If the philosophy of Immanuel Kant is now studied worldwide, the current climate of philosophical investigation ignores the mystical thinker Emanuel Swedenborg – at best relegating him to footnote status. But towards the end of the eighteenth century, the interest in Swedenborg among intellectuals was immense; his writings “made a lot of noise in the speculative world,” as the leading journal on esoteric matters, The Conjuror’s Magazine, commented in 1791. Kant even felt compelled to respond to Swedenborg in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766). Swedenborg’s teaching became the main substance of the occult revival in the late eighteenth century, and his ideas have had a lasting appeal as a source of inspiration to many intellectuals who were not converts, such as Lavater, Goethe, Coleridge, Emerson, Balzac, Baudelaire, Whitman, Melville, Henry James, and, not least, the poet and painter William Blake, on whom the essay at hand will focus.
Introduction: Occultist or Political Radical?
From documents we know that on 14 April 1789 Blake and his wife, Catherine, attended the First General Conference of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church at the chapel in Maidenhead Lane, just off Great Eastcheap (now Cannon Street) in London’s East End. The conference lasted four days until 17 April. It was held in response to a circular letter of 7 December 1788, which had been distributed in 500 copies to “all the readers of the Theological Writings of the Hon. Emanuel Swedenborg, who are desirous of rejecting, and separating themselves from, the Old Church, or the present Established Churches.” The letter drew up forty-two propositions outlining the terms for a separation, which the Blakes signed.
The Swedenborgian Church is the only religious institution we have any record of him ever attending. However, if the dating Blake scribbled in blue ink on copy K of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his scathing satire on Swedenborg, is correct, it seems that he was, at this time, not willing to accept Swedenborg as the singular prophet on which one could build a system of beliefs.
In the late 1780s and early 1790s, when Blake sought out Swedenborg and other mystical and occult sources, he was also a radical in politics. Most noticeably, he wrote a eulogy to The French Revolution (1791), which was originally planned in seven books, and celebrated the liberation of the thirteen colonies in America: A Prophecy (1793). Traditionally, scholarship has separated Blake’s interest in occultism from his political radicalism. One branch of Blake studies (originating with another great poet of the occult, W.B. Yeats, and reaching its apex in Kathleen Raine), sees Blake primarily as a researcher of mystical sources; whereas a line fathered by David Erdman glosses over the mystical influences in order to draw a picture of a political Blake, whose writings reflect directly on contemporary events in a straightforward manner. However, studies by E.P. Thompson, Jon Mee and Marsha Keith Schuchard have encouraged us to bring these two lines together. The essay at hand proceeds from the historical precepts brought to light by these scholars and aims to show that the rationalistic ideologies of Voltaire or Thomas Paine were not alone in fuelling radical or revolutionary programmes. What I intend below is a historical investigation of how the reception of how Swedenborg’s esoteric teaching was absorbed into the socio-cultural matrix of the late eighteenth century to become a platform for opposition politics. This, in turn, will give us cause to re-evaluate the motivation behind the “radical” Blake’s affiliation with the Swedenborgians in the New Jerusalem Church.
The Rise and Progress of Swedenborgianism in London
Before the establishment of the separatist New Jerusalem Church, the Swedish prophet’s writings were discussed in societies that convened on a regular basis. One Swedenborgian gathering in London was the Sunday morning meetings held at Jacob Duché’s flat at the Lambeth Asylum for orphans. Could Blake perhaps have visited there? At the very least, we find on a list of “Subscriber’s Names” to Duché’s Discourses on Several Subjects (1779) not only the appearance of Blake’s friend and fellow engraver William Sharp, but also that of a “William Blake.”
The Church that Blake visited was a development of the non-orthodox Theosophical Society, which was established in 1783 by a printer with a Methodist background, Robert Hindmarsh. We know that a number of Blake’s fellow artists were Swedenborgians and met in the Theosophical Society (in 1785 renamed as The British Society for the Propagation of the Doctrines of the New Church), which among its members counter Philip de Loutherbourg, Richard Cosway, and Blake’s close friends John Flaxman and William Sharp. The latter two may have been responsible for introducing him early on to the pre-Church debating societies. David Erdman has suggested that it was probably Sharp, Blake’s friend and fellow engraver, who introduced Blake to Swedenborg, as they were close in 1789. However, already in 1781, Blake had befriended Flaxman, who joined the Theosophical Society in 1784.
Swedenborg never advocated the establishment of a separatist Church as it saw the light of day in Great Eastcheap. His proclamation of a “New Jerusalem Church” meant that a spiritual enlightenment was now available for those who would open their eyes to his gospel; it was an internal church within. Hence, when Jacob Duché made his intellectual shift from William Law to Swedenborg in 1785, he wrote to his mother-in-law that in Swedenborgianism he could “Look henceforward to an Internal Millennium.” For a comparable statement, we may look to Blake’s epic poem, Jerusalem, in which he speaks of a “Jerusalem in every individual man” (39.39).
Swedenborg had contended that his teaching was a new revelation that would replace the corrupted beliefs perpetuated in all previous Christian churches. He explained that, historically, the world had seen the rise and fall of four ecclesiastical dispensations: the Adamic, the Noahtic, the Israelitish and the Christian Church of the present. As the Christian Church had now reached its end, Swedenborg’s “New Jerusalem Church” had arrived as “the Crown of all Churches, which have heretofore existed on this earthly Globe.” It spiritualised the biblical notion of a Last Judgment by which mankind would be brought to redemption. Swedenborg’s doctrines were promoted as the revelation of a final and true conception of Christianity, and those accepting the “New Jerusalem Church” would be redeemed in the spirit.
Although Swedenborg had not lent support to any directly radical or revolutionary ideology, comments made by readers of Swedenborg at the time, as we shall see, make it clear that in setting individual illumination as the desideratum of True Religion over the control of priests, Swedenborg unwittingly gave confidence to those in English society who felt disempowered under the traditional ecclesiastical institutions.
We know that in the early years of the New Church, the membership consisted largely of persons who had “come out of the ‘liberal’ and ‘dissenting’ ecclesiastical bodies; and brought with them into the New church their old and favourite notions of democratic government.” The politicisation of Swedenborgian doctrines penetrated the Church to its very core. Rev. William Hill, an Anglican minister and Swedenborgian confessor, for example, found reason to complain in a letter of 1794 to Swedenborgians in America that the New Jerusalem Church in England had been engaged in “questions relating to modes of government, both ecclesiastical and civil.” There was a widespread tendency among Swedenborgians to turn their prophet’s teaching into a social gospel that fitted a radical and anticlerical outlook of the late eighteenth century. Blake’s comment in the Marriage, “It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites” (pl. 21), is evidence of this posture.
