Despite his obvious impact, Swedenborg’s name is still not well-known three hundred years after his birth. He was an inventor, a scientist, a civil servant, and a philosopher before he accepted God’s call to be a rational revelator during the Age of Enlightenment. While Swedenborg’s genius may be found in all his works, it is his claim to be a revelator, and his spiritual vision, which truly set him apart. Historically it has been this claim which has attracted interest in him; and it is his theological writings that have been the source of his greatest influence. Swedenborg stands apart from other revelators because of the means through which he received revelation, its substance, and the process of its transmission.
Because his Writings are exclusively a written revelation, Swedenborg was able to integrate in them elements which in traditional religious movements have been distinct; for contained within the Writings are both the charismatic vision and the rational codification of its development. In offering only a written revelation to the world, Swedenborg dramatically decreased the probability of its discovery. However, by widely distributing his books, he made discovery a permanent possibility; but it was a possibility over which Swedenborg himself would have no personal control. Swedenborg left completely open who would respond to his vision, under what conditions, and at what time and in what place, or whether anyone would respond at all.
In presenting a vision counter to the prevailing religious and secular paradigms of the day, he invited ridicule; and, in not organizing a group of followers to carry his vision into the future, his ideas did not become part of the mainstream in the development of modern western thought. However, the scope of his influence, as documented in this book, suggests the unfolding of another reality, because Swedenborg’s legacy has endured.
A biography of Swedenborg and a chronological list of his major works are included in this anthology because a knowledge of the man and the substance of his writings may provide some insight into the persistence of his influence.
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm on January 29, 1688 . At the time of his birth, Sweden ‘s century of expansion was drawing to a close. In asserting her independence during this century, the Swedish kingdom became more economically and politically integrated into Europe ‘s cultural orbit. The great mineral wealth of Sweden and war were important ingredients in this process. Foreign miners and mercenaries were brought to Sweden to assist in her development and modernization. The Swedish arms industry was established at this time, strengthening the military position of Sweden and providing a valuable export. The internal administration of the kingdom was further centralized through the development of a state bureaucracy, with the University of Uppsala providing the training for the corps of civil servants. During this period the city of Göteborg was established as an export center and Stockholm was transformed into a modern showplace.
While all these changes were taking place at one level in Sweden , the life in the countryside remained essentially unchanged. The rhythms of agriculture, of the seasons, of sowing and harvest, of dearth and plenty were untouched. In this world the supernatural brooded over the landscape and in the hearts of men. The struggle between light and dark, heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation, good and evil dominated men’s thoughts and pervaded their physical world. Only a thin veil separated life and death, and which was which was shrouded in ambiguity. The reality and intensity of this world is brilliantly captured in the novels of Selma Lagerlöf, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1909.
Jesper Swedberg, Swedenborg’s father, was born into this reality. Born at “Sveden” in 1653, the family homestead not far from Falun, Swedberg’s life fortunes were dramatically altered when the new mining techniques imported from abroad made a family-owned mine once again productive. These additional resources enabled Swedberg to attend the University of Uppsala and opened to him the world of modern Sweden through a career in the Church. Immediately after his ordination in 1683 Swedberg married Sarah Behm, a modest and religious woman, whose family’s wealth was derived from extensive mining interests. Noticed by the King early in his career while serving in the position of chaplain of his horse guards in Stockholm , in 1702 Swedberg was elevated to the post of Bishop of Skara, having served in Uppsala as a professor of theology and Dean and Rector of the Cathedral in the interim. He remained in Skara until his death in 1735. His tenure in Skara is remembered today because of his deep interest in education. Despite his prominence, Swedberg remained outside of the Church’s formal power structure and innocent of her official ideology of faith alone. Throughout his long and prosperous life, Swedberg never abandoned the perspective and sensitivities of his early rural upbringing with its emphasis on the supernatural, piety, and good works.
