As a dissenter from the established church, William Blake was in the 1780s drawn to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a philosopher, scientist and mystic who also had visions and conversed with angels. Swedenborg held that the spirits of the dead rose to take another form in a different world, an idea that resonated strongly with Blake.
Through his friend John Flaxman, Blake came into contact with the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church, and in 1788 bought copies of A Treatise concerning Heaven and Hell and The Wisdom of Angels. Here we can see Blake’s annotations, scribbled in the margins. The poet is looking for philosophical maxims in Swedenborg’s writings. William and Catherine Blake became founder members of the New Jerusalem Church in 1789, fervently embracing the ideas of Swedenborg.
What does Blake say in his notes?
The early notes in the margins – ‘This was known to me and thousands’, ‘mark this’, and ‘poetic idea’, indicate a sympathetic reading; others – ‘to think of holiness distinct from man is impossible to the affections’, or ‘Heaven and Hell are born together’ – show Blake responding to Swedenborg’s ideas in ways which clearly relate to Blake’s works.
But in a 1790 edition of The Wisdom of Angels Blake wrote ‘cursed folly’ and ‘Swedenborg is a Spiritual Predestinarian’. Blake began to mistrust the church’s emphasis on the avoidance of sin and eventually accused Swedenborg of ‘Lies and priestcraft’, while the New Jerusalem Church split into factions. Swedenborg’s ideas were further mocked in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a 'recapitulation of all superficial opinions’.
Despite being invited to rejoin the Swedenborgians in 1790, Blake declined, and is not known to have participated in any formal act of worship for the last thirty years of his life.