Even when Blake seems to be making purely theological statements, there are inevitable links to be drawn to Swedenborg’s diatribe against the Christian Churches and the way they have duped man into spiritual inaptitude. This dimension is not always expressed with full clarity in Blake’s writing without familiarity with the source texts to which he alludes. In the Marriage, for instance, Blake asks a very Swedenborgian question: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” (pl. 7). What stimulated Blake to this formulation, beyond the verbal echo of Thomas Chatterton’s Bristowe Tragedie, or Dethe of Syr Chales Bawdin (1768), was Swedenborg’s constant affirmation of a world beyond Lockean physics and a True Religion beyond the instituted Christian churches.
In Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (1788), which Blake owned and annotated, Swedenborg elucidates at length how the Divine in the natural universe has been obscured by the churches. He complains how “all the Things of Religion, which are called Spiritual, have been removed out of the Sight of Man,” by “Councils and certain Leaders in the Church.” They have mislead Christians to “blindly” believe that being born to a “natural” world, they cannot perceive anything “separate from what is natural.” To preserve their worldly privileges, these religious tyrants have conned their subjects into believing that the “spiritual” world “transcend[s] the Understanding.” They deceive man with the explanation that “the spiritual Principle to be like a Bird which flieth above the Air in the Æther where the Eye-sight doth not reach”; but, Swedenborg counterattacks, the spiritual principle of the world (“By the Sight of the Eye is meant the Sight of the Understanding”) is visible to those who break the mental restrains superimposed by the churches. The spiritual world is “like a Bird of Paradise, which flieth near the Eye, and toucheth it’s Pupil with it’s beautiful Wings, and wisheth to be seen.”
From the late 1780s, conservative censors were on the watch for Swedenborgians’ potential threat to social order. A few months before a group of Swedenborgians were to make steps towards separating from the old Church, a reviewer in the Monthly Review of May 1787 assessed Swedenborg’s doctrines for their appeal to radical thinking:
They are the harmless ravings of a spiritual, but disordered fancy … the Baron’s writing will neither create a schism in the church, nor a rebellion in the state … for Swedenborg knew nothing of that dark and dangerous fanaticism which under the specious pretence of a spiritual commonwealth, endeavoured to sap the foundations of all lawful government … Let men enjoy their influxes: let them converse with their angels … If they suffer us to sleep in peace, let them dream on.
We see here how the memory of the constitutional havoc wrought by sectarianism in the previous century haunted the public imagination of a politically unstable age. The conclusion reached by the reviewer is however comforting. In comparison with the fanatical religious sectarians who gave their support to Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Swedenborg’s writing is acquitted. It does not constitute any real danger; Swedenborg is seen as too eccentric to excite insurrection among the people. Yet the need to assess Swedenborgianism for its potential threat to monarchy and the Government is an indication that the early members were those who were believed to be likely to be taken in by democratic ideologies.
After the Revolution in France had struck fear into the hearts of English conservatives, evaluations of Swedenborgianism were not always so favourable. In the debate over the dissenters’ campaign for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, some Anglicans feared that amendment of the current laws would result in an uprising among:
the numberless multitude of Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Muggletonians, Swedenburgians [sic.], New-Light-Men, Sandemanians, and the various motley description of modern Schismatics aided by the Turks and Infidels of all names and nations, with Lord George Gordon at their head and Jewish priests sounding the horns of sedition in his train.
Interestingly, Swedenborgianism is erroneously seen to originate with seventeenth-century sects, which were popularly connected with the social upheaval of the Civil War – although Swedenborg’s theosophical writings, of course, appearing nearly a century later. The comparison with the radical Lord Gordon, the instigator of the “Gordon Riots” in 1780, only reinforces the sense of political danger the Swedenborgians were seen to constitute.
The prevalence of an unmistakable political dimension in Swedenborgianism warns us not to limit the scope of our understanding of Blake’s motives for seeking out the New Jerusalem Church only to questions of theology. There are undeniable links between the reading of Swedenborg and radical activity, centered on a branch of radical Freemasons who operated internationally, but gathered in London. However, it has been obfuscated largely due to the historian on the early developments in the New Jerusalem Church, Robert Hindmarsh.
In his history of the Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church (published posthumously in 1861), Hindmarsh significantly plays down the mystico-political Freemasons’ extensive involvement in the early Swedenborgian movement. The history he produced aims to present a respectable picture of the Church where earlier radical and fanatical origins are sometimes glossed over, having the status of mere footnotes, or entirely vanishes. But before we give our attention to what has been suppressed, we need first to establish the attitudes towards Masonry that help to explain the background for Hindmarsh and the New Jerusalem Church’s policy of evasion.
An insight into conservative reaction is best typified in the French émigré priest Abbé Barruel’s widely read Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797). Barruel, a former Jesuit drawing on his past experiences as a Mason, had taken a conservative turn and now led a diatribe against European Freemasonry. His Memoirs was a tour de force of political conspiracy theory, in which Masonic lodges were exhibited as a threat to the peace of society and as an “Anarchy against every religion natural or revealed; not only against kings, but against every government, against all civil society, even against all property whatsoever.” Barruel made the point that “The very name of Free-mason carries with it the idea of Liberty; as to Equality it was disguised under the term Fraternity, which has a similar signification.”
In the fourth volume of his piece of scare-mongering, Barruel singles out the Swedenborgian Masons for particular attention, because he sees them as the heretical glue that binds together a variety of what he calls “antisocial” (i.e. revolutionary) societies. He describes Swedenborg’s visions as “prophecies of rebellion” and his teaching as intended to “eradicate true Christianity from the minds of their dupes, and to make their New Jerusalem a plea for those revolutions” that aim to overthrow “the present churches and government”. The underlying meaning of the claim for spiritual regeneration is really “to sweep from the earth every prince and every king, that the God of Swedenborg may reign uncontroled [sic.] over the whole globe. And that revolution which they saw bursting forth in France, was nothing more in their eyes than the fire that was to purify the earth to prepare the way for their new Jerusalem.”
