William Blake’s “Jerusalem”: a Christian hymn?

The preface to "Milton" by William Blake, with the words of "Jerusalem"One of the hymns at this morning’s Royal Wedding was “Jerusalem”, William Blake’s c. 1808 poem “And did those feet in ancient time” as set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. This is certainly magnificent music, all the more so when sung in a packed Westminster Abbey as part of a great state occasion. But is it a Christian hymn suitable for use in Christian worship?

The illustration shows the words as originally penned by Blake, followed by the interesting Bible verse

Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets. (Numbers 11:29)

Here are the words as sung this morning, taken from Archbishop Cranmer’s posting of the Royal Wedding order of service:

AND did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.

Now I think we have to agree that the first verse is based on an unhistorical legend. The historical Jesus never visited England, and certainly never established here anything like Jerusalem. Yet there is also a truth here: Jesus came to England by his Spirit through his church, and the church made a start on its task of building the city of God here.

This leads into the second verse, in which Blake seems to recognise that Jerusalem will be built “in England’s green and pleasant land” only by the efforts of Christian people like Blake himself. But for those efforts to be successful heavenly weapons are required.

Surely Blake was spot on here in sharing the Christian aspiration to build the new Jerusalem, the city of God, in England and in every other country. As I have been arguing in my recent posts on the last things like this one, the task of the church is not to wait around to be taken out of this world but rather to transform this world into God’s kingdom.

So, I would conclude, this is a wonderful poem and expression of Christian aspirations. The musical setting is magnificent. It is an appropriate part of a ceremony in which a Christian couple set out on a life together hopefully to serve God and build his kingdom in England.

But is it a hymn? No, strictly speaking, because a hymn is a song of praise. In fact by this definition many of the songs used in current Christian worship, traditional and modern, are not hymns. “Jerusalem” is not a song of praise, but a song of commitment to serving God’s purposes. We can only hope and pray that William and Catherine have genuinely committed themselves to this and will have the strength to live it out.

32 thoughts on “William Blake’s “Jerusalem”: a Christian hymn?

  1. I love the music! It’s so rarely even heard here, and I’ve never heard it in church. I was aware that the words seemed a little strange; I thought they may be inappropriate for a Christian service. Thank you, Peter, for doing a little explaining of this piece. Now I understand it better.

    Years ago I wrote an arrangement of it for my daughter and me to play on piano and cello, and we performed it as an offertory at church, but the words were not used. As you said, the music is magnificent!

  2. Here in England “Jerusalem” is a kind of unofficial national anthem. It is often heard in churches, especially at weddings etc, because it is requested mainly by nominal Christian couples. But many evangelicals object to it as not a proper hymn. It is that objection that I was trying to answer.

    William Blake was a Christian, and quite a visionary, although somewhat unorthodox I think.

  3. perhaps if evangelicals did not protest at jerusalem being sung in church, the church might get more nominal christians into church,

  4. Thank you for giving a clearer take on at least verse 2. Both my daughters plus hunsbands chose it for inclusion in their wedding and while discretion, or cowardice, ruled , I have never seen it as much more than an unofficial national anthem set to magnificent music. I will see it in a different light.

    and thinking of Parry’s music, there was a lot of that yesterday. I do like the setting of “I was glad”. I must though look at the words of “Blest Pair of Sirens” again. Another slightly strange libretto.

  5. But is it a hymn? No, strictly speaking, because a hymn is a song of praise

    Don’t know if I agree, Peter – I think a hymn is a sung prayer, and there are prayers of commitment and of repentance and of intercession as well as praise. The contents of any traditional hymn book would confirm this, I think (not to mention the contents of the Psalter).

  6. Well, Tim, I am only going on definitions like Merriam-Webster’s. But I did write that “by this definition many of the songs used in current Christian worship, traditional and modern, are not hymns.” I could also argue that the first half of the second verse of “Jerusalem” is a prayer to God, because who else could the poet have expected to provide a chariot of fire?

  7. There is more HERE than meets the eye and ear. “Jerusalem” a song used in the Royal Wedding, and also reported on TV, this song was sung by the crowd as they stood at the balcony in front of Buckingham Palace. This is Prophecy of another Royal Wedding to take place. “Jerusalem” the wedding of Jesus Christ and his Bride. Kings and Kingdoms shall bow down before Christ at this time. England is preparing, and in a roundabout way Prophesying. JKB

  8. I once heard a story of this hymn being sung at another wedding, and when the vicar announced it he said “and in case anyone’s wondering, the answer to all the questions is no” :-)

  9. Sidefall, I agree that the answer to all the questions is “no”. But I wouldn’t be so churlish as to announce that at a wedding, except perhaps as part of a carefully nuanced wedding sermon.

