Sectarians in America: Emanuel Swedenborg and the “New Church”


Emanuel Swedenborg, 75, holding the manuscript of Apocalypsis Revelata (1766)

Most schoolchildren can repeat the story of John Chapman, who travelled about the country planting apple seeds, but how many know that “Johnny Appleseed” was actually a missionary sent across the American heartland to sow the doctrines of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg? Never a major religious movement numerically, the Swedenborgians today number, perhaps, thirty thousand worldwide, divided into several splinter groups. The most visible in the United States are affiliated with the Swedenborgian Church, whose often impressive buildings dwarf the dwindling flocks who remain.

Your Editor recently visited the building of one such congregation, the “Church of the Holy City,” which seems to sit almost stoically along Washington D.C.’s “Church Row”—16th Street in the Northwest part of town. A hauntingly beautiful edifice, the Swedenborgian church building is every bit as impressive as the other national church buildings that occupy the capital city’s ecclesiastical corridor. The congregation is not untypical of others in the fold, having dwindled to a handful of adherents who now meet only periodically, surrendering Sunday morning to a small mission congregation of the United Reformed denomination.

Jesper SwedbergIt is a scene played out across the nation, a large building, a small remnant of an aging congregation, and one or more new mission works typically composed of young families. Oftentimes, it is simply a function of congregational demographics, with one congregation waning while another in the very same denomination is planting a new work full of hope and vigor. But with the Swedenborgians, one senses something else is at work, not only that the buildings will outlast the congregations, but perhaps outlast Swedenborgianism, as well. It is a decidedly aberrant theology that in today’s heterodox world, is no longer novel. Others have picked the bones of Swedenborg’s mysticism and repackaged it in smaller, more easily digested, bites. In fact, one no longer “adheres” to such theosophical systems, for that requires reading whole books. It is enough for the modern mystic to click “Like” and move on. Therein lies the problem, presenting Swedenborgianism with a marketing challenge to match the challenge of orthodoxy which faced their forebears.

Born in 1688, the son of a Swedish Lutheran bishop, Emanuel (born Swedberg), embraced much of his father’s Pietism and penchant for introspection. Lutherans have a habit of dividing into “doctrinal” and “pietist” camps, repeating the experiment every so many generations. In this iteration, the Pietists essentially rejected the cardinal Lutheran dogma of sola fide—faith alone, embracing a hodgepodge of faith plus schemes that came to full flower in Swedenborg’s dualism (the name was changed to “Swedenborg” when, in Swedish tradition, the sons and daughters of the bishop were added to the ranks of the nobility).

Swedenborg, who was reportedly afflicted with a stammer, wrote voluminously. Even in his earlier works, which focused on his field of study in mining and engineering, there were chapters presaging his later materialism, i.e. his notion that the soul was material. It wasn’t until the engineer started having visions, however, that the Mars Hill of his day began to take notice, eager to tell or to hear some new thing. While Swedenborg’s ideas were riddled with major departures from orthodox Christianity, there is nothing like a series of visions to capture the imagination of an era and put an exclamation point on an otherwise arcane theological cul-de-sac. On that score, Swedenborg didn’t disappoint. From his first “vision” in which he went to heaven and witnessed the Last Judgment, to his series of “revelations” about the Trinity, marriage, angels, Baptism, etc., he pumped out an astonishing number of books virtually reinventing Christianity in his own image. His best known was entitled “Heavenly Arcana” (or “Heavenly Mysteries”).

At first, the writings were simply too convoluted to gain any traction, but eventually across Europe his ideas began to take root. England, in particular, would become home to a flourishing group of adherents (and fifteen years after his death, the beginnings of the “New Church”). For more than twenty five years, he regaled his followers with the visions, and slowly developed a theology that may have spawned a host of copiers, from Joseph Smith to Mary Baker Eddy. John Williamson Nevin was strongly influenced by Swedenborg’s hermeneutic and friends relate that in his latter years, Nevin grew closer and closer to Swedenborg’s mysticism.