The most radical of the Swedenborgians were those Masonic brethren found in the Society at Avignon, which Barruel saw as a hive of revolutionary activity. Before the papal city of Avignon was annexed to France at the end of 1791, it was indeed a hotbed of much religio-mystical and political experimentalism. Many conservatives consequently linked Avignon with having played an active role in the Revolution, or being directly responsible for it.
The Society at Avignon was founded in 1779 by Antoine-Joseph Pernety and Count Grabianka. But because of their travels around Europe (most notably visiting the Swedenborgians in London), it was not until early in 1787 that the Society was reformed as Académie des Illuminés Philosophes, a Masonic rite that drew on a mixture of Swedenborg and Cabalistic lore mixed in with other mystical philosophies. Barruel lists Grabianka, as well as Cagliostro (founder of the Egyptian Rite) and Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (founder of the Elus Coens) as “brethren of Avignon,” who “recognized the Illumineés of Swedenborg as their parent Sect.” All three achieved European-wide notoriety for their radical politics flown under a mystical banner. In Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church, Hindmarsh recognises the Society’s strong Swedenborgian connections but is eager to dissociate its affiliation with the New Jerusalem Church.
If we turn to London, we find that predating Duché’s Lambeth meetings and the Theosophical Society was a quasi-Masonic society, which was the first to catch on to Swedenborg’s teaching. It was formed in 1776, partly on the initiative of Benedict Chastanier, a French physician and high-ranking Mason who resided in Britain “over forty years,” having emigrated from France in 1774. Chastanier’s society went under the name of the London Universal Society. The interests of the Society continued the Masonic system of Theosophic Illuminati (Illuminés theosophes) Chastanier had formed in France. Though all the members of the Universal Society were Masons, they do not, however, seem to have had any rites or Masonic degrees. Chastanier had been in contact with the Masons at Avignon and introduced their teaching to England. He had discovered Swedenborg’s works in 1768, albeit, at first, without knowing who the author was.
Throughout the 1780s, the Universal Society had a permeating influence on the reception of Swedenborg, as Marsha Keith Schuchard has shown. The main purpose of the Universal Society was missionary in the Masonic philanthropic sense (“philanthropic” being a Masonic buzzword at the time), working for universal redemption. For this reason, the members were involved in the translation and printing of Swedenborg’s works. Chastanier also published a periodical entitled Journal Novi-Jerusalemite, in which he called on all Masons to accept Swedenborg’s teaching. He is thus an important figure in facilitating a rapprochement between Swedenborgianism and Catholic Franco-Masonry.
The members of Chastanier’s Universal Society were regular guests at the Sunday morning meetings held at Duché’s asylum, and they also attended the meetings of the Theosophical Society. The Universal Society was so closely connected with the Theosophical Society and its programme for publishing Swedenborg’s works that they shared the same printing press. Their presence facilitated the visits of many international and high-ranking Masons. It was thus a specific Masonic version of Swedenborg that dominated London Swedenborgianism throughout the 1780s.
An occult tradition of seeking spiritual illumination thrived in the seventeenth century but had since gone underground, marginalised by the progress of rationalist and empiricist modes of thinking, and was preserved most fully and systematically in clandestine Freemasonry. At the inception of Swedenborgianism into the European network of “irregular” Masonry, it blended in with the mainstays of Hermeticism, Cabalism, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, Astrology etc. Many lodges and Masonic societies welcomed Swedenborg’s teaching. His central idea of “Correspondences,” which linked all things material to a spiritual source was used to back up notions of unusual rapport with other realities. Swedenborg, who had practiced as a Natural Philosopher for over fifty years, carried over a systematic and scientific sensibility to his cosmology. For many, Swedenborgianism became an umbrella philosophy under which other occult ideas could be given a collective rationale – even if these were only remotely related to Swedenborg’s doctrines.
Both the Theosophical Society and Duché’s gatherings were “open” meetings in the sense that the Masons (primarily noblemen or haute bourgeoisie) here mixed with tradesmen, artisans and other local Londoners. This was part of a “philanthropic” programme, by which the Masons – with “democratic intent” – wanted to create “a new space within society where members of differing classes could meet ‘upon the level’.” The discussion groups became a conduit for the Masons’ heady blend of mystical ideas and radical politics, which trickled down to segments of the lower orders. The result was that Swedenborgian ideas came to blend in with a long-established plebeian cosmology, which had roots in the native millennial traditions of the Muggletonians, Jane Lead’s Philadelphian society, the English translations of Jakob Boehme (on whom Lead drew heavily) and a tradition of seventeenth-century radical Protestantism.
In his history of the Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church, Hindmarsh, much like Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, cultivates a “selective” memory when it comes to his youthful radicalism. He does mention the visit of the notorious charlatan Cagliostro, who, in the mid-1780s, visited the Swedenborgians in London in order to recruit members for his Egyptian Rite. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a Rose-Croix Mason, who publicly criticised Cagliostro, heard that he received a warm welcoming among the London Swedenborgians and reported this in his Italieniesche Reise. But Hindmarsh chooses to forget that, from late 1785 to late 1786, the Swedenborgians were visited by Count Grabianka, who was not really a “Count,” but a Polish Nobleman. He was known under several aliases according to where he travelled; in England he went under the name Suddowski. Grabianka’s Masonic system, a mixture of Swedenborg and Cabalism, had significant political overtones. He nursed a desire to succeed to the elective Polish throne, claimed that papal authority would be brought to an end and that there would be a mass social uprising.
When Grabianka arrived in London on 7 December 1785, he immediately sent for Chastanier, who went to meet him at the Hotel in the Adelphi, which shows the strong connections between the London Swedenborgians and Avignon. The purpose of his visit was to enlist recruits among the London Swedenborgians to his own rite named Nouvel Israel á Avignon. Most notably, Hindmarsh forgets to tell us that he had been accepted into Grabianka’s Masonic system; and that he had acted as a printer for Grabianka’s propagandistic Letter from a Society in France, to the Society for Promoting the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem in London (1787), by which he sought to recruit members for his Masonic system.
Another Swedenborgian Mason mentioned by Abbé Barruel was Claude Saint-Martin. His radicalism was obvious, as he was directly connected with the Revolution, serving in the Garde Nationale. Saint Martin had in 1787 been elected honorary member of the Exegetical and Philanthropic Society in Sweden. In collaboration with the leader of the Society from 1788, Göran Ulrik Silverhjelm (Swedenborg’s nephew) he published the Swedenborgian tract Le Nouvel Homme (1792) in collaboration with and leader of the Swedenborgian movement in Sweden. The work was written in 1790 with the “aim to describe what we should expect in regeneration.” That there was a considerable degree of criss-crossing between international Masonry of European noblemen and the vernacular traditions of London artisan culture can be seen in the fact that Saint-Martin travelled to London in 1785 to study the writings of Jane Lead. He became so convinced of her Boehme-inspired theology that he converted to the German mystic in the early 1790s, and, like Blake in the Marriage, somewhat shifting his sympathies away from Swedenborg.
