The most famous expression of the idea of Jesus visiting Britain as a young man is to be found in the first verse of the song “Jerusalem”, whose words were published in 1808 by William Blake in the form of a short poem entitled “And did those feet in ancient time?” There are those who maintain that Blake had no knowledge of a legend of Jesus visiting Britain, but this is a subject I’ve explored at great length in my book.
From what I’ve seen, there’s more than sufficient evidence to firmly place Jesus in south Wales and the west of England between AD 12 and AD 30 without having to search for confirmation in the form of legends, although this will be for others to decide when they’ve read what I have to say in my book. Regardless of where Blake drew his ideas or inspiration from for this strange, evocative poem, I believe that he was somehow right in every last detail as far as the suggestions in the first verse of ‘Jerusalem’ are concerned.
This song is hugely popular in England, although I’ll look into the matter of its appeal in greater detail later in this post. For now, it is such an evocative and potent composition that it’s little wonder that strong passions surround its performance. The current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has stated that ‘Jerusalem’ is his favourite hymn, but there are those in Scotland and in Wales who are not fond of the song because it is thought to somehow celebrate England, the “Old Enemy”. This strikes me as madness for a number of reasons, the main one being that there was no such nation as England in the early years of the first century when the legends and other evidence place Jesus here.
From the cumulative evidence I’ve seen and compiled, Jesus spent many years in the west of England and in south Wales, but Blake was writing a poem, not a travel guide, so his use of the word England merely suggests that Jesus was somewhere in the British Isles, very far from the land of his birth. This is surely remarkable enough in itself, without William Blake having to try to add a tortuous explanation in verse to the effect that Jesus may have gone to Wales as well, or that Scotland wasn’t completely out of the question, just so that the poet could keep everyone else in the British Isles happy.
There are also those who point out that the first verse of Jerusalem doesn’t contain a statement, but a series of questions, as if to suggest that this phrasing somehow negates or invalidates the whole concept. You might as well apply the same reasoning to the question “Is there life on Mars?” – the fact that we can pose a question such as this doesn’t mean to say that the answer’s automatically a negative one. If Blake had stated that those feet did indeed walk upon England mountain’s green in ancient time, would that therefore mean that the statement was true? Of course not, but the mere idea of Jesus visiting Britain in the Late Iron Age is worth exploring, not least because Blake most certainly didn’t pluck the idea of distinguished visitors from the eastern Mediterranean coming to the west of England ‘in ancient times’ out of thin air.
I’m a Welshman and I will sing the words to Jerusalem as heartily as anyone else, so I find it hard to understand how some of my fellow countrymen and some Scots take exception to this song, but this bone of contention pales into sheer insignificance in comparison with another issue surrounding Blake’s wonderful composition. Despite the overt references to Jesus in the first verse and the exhortations to bring about the building of Jerusalem, in whatever sense, some people do not view Jerusalem as a hymn. One reason given for this is because it contains no direct appeal to God, which I find very odd, because I can think of a number of Christmas carols that don’t do this, either. “Once in Royal David’s City” springs to mind, as do “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen“, “The Holly and the Ivy“, “In the Bleak Midwinter” and numerous others, but I’ve yet to hear of the singing of these carols being forbidden in church.
As far as I’m aware, the best-known person to have banned the singing of Jerusalem is the Dean of Southwark and it appears he did so because he considers the song too nationalistic, as well as not qualifying as hymn. As Theo Hobson has pointed out, the Dean also ought to ban England’s official national anthem, as well as its unofficial one, if this is the reasoning involved. It is enormously tempting to berate and mock the Dean of Southwark, as many hundreds have done in reply to this piece reporting his decision, but most of these people seem to have concentrated on accusing the Dean of all manner of personal and professional shortcomings that will, in their view, continue the decline in church attendance.
