Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ"
(From the title page of True Christian Religion, written by command of the Lord
(Docu. II 483).)
by Grant H. Odhner
"Whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever
desires to be first among you, let him be your slave." Matt. 20:26
"Whoever humbles himself as [a] little child is the greatest in the kingdom of
heaven." Matt. 18:4
A Great Man
Both the world of our day and that of his day have regarded Emanuel Swedenborg
as a great man. However they may have reckoned it, Swedenborg was once given the
honor of having had the highest "I. Q." in history. This acclaim represents people's
awareness of the amazing scope of his talents and knowledge, energy and ability
to synthesize, digest, and present known facts. Most readers are familiar with Swedenborg's
various credits, so I won't list them. The point here is that, regardless of how
one viewed or views Swedenborg's revelations, he was a great man by worldly reckoning.
Many people have sought and attained greatness: relatively few of these, one
may imagine, have been able to withstand the spiritual pressures of greatness. (Swedenborg
himself found that many famous people were in hell-religious leaders and reformers,
kings, men of letters.) Yet every respectable person who has fairly examined the
life and writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (about whom we have perhaps more information
than we do about the great majority of famous people of his day) has vouched for
his integrity. And this whether friend or foe of the New Church.
Given the experiences and powers that were granted to Swedenborg, it is amazing
that he remained so consistently humble and subservient to his task! Volume after
volume of writing, published and unpublished, testify to this. His accumulated correspondence
and personal diaries do so as well.
In all of these writings and letters, Swedenborg remains honest and dignified.
In his published writings he mentions himself comparatively infrequently. He does
not exalt himself-either by boasting of his merits and experiences or by conspicuous
self-depreciation. [Compare the apostle Paul in this regard: II Cor. 11:5-12: 13;
cp. Spiritual Experiences (formerly Spiritual Diary) 4412f, 4561m.)
He consistently places the focus on the subject matter, the principles, the use
at hand, and not upon himself. As Emerson wrote in Representative Men "[His] admirable
writing is pure from all pertness or egotism."
Nor did he seek fame, wealth, or glory. He published and distributed books at
his own expense, and directed that any profit be donated toward "spreading the gospel."
He lived simply. He published most of his books anonymously (though he did not otherwise
try to hide his identity). It was not till his later writings, when his authorship
was long known, that he put his name to them (viz. Conjugial Love in 1768).
The "Guru" Route
Swedenborg could have built a following had he wanted to. There were people who
became convinced of the truth of the Writings while he was still alive. This meant
that some believed him to be a prophet. Could not Swedenborg have used this to selfish
advantage? There were people who revered him and were thrilled just to be in his
Take for instance Rev. Thomas Hartley, one of the first receivers of the Writings.
He sought out Swedenborg and made his acquaintance, and was deeply moved by the
man. He came to believe that Swedenborg was "the most extraordinary Messenger from
God to man . . . since the Apostolic age," and could "properly be called the Living
Apostle of these days" (Docu. II 259, 8). In a few letters to Swedenborg written
after their first meeting we sense that Hartley would have done almost anything
for Swedenborg, He writes:
Most respected and beloved Sir,
I consider myself most highly favored and I rejoice from my heart in having had
the honor, which you lately granted me, of conversing with you; . . . [Y]our charity
towards the neighbor, the heavenly benignity shining from your countenance, and
your childlike simplicity, devoid of all vain show and egotism, are so great, and
the treasure of wisdom possessed by you is so sweetly tempered with gentleness,
that it did not inspire in me a feeling of awe, but one of love . . . . Believe
me, O best of men, that by my intercourse with you I consider myself crowned with
more than royal favors; for who among kings, if he is of a sane mind, would not
gladly converse with an inhabitant of heaven, while here on earth? (Docu. 1:1)
There is nothing at all amiss in this statement of honor and gratitude. (The
writer does, in the next breath, give the credit to the Lord.) Nevertheless there
is strong feeling there. And later in the letter Hartley offers to "prepare for
[Swedenborg] a convenient place and house, either in town or in the country, and
. . . [to] provide for everything that may conduce to [his] well being."
This was in the event that he should meet with persecution in Sweden.