In London, Saint-Martin visited the Theosophical Society. So there is a good chance Blake could have been exposed to his Masonic mystico-religion through contact with his friends in the Society; but influence may also have found its way through other channels. For instance, in his Journal Allemand of December 1790, Lavater eulogised one of Saint-Martin’s treatises as one of the books most to his liking. Blake valued Lavater highly (as it is clear from his annotations to Aphorisms of Man), and Blake’s close friend Fuseli, who was a close acquaintance of Lavater’s, may have provided an alternative route for such influences.
In his anti-Masonic Memoirs, Barruel, who resided in England, did not let pass that the Masons he calls “the brethren of Avignon,” Grabianka, Cagliostro and Saint-Martin, were welcome visitors to Chastanier and the Swedenborgians in London during the 1780s. Thus, Barruel claims, one could see their disciples thirsting after that celestial Jerusalem, that purifying fire (for these are the expressions I have heard them make use of) that was to kindle into general conflagration throughout the earth by means of the French Revolution – and thus Jacobin Equality and Liberty was to be universally triumphant in the streets of London.
The aforementioned expressions are commonplace in much mystical Christianity and spiritual alchemy, and are also appropriated by Blake. The rhetoric of “celestial Jerusalem” features most notably in Milton and Jerusalem, and, in the early prophecy, America, Blake (echoing Nebuchadnezzar’s millennial dream in Daniel 2) depicts revolution as an alchemical transformation of man: “Fires inwrap the earthly globe, yet man is not consumd;/ Amidst the lustful fires he walks: his feet become like brass,/ His knees and thighs like silver, & his breast and head like gold.” (8:15-17; E54).
Barruel’s account may be both populist and opportunistic, capitalising on the general paranoia and rumour-mongering that swept Europe at the time, but there is no denying that, for many Swedenborgians, spiritual and political regeneration were handmaidens. The Swedenborgian lecturer James Glen would, for example, in 1795 welcome the French Revolution, which he believed was “sweeping a way for the New Church of the Divine Human.” A similar conjunction is found in Blake’s The French Revolution, written shortly after he had been in close contact with the Swedenborgians. For instance, the beginning of the political resistance that will result in the Revolution (“the valleys of France shall cry to the soldier, throw down thy sword and musket,/ And run and embrace the meek peasant. Her nobles shall hear and shall weep, and put off/ The red robe of terror, the crown of oppression, the shoes of contempt …” etc.) is described as a mystical experience of transcendent vision, by which man will “raise his darken’d limbs out of the caves of the night, his eyes and his heart/ Expand: where is space!” (ll. 217-38; E296)
Swedenborgianism and the Rights of Man
When the First General Conference in the New Jerusalem Church was held in 1789, the backbone of Swedenborgianism in London was still the Universal Society. The set of Resolutions of 16 April 1789, which came out of the first General Conference, was the work of Chastanier’s Universal Society, its members signing the resolutions “on behalf of this Conference.” This is indicative of the extent of their influence in the New Jerusalem Church at this time. Being part of a wide Masonic network of contacts, a number of international Masons also came to visit London through the Universal Society, and some of them joined the Church during its first year of existence. As it will appear below, the ideas they imported were not only decisive in the developments in the Church during the time of Blake’s affiliation, but they may also have influenced Blake in his well-known brand of mystico-political art.
Among these Swedenborgian Masons, we find an undeniable revolutionary strain which substantiates Abbé Barruel’s accusations. The official Church documents from the hands of Chastanier’s Universals were concerned with the practical doctrines to be used in the congregation in Great Eastcheap and thus reveal little in the way of politics. But a significant radical strain is notable in Chastanier’s other writings. In 1791 he published the book Emanuel Swedenborg’s New-Year’s Gift to His Readers, which purports to be a communication from the ghost of the deceased prophet. On the very first page, Chastanier makes the ghost of Swedenborg address his readers: “Sons of Liberty, Children of the Free-born Woman.” This was inspired by current political events. Hence, on the Revolution in France, he makes Swedenborg comment that “kind Providence has left a door wide open for the TRUTH OF THE KINGDOM to enter in and to establish itself with all possible, or even desirable liberty, in spiritual matters.” It is the claim that a new political order will further the establishment of mankind’s spiritual enlightenment, or perhaps even that it is its prerequisite. In an interpretation which was paralleled by many other radicals at the time, Chastanier attempts to show that Swedenborg’s millennial expectations were now being realised in and through contemporary political developments.
That spiritual and political liberty was seen as complementary is even clearer in a letter also of 1791, which Chastanier printed in the Swedenborgian splinter periodical New Magazine of Knowledge concerning Heaven and Hell:
It is something very astonishing, Sir, how civil truths are connected with spiritual truths. Little did Mr Thomas Paine … think he was writing in confirmation of a spiritual truth, at present the very bone of the dispute all over Europe, between the friends of the doctrine of the New … Church … I can assure you it gave me no small satisfaction, when I saw my own sentiment in spiritual matters so unanswerably settled by this great political writer.
Despite the insurmountable differences in their theological outlook, both thinkers are seen as leaders in the struggle to release man from his age-old subjugation to false religion. Paine’s programme of anticlericalism and anti-institutionalism is analogised with Swedenborg’s claims that the old churches have kept man in spiritual bondage, imposing on him false doctrines. It is a strikingly similar view Blake presents in his defence of Paine’s The Age of Reason against the attacks on the Anglican Bishop Watson. Chastanier’s enlistment of Paine as a willy-nilly servant of “spiritual truth” correlates with Blake’s hailing of Paine as “a better Christian than the Bishop” (E620). As much as Paine, the doyen of Rationalism and Deism, would have been surprised to learn from Chastanier that he wrote in support of Swedenborgianism, he would equally have objected to Blake calling him a Christian, because it was his very aim in The Age of Reason to replace Christianity by Deism.
