natural Religion, his 'principle 1' reads: 'Man's perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (thou' ever so acute) can discover'. He perceives this 'more' through the work of prophets and poets, and above all through the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. We recognise the truth of these through our inborn faculty of discernment.

Just like the early Quakers, Blake had no time for the outward manifestations of religion in his day – the rich and political bishops, the poor and money-grubbing priests, the outward sacraments and rituals, or the cold and empty deism which saw God as creator of the world who then left it strictly alone. Neither did he feel much need for meeting regularly with a group of fellow-worshippers, as 'Every man may converse with God... in his own house'. He wrote, in a letter to Butts in 1802, that he was 'under the direction of Messengers from Heaven, Daily and Nightly'.

Blake was above all an artist and a visionary who believed his visions were revelations from God. I think it was because he believed in his own visions that he so valued the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, who died when Blake was sixteeen. Swedenborg was also a visionary and the New Church set up after his death was based on the teachings Swedenborg distilled from his visions. Blake joined the New Church in London, went to the conference in 1789 which set out its tenets in a series of resolutions and signed these resolutions. The first says 'that the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is the only God of Heaven and Earth, and that his Humanity is Divine'. Swedenborgians worship Jesus, the Divine Man, in whose image human beings were created, and who was incarnated in a human body to teach us how to renew the divine image in us and return to the heavenly world when the body dies.

The great thing that Blake found in the teaching of Jesus was forgiveness. Any religion which taught in terms of rules and punishment was anathema to him. He thought that divine mercy and pity covered all. Mercy, pity, peace and love were the divine qualities which Jesus showed us in action. Humans who showed those qualities showed the divine image re-established in themselves and lived in the divine humanity.

Rachel Britton is a member of Southern East Anglia Area Meeting.

William Blake lived from 1757 to 1827.

Blake archive


New Church

Rachel Britton


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The spirituality of William Blake
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