Emanuel was the third of nine children and the second son born to Jesper and Sarah Behm Swedberg. While living in Uppsala , in 1696, Swedenborg suddenly lost his mother and his older brother Albert in an epidemic. A year later, Swedberg married for a second time. His new wife was Sarah Bergia, a wealthy widow, who also had mining interests. She seems to have been particularly fond of Emanuel and upon her death in 1720, he inherited half of her estate, Starbo, and a modest fortune.
Swedenborg wrote very little concerning his early life, and except for the following, which was written in a letter to a friend in 1769, what little else is known comes from public records and his father’s autobiography:
From my fourth to my tenth year, I was constantly engaged in thought upon God, salvation, and the spiritual sufferings of men, and several times I revealed that at which my father and mother wondered…. From my sixth to my twelfth year my delight was to discourse with clergymen concerning Faith—that the life thereof is love, and the love that gives life is the love of one’s neighbor….
After his family moved to Uppsala , Swedenborg spent the next seventeen years there. He lived in his father’s home for eleven years, until Bishop Swedberg was called to Skara. For the next six years, until his graduation from the university in 1709, he lived with his sister Anna and her husband, Eric Benzelius, who was the Librarian at the University. Benzelius was a modern, forward-looking man who was eventually named Bishop of Linköping. He was a brilliant man and an “ardent Cartesian” who was convinced that science held the key to the future. With that perspective, he eagerly took on the responsibility of modernizing the holdings of the Library. To accomplish this he corresponded with many of the most prominent men of learning in Europe and in this way he gained a knowledge of the developing intellectual trends of his day.
Both Swedberg and Benzelius were important influences in shaping Swedenborg’s aims and interests. Swedenborg himself acknowledges this in dedications that he wrote to both men. Swedenborg dedicated his thesis “Selected Sentences from Publius Syrus Mimus and L. Annaeus Seneca” to his father with the following words: “May I grow, with increasing years, in the imitations of those deeds which have covered the name of my parent with honor and Fame. May I resemble him in his writings as well as in mind and character.”
In 1734 Swedenborg dedicated his Infinite and Final Cause of Creation to Benzelius. In that dedication he states:
In you I acknowledge the source of personal benefit, inasmuch as it was by your advice and wishes, that my mind, then ripening and eager for study, though hesitating and ignorant, nevertheless, as at that early age it is wont to be, to what pursuits to turn, was directed to the present and similar subjects, which were auguries of a personal career in literature…. And as it was at your instigation that I applied myself to these studies, so I hope you will in a measure acknowledge this offspring of my powers, poor though it be, as in some part your own; and therefore allow that of right it should be dedicated to no one but yourself.
Although Swedenborg’s interest in the natural sciences and mathematics may be attributed to Benzelius’ influence, his fascination with the factual and the concrete also seems quite similar to Swedberg’s vigorous concern for a “down to earth,” living, practical theology; and Swedenborg’s distaste for the abstract in the realm of science is reminiscent of his father’s animosity toward cerebral faith and dogmatics in religion. Therefore, it is possible to see evidence of his father’s character in his scientific career as well as seeing Benzelius’ more rational and universal concerns echoed in his theology.
In 1710, on the advice of Benzelius, Swedenborg left for England to immerse himself in the most modern scientific currents of his day; he stayed for two years studying mathematics and astronomy. During his stay he also frequented the shops of booksellers and instrument makers in order to enlarge his library and his knowledge, and while in London he lived with a variety of different journeymen in order to learn their trades. In this way he learned the arts of engraving, making mathematical instruments and cabinetry, and later in Holland he learned glass-grinding as well.
While in England Swedenborg studied with the astronomers John Flamsteed and Edward Halley and, perhaps during conversations with them, became intrigued by the competition seeking a reliable means to find the longitude at sea. He devoted considerable time and energy to solving the problem, and it is clear from his letters that he discussed his solution with both Flamsteed and Halley. His method required exact lunar tables, which were unavailable at the time. In spite of the criticism his method received, he continued to have confidence in his idea, perhaps because the problem was not finally resolved until the 1740s, “when John Harrison perfected a chronometer, successfully used by James Cook.” Swedenborg published his method in 1718 and again in 1769. At the time of his second publication, he presented his method to the Royal Society in England .
