The Crucial Years: 1743-1748
by Rev. Frank S. Rose
The crucial years include the time from Swedenborg's departure from Sweden in July, 1743, to the beginning of the Arcana Coelestia at the end of 1748, a period of five and a half years. This spans the time from the first premonitions that his life's work was about to change to the time when he started work on the first published volume of the Writings. It was, we think, a longer period of transition than would have been expected; and as an aid to the study of these years we have prepared a chart outlining the years themselves and setting against them the country in which Swedenborg was at the time, the internal developments he was experiencing, and the books on which he was working.
From the chart it can be seen that there was over a year between the Lord's first appearance - in December, 1743 - to the final call in April, 1745. During this time Swedenborg was gradually being introduced into contact with the spiritual world. In fact, his first experiences had begun a good many years before, but these were comparatively rare. (See A. Acton, Introduction to the Word Explained, pp. 26-33) His first experience of the spiritual world was through dreams which he knew to be significant, and in the record of which he describes his temptations and his developing understanding of the work to which he was being called. Eventually he had living sensations of that world, and these are listed in the chart because they mark distinct stages in this development. In one place he writes, "I saw a fly"; and later comments that he could "hardly bear it." (Senses, 492, 493) This would seem to have been his first sight of the spiritual world. Later he tasted and smelled wine; and some three months after he first saw a spiritual fly he heard a spirit speaking as if it were another person in the same room. If it seems strange that his first sight should be of a fly, what of the first words he heard? - "Hold your tongue or I will strike you!" (Journal of Dreams 174. [References throughout this article to Journal of Dreams as numbered in Document 209.]) At the same time he saw a man sitting on a piece of ice. This terrified him; not just because of what was said, but because it was a living experience of the fact that the spirits and angels with him could hear his thoughts as if he were speaking out loud, and could reply to him openly. So, commenting on this incident, he writes, in Spiritual Diary: "Then it once happened that a certain spirit knew what I was thinking, for he spoke with me in a few words, at which I was amazed, especially at the fact that spirits could know my thoughts." (SD 4390)
It was not long after this that he saw the gable end of a palace, which was a sign that he was enrolled in an angelic society as though an immortal, which had never been granted to anyone living on earth before. (JD 175) This is the first indication that he was conscious in both worlds.
Before we continue with the other events listed in this column, a word should be said about the next two columns. Both of these summarize the works Swedenborg was writing or rewriting at the time, and two columns are needed because he was engaged in more than one. The Journal of Dreams was simply a private diary in which he recorded his dreams and his reflections upon them. It is from this journal that most of the above facts are drawn, and we will have more to say about it in due course. It is the middle column that surprises us. Swedenborg was working on his major philosophic work, the Animal Kingdom, when these changes began. He had taken most of the material for it when he left Sweden. Volumes I and II were published in Holland early in 1744, together with an Epilogue which he wrote there. When he arrived in England, he continued with the series of volumes he had promised; altering the proposed arrangement, but apart from that remaining true to his original purpose. His work bears the characteristic marks of thoroughness, penetration, breadth, balance and careful reasoning at a time when, as his private journal shows, he was passing through profound temptations. There was no observable change in his appearance or conduct, save for the fact that, as he writes, "now for fourteen days I have begun to look much handsomer and to be like an angel. God grant it to be so." (JD 196)
Seeing that the Lord had appeared to him four times, and that he was entering into clearer and clearer contact with the spiritual world, how is it that he was still writing on philosophy, with no apparent intention of doing anything else?
With his enrollment in an angelic society, his work at last takes a sudden change. He abandons the series of volumes on the Animal Kingdom and puts his pen to a work which stands alone in all his writings, The Worship and Love of God. He is still writing as a philosopher, but there is a number of differences. For one thing, he no longer refers to the works of other men, with the result that this writing is freed from the burdensome task of making notes, references, compilations and then deductions. He writes very swiftly, covering the first part, over two-thirds of the entire work, in three weeks. But with the Lord's appearance at the inn, and the call, the Worship and Love of God is dropped in mid sentence, and is never resumed. Then it was that Swedenborg abandoned all of his preparatory works to devote himself entirely to a new preparation. Then it was that he entered in the fullest sense into open and daily communication with the spiritual world. It would seem that his preparation was then complete: but we are not yet halfway down the chart!