Paine and Swedenborg were also compatible philosophies for Blake’s friend and fellow engraver, William Sharpe, who was a member of the Theosophical Society since 1787 and also joined the Society for Constitutional Information, a Wilkite organisation which had been given new life in the early 1790s primarily to promote Paine’s writings. In fact, the correlation between Swedenborg and Paine seems not at all to have been uncommon.
Carl Frederick Nordenskjöld, a Finnish Mason from the Exegetical and Philanthropic Society in Sweden, wrote extensively on Swedenborg; among other things he contributed a selection of biographical anecdotes on the prophet to Pernety, which were prefixed as an “Account of Swedenborg” in Pernety’s 1782 French translation of Heaven and Hell. C.F. Nordenskjöld had also copied several of Swedenborg’s manuscripts, which he carried to England in 1783 to hand over to Chastanier with a view to publication. He stayed as a guest of the Universal Society until 1786 and here became familiar with English politics. After his return to Sweden, he was kept up-to-date through correspondence with the Swedenborgian Masons in London. Back in Sweden, he became the translator of Paine’s Rights of Man. He was probably also behind the Swedish translations of the popular fifteenth chapter of C.F. Volney’s Ruins of Empire in 1792 and the French Constitution. C.F. Nordenskjöld combined an interest in the interpretation of dreams in Oneiromantien (1783) and his translations of Swedenborg’s vision into Swedish of 1787 with the translations of rationalist philosophy, such as Montesquieu, Hume and Tacitus. In his own phrase (appropriately mixing religion and politics), the aim was to create “God’s Republic.”
C.F. Nordenskjöld was just one of a number of Swedenborgian Masons from Sweden who came to London carrying Swedenborgian manuscript to be translated, published and disseminated. In Sweden, the Gothenberg Consistory had deemed the prophet’s teaching subversive to the Lutheran State Church, so the Royal Council had imposed a ban on Swedenborgian publications in 1770. The Exegetical and Philanthropic Society therefore usually had their Swedenborgian-related material printed in Copenhagen, Denmark. But with the extensive publication programmes launched by the Universal Society and the Theosophical Society, a new window of opportunity was opened up.
Another Mason who came to London with Swedenborgian manuscripts was Carl Bernhard Wadström, who became one of C.F. Nordenskjöld’s most important correspondents in England. Prior to his departure from Sweden, Wadström had been president in the Exegetical and Philosophical Society. He was baptised into the New Jerusalem Church in Great Eastcheap on Christmas day 1788. With his close friend, Chastanier, he became a leading member of the Church, signing the series of Resolutions from the First General Conference on behalf of the Church. Wadström had earlier undertaken industrial espionage in Germany and would attempt to set up a textile factory in the Manchester area, which got him into financial trouble. Wadström’s political sympathies were clear. He combined his interest in Swedenborg with frequent visits to the reformist Manchester Constitutional Society. In 1795 he emigrated to France to offer his services to the French Directory, and was later appointed chief director of the Crédit agricole in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1799 in high favour of the Directory and Napoleon.
Wadström was not the first Swedenborgian Mason to join actively in the French Revolution. From the Exegetical and Philanthropic Society there was even an attempt to make Swedenborgianism play an active role in the republique. In a letter of 1791, Chastanier printed in The New-Jerusalem Magazine, a Swedenborgian journal launched by the Universal Society, a Baron de Bulow (who begins by expressing shame at his aristocratic title) writes that although “The great revolution in France” is a “great benefit for humanity at large,” it needs to be supported by Swedenborg’s teachings for its continued success. De Bulow informs us that “a New Political Constitution” was “presented by a member of the New-Jerusalem Church of the Lord at London, to the national assembly in France.” This refers to a tract entitled Tableau d’une Constitution incorruptible, written by the Finnish Mason August Nordenskjöld (brother to C.F. Nordenskjöld), who became a member of the Universal Society in London and also joined the New Jerusalem Church. Although there were high-ranking Mason of the illuminist sort among the leading revolutionaries – such as Marquis de LaFayette, Blake’s hero in The French Revolution and an initiate in Saint-Martin’s Swedenborg inspired Rite – we have no account of how the proposal for a constitution was received, only that nothing came of it.
Plan for a Free Community
While active in the New Church, C.B. Wadström and August Nordenskjöld, with some of their international Masonic contacts, published a pamphlet in English describing a plan for establishing a colony on the coast of Sierra Leone founded and run on Swedenborgian principles. Its title is more than a little indicative of the politics underwriting the project: Plan for a Free Community upon the Coast of Africa under the Protection of Great Britain; but Intirely Independent of All European Laws and Governments.
In an appendix to the pamphlet, a number of articles for governance in the colony are set up. These are conceived on a fairly democratic basis with suffrage for all adult males to an assembly and the dissolution of all social class. Central to the argument of the Plan is the eventual abolition of slavery and that the “European” and the “Negro” should live together in harmony. The political intentions go beyond the question of abolition, for, as the authors ask, “To what purpose is Spiritual Liberty without Civil Liberty?” (xi). There are in fact two kinds of slavery to be abolished: that of the Negro’s literal and the European’s “Civil slavery” under the “abject servility to innumerable monied Tyrants” (iv-v). It is arresting that Blake in The French Revolution, written shortly after the publication of the Plan, uses the African slave as a cipher for the European enslaved by both tyrannical monarchies and oppressive Churches. He speaks of the people of France as “The millions of spirits immortal were bound…/ To wander inslav’d; black, deprest in dark ignorance, kept in awe with the whip … Till man raise his darken’d limbs out of the caves of night (ll.213-19; E295-96). Blake’s metaphor here also captures the millennial expectations that were inherent in the project for the African colony.
It is normally assumed that Nordenskjöld wrote the text to the Plan for a Free Community, but it is Wadström who made his fame as a prolific abolitionist. During his years in England, Wadström worked with the abolitionists Henry Gandy, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp to turn public opinion against slavery. He was also a member of the African Institution, which worked for abolition of slavery.
A praise of Swedenborg appears already in the preface. And although it is granted that “religion must be free” in the colony, it is made clear that “in order to preserve Harmony and Unity in a State, the whole Government must necessarily be of the same Religion,” which should be the “DOCTRINE OF THE NEW JERUSALEM CHURCH [because it] is superior to all others and best calculated for a Free Community.” It is also stated that governors in the highest offices of the colony must be Swedenborgians. The unapologetic Swedenborgianism in this propagandistic tract is important, because it underscores the point that the hope for spiritual regeneration appealed to the same readers who sought social renewal.