Swedenborg remained abroad until 1715, spending considerable time in Holland and France absorbing new knowledge, and time in the German city of Rostock developing his own insights. His approach to each new environment was similar to the way he approached his stay in London : he attended public lectures, visited the best libraries, searched bookshops and stalls, read and studied, and held frequent conversations with academics on topics of importance to him. Throughout his tour mathematics was the major focus of his interest.
During his year-long stay in Rostock he took time to order and integrate his studies and reflections of the previous four years. “In a letter he wrote to Benzelius, he lists and briefly describes fourteen inventions. Included in the list are the following: a submarine, an airplane, a mechanical carriage, a lock system for raising the height of ships and ‘a method of conjuring the wills and affections of men’s minds by means of analysis.’ For some of his inventions he made drawings; for all of them he made the necessary mechanical and mathematical calculations.”
The fourteen inventions Swedenborg described to Benzelius were the most obvious but not the only intellectual fruits of his first trip abroad. He left Sweden in 1710 a Christian and a Cartesian who was still willing to acknowledge a debt to Aristotle—he appreciated both system-building and the experimental sciences, and his driving intellectual quest was to rationally understand the relationship between first causes and ends without being forced into a determinism that eliminated freedom. He firmly believed that truth cannot be fabricated from a priori knowledge alone, but must be capable of demonstration. The purpose of his trip to England “was to learn the language and method of scientific proof, to learn the rules governing the demonstration of truth through experience, and to learn the laws through which nature operates.” While in England Swedenborg deepened his appreciation for the beauty, the power, and the necessity of the experimental sciences as the proper key to understanding the natural and physical universe.
Upon his return to Sweden he endorsed the views of the noted Swedish inventor and engineer Christopher Polhem, who was critical of the Cartesians. Philosophically, however, he did not become a Newtonian. Swedenborg returned from his sojourn abroad aware of both the tremendous power and the limits of empiricism. He realized that a complete understanding of the human condition simply cannot be grasped empirically—an insight that was not unique to him. However, “most eighteenth century philosophers were content to explore the questions which could be addressed through the instrument or agency of reason and confirmed by experience.”7 They consciously abandoned the quest of penetrating into absolutes, ultimates, and ends. They were content to ask the questions which they felt they had the tools to answer, rather than seeking new instruments to explore the essential question of human existence, “What shall we do and how shall we live?”8 For Swedenborg the essential question remained the quest.
Search for a Career
Swedenborg had gone abroad to learn everything he could about the practical sciences of his day. His interest was both personal and civic, for he had dreams of assisting the modernization of Sweden by means of his own career in science and technology. However, upon his return to Sweden at the age of twenty-eight, Swedenborg was confronted with the very practical problem of what to do. How could he integrate who he was and what he had learned abroad into the rather static and aristocratic social environment of Sweden —an environment in which a man’s connections were the currency of placement and position, and where competence and achievements were secondary or unimportant considerations?
Immediately upon his return, Swedenborg threw his energy into introducing a journal which he called Daedalus Hyperboreus, dedicated to practical scientific inquiry. He had conceived the idea for the journal while he was abroad, and he saw it as a means of stimulating the development of mechanics and manufacturing in Sweden , the growth of which he felt would strengthen the national economy. The journal was published in Swedish in an attempt to encourage the interest of the general public in these matters, and six issues were published over the next several years. The articles covered a wide range of topics, including mine machinery, salt-making, a flying machine, and coinage. Although the journal sold moderately well, Swedenborg was unable to find others willing to back it financially, and discontinued its publication in 1718. Even though Daedalus was commercially unsuccessful, it was intellectually innovative and is regarded as the foundation of the present Royal Society of Sciences of Uppsala.
The question of a career appeared to be resolved when Charles XII appointed him Extraordinary Assessor of the Board of Mines in 1716. Although the King’s warrant was initially accepted and he was seated on the Board, after the King’s death in 1718 and a shift in the political climate, the regularity of the appointment was questioned and the Board denied him the seat and a salary. Swedenborg refused to accept the decision of the Board and continued to insist on the legitimacy of his appointment. The matter was settled to Swedenborg’s satisfaction in 1723.