  10. Blake wrote this in1804 early in the Industrial Revolution, and there is always the question of what he is referring to in the line “dark satanic mills”. What is known is he was close friends of Issac Watts and was influenced by Milton, both promenent non-conformists, so the hypothesis that the Dark Satanic Mills were the Great Churches and Cathedrals of the Established Church then makes the choice of these words somewhat interesting for a Royal Wedding.

    Next we have the second verse. Blake was influenced by Milton, and it is clear that Jerusalem is full of contradictions of imagery. In the Second Verse he harps back to the imagery of the metaphysical poetry using all the sexual imagery of earthly love used by Donne, and Johnson and carefully creating a narrative intune with Old Testement battles and the Apocaylpse. So in the poem, originally in 4 verses, and referred to here in the two as set by Parry, there is a reference to an Old English Legend, a rallying against Church and State, a battle between earthly and divine love, and a conclusion that almost suggests a herodian challenge to the potential defender of the faith at the last day… and he had it sung at his wedding.

  11. Joanna, I’ve heard a number of suggestions as to what the dark satanic mills might be. Another common theory is the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

  12. Joanna, that is an interesting theory. But already by 1804 the Industrial Revolution was well under way in England and there were plenty of mills in the sense of factories, places which could easily be described as dark and satanic blots on “England’s green and pleasant land”. The explanation in Wikipedia seems to me more convincing than yours.

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  14. I checked the usage of the word “mills” to describe factory context. First usage is well after Blake’s death. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were targets of Blakes’s wrath. The movie “Chariots of Fire” opening scene confirms that the Director was of the same opinion.

  15. Paul, I don’t think you are correct in your first sentence. The Online Etymology Dictionary says:

    Other types of manufacturing machines driven by wind or water, whether for grinding or not, began to be called mills by early 15c. Sense of “building fitted with industrial machinery” is from c.1500.

    If you can quote any evidence to the contrary, I would be interested in seeing it.

    Also Wikipedia quotes a slogan from 1791 “Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.” Now I accept that here the word “mill” still means a place where flour is ground, as still in southern England, and not a factory in general, which is mainly a northern usage. But there does seem to be good reason to think that Blake was referring to the factory-like building called in his time Albion Mills, pictured in the former Wikipedia article, and to others like it which were also called mills.

    Don’t confuse Blake’s original intention with the way in which a 20th century film director may have chosen to apply his poem.

  16. Dear Mr. Kirk,

    I live in Munich/Germany. I have watched the Royal Wedding on youtube in an internet-cafe. As they started to sing the song “Guide me o thou great Redeemer” I could not avoid tears and had to leave youtube, because I wanted nobody to see me crying. In the meantime I have bought the official album of the RW and enjoy the songs at home, using my notebook. Besides the song “Guide me o thou great Redeemer” I was very touched by the song “Jerusalem”, you mention above. I suppose, Blake wanted to express the love of the English to their Church (Jerusalem).
    I would find it harsh and not adequate to imply Blake had wanted to express that England itself is the new Jerusalem or Israel.

    I do not manage to read the first text of the Preface above, because the lines touch eachother. Could you do a service for me and transcribe the Preface and send me the text as an email? I would appreciate.

    I want to investigate, what is the real meaning the song.

    Do you know the official interpretation by the crown or royal house?

    I look forward to hear from you,

    Rainer

    braendlein@web.de

  17. Rainer, thank you for visiting Gentle Wisdom. I’m not at all sure of the full meaning of the song. Yes, I suppose Blake could have meant the Church by “Jerusalem”. But this seems unlikely as he was not at all a lover of formalised religion.

    I think Blake’s words are something like this:

    The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid; of Plato & Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible, but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce: all will be set right & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank. & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakspeare & Milton were both curbed by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword. Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental and prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus our Lord.

    Some of this makes good sense to me, other parts do not.