It was not simply a new hermeneutic or the work-your-way-to-heaven promise of Swedenborgianism that held such appeal, he added features guaranteed to attract followers. In his system, two married people who had lived lives characterized by charity would still be married in heaven. If one partner were unworthy, the other would be given a new, worthier mate. Since his system was based on the internal “correspondence” of parallel ideas or things, marriage was to be preferred overSwedenborg Church of the Holy City, Washington, D.C. celibacy; however, a charitable bachelor would nevertheless be rewarded with an appropriate spouse in heaven. (Johnny Appleseed is said to have believed he would receive two wives in heaven because of his good works on earth.)

There was also enough angelic and demonic activity in Swedenborg’s writings to shame both Hollywood and the networks, who turned those genres to cliché in our own age. While the supposedly eternal nature of marriage may have inspired Smith’s Mormonism, the idea that those who are good will become angels has spawned a raft of sappy movies and television pilots. Contemporaries, including Kant, debated his sanity, but others found a lot to like. Orthodox theology said that the blood of Christ alone made atonement for sin, but Swedenborg’s idea that good works could fill the half empty cup had great appeal to those who wanted to keep the structural framework of Christianity, without the offense of the cross. In that respect, his was not unlike many other departures from evangelical religion.

From William Blake to Ralph Waldo Emerson, those not eager to embrace the implications of the Atonement in Christian thought, would incorporate Swedenborgian influences into their own philosophical writings. Others, like Helen Keller, would embrace most of it. Of course, the celebrated cases of Emanuel’s purported clairvoyance didn’t hurt his popular appeal either, since his age, like every age, looks for a sign or a miracle. He is reported to have told dinner guests in Gothenburg that his house in Stockholm (hundreds of miles away) was in danger of burning at that very moment. When matched with the chronology of the actual major fire that struck Stockholm, the timing matched his descriptions exactly. Others point out that the date of the fire was actually ten days prior to the date recorded for the “second sight” phenomenon which, if accurate, would take away something of the “wow” factor.

While it appears, historically speaking, that the “Oneness” Pentecostals developed their aberrant theology of the Trinity independently from Swedenborg, they are remarkably similar, bearing distinctions without a difference on major doctrinal components. For Swedenborg, there simply could not be Three Persons in the Trinity. Rather, there was only one God who became the Incarnate Jesus. This Jesus overcame every earthly sin and temptation, thus purifying the flesh. By this accounting, the Virgin Birth wasn’t particularly necessary or important. Having already dispensed with the necessity of the Atonement, he made marriage eternal, declared the soul to be material and defined the Trinity as essentially modes of the One Person of God, Jesus manifesting a trio of modes (body, soul, spirit) in one person.

He taught that the Second Coming had already occurred—and was continuing to occur—since it did not refer to a physical event, but rather a spiritual reality. His major appeal was also the greatest stumbling block for potential followers. He According to eye-witness Indiana newspaper editor, John Dawson, Johnny Appleseed’s “headgear was rarely ever alike for a long time…[often he had] a tin vessel worn on his head, which he used to cook his frugal meals in.” Dawson also records that Johnny Appleseed would wear several layers of hats where “he carried his Testament and Swedenborgian books.” capped by his cooking pot. From Fort Wayne Historical Societyclaimed that in the vision where he was transported to Heaven, God had personally communicated to him that it was his job to announce the end of the present church age and the beginning of the “New Church.”

Because there must be “correspondence” (think symbiotic and complementary relationship) between two ideas, people, concepts, etc., the Swedenborgian Bible was expunged of those books which did not meet this standard. The words of Jesus, of course, qualified, (presaging the notion of the “red letter” Bible), but apart from the four Gospels and Revelation, the rest was reduced to interesting, but not Inspired status. The Law and the Prophets were included from the Old Testament, along with Psalms, but the “writings” such as Ruth and Proverbs, were excluded.

Perhaps, because of the stutter, Emanuel did not speak in public, but churned out an enormous body of written works. He was described by those who knew him as a warm and lively dinner guest who seldom spoke of theological matters unless confronted. There is no indication that he ever intended to found a church, although he clearly taught that, due to what he considered to be the fatal flaws in the existing church, a “New Church” would naturally develop in time. Swedenborg believed that this would occur naturally over a matter of years and took no overt steps to found an organization.

Now, in the twilight of his long faded influence, like his follower Johnny Appleseed, he appears ready to be consigned to the backwaters of history, an interesting but transient character.