From 1715 until he was officially recognized by the Board of Mines, besides publishing Daedalus Swedenborg threw his talent and energy into three other areas: he worked as an assistant to Christopher Polhem working on a variety of mechanical inventions and various military projects under the direction of Charles XII; he wrote several books and treatises including some reflections on theology and anatomy; and, after his ennoblement, due to his father’s position, he wrote and submitted to the Riksdag a variety of memorials on important political and economic problems which were plaguing Sweden. Throughout this period he received no retainer or salary in any position, and every enterprise was begun and sustained exclusively through personal relationship—with writers, printers, the mercurial inventor and engineer Christopher Polhem, and the strong-willed King. During this period Swedenborg was both frustrated and discouraged about his ability to find a stable position through which he could serve Sweden . Swedenborg’s personal fortune was dramatically enhanced when he inherited Starbo at the death of his stepmother, Sarah Bergia, in early 1720. Although her death was a personally painful experience for him, it provided the financial resources for Swedenborg to pursue a career as an independent scholar. Intending to research, write, and publish as soon as the matter of the inheritance were settled, Swedenborg left Sweden for Holland—first leg of a journey in which he also planned to visit England, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany.
In Holland he published three works: A Forerunner of the Principles of Natural Things, commonly known as Chemistry; New Observations and Discoveries Respecting Iron and Fire; and A New Method of Finding the Longitude of Places on Land and at Sea, by Means of the Moon. These works contained a collection of articles addressing old interests and new ideas. In the work on Chemistry Swedenborg articulated for the first time one of the principles of his philosophy: “The first conception is that all things are in series; there is a series of particles, beginning with mathematical points and ending in water, salt and earth.”
Although he wrote on a variety of different subjects during his stay abroad, it is clear that the issue of the assessorship was still on his mind and that one of his objectives in publishing was to become an authority on mining. He dedicated Parts I through III of his Miscellaneous Observations to Count Gustaf Bonde, the new president of the Board of Mines, and he published some new observations and research on mining techniques in Part IV. He also sent a prospectus entitled The Genuine Treatment of Metals to a variety of learned journals. It was published in the Nova Literaria.
Swedenborg was called home by his father in the midst of his trip to help settle another inheritance dispute within the family. After arriving in Sweden in June of 1722, he quickly helped to settle the family problem and then turned his attention to two other important matters, one private and the other public—his career and Sweden’s dire economic situation. To further his career he proposed a test of a new method to smelt copper; and to address Sweden ‘s economic problems he wrote a memorial on coinage and six other memorials on the state of Sweden ‘s economy. The memorial on coinage “caused a great stir, as it took a firm stand against the debasement of the coinage.”10 His memorials on economics were read in the House of Nobles, but were not acted upon, while his pursuit of the position of Assessor finally bore fruit. In March 1723, Swedenborg was invited to attend the sessions of the Board and in April an agreement was reached on the issue of his seniority. In 1724 he was finally awarded a salary. Having achieved the position he had pursued with such dogged determination, Swedenborg devoted himself to the broad and complex duties of an assessor which required administrative, technical, and judicial competence. He remained active in this position until 1747, when the King regretfully accepted his resignation, noting in a letter his faithful and exemplary service to Sweden .
Upon assuming the assessorship, Swedenborg brought to a close one phase of his life and began another. During this period Swedenborg had touched base with all the major concerns to which he was to devote the rest of his life: cosmology, anatomy, and even theology. These efforts notwithstanding, perhaps his major accomplishment during this period was his persistence in pursuing what he thought was the right and legitimate course, without much external recognition and support.