While he was still in London, Swedenborg began gathering passages from the Word on the Messiah about to come, without making any comment as he did so; and then, with his return to Sweden in August, 1745, he began a systematic study of the Old and New Testaments and of the Hebrew language. It was another two years before he began the Spiritual Diary, and over three years before he began the first published work of the Writings.
It should be understood that as long as he was in Sweden he was responsible to the Board of Mines. He was a civil servant and a member of the House of Nobles, and could be absent from his work only with the permission of the King. During the day he was engaged in his duties as an assessor, dealing with a wide range of problems in connection with the mining industry, and in his spare time he was working on his indexes to the Bible, and his work which now bears the title The Word Explained. In addition, he made copious notes in his copy of the Latin version of the Bible by Sebastian Schmidius; but virtually all of this work was concerned with the literal sense of the Scriptures.
At last, in July, 1747, he applied to the King for retirement, having just refused the invitation from the entire board to act as its chairman. He declined the customary increase in rank, and asked only that he be retired on half salary, a request which was granted by the King, who expressed his confidence in the work which required Swedenborg's retirement, although he could not have known what it was, as to prove no less valuable than the other works published by him. (Docu. 167A)
Shortly after his retirement, Swedenborg left for Holland, and, as if marking the beginning of the Writings, we have the comment: "1747, 7th August, old style. A change of state in me, into the heavenly kingdom in an image." In Holland he recorded his spiritual experiences in the work now entitled The Spiritual Diary, and at the same time was working on two more Bible indexes, but now containing comments on the internal sense of the passages noted. His marginal notes in the Schmidius Bible also speak now of the internal sense. After preparing an index of the Diary, or at least of those portions written up to that time, Swedenborg left Holland for England. There, in November, 1748, or early in December, he starts work on the Arcana Coelestia, and in 1749 the first volume of that Divine work was published. Only two or three people knew who the author was - a secret that was kept for at least ten years.
It has taken a good deal longer to explain the chronological chart than was expected. It will be noticed that there are lines between certain works. These indicate distinct stages of development. The Animal Kingdom was terminated abruptly, and a new type of work begun with the Worship and Love of God. This again was cut short, and a new type of work begun with The Messiah About to Come, History of Creation According to Moses, The Word Explained, and the early indexes of the Bible - all dealing with the literal and historical sense of the Word. By comparing these lines with the column on the left, we can see clearly that every step in this development is related to a known internal change with Swedenborg himself. The first line coincides, not with the Lord's early appearances, or his preliminary contacts with the spiritual world, but with his enrollment in an angelic society. The second is a direct result of his call. The third is related to the change of state into the celestial kingdom in an image.
The conclusion is obvious: the Writings as such did not begin until Swedenborg was regenerate. We were once asked: "Was it necessary for Swedenborg to be regenerate for him to act as the instrument of the Second Coming?" The answer is inescapable. There is an easy correlation between his internal state and his approach to that office; so much so that the very facts seem to teach that he could not have been the "Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ" unless he was regenerate. He himself often stated that he was prepared for his office, indeed from his early youth. What we here notice is that the preparation culminated in an internal struggle. These were the crucial years, and they were vital to his mission.
There are few men in history whose lives bear up as well under close study as that - of Emanuel Swedenborg. In his eulogy on Swedenborg, given in the great hall of the House of Nobles, Samuel Sandels summed it up in this way: "With the single exception, perhaps, of his desire to penetrate too deeply, there is nothing whatever in his whole character with which we can find fault." (Docu. 4, p. 14) He was courteous, temperate, very conscientious and hard working, and was widely respected and loved. Yet he wrote in his private journal: "I am still weary in my body and mind: for I know nothing except my own unworthiness, and am in pain on account of being a wretched creature." (JD 60)
There is much more in a similar vein. He had intellectual temptations as well, in which he saw his own thoughts as filthy rags, or as having taken a wrong direction.
"About morning it seemed to me as if I were riding, and as if I had had the direction pointed out. It was, however, dark, and when I looked I found that I had gone astray on account of the darkness: but then it brightened up, and I saw how I had gone wrong, and noticed the way, and the forests and groves which I. was to go through, and also heaven behind" (JD 17)
In another place we read:
"Faith appeared to be far above the thoughts of my understanding. Then only I got peace: May God strengthen me in it! For it is His work, and mine so much the less as my thoughts, and indeed the best of them, destroy more than they are able to promote . . . . From this I see how difficult it is for the learned, more indeed than for the unlearned, to arrive at such a faith, and consequently to conquer themselves (to such a degree) that they are able to smile at themselves: for man's workshop of his own understanding must first of all be abolished and overthrown; and this is God's work, and not man's." (JD 98)
These few quotations will have to suffice, for we must proceed to the answer. At least they give a quick impression of Swedenborg's states at the time - though the work should be read as a whole.