It warrants attention that Wadström and Nordenskjöld’s philanthropic programme was more than just abolitionism with Swedenborgianism embellishment. In fact, the anti-slavery programme was predicated on central tenets in Swedenborg’s theology. Following a common template in eighteenth-century mythography, Swedenborg believed that the original Christian Gospel – which was once known as unmediated vision and understood by man – had been corrupted and forgotten over time. This template was also adopted by Blake, most notably on plate 11 of the Marriage, plate 10 of Europe, plates 3-4 of The Song of Los, plate 25 of The Book of Urizen, and it is a general main theme in the mythological works of the 1790s. Swedenborg hailed himself as the one who had returned Christianity to its ancient origins and purity, but he also postulated that there was a tribe in Africa, which, undisturbed, had preserved the original Gospel and possessed the highest degree of inner knowledge. Thus he spoke of the Africans as a “more Interior People than any other of the Gentiles.”
Swedenborg had said nothing on the institution of slavery, but his mystical notion of the high spiritual status of the African race provided intellectual fuel for the abolitionist cause, which we otherwise mostly think of as couched in the Evangelical idiom of William Wilberforce or Hannah More. The link between Swedenborg and abolitionism goes back to 1779 when Wadström, in Norköpping, had established a society, which was probably the first organised abolitionist movement in the world. He writes in an account that this was “a society of affectionate admirers of the writings of that extraordinary man, Emanuel Swedenborg … in consequence of reflection on the favourable account this eminent author gives, both in his printed works and manuscripts of the African Nations.”
Blake would undoubtedly have been familiar with the Plan; not only was it widely advertised in Swedenborgian publications during 1789-90, but its abolitionist programme would also have stirred his interest. Swedenborg’s thinking on the Africans is relevant in regard to Blake’s revolutionary spirit Orc, who is referred to as “the Image of God who dwells in the darkness of Africa” (America 2:8-9; E52). Blake appears to draw on Swedenborg’s lengthy praise of the Africans, who “excel all other Gentiles in clearness of interior judgment,” and therefore have a superior understanding of God. To Swedenborg, God is not insubstantial “ether” or in “the form of a cloud” as he is to some Christians. The Africans understand that God is man raised to awareness of his own divinity, and they have “no other idea of God than that of a Divine Man.”
In Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, Swedenborg writes that the Africans, who “entertain the Idea of God as of a Man,” reject the “Idea of God as existing in the Midst of a Cloud,” and, “when it is said among the Christians, they deny that it is possible”. This passage was annotated by Blake: “… to think of holiness as distinct from man is impossible to the affections.” In the poetry of Jerusalem, Blake would equally rejected the notion of a “God who dwells in Chaos hidden from the human sight” (23.30), “in the dreary Void … wide separated from the Human Soul” (28.16). The counter-theology offered is that “the Lord” is seen as “Universal Humanity,” the “form a Man” (96.1-6). In fact, Blake argues a concordant notion throughout his writing: as early as in the “Divine Image” of Songs of Innocence, he speaks of “the Human Form Divine” (E12-13). Blake’s aversion against a distant sky-god is spelled out in his satire of “old Nobodaddy aloft,” who is the Christian Churches’ Godhead put to political use. In the poetry of Blake’s Notebook, this orthodox “Godhead” proclaims to “love hanging & drawing & quartering” (the punishment for High Treason against the State) and condemns those who “rebel” to“go to hell”.
The convergence between mystical enlightenment and the discourse of reform in the Swedenborgian milieu opens up a new perspective on what is usually regarded as Blake’s more straightforward social commentaries. For example, when first reading “The Little Black Boy” from Songs of Innocence, it appears to share a common ground with abolitionist poems such as Cowper’s Negro’s Complaint (1779) or William Roscoe’s The Wrongs of Africa (1787). But, in fact, it is a poem that most clearly evinces a Swedenborgian influence.
We are told that, compared with the white English boy, the black boy is better prepared for Heaven. This is expressed by the metaphor that he has a greater ability to bear the Sun’s “beams of love” and that he can therefore shade the white English boy “till he can bear/ To lean in joy upon our fathers knee” (ll.26-27). That there “in the Spiritual World … is a Sun distinct from that of the Natural World, the essence of which is pure love from Jehovah God, who is in the midst thereof: that the heat … is in its essence love, and the light … [of] Wisdom” is a central belief with Swedenborg, which is why it was also included in section 13 of the circular letter Blake signed. Swedenborg’s claim that the African and the child both have unmediated insight into Truth and both live in a state he calls Regnum innocentiae may also be at play in Blake’s song of Innocence.
If we go beneath the veneer of polite social utilitarianism in the Plan for a Free Community, it is quite clear that the whole project was nurtured in the soil of millennial Enthusiasm – a return to innocence. Already on the page following the title, Revelations 21:5 is quoted: “Behold, I make all Things New.” The Swedenborgians saw here an opportunity of establishing an external kingdom in which Swedenborg’s dispensation of an “internal” Millennium could thrive. For the Swedenborgians, the socio-political programmes and millennial thinking were indiscriminate areas.
The“Swine” in the“Chapel of Gold”
Only shortly after the First General Conference in the Great Eastcheap congregation there was a rift in the New Jerusalem Church, which resulted in the New Church “withdrawing herself from six of her members,” among which we find Wadström, August Nordenskjöld and Robert Hindmarsh. The true account of the events that led to the exclusion cannot be told, as fourteen pages covering the period from 4 May 1789 to 11 April 1790 have been torn out from the New Church Minute Book. However, from sparse anecdotal reference found in the letters and accounts of members from that time, it is clear that the rift revolved around the publication of Swedenborg’s tract Delitiae sapientiae de amore conjugiali (1768). The tract, which existed only in an obscure Latin edition published in Amsterdam, contained Swedenborg’s sexual doctrines and the permission for men of the Church, under certain circumstances, to hold concubines. At the heart of Swedenborg’s conception of True Religion was a sexual theology. This and its influence on Blake have been discussed at length by Marsha Keith Schuchard (see for example ‘Why Mrs. Blake cried: Blake, Swedenborg, and the sexual basis of spiritual vision,’ Esoterica 2 (2000).