It would appear that securing a position of public employment freed Swedenborg to focus his intellect on what was for him the essential problem of philosophy—the relationship between the Creator and the world of creation. For twenty years from 1724 he investigated, reflected upon, and wrote down his understanding of this problem—both how to approach it and what the structure of the relationship might be. Although on the surface his published works appear to be investigations of widely divergent topics, his works during this period form a series. His first work, the three-volume Philosophical and Mineralogical Works, was published in Leipzig in 1734. The first volume is the Principia, and the second and third volumes are scientific studies, On Iron and On Copper. His second major philosophical work was published in Dresden in 1734. It was a small volume entitled The Infinite and Final Cause of Creation. His third work was called The Economy of the Soul’s Kingdom, published in Amsterdam in 1740 and 1741. Dissatisfied with his efforts in the Economy, he began another work called The Soul’s Kingdom. Three parts of this work were published before Swedenborg abandoned his enterprise. The first two parts were published in Amsterdam in 1744, and a third part was published in London in 1745.
Swedenborg’s desire to understand the order and purpose of creation first led him to investigate the structure of matter and the process of creation itself. In the Principia he outlined his philosophical method, which incorporated experience, geometry (the means whereby the inner order of the world can be known), and the power of reason; and he presented his cosmology, which included the first presentation of the nebular hypothesis. In 1734, satisfied that he had understood the mechanics of the unfolding of the natural universe from the first natural point or the first finite, he turned his attention to the problem of the nature of the infinite and its relation to the finite.
In the Principia Swedenborg concluded his presentation of his cosmology with a discussion of man, because in his view man completes creation. In ending this work with a discussion of the place of man in creation, Swedenborg was pointing to the focus of his philosophical endeavor for the next ten years of his life. The completion of his philosophical system required Swedenborg to move precisely in this direction. Without a consideration of man, who alone of all creation can worship the Creator, and who can thus return what has been created to the Creator, his system would be incomplete.
However, before he could examine the manner in which the human body is animated and functions and is thereby connected to the creator, it was necessary for him to address the essential or pivotal question of his entire philosophical system—the existence of “the Infinite itself.” At the beginning of the Principia the infinite was identified as that from which all of creation proceeds, and at the end of that work, Swedenborg indicated that it is to the infinite that all of creation must return. However, before he could explore how that return is made possible, he found it necessary to demonstrate that the infinite does, in fact, exist and that it is both the first and final cause of creation—the Alpha and the Omega. In this essay he also found it necessary to demonstrate why man’s place in nature should be examined at all. According to Swedenborg, “Since man resembles nature as to his body and organs, or as to means, if he is undifferentiated from the rest of nature as to ends as well, then the principles which explain the ‘least of creation’ would likewise explain man”—making any further philosophical examination of nature unnecessary.11 In his treatise on The Infinite Swedenborg demonstrated the existence of the Infinite, and the unique role of man in the order of creation. Mankind is the means whereby the final cause is effected, and the medium of conjunction between the Creator and man is love. In this essay Swedenborg emphasized that all man’s faculties—his sensual, his rational, his freedom, and his capacity to love—serve in the realization of the final cause of creation, each in its proper place.
In The Infinite, Swedenborg for the first time drew together truths from reason and revelation for the sake of man’s understanding. Revelation, as he employed it in this work, was not a “stopgap” for reason, but an independent and necessary source of truth.
At the end of this work Swedenborg set as the next task of his philosophical inquiry “to demonstrate the immortality of the soul to the very senses.”12 This is what he attempted to do in The Economy of the Soul’s Kingdom and in the Soul’s Kingdom. In these works, he was seeking to discover the world of cause from a detailed examination of the world of effects, or to understand the rules of government whereby the soul operates in its kingdom, the body. Ultimately, he was interested in understanding the principal cause whereby the microcosm operated, or “to trace out the nature of the human soul” itself.13
While pursuing this goal Swedenborg wrote several remarkable treatises, including his work on the brain and his rational psychology. Ultimately, however, he gave up his endeavor, as he yearned to go where the methods of philosophy could not take him. At the beginning of his quest he was animated by a desire to seek immortal truth both for its own sake and for the sake of banishing mere appearances of truth—a desire which is compatible with the pursuit of science and philosophy—whereas in the end he stated that he was engaged in his labors for the sake of those who can only comprehend high truths by way of the intellect, and not by faith. As he said in his introduction to The Soul’s Kingdom, “For these persons only am I anxious…and to them I dedicate my work. For when I shall have demonstrated truths themselves by the analytical method, I hope that those debasing shadows will be dispersed; and thus…that an access will be opened and a way laid down, to faith. My ardent desire and zeal for this end is what urges and animates me.”14
This passage highlights the transformation of Swedenborg’s motivating love or purpose. Scholarship and a love of truth for its own sake have become transformed from ends in themselves into means. Faith has become the primary end, with his philosophy serving as the means. Such an end is ultimately perhaps more compatible with the love of saving souls, which is a priestly rather than a philosophic love.
