This has been a long, and perhaps strange, way into William Blake.footnote On one matter I am impenitent. Blake can’t have dreamed up a whole vocabulary of symbolism, which touches at so many points the traditions which I have discussed, for himself ab novo. Nor can he have put it together like mosaic from his reading. Things don’t happen like that. Nor can it have arisen just from a reading of the Bible, for this presupposes the Bible, and particular passages of Genesis, read in a particular way. The author of the Prefaces to Jerusalem and the ‘Annotations to Watson’, of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The Everlasting Gospel, was writing within a known tradition, using terms made familiar by seven or eight generations of London sectaries.

Certainly my argument does not stand or fall upon the Muggletonian hypothesis. What this does is to give the argument concretion and indicate one possible actual context. Whether or not Blake’s family, or any of them, came from this particular church is not the critical question. There were other sects and other milieux, whose records may be irrecoverable. Coppinists and ‘Sweet Singers of Israel’ perhaps had meetings and discourses over doctrine of a similar kind, at least until the 1740s or 1750s. The astonishing survival of these Muggletonian records shows at least that such kinds of people were about, that their faith was strong and that the seventeenth-century antinomian traditions ran strongly through to Blake’s time. He must have come from some such familial context.

By 1750 or 1760 it is probable that most of the petty sects reported as existing in 1706 no longer survived in their old forms. But the vocabulary survived, and it was continually in search of new vehicles for its expression. The sects had never been hermetically sealed against each other; part of the intellectual excitement of sectarianism (then, as now) had been found in the factional disputes between sects, the open debates, the struggle to convert each other’s disciples. An earnest seeker might sample different sects, and move on from one to another. Such seekers were still to be found at the end of the century, like the earnest artisans, John Wright and William Bryan, who, in 1789, walked all the way to Avignon in search of spiritual revelation.footnote1 And the same fierce intellectual disputes continued. When the Reverend Richard Clarke came to the city in 1788 and preached universal redemption, ‘the sectaries were ready to tear him out of the Pulpit; and one person called out when preaching at the Temple Church, “This man preaches false doctrine.”’footnote2 We will do best to think of a sectarian and antinomian gathering-ground in London, where heretical tracts were cherished, where sects suffered secessions and new hierarchs arose, where Behmenists disputed with Universalists, and where seekers shopped around among preachers and little churches. If James Blake, Senior, can be shown to have been, at some moment, a Baptist or a Moravian, or if Catherine Hermitage was at one time a Muggletonian, this does not go to prove that they remained in these churches always. It is more relevant that we should see them within this general gathering-ground, with its intellectual and sometimes passionate concern for heretical doctrine. And it was from this same gathering-ground that some of the first members of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church were to be drawn.

By the end of the eighteenth century this tradition of plebeian and tradesman Dissent had drifted a great distance away from the polite and rational religious culture—a culture which, with its uneasy memories of the Commonwealth, still feared ‘enthusiasts’. And the derisory judgement which the learned and the accomplished then made upon these enthusiasts still imposes itself upon us today. We see them only as eccentrics or as survivors. At a casual glance it seems self-evident that those who turned their backs upon rational (and historical) biblical criticism, and who even ignored or traduced all the advancing findings of the natural sciences (as did the Philadelphians, Hutchinsonians and Muggletonians), must have been locked into a religiose fantasy-world; they are quaint historical fossils. Donald Davie, who has cast a casual and partial eye upon the ‘antinomian and heretical sects’ which ‘effectively influenced Blake’, has concluded that ‘as specifically religious insights, their ideas are beneath contempt’. And he asks whether we may not have, in Blake, ‘a case of an imaginative genius born into a stratum of religious experience too shallow to sustain him’.footnote3

In my view, the reply which Davie predicates, in the manner in which he proposes the question, is profoundly wrong, and this book is offering a different answer. But Davie is still asking a necessary and significant question.

I cannot see how an answer can be provided, by one who is not a Christian, at the level of arguments as to the rationality of particular religious beliefs. How are we to say which view is ‘shallow’: the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the Muggletonian doctrine of God’s transmutation in Mary’s womb into Christ?

It might be more helpful to consider, not individual doctrines but the degree to which different traditions were capable of sustaining, in the vocabulary of their doctrines, a disciplined and consistent pursuit of knowledge and an enquiry into value, even when subsequent ages have come to the view that much of this vocabulary was erroneous. Where most kinds of positive knowledge are concerned (scientific, historical) then the answer would seem to be flatly on Davie’s side: the mystical and antinomian sects were not only shallow, they adopted a counter-Enlightenment stance which was obscurantist. But where social or political assumptions or enquiries into value are at issue, then the answer must be very much more complex.