The Plan for a Free Community advocates a society of sexual liberty (“the first elementary, powerful, and universal Union, or Bond of Society, is the Love of the Sex”). Nordenskjöld and his associates saw love between married couples laid waste by a degenerate social structure: “It is distressing to observe marriages in their present state are but Seminaries for a corrupt Generation … false Religions and false Politics have enveloped them in such a thick Darkness” (v-vii). It is the link between political and sexual repression that most closely approximates a staple in Blake’s writing. He refers memorably to the “marriage hearse” (‘London’), and laments that “she who burns with youth. and knows no fixed lot; is bound/ In spells of law to one she loaths” (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 5.21-12). Blake says of the spirits who rest in Eternity that “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Jerusalem 30.15).
Swedenborg’s authorisation of concubinage must be seen within the larger context of his mystical theology of “conjugial love.” Robert Southey, who had studied the Swedish prophet for his semi-autobiographical Letters from England, wrote that Swedenborg “dilate[s] with more pleasure” on conjugality, which is what “flows from the Creator into all things; from the Creator it is received by the female, and transferred through her to the male … it finds its way through the breast into the genital region.” As Southey is well informed, Swedenborg saw the sexual union as a means for man to unify the portions of his divinity separated in the fallen world.
Rather than the traditional mystic’s solitary forgetting of the body and cultivation of a passivity of mind, the mystical experience for Swedenborg could come about through the physical activity of sex. In Conjugial Love, he maintains that a healthy sexual libido is what sustains holiness in life. Carnal love can be holy because it is the first step on the ladder to the true love of God. The “love of the Sex” may first be “corporeal,” but “as man was born to become spiritual” it also becomes spiritual. For the man who has been united with divine love and wisdom, this love and wisdom will flow back and act on “love in the body and the flesh … whilst man is in meditation of it [and] while he is in its ultimate”; i.e. one may receive “spiritual influx” in the act of making carnal love. Access to the divine state of the human through “conjugial love” lies not only in the unification of minds but also “in the organs consecrated to generation.”
Swedenborg’s teaching on “conjugial love” was no doctrine of sexual libertinism, and concubinage was not meant to priority as a central issue. Marriage was always the proper institution for the pursuance of these states of transcendence. Only for unmarried men or those in unfulfilled marriages, was concubinage a necessary evil in order not to exclude them from “spiritual influx.”
In the earliest phase, Visions of the Daughters of Albion is Blake’s most sustained attempt at describing a pathology of sexual violence, conjoining sexual liberation with human freedom. Here we meet the female Oothoon, castigating her lover Theotormon for his “hypocrite modesty.” Oothoon describes herself as “A virgin fill’d with virgin fancies”; and, in accordance with the image of the virtuous woman at the time, she is barred from expressing her true sexual desires.
In what appears to be a landscape setting akin to the paradise on the coast of Africa described in the Plan, Oothoon describes a utopian future time of free love, where she can catch girls for Theotormon and lie “on a bank & view their wanton play/ In lovely copulation bliss on bliss.” This is a vision of a future time when “Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love!” can be “Free as the mountain wind” (7:16-30). The reference to “happy copulation” has attracted some attention.
With the Swedenborgian project for a colony of free blacks and free sexual emancipation in mind, it is suggestive that Blake in Visions of the Daughters of Albion uses abolitionist rhetoric as a context for his characters’ sexual subjection. For instance, Bromion, who rapes Oothoon and makes her his slave, equates his new possession with colonial and plantation oppression, as in addressing Oothoon: “Thy soft American plains are mine … stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun:/ They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge” (1.21-23). A little later, Theotormon is described as entrapped in a cave, listening to ‘The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money./ That shiver in religious caves beneath the burning fires/ Of lust, that belch incessant from the summits of the earth’ (2:8-10). Moreover, it may be a depiction of Theotormon’s self-enslavement we see in the flagellating figure on plate 9, while a naked woman is fleeting in despair. This is complemented by the image at the bottom of the plate of a naked black figure struggling to rise from the ground.
For Blake, the paradigmatic form of oppression is sexual, and marriage out of necessity is the primary form that such sexual oppression takes. In America of 1793, Orc’s political liberation of the thirteen states concords with a defeat of religious tyranny and a defeat of sexual restraints. Anticlerical/ anti-marriage sentiments – such as popularised by Godwin in his radical Political Justice in the same year – here becomes a vehicle for a millennial event:
The doors of marriage are open, and the Priests in rustling scales
Rush into reptile coverts, hiding from the fires of Orc,
That play around the golden roofs in wreaths of fierce desire,
Leaving the females naked and glowing with the lusts of youth
For the female spirits of the dead pining in bonds of religion;
Run from their fetters reddening, & in long drawn arches sitting:
They feel the nerves of youth renew, and desires of ancient times,
Over their pale limbs as a vine when the tender grape appears (15.19-26)
The origin of the metaphors here is biblical. The “tender grape” alludes to the most sensual of Scripture books, the Song of Songs (7.12), which also speaks of body-sexuality in metaphors of a fertile farmland. But the really significant pattern that emerges from the passage has been framed in Morton Paley’s general observation that “Blake envisions, not revolution and sexual freedom, but a revolution which is libidinal in nature.”
Several critics have written of how Blake sees the sexual union of man and woman as a means of restoring the androgynous state of unfallen man. The notion has roots in both Paracelsus and Boehme, whom Blake praises in the Marriage as capable of inspiring the artist to produce “ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s” (pl. 22).
Paracelsus finds it natural that man and woman seek each other when they once formed a singular body: “because they are of one flesh and one blood, it follows that they cannot let go of each other.” Paracelsus saw the female as an analogue of (Mother) Nature. But just as Nature exists so that God can become manifest, woman exists so that the divine principle can be brought into being. Sexual love is sacramental to Blake; as he writes in Jerusalem “O holy Generation! [Image] of regeneration! … Birthplace of the Lamb of God incomprehensible!” (J7.65-67). In the sexual union, the divine incarnation and the subsequent raising of the human to become regenerated spirit is mirrored and repeated.
We have some interesting textual clues that may be Blake’s reflections over his alienation from the New Jerusalem Church. On page 115 in the Notebook, among the drafts to the poems that would go into the Songs of Experience, Blake wrote a poem which begins, “I saw a chapel all of gold/ That none did dare to enter in/ And many weeping stood without/ Weeping mourning worshipping” (E467-68). This is a description of a religion having turned to institutional exclusivity imposing regulation and censorship on believers.