It is at this point in Swedenborg’s life, in 1743, that he underwent a profound spiritual crisis which is documented in The Journal of Dreams. In his journal Swedenborg recorded his dreams and visions which were dramatizations of his temptation to determine his own way rather than choosing God’s. It is important to realize that once the process was begun the outcome hung in the balance. To continue his search to understand the relationship between the Divine and man required more than intellectual passion and clarity—it required his absolute devotion. That devotion could only come about through the subordination of his self-love to the love of God. What may have activated the necessity of temptation at this time, and to this depth, was Swedenborg’s joining the love of saving souls with his own philosophy as the means.
Prior to his spiritual crisis, Swedenborg had experienced “a certain cheering light and joyful flash” darting through his brain when he was in the presence of truth.15 Thus, whenever he felt any lack of clarity or mental confusion he took that as a sign not to go on immediately. As he proceeded with his investigations he came closer to passing over the abyss between matter and spirit and between philosophy and revelation. His journal of dreams not only documents his spiritual crisis, but also serves as a record of his personal call.
I saw also in vision that fine bread on a plate was presented to me; which was a sign that the Lord Himself will instruct me since I have now come first into the condition that I know nothing, and all preconceived judgments are take away from me; which is where learning commences; namely, first to be a child and thus be nursed into knowledge, as is the case with me now.16
With this realization, Swedenborg was ready to put aside his philosophical studies in order to focus all his attention on the spiritual. But how? It was not absolutely clear to him what he ought to do. At this time he began a manuscript entitled The Worship and Love of God, of which he published the first two parts in London in 1745. It stands apart from the philosophy that preceded it and from the Arcana Coelestia that was to follow. Like The Infinite it was both a culmination and a beginning. It differs from the philosophic works more in tone and form that in substance, and it differs from the later revelatory works both formally and substantively. This poetic work was written as an offertory to express his love and adoration to God the Creator and Redeemer.
The third part of this work Swedenborg left unfinished in manuscript form, abandoned in mid-sentence; in this section he intended to move beyond a poetic summary of his published philosophical works to present a treatise on the Sun of Life. A consideration of both man’s freedom and the fall were to be incorporated in the discussion. The literary metaphor with which he chose to illustrate these things was a vision of the spiritual sun, seen by the first married pair as they awoke from the conjugal bed. But perhaps he became concerned that this direction was based too much on his own private vision, and violated his own concern that the rules of evidence be followed. It became apparent to him that the more objective path was to be found in the study of the Holy Bible or the Lord’s Word.
In his study of the Word, Swedenborg interiorly heard the Lord calling. In a small unpublished manuscript entitled The Messiah About to Come, he wrote down passages that held special meaning for him—perhaps they are the passages in which he could hear the Lord most clearly speaking to him. At the end of the manuscript is a brief note written in Swedish on November 17, 1745 . In part it says “Lord Jesus Christ, lead me to and on the way on which Thou willest that I shall walk.”17 In his study he gradually realized that the Word alone could form the experiential ground of a new revelation from God to man. Because this ground is universally available to all people and unlike a private vision, it can be challenged or confirmed by other men’s rational and experiential response to it.
Desiring to direct his life to serving the Lord, Swedenborg saw no further need to remain abroad, and he abandoned his projects and returned to Sweden in the summer of 1745. For the next two years he continued to fulfill his duties at the College of Mines , while privately he methodically studied the Bible, reading it in Hebrew and Greek as well as in Latin. During this time he began an extensive Biblical Index and a four tome exposition of the Bible, entitled The Word Explained, which he never published; while in another journal he recorded his experiences and insights from the spiritual world. This too he never published.
