Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part I

Laura Sangha

James II

James II: funny, entertaining, shocking

Since September last year, I have spent four hours a week discussing, with sixteen University of Exeter students, what it meant to be a Protestant in England from the Reformation right through to the early eighteenth century (thus partly explaining why I have had so little to say on the monster recently). Those 168 hours have been intellectually exciting (Calvinist consensus, avant-garde conformity, objects as sources), sometimes funny (‘performing’ sermons, ballad recordings, James II), hopefully entertaining (puritans vs the alehouse, museum visits, James II), perhaps dull (Ralph Thoresby’s sermon notes, burial patterns as excel spreadsheets), often shocking (king killing, Diggers, James II) and always immensely rewarding. Two central ideas have underpinned our exploration of English religious cultures of the time, encapsulated in the unwieldy module title:

‘A New Jerusalem: Being Protestant in post-Reformation England’.

Half inspired by Alec Ryrie’s excellent study of the ‘lived experience’ of Protestantism up to 1640 (Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, 2013), it is the concept embedded in the other half of the title that I want to offer some reflections on in this post. As usual a small idea rather grew in the writing, so today I will look at some examples, whilst in a second post at the end of the week I will provide some summarising thoughts.

When I was putting my module together, I was thinking in terms of the early modern reformers setting about the task of tearing down the human invention and superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church and beginning the task of recreating Jerusalem anew in their nation. The successive generations of reformers – in the 1590s, the 1640s, the 1660s – were united in their aim of trying to build a new Church and a godly society, a heaven on earth.


The concept of New Jerusalem can be found in Revelation and John of Patmos’ vision of the apocalypse and his spiritual visit to the heavenly city. After seeing the earth destroyed by angels John recounted that:

There came unto me one of the seven angels… saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. [Revelation 21: 9-10]

Samuel Lee_temple detailThe angel then made a speech that suggested some of the key characteristics of the scriptural New Jerusalem: that beasts, sorcerers, the sexually incontinent, murderers, false worshippers and liars were to be excluded from it; and that if any man altered or took scripture away from the city then they would be damned – it is clear to see why Protestant reformers might take inspiration from this ideological construction (Revelation 22).

But it got me thinking about the other, later moments when the concept of building a New Jerusalem was evoked. Did they have anything in common with this early modern notion? Once I started to look, I was struck by enduring appeal of the concept and the way in which it was continually evoked hundreds of years after. What was it about the concept that was so magnetic?

William Blake

William Blake’s poem (c. 1804) is one of the best known evocations:losenteringthegrave

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 these dark Satanic Mills?

Blake’s dark satanic mills can be interpreted in any number of ways, but the Christian principle at the heart of his redolent verses is impossible to miss. Set to Hubert Parry’s pompous score and sung at the last night of the Proms or belted out by rugby union fans, it is often thought of, and presented as a nationalist hymn. Of course Parry composed the music in 1916 at a time when it was felt the theme might brace the spirit of the nation to accept the sacrifices necessary to win the First World War. Yet the lyrics belie and stand at odds with Parry’s rousing music. Blake’s verses are a call to arms – not a celebration of what England is, but a vision of what it might be. This is certainly the spirit that informs English folk singer Chris Wood’s melancholic recent re-imagining of the lyric:

a troubled, solitary voice asks four questions, not least because he suspects the answer may be a negative. Blake “envisioned a physically and spiritually repressive ideology based on a quantifiable reality”. From his dark satanic mills to our febrile trading floors and bond markets Blake’s question still stands … was Jerusalem (really) builded here? [Chris Wood, None the Wiser: sleeve notes, 2012].

Evidently a malleable and flexible concept, we can begin to see why ‘Jerusalem’ is sung at party conferences of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, and why there are repeated calls for it to replace ‘God Save the Queen’ as the national anthem for England.

Martin Luther King Jnr

On the eve of his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jnr gave a speech that summoned up the image of New Jerusalem:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


King’s more subtle allusion is multilayered and prophetic than Parry’s tune might have us feel. It is pessimistically overlaid with the notion of the sacrifice that is necessary to achieve the New Jerusalem – ‘I may not get there with you’, yet at the same time shot through with optimism that the goal will be reached ‘we, as a people, will get to the promised land’. The power of this rhetoric is inspired by scripture, but the collective sense of struggle is the overwhelming sense in this passage. Of course, the final verse of Blake’s poem also encompasses such themes:

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.

Clement Attlee

Another recent example comes from Clement Attlee, and his Labour Leader’s Speech in 1950, which introduced Labour’s 1951 Election Manifesto – This is a long quotation, but I think it is worth it to convey the polemical power of the speech:

The crucial question of this Election, on which every elector must make up his or her mind, is this: What kind of society do you want? We know the kind of society we want. We want a society of free men and women – free from poverty, free from fear, able to develop to the full their faculties in co-opera­tion with their fellows, everyone giving and having the opportunity to give service to the community, everyone regarding his own private interest in the light of the interest of others, and of the community; a society bound together by rights and obligations, rights bringing obligations, obligations fulfilled bringing rights; a society free from gross inequalities and yet not regimented nor uniform.

Our opponents, on the other hand, regard the economic process primarily as the giving an opportunity to the individual to advance his own interests; community interests, national interests, are regarded as a hypotheti­cal by-product. Their motto is: ‘The world is my oyster; each one for himself.’ The result of that policy can be seen by all. There was the army of the poor; there were the slums; there was beautiful Britain defiled for gain; there were derelict areas. The fruits of our policy can be seen in the new fine generation that is growing up, in the new houses – because we have done a great work in housing. You hear only of the people who are not satisfied. The people who are snug in a Council house do not write to you about it.

The fact is that a very remarkable job has been done under great difficulties. You see our new towns, you see our smiling country­side. I am proud of our achievement. There is an immense amount more to do. Remember that we are a great crusading body, armed with a fervent spirit for the reign of righteous­ness on earth. Let us go forward in this fight in the spirit of William Blake.

clement_atleeThis is another powerful rendering of the New Jerusalem concept, enshrining what is perhaps the English Labour Party’s greatest achievement – the creation of the welfare state. This is particularly so in contemporary England where the dismantling of that older vision of new Jerusalem is well underway, and as we approach another election where these principles are on the line (though I think most would agree that Ed Milliband’s political vision is rather less inspirational). I was surprised at the extent to which Christian ideology provided the basis for Attlee’s speech in the 1950s, the echoes of reformation sermons seem painfully evident in the dichotomy that Attlee draws between us and them, in his idea of a great work only half achieved, in his summoning of ‘a fervent spirit of the reign of righteousness on earth’. Yet Attlee’s New Jerusalem is not one that could have been fully endorsed by an early modern reformer. A Protestant reformer might have cheered enthusiastically at Attlee’s vision of co-operation, of a community bound tightly by mutual obligation and perhaps even of the defence of certain ‘rights’, but early moderns preferred their society to contain plenty of gross inequalities, and they were usually much more at home in a regimented and uniform environment.

Evidently, the concept of New Jerusalem has been a potent one for many human societies for thousands of years. Read part II for some thoughts as to why.

4 thoughts on “Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part I

  1. Pingback: Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part II | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem': British ‘New Jerusalems’, from Blake to Brutalism | Imagining Jerusalem

  3. Pingback: ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem': ‘New Jerusalems’ in Britain, from Blake to Brutalism | Imagining Jerusalem

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