That the “chapel all of gold” refers to the New Church is suggested by its resemblance to Swedenborg’s description of his vision in True Christian Religion, in which the new dispensation he is to bring to the world is revealed to him:
On a certain Day there appeared before me a magnificent Temple of a square Form, whose Roof was like a Crown, arched above, and elevated round about; its Walls were continued Windows of Chrystals, and its Gate of a pearly Substance … I saw that the Temple signified the New Church … as I approached nearer, I saw written over the Gate these Words, Now it is Allowable, which signified, that now it is allowable to enter intellectually into the Mysteries of Faith.
“Now it is Allowable” was a dictum of great symbolic significance for the New Jerusalem congregation, who posted Swedenborg’s original Latin “Nunc Licet” above the door to their rented chapel in Great Eastcheap. In Blake’s poem, the gates to the mysteries of faith are, significantly, shut off. The phrase was also quoted as proposition thirty-three in the document to which Blake puts his signature.
In the Notebook, Blake’s “I saw a chapel all of gold …” is written in a parallel column on the same page as “The Garden of Love.” In the latter poem, Swedenborg’s “Now it is Allowable” is transformed by Blake into a “Thou shalt not,” written over the door of the chapel erected in the garden. It was probably also meant as an ironic charge against the pious New Churchmen who had imposed a ban on the mysteries of love when “Nunc Licet” was chosen as a motto on the cover of the splinter magazine, New Jerusalem Magazine, edited by the Universal Society, which now also included Wadström and Nordenskjöld. This magazine had one purpose: to publish a translation of Swedenborg’s controversial tract on conjugial love. An instalment was included in each number throughout 1790 – until it folded due to lack of subscriptions.
The translation they printed was prefaced with two plates. The first illustrated a scene from Conjugial Love, which, interestingly, also alluded to the proposed African project. The design (by the unknown “Metz”) showed two Africans taken into Heaven, welcomed by angels. The text below (“Cidaris Erit Africo”) refers to Conjugial Love, which is the last number of Swedenborg’s account of a dream vision, in which “wise men in the kingdoms of Europe” are assembled together in heaven to help “unfold the secret RESPECTING THE ORIGIN OF CONJUGIAL LOVE, AND RESPECTING ITS VIGOUR OR POTENCY.” After much debate, some Africans step forward and proclaim: “You Christians deduce the origin of conjugial love from love itself; but we Africans deduce it from the God of heaven and earth … You Christians deduce it conjugial virtue of potency from various causes rational and natural; but we Africans deduce it from the state of man’s conjunction with God of the Universe.” Swedenborg experiences how their understanding of conjugial love surpasses that of the ever so wise representatives from the European nations, and for this they are divinely commended. But the African references did not stop here; the second design had the title of magazine garlanded among palm trees and exotic vegetation.
In a Prospectus published in advance of the magazine, the editors make clear that religious knowledge is en par with the knowledge of political rights that Painite rationalist strove to disseminate as a prerequisite of establishing an opposition in the population against the Establishment. They proclaimed that they had
… in their possession a great number of very valuable manuscripts, on the most interesting and important subjects (never before published) … the circulation of which they thought might prove not only entertaining, but highly useful, to every friend of civil and religious Liberty….Religious Knowledge, it must be confessed, hath of late Years greatly increased in this as well as in other Countries; and the very important Revolutions now taking Place in the World, may serve to convince even the careless and incredulous, that many of the great Events, predicted in the sacred Records, are absolute[l]y fulfilling at the present Period. Impressed with this Conviction, and warmed with a benevolent Wish to diffuse a Knowledge of the most important Truths relating to Man’s present Welfare and eternal Felicity, the Authors of this Performance will unite their best Efforts for a periodical Publication, on a religious Plan ….
In Blake’s poem on the “chapel of gold,” priestcraft and corruption of doctrines makes the speaker turn his back on the chapel and go “into a sty” and lay down “among the swine.” The speaker’s identification of his new position as “swinish” may echo the anti-revolutionary Edmund Burke’s notorious passage in Reflections on the Revolution, calling those possessed with the spirit of revolution for “swine.” Like Blake’s speaker, radical satirists readily applied this to themselves in mockery of the loyalists’ condescending attitudes. That Blake’s draft can be dated to 1792-93 substantiates this interpretation. “Swinish” had at this time become a key metaphor for the radicals’ resistance to hegemonic suppression, as is seen in the cheap penny-magazines published by the left-wing opposition: Pigs Meat; or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude and Politics for the People, or a Salmagundy for Swine (both begun in 1793).
With the exclusion of the radical Masons, the New Church was clearly seeking to weed out its earlier republican and revolutionary associations. Already at the Second General Conference in 1790, prayers for the priests and bishops of the Old Church and the monarchy had been introduced. In addition to this, a petition was prepared to Parliament for “religious toleration,” which entailed a readiness to swear allegiance to the State and Crown. This was also reflected in a change in the body of believers who became members. By the turn of the century, most of the plebeian following seemed to have left the New Church. At least, Robert Southey wrote in 1803 (an observation later published in his Letters from England ) that a visit to the New Jerusalem Church in Great Eastcheap showed that “few or none of the congregation belonged to the lower classes, they seemed to be respectable tradesman.”
In Rise and Progress, Robert Hindmarsh tells us that the General Conference of 1792 took place at a time when “the whole country, from one end to the other, was agitated by contending political opinion, in consequence of the licentious and deistical principle, which followed in the train of the French Revolution, and which were promulgated with much zeal on this side of the water, particularly by the democratical THOMAS PAINE.” Thus, “a Protest was entered in the Minutes of this Conference against all such principles of infidelity and democracy as were then circulating in the country.” Blake, who wrote his most direct political poetry at this time, would certainly have chosen the side of the “swine” over the fallen “chapel of gold,” which could now be seen to betray its former radical principles.
By way of conclusion, it can be established that to describe Swedenborgianism in the late eighteenth century only from what is in the prophet’s works (as Blake scholarship has usually done) makes as much sense as attempting to give an “accurate” account of Christianity in 21-century Britain by restricting oneself to deducing it from what is in the Old and New Testaments alone. The reception of Swedenborg’s occultist writings was not a bibliophile armchair study but an active forum for theo-political debate. Blake noted in the annotations to Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom, “The Whole of the New Church is in the Active Life”. Contemporary Swedenborgians’ various pursuits apparently meant for Blake than merely the sum of Swedenborg’s writings.
Robert Rix is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Languages at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and the author of William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity (Rutledge, 2007). The article above is an edited version of his wonderful online post, ‘William Blake and the Radical Swedenborgians’. For the full version (including full academic referencing, footnotes and a very helpful bibliography) please click here.