In 1747 he was appointed first Councillor at the Board of Mines. Swedenborg, realizing that the responsibilities of such a promotion would hinder the more important spiritual work he was doing, asked to be passed over for this appointment and then he submitted his resignation from the College.
The King accepted his resignation with mixed feelings: gratitude for Swedenborg’s steadfast and faithful service to Sweden , sadness because he was leaving that service, and confidence that his latest endeavor would be as beneficial to the public as his other works had been. These feelings of gratitude and respect were concretely reinforced by the King’s genuine pleasure in granting Swedenborg’s request for a pension. In leaving the King’s service Swedenborg was able to focus his full attention on his Divine commission.
As he grew to understand it, that commission required both intellectual and spiritual preparation. The need for such preparation, according to Swedenborg’s own testimony, lay in the nature of the revelation he was to receive. As he stated in Arcana Coelestia, internal revelation, or revelation from perception, requires preparation of the mind and soul, in order to create a foundation for it. External revelations through dreams, visions or hearing a voice, on the other hand, such as those received by the Jewish prophets, do not require a similar foundation. Revelations of this kind are revelations without perception or understanding.
That Swedenborg’s understanding of scripture deepened and changed from the time he felt his call until his first theological work (Arcana Coelestia) was published, is made obvious through comparison. The Arcana was his fourth effort to unfold the hidden meaning of Genesis. According to Swedenborg himself, it was begun only after a change of state had occurred within him which permitted him to view “the heavenly kingdom in an image.”18 With this change of state the last veil had been removed and he had achieved the degree of perception necessary to be an instrument of a rational revelation. From seeing Genesis first as cosmology, as he did in “The History of Creation as Given by Moses,” and then as historical prophecy as he had in both in the “Biblical Index” and The Word Explained, he was ultimately led to see that Genesis treats primarily of the process of the Lord’s glorification and man’s regeneration. With reference to man, the story of creation refers not to man’s first creation an earth, but rather to his second or essential creation—his spiritual birth.
Swedenborg’s Public Mission
The eight quarto volumes of the Arcana Coelestia were published anonymously in London between 1749 and 1756. Even though he did not claim authorship, the publication of the Arcana initiated the “public” phase of Swedenborg’s mission because his inner visions and spiritual experiences were no longer to serve primarily his own enlightenment. They were now to be shared with the world.
Because Swedenborg was an instrument of an internal revelation, his spiritual mission took place in both the spiritual and natural worlds. He believed that his commission to the natural world entailed only that he should faithfully write, publish, and disseminate the heavenly truths that were revealed to him by the Lord. This is all that he did during the twenty-three years of his public mission. He never put any effort into direct proselytizing or into organizing a new church, nor did he personally attempt to convert anyone to his views. Throughout this time he underwrote all of the expense necessary to fulfill this mission, and whatever income he received from the sale of these books he directed his printer to reinvest in their publication. He sold his books below cost and he also sent many copies of his works to libraries, prelates, and various other notable individuals. During this time from 1749 to 1771 he published eighteen separate theological works.
The scope of Swedenborg’s theological writings is immense. Two of his works, Arcana Coelestia and Apocalypse Revealed, expound the internal sense of Genesis, a portion of Exodus, and the Apocalypse, utilizing the doctrine of correspondences to do so. In some of the other works he published he discusses such topics as: life in heaven and bell, the Last Judgment, Divine providence, the doctrine of the Lord, the doctrine of the Sacred Scripture, life in the universe, marriage love, and the essentials of the true Christian religion.