  18. Peter,
    Blake is rejecting the ‘Classics’ of Latin and Greek Renaissance thought. The ‘New Age’ is men like himself who see the truth of the Bible and honour the characters within its pages. Shakespear and Milton, he says, were limited by their classical influences.
    The hirelings are those from John 10:12 who appear to be true shepherds but are not. He says they are present in the Church, in the Monarchy and Parliament and in the Universities. They refuse to engage with ideas and instead send young men to war.
    Then he berates the fashionable world of the arts which strangles true talent. He alludes to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 1:10 – ‘I have … set thee … over the kingdoms … to destroy …’)
    Finally he calls us to reject the Classics and the Renaissance in favour of what we know to be true in our hearts (or ‘imaginations’) which is the Biblical model.
    This ties in with his final wish quoting Moses, who said, in full: ‘Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!’
    All the best,
    Stephen

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  20. Question: Why does a hymn have to be a “song of praise”?

    I agree that the music of “Jerusalem” is wonderful and uplifting. The lyrics are unorthodox but I think in today’s world we do not think about what we are singing and this song or “hymn” makes one think beyond the surface. We are not as familiar with “word pictures” or parables and expect it all to be laid out for us without us doing any work at all. We MUST be aware of what is coming out of our mouths. Is it coming from the heart?

    I am all for unorthodox Christians. When we become entrenched in a closed society of Christians we are no different than the Pharisees and Saducees blinded by repetition and tradition to see the world the way Jesus does. And He was the most unorthodox of anybody.

    When it all comes down to it whether a song is a “hymn” or a song or whatever it is only a label. Doesn’t matter to me just as long as it brings me closer to God.

  21. Susan, thank you for your comment. Sorry that it was lost amongst spam for a few days.

    The simple reason for suggesting that a hymn has to be a “song of praise” (I did add “strictly speaking”) is that that is the dictionary definition. Well, that allows for “something resembling a hymn”, and Jerusalem fits that. But, as I concluded in the post, I have no objection to it being used, in an appropriate way, as an expression of commitment in Christian worship.

  22. I thought it was a hymn of praise for football.

    “And did those feet” suggests (besides football) the pre-incarnate Christ wandering the edenic earth. Of course Blake was some kind of strange mutant Swedenborgian / Muggletonian who experienced visions, believed in free love, criticized every form of religion known to him, and saw good and evil as mutually interdependent.

  23. Dear Peter,

    I wonder why you guys don’t look a bit further than to the Royal Wedding for an explanation, why the Anthem was choosen as the wedding song. Take the Olympics and Paraolympics 2012 in London as an example: These creepy ceremonies were disgusting and far from Christian faith.

    It is said that England and especially the (City of) London is the capital of world’s economy and dark occultism. Englands most popular song writer, John Lennon from Liverpool, became a Newborn Christian for a short time, but was eventually drawn back on the dark side by his black magician wife Yoko Ono (book recommendation: The Last Days Of John Lennon by Frederic Seaman).

    So, England is also prepared for a total shift away from official christian religion. Even more so, as the catholic church itself is decomposing right now.

    It can’t be denied that the throne heir William, Duke of Cambridge, has great similarity with the man on the Holy Shroud and that the rebuilding of the Third Temple and a new “King of Jerusalem” is heavily anticipated by Zionistis throughout the world.

  24. P.M., thank you for your comments. I don’t have time to go into this in more details. I am not really offering an explanation of anything, apart from the words of the song. I won’t dispute that the city of London is a centre of evil.

    I hadn’t heard about John Lennon’s period as a Christian, but it is confirmed by a Christianity Today article.

  25. I will leave Glastonbury, etc., to others. What is certain is that very few people while singing the words of “Jerusalem” to Sir Hubert Parry’s noble tune, whether in church, the Last Night of the Proms or at sporting events, will think about or understand the meaning of Blake’s message. It must be even more puzzling to foreigners.
    On ‘Google” a US journalist disparages “Jerusalem” as a symbol of ‘hereditary democracy’. Paradoxically, Parry’s tune was sung – to different words – at the funeral service of President Ronald Reagan in Washington National Cathedral.

  26. I am sorry to go off at a tangent, but if anyone would like to know the words sung to “Jerusalem” at President Reagan’s funeral, see on Google “Music for Ronald Wilson Reagan Funeral”. This hymn, “O Love of God, how strong and true!” unquestionably is a ‘song of praise’! Google also offers a video recording from the funeral service.

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