Swedenborg did not take up Hartley's offer. But he certainly could have capitalized
on such favors had he wished.
In Hartley's next letter he offers Swedenborg his service in these impassioned
If . . . you should at any time do me the honor . . . to make use of my services
in any way whatsoever, you will find me a willing and delighted servant. Instruct
me, exhort me, dispose of me in any way whatever; for . . . it will be the greatest
pleasure to me to obey your admonitions and commands, and you will find me faithful
to all my promises. But if you will not let me do this honor, it will be enough
for me to remember you always above all others, to love you always; and to have
had you for my teacher in Divine things (Docu. 1:3).
Swedenborg clearly could have gathered a following of such supporters, and could
have built quite a church for himself. But it was not the Lord's will, and so it
was not Swedenborg's will.
Of course, Swedenborg wasn't born a humble and good man: he became one through
"overcoming" from the Lord. A little diary of his that we have (from the period
of his life, around age fifty-five, when he was first being introduced to his mission)
records his intense struggles with his intellectual pride and desire for recognition.
In it we also see him wrestling with the tendency to regard himself as worthier
than others, because of what the Lord was showing him.
Quoting now from this diary or Journal of Dreams, as it is called (The context
is extreme, prolonged temptation.):
After this . . . it was as if it was said to me that I should find reasons to
excuse myself; . . . or to attribute to myself the good I had done, or more properly,
that had happened through me . . . . When . . . I was in my thoughts about these
very subjects, and any one accounted me as a holy man and on account of this offered
me dignity-as indeed happens among certain simple people that they not only venerate
but even adore some supposedly holy man as a saint-I then found that in the earnestness
which then possessed me, I desired to do him all the ill I could to the highest
degree, in order that nothing at all of the sin should stick to him, and that with
earnest prayers I ought to appease our Lord, in order that I might never have any
part of so damning a sin to stick to me (70, 72).
While I was in the spirit, I thought and sought how I might . . . attain the
knowledge of how to avoid all that was impure; still I marked, notwithstanding,
that the impure, on all occasions, put itself forward.
For instance, if anyone did not regard me according to the estimate of my own imagination,
I discovered that I always thought to myself. "Ah! If you only knew what grace I
have, you would act otherwise. . . .I prayed to God for His forgiveness. And then
I asked that others might enjoy the same grace; which perhaps they had, or do receive
Saw a bookseller's shop. Thought immediately that my works would do more than
other people's . . . . Still, pride, arrogance will push forth; may God control
it, who has power in His hands (78).
Had so much of the Lord's grace that when I would determine to keep my thoughts
in purity I found I had inward joy, but still a torment in the body, which could
not at all bear the heavenly joy of the soul: for I left myself most humbly in God's
grace, to do with me according to His pleasure. God grant me humility that I may
see my own weakness, uncleanness, and unworthiness (79).
And grant this the Lord did! It is clear, both from this diary and his subsequent
life, that Swedenborg "overcame" in these trials and emerged completely humble,
before God and man.
The Necessity of Being "Nothing"
The nature of Swedenborg's "call" required a deep humility. Even ordinary association
with the spiritual world is fraught with great danger, particularly to those not
"in truths from good," that is, in true faith in the Lord.* Swedenborg's association
was even more dangerous. Not only was it more complete; it involved a mission that
was opposed by the whole of hell.
* See HH 249f: AC 784e, 5863, 9438, 10384; AE 1182:4f, 1183; De Verbo 27; SE
1622, 3060e, 3781, 5151; Docu. 217, 246; cp. AC 10751, HH 309, 456:3; DP 130-135,
321:3; AE 1155:3; De Verbo 29; SE 1677, 1752-1756, 2687, 2860, 3963.
Spirits continually infested Swedenborg. They could induce on him countless kinds
of persuasion and delusion, both psychological and sensory. They could pretend to
be what they were not, and be where they were not (see SE 3060, 3869ff). They inflicted
on him pain, sickness, physical shaking and trembling, and terrorized him in a myriad
ways (see AR 531; SE 458f, 1864, 1934, 2972ff, 3086f, 3851, 4348, 4548, 5976, 5983,
5995, etc.). Even more subtle and dangerous, spirits also induced on him various
attitudes, emotions, and thoughts, which appeared to him as his own (see SE 105,
927, 2936, 4243, 4348:2).