The sum of what he says about himself is that he is nothing but evil and that his thoughts have taken a contrary direction; and the dilemma we have posed, but not yet resolved, is that to all appearances he was a good man, and although the subject-matter is different there is a remarkable harmony between the Writings and the things he wrote before his illumination - so much so that we find ourselves saying: "This could have been written only by a New Church man!" Of course, the simple answer is that he was evil from head to toe and his thoughts were filthiness and rags. This is true of every human being, but only the highest angels know that it is so. Swedenborg was entering gradually into a conscious awareness of the spiritual world, and he would have been in great danger had he not acknowledged, as is the truth, that everything from self and from self-intelligence is evil and false, and that of himself man is nothing. It was extremely important that Swedenborg should acknowledge this from the heart, so as not to be deceived by any apparent goodness with himself, and so as not to confuse what comes from self and what from the Lord. Although as yet he knew it not, he was to be invited to serve as the instrument of the Lord and of Divine revelation, and this he could not have done until he had learned how to distinguish what comes from self and what from the Lord.
No doubt he had understood the general proposition - that man is evil, and that all good is from the Lord - during most of his life; but it was not enough to know this theoretically. He had to become convinced of it with all his heart and soul, so that he could, in all sincerity, prostrate himself before the Lord, pleading for forgiveness and describing himself as the greatest of all sinners.
This should not be misunderstood. The Journal of Dreams is not macabre or gloomy. The dominant note is one of intense joy in the delight of belonging to the Lord. The following is typical:
"I then arose, full of God. God be thanked and praised! I do not will to be my own: I am certain of it, and believe that Thou, O God, lettest me be Thine, all my life long, and that Thou dost not take away Thy Holy Spirit from me, which strengthens and upholds me." (JD 103)
His new state, and his supernatural dreams, became so important to him that he was greatly disturbed by the fact that during one night he did not dream at all. He had little real idea of where all this would take him, but he felt quite strongly that it was a foretaste of some future use. He continued with the philosophical works, and seemed to think that his new enlightenment was for the sake of those works. He spent a lot of time and thought in recasting his projected series of chapters and volumes, doing so by virtue of his new enlightenment. But here and there in the journal he wonders to himself whether he is not to take a different path altogether.
"My having ruffles signifies that I am not among the clergy, and that I am and ought to be in a civil office." (JD 29) We recall that he continued in the Board of Mines for another three years. Another dream suggested that "for the glory of God we ought to make returns to the church at large in some form or other: this, it seems to me, will also perhaps be done." (JD 32) Later he comments that this signifies that "I would rather be in philosophical studies." (JD 85) Yet, a few pages later, he writes: "a voice seemed to say to me that some command would be given from within"; (JD 91) and, to take but one more quotation, we read this: "I had come [to Holland] to do that which was best of all, and I had received a talent for the promotion of God's glory. I saw that all had helped together to this end; that the Spirit had been with me from my youth for this very purpose: wherefore I had considered myself unworthy of life unless I followed the straight direction." (JD 110).
We quote this because it helps to correct the impression that a superficial view of his life makes, namely, that he went from one thing to another and could not settle down to being a scientist, a chemist, an anatomist, a political theorist, a philosopher or a civil servant. There is no doubt, of course, that he was all of these things, but they must all be seen as part of the "straight direction" followed from his very youth. On the one hand, he had a strong desire to be of use to his fellow men, to his country and to the human race; and in spite of his growing philosophic interest, and even for two years after his call, he continued to act on the Board of Mines as one of Sweden's leading civil servants. On the other hand, in his studies he had but one end in view. This is somewhat obscured by the long path he felt it necessary to trace through the sciences, chemistry, anatomy, psychology and philosophy; but nonetheless it can fairly be said that his entire ambition was summarized in the last work of this series, the Worship and Love o f God. He had determined, although not a theologian or a clergyman, to make a path of faith, so that the learned and the skeptical who could not accept religion blindly would have a reasonable basis for belief in God, in a life after death, and in the life of charity.