Swedenborg’s religious teachings provide a new vision of God, new insight into the nature of the relationship between the spiritual and natural worlds, and a universal and rational ethic to guide men to a useful life. It is a radical and rational Christian religion: radical because it breaks with both Catholic and Protestant traditional interpretations of the Trinity, original sin, the atonement, and imputation and justification; and rational because the focus of its theology is the penetration and clarification of the mysteries of faith, through which a new understanding of salvation emerges which grants man cooperative efficacy in spiritual things. While engaged in making known these new spiritual truths, Swedenborg was able to maintain his anonymity for only the first ten years of his mission. An extraordinary experience that he had while attending a dinner party in Göteborg in 1759, in which he reported a fire in Stockholm three hundred miles away, gained him a reputation in Sweden as a clairvoyant. Gradually as his books became known in Sweden , those who had read them guessed that Swedenborg was the author and when asked by them, he acknowledged authorship. He continued to publish his works anonymously, but gradually knowledge of his authorship grew outside of Sweden as well. It was not until 1769 that he declared himself as author of any of his theological writings: on the title page of Conjugial Love he wrote “Emanuel Swedenborg, A Swede.”
As knowledge of his authorship of these religious books increased, men began to seek him out to discuss them with him. Swedenborg almost always obliged; however, by this time had gained notoriety in some circles as a mad visionary. This was due to his reputation as a clairvoyant, the nature of his claim to be able to see into the spiritual world, and to his descriptions of that world. Many people who sought him out did so more from curiosity than for enlightenment. He refused to demonstrate his spiritual prowess but was always delighted to discuss religious issues with sincere seekers.
Because of restrictions on the freedom of the press in Sweden , Swedenborg published all of his religious works outside of Sweden , primarily in Holland or England . Neither this fact nor the fact that he did not try to organize a church enabled him to escape controversy with the Church in Sweden . Toward the end of his life two men who had accepted his teachings became embroiled in a heresy trial as a result of propagating the new ideas of Swedenborg at the University of Göteborg . When Swedenborg heard of this he became indignant and wrote to the King on behalf of these men. His letter seems to have had a positive result, and eventually the matter was dropped. The universities were also asked to make a judgment regarding Swedenborg’s writings. After three years they asked to be excused from the duty without ever presenting any findings.
It would be over one hundred years before an official New Church organization was established in Sweden .
Swedenborg’s Mission in the Spiritual World
According to Swedenborg, the purpose of spiritual and natural creation was to form a heaven from the human race. However, this required free response on the part of man, and provision for his salvation. The spiritual world, of which heaven is a part, is the world of causes, while the natural world is that of effects. Therefore, for a new revelation to be truly new and universal, it must reveal the world of causes which was for so long hidden from man, and it must essentially address the question of order at that level; for so far as the world of causes is ordered, so will be the world of effects. Thus, the major events which surround the formation of this new church occurred in the spiritual world, according to Swedenborg. Thus, the last judgment which is referred to in the book of Revelation, was an event which took place in the spiritual world in 1757. Once that judgment took place, this world of causes was prepared for the establishment of a new heaven there. Both this new heaven and new church were to be founded on a more interior or essential vision of the conjunction of good and truth in the Divine Human of the Lord Jesus Christ. The new heaven would be established among the good departed souls who had not received a clear understanding of the Lord as a result of their experiences in the Christian church before their death, or who at death knew little or nothing about Christianity.
Swedenborg’s role in the spiritual world was to serve as an instrument whereby the world of cause could be conjoined to the world of effect, not just for the sake of his own salvation, but for all men. For in The True Christian Religion, his last published work, Swedenborg details the universal theology of the new church, and informs mankind that with the advent of the New Church , “now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith.” What will bring about the establishment of this church both in the spiritual and the natural worlds is the acknowledgment on the part of spirits and men that the Lord Jesus Christ reigns.
The publication of The True Christian Religion inscribed by the “Lord’s command” with the words “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ,” marked the culmination of Swedenborg’s dual mission—to serve as an instrument for the establishment of a new heaven, and a new church on earth. These, he believed, would be established by the Lord alone among those who freely acknowledged His sovereignty and led a good life.
Shortly after the publication of The True Christian Religion in Amsterdam in 1771, Swedenborg left the Netherlands and went to England . He suffered a stroke in December 1771 and died on March 29, 1772 .
Jane K. Williams-Hogan, Ph.D. Bryn Athyn College of the New Church