There’s surprisingly little mention or discussion of whether or not there could be any truth in the idea of Jesus visiting Britain, with the few contributions on this theme dismissing such a concept as being theologically absurd, a fantasy or something similar. All this surprises me greatly, because I’ve yet to encounter a solitary reason why Jesus could not have visited Britain in the early years of the first century. On the contrary, there are a great many reasons why he of all people would have found it nigh on impossible to avoid coming to these shores, while I think there’s an abundance of compelling evidence that he did precisely this and remained here for most of his 18 so-called ‘missing years’. It seems that I’m not in a minority of one in inclining towards this belief, but I’m simply interested in the truth of the matter and I’ll just have to wait to see what others have to say after the book’s publication.
Back to the song itself, and it’s hard to overstate its popularity and sheer resonance in Britain. It seems that the words and sentiment of ‘Jerusalem’ do not travel well, because it is rarely performed in America, for example, although different words were sung to Parry’s original music at the funeral of Ronald Reagan, the former president of America, on June 11th 2004. Otherwise, it has been sung at the end of meetings by the Women’s Institute since the 1920s, but its popularity has never declined in all the years since, nor have performances of Jerusalem been confined to (some) churches or Women’s Institute meetings.
One might think that because rock’n'roll has always been viewed as ‘The Devil’s Music’, no self-respecting rocker would entertain the notion of performing what many see as a hymn. Nonetheless, Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded their own version of Jerusalem in 1973 and released it as a single, although it seems that it was banned by the BBC. I’ve tried to discover what prompted Emerson, Lake and Palmer to record this version of Jerusalem, but as yet, I’ve had more success prying into 2,000 year old mysteries than ones from a mere quarter of a century ago.
Billy Bragg also recorded this song, while there’s a beautiful version by Mary Hopkin and many others if you care to look for them, including one with interesting visuals linking to the words; there’s even a boy band named ‘Blake’ performing Jerusalem. The performances at the Last Night of the Proms are stunning, emotive spectacles and while this next arrangement wasn’t my personal favourite, the heavenly, soaring voice of Kathryn Jenkins (which comes in after 5 minutes) elevates Blake’s already lofty words and sentiments into the stratosphere and beyond.
Last, for now, but certainly not least, is the unique version recorded by Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer with the heavy metal band Iron Maiden. It is set to a different tune, while there are additional words or lyrics to Blake’s original and those people who are accustomed to the traditional arrangements of Jerusalem might not warm to it; for my part, I think this inspired combination of a hymn, a poem, a folk song and a heavy rock anthem is a stunning and memorable composition, and I never tire of listening to it.
What a truly astonishing thing William Blake created when he wrote the poem “And did those feet in ancient time?”. It is a hymn, but it is not a hymn. The Dean of Southwark deems it unsuitable to be sung in his cathedral, yet others are transfixed when Kathryn Jenkins performs it at the Festival of Remembrance, a solemn occasion when the dead from over a century of armed conflicts are remembered and honoured.
Its performance is also thought to be appropriate for a wide range of sporting occasions, while it’s just as well-suited to be sung at funerals. It is in effect a national anthem, yet many people ask for it to be sung at their weddings, personal ceremonies as far removed from mass celebrations of nationality as it’s possible to imagine. From what I can gather, the words and the song have been embraced at some point or other by all three major political parties in Britain, who are otherwise usually at each other’s throats. It is performed with equal feeling and passion by Mary Hopkin, a folk singer, and by Billy Bragg, a man usually associated with protest songs. The concerts presided over by Bruce Dickinson and the meetings of the Women’s Institute are two gatherings that we would think have little in common, yet both are united by the soulful performance of the words written by William Blake, over two centuries ago.
At the heart of all these different performances, recordings, ceremonies, celebrations and observances is the simple notion that continues to captivate and enthrall us. It is the idea that Jesus once visited Britain as a young man, then went on to do something wonderful among ‘dark, satanic mills’, whatever they may have been, but I strongly suspect that there’s a very great deal more to the matter than that.