To follow this golden thread in its entirety would be intensely rewarding; but it is out of the range of our present study and a few references will have to suffice. First we have the note in the Journal o f Dreams to the effect that the Spirit of the Lord had been with him from his youth, so that he would have been unworthy of life had he not followed the straight direction.
Then, in looking back over his life, he said that from his fourth to his tenth year he was "ever in thoughts concerning God, salvation, and man's spiritual passions," and that from his sixth to his twelfth year his delight was to discuss with priests concerning faith and the life thereof. (Docu. 243) In the midst of his philosophic studies he even produced a little work, Faith and Good Works, and yet another on Providence.
In Swedenborg we find two elements which in his time were considered contradictory - a profound and simple belief in God and confidence in science and in human reason. When he set out to find God and the human soul, he deliberately chose the scientific path, the path of experience; working, as he said, a posteriori. He may not have understood why, but it was necessary for the whole range of scientific experience to be gathered into his fantastic mind, for nature and the Word are the two foundations of truth. Indeed, nature may be called the first revelation, and when it is properly understood it speaks the same truths as the written Word. As Swedenborg said in his preface to The Infinite:
"Philosophy, if it be truly rational, can never be contrary to revelation . . . . The end of reason can be no other than that man may perceive what things are revealed, and what are created . . . the end why reason is given to us is that we may be empowered to perceive that there is a God, and to know that He is to be worshiped." (No. 1)
In the spirit of the command: "They shall not appear before the Lord empty," (Deuteronomy 16: 16) he had devoted his talents to the acquisition and study of all of the knowledges which he felt would lead to an understanding of the Infinite and of the soul. He approached the Most High from experience, geometry and reason; and although he acknowledged, of course, that truth must also descend from above, a priori, he modestly left that to the angels as being beyond him. He was willing to take all of the evidences of truth that were available outside of him, lest he fill any gaps with ideas from himself. As he said in his preface to the work on the brain:
"It is a space of many years since I first conceived the idea of cultivating Rational Psychology or of investigating the essence and faculties of the soul and of our internal senses. But hitherto the great difficulty of these subjects and the vast number of things to be learned have prevented me from daring to make a premature advance in this direction . . . . For the perfecting of this single science, all the sciences must be called into aid . . . . If one enters into this contest with less than all, then at the very threshold how unarmed will he find himself, and unequal to the mighty task. For whenever he is ignorant of the things necessary for his guidance, he will draw them out of himself." ("The Way to a Knowledge of the Soul," Scientific and Philosophical Treatises, II, p. 43)
During the crucial years he wrote his prologue to the Animal Kingdom, and in it he reveals his ruling motive:
"Whoso believes revelation implicitly, without consulting the intellect, is the happiest of mortals, the nearest to heaven, and at once a native of both worlds. But these pages of mine are written with a view to those only who never believe anything but what they can receive with the intellect; consequently who boldly invalidate and are fain to deny the existence of all supereminent things sublimer than themselves, as the soul itself and what follows therefrom, its life, immortality, heaven, etc., etc. . . . For these persons only I am anxious . . . . For when I shall have demonstrated truths themselves by the analytic method, I hope that those debasing shadows or material clouds which darken the sacred temple of the mind will be dispersed; and thus at last, under the favor of God, who is the Sun of wisdom, 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." (Prologue, Animal Kingdom 22)
We have quoted at length because, seen in the light of what we know of his later life, this is a remarkable prophecy of the Writings themselves, which were given "to convince even the natural man if he is willing to be convinced." (SS 4. Cf. TCR 192; AC 10614: 2; AE 763, 1065e; De Dom. Pref.; HH le; AR 544, 828.) In other words, although he could not possibly foresee how it would happen, he longed throughout his life to be the instrument for revealing these sacred truths, and thus opening up a path to faith. The Lord implanted this love in him from earliest infancy, and knowing this we can see evidence throughout his life. that he was looking for this call. Why, then, was he tempted? For the same reason that all men are tempted, because there was much of self adjoined to that love. It had to be purified of all thought of personal ambition and pride before the goal could be reached. The method of approach which he had so courageously defended in spite of attacks upon him as a materialist and skeptic had now to be abandoned, at least in spirit. He was to become an angel, and, like an angel, to be the means whereby the Lord Himself descends with His truth to teach men. So it was that a combat arose between his proprial desire to go farther than any man before him - as Sandels said, his desire to go too far - and the love implanted in him of being of genuine service.