In these ways evil spirits repeatedly tried to destroy Swedenborg, body and soul,
and his work. He wrote: "I have been surrounded by evil spirits, even by the worst
of them, sometimes by thousands, who have been allowed to pour out their venom and
molest me in every way possible . . ." (AC 59; see also 5863; SE 1043, 3653, 3821).
In all this he was protected by the Lord (ibid.). Still, this protection would
have been impossible unless Swedenborg had given up trusting in himself and his
It was vital that Swedenborg be reduced to a state of true humility. The Lord
could not otherwise have led him to experience the deeper realities of the human
mind and the spiritual world. If he was to associate with different spirits and
angels, and learn about them and from them, he had to realize his own vulnerability.
He had to be completely willing to follow the Lord-in sensing from Him the truth
or falsity of what was happening to him, of what he was seeing, feeling, hearing.
Otherwise he would have been overwhelmed in that more subtle world.
Another way of saying this is that Swedenborg had to be willing to acknowledge
that of himself he was nothing. He tells us:
When it was granted me by the Lord to speak with spirits and angels, this interior
truth was immediately disclosed to me. For I was told from heaven that, like others,
I believed that I thought and willed from myself, when in fact there was nothing
from myself, but if there was good it originated from the Lord, and if evil it originated
That this was so was demonstrated to me in a realistic manner by various thoughts
and affections induced upon me, and I was enabled gradually to perceive it and to
feel it. Therefore, as soon as any evil afterwards entered into my will or any falsity
into my thought, I inquired into its source. This was disclosed to me, and I was
also permitted to speak with those from whom it came, to refute them, and to compel
them to withdraw and thus to retract their evil and their falsity and to keep it
to themselves, and no longer to infuse any such thing into my thought. This has
happened a thousand times; and in this state I have remained now for many years,
and I continue in it still . . . .
Spirits who have newly arrived wonder at this state of mine, only seeing that
I do not think and will anything from myself, and therefore that I am like an empty
something. But I revealed the truth to them, adding that I also think even more
interiorly and perceive whether what flows into my outward thought is from heaven
or from hell; and that I reject what is from hell and accept what is from heaven,
assuring them that still I seem to myself, just as they do, to think and to will
from myself (DP 290).
From the Lord Alone
The Lord could give to Swedenborg a perception of what to note and what to write
only if he truly believed that he was nothing. Otherwise his own opinions, fears,
and ambitions would have stood in the way. As it was, however, they did not.
In his last published work Swedenborg could write: "I affirm in truth . . . that
from the first day of [my] call I have not received anything whatever pertaining
to the doctrines of [the New] Church from any angel, but from the Lord alone while
I have read the Word" (TCR 779).
He could say this "in truth," because in all his experiences and instruction
from angels, he did not listen either to the angels, the spirits, or even to his
own mental response, but to the Lord's affirming perception: "What [camel from the
Lord [was] written; what [came] from the angels [was] not" (AE 1183:2; see also
DP 135; De Verbo 29; AR pref; so 1647, 4034).
Honor to the Instrument
Now Swedenborg was and is nothing more than a mortal man. He had certainly done
evils; of himself he was and is inclined to them, as he himself would confess.
Acknowledging this, we must still love and respect Swedenborg the man. Such innocence!
Such willingness to lay down the life of his own intelligence and his own desires!
He made himself nothing that he might be a humble servant to the Lord Jesus Christ!
And what person who has been really touched by the treasures of the New Word
would not joyfully echo these words of Thomas Hartley to Swedenborg:
In speaking with you, every suspicion of flattery must be hushed. For what ground
for flattery can there be when I attribute everything in you, however great and
extraordinary it may be, to the Lord and not to yourself, and when I look on you
as an instrument of His mercy and great kindness! But may I be permitted to offer
honor and glory to the instrument - for this is well-pleasing to the Lord; and may
I be permitted to tell you from a heart full of gratitude that I consider myself
thrice blessed that your writings, by the Divine providence, have fallen into my
hands? (Docu. 1:1)