From an external point of view the cost was great. It meant giving up all hope of worldly fame, at least during his lifetime; and so, after the preparation had been completed, we find Swedenborg as a person retiring from the scene. The Writings were published on the authority of their own sacred truths. They took no glory from the name Swedenborg; and since his own part in them was not known, they added no glory - or, for that matter, disrepute - to him as a person. It meant leaving all to follow the Lord: leaving his nets, for he was a spiritual fisherman; selling all that he had, with but one ambition - to serve. In the end, the thing he feared most of all was that this use would be taken from him. "I am an instrument with which He may do what He pleases." (JD 177)
In another place he writes:
"I saw also in a vision how some beautiful bread was presented to me on a plate. This was a prediction that the Lord Himself will instruct me, as soon as I have attained that state in which I shall know nothing, and in which all my preconceived notions will be removed from me; which is the first state of learning: or, in other words, that I must first become a child and that then I shall be able to be nurtured in knowledge as is being the case with me now." (JD 195. Cf. AC 1557 and see also WE 8212)
Now considering the quality of his philosophic work at this time - it is almost like reading the Writings - the marvel is that in spite of his introduction into the spiritual world, his call and his abandoning of worldly studies, he did not enter directly into his work as revelator. He had to begin all over again and traverse the whole of the second foundation of truth, namely, the Word. At this point he was strangely ignorant of theology, and later he could see that this was of providence. (Docu 237) He was almost like a gentile with his simple acceptance of the letter of the Word and his indifference to theology. Perhaps it is this that makes it seem as if he was a scientist, then a philosopher, and then a theologian; but, as we have seen, in essence he was always a theologian - nothing else. However, the falsities of dogmatic theology were so great that had he been imbued with them his mind would have been closed to the truths the Lord was about to reveal in His second advent. What was required was not a priest, not a scribe or a Pharisee, but a spiritual fisherman. (Infl. 20. Cf. JD 121; Docu. 234, 243 ; BE 98)
Indeed there were four conditions necessary for his high office, and these were not met until he was almost sixty years old: 1) a complete foundation in the Word of nature; 2) an opening of his spiritual sight, so that, like the men of the Most Ancient Church, he might have Divine dreams and eventually open communication with heaven; 3) a complete foundation in the written Word, and the extent of his writing in this preparatory period gives some idea of how thorough that preparation was, and finally, 4) his personal character - his memory, his reasoning power and even his will - had to be fully prepared. Then the revelation could come.
In all the history of Divine revelation there has never before been a prophet or seer whose preparation for his use is open for us to study. This is partly because their preparation was more limited and their cooperation to a large extent unconscious. "They heard a voice, they saw a vision, and they dreamed a dream . . . without any perception of what they signified." (AC 5121. Cf. 6000) The words were dictated to them, and it mattered little whether they themselves were good or evil. The Writings could not have been the surpassing revelation they are unless the instrument had been perfected in all his faculties; for although it may appear that there is an advantage in the automatic writing of the prophets, yet that was done only because the more orderly and direct form of revelation enjoyed by the Most Ancient Church had been lost. Is it not obvious that the most orderly descent of truth involves all of the degrees and faculties of the instrument, and not just his hands? Indeed, there can be little doubt that the Second Coming, by its very nature, could have taken place only through a man who was enlightened, and who had revelation by influx, not by viva voce dictation.(WE 7006; AC 7055: 3, 6597e)
In Swedenborg we have a man whose character spans the whole history of the human race, including the perceptions and dreams of the church Adam, the knowledge of correspondences and the conscience of the church Noah, a full grasp of the letter of the Word to the Jewish and Christian churches, and the most advanced understanding of the natural world and the kingdom of the soul that has been achieved even to this day; and may we not see that the inspiration through such an instrument accounts for the fact that the Writings are actually the coming of the Lord?
"This surpasses all the revelations that have hitherto been made since the creation of the world. Through this revelation a communication has been opened between men and the angels of heaven, and the conjunction of the two worlds has been effected; because when man is in the natural sense the angels are in the spiritual sense." (Inv. 44. Cf. 52, 55) "Now, therefore, from what I have seen and heard I am permitted to describe these things in the hope that thus ignorance may be enlightened and unbelief dispelled. Such immediate revelation is now made because this is what is meant by the coming of the Lord." (HH 1)
-New Church Life 1964;84: 6-17