The Five Churches
Patrick L Johnson
Swedenborg’s concept of the Five Churches, is mentioned at least 2000 times in various places in the Writings. It is a kind of spiritual history of mankind. Nowhere, however is the subject brought together and discussed very comprehensively for more than a few paragraphs. Swedenborg’s very last book The Coronis did start to bring his thoughts together, but alas it was never published in its complete form, and half the draft was lost soon after his death.
What are these five churches? He calls them the Most Ancient Church, The Ancient Church, The Jewish Church, The Christian Church and the New Church. The general idea is there in Swedenborg’s mind from the very beginning of his full inspiration. In the first chapter of the Arcana Caelestia he starts talking about the habits of the people of the Most Ancient Church - appearing to assume we all know about this mysterious institution - and soon he writes about the other churches too. Scattered around the Writings, there is probably all we really need to know about these churches or ages, but we have to search. (You can, however, find a good selection on the subject in Warren’s Compendium.)
THE UNIVERSAL AND SPECIFIC CHURCHES
Before discussing the Five Churches further, I should also mention another important dimension to Swedenborg’s concept of the Church; the Specific and Universal Churches. He says; ‘….the church of the Lord is everywhere in the whole world , although specifically it is where the Lord is acknowledged and the Word is.’ (New Jerusalem 242).
Everyone regardless of race or creed, who loves their fellow men and respects the tenets of their religion is part of this Universal Church; pagans, Moslems, everyone. But Swedenborg does make the significant modification that the Church is specifically where the Lord is acknowledged and the Word is. So the Jews and Christians may be better informed, but they are not necessarily better behaved. Note that it is wrong to think of these two churches, the Universal and the Specific, as completely separate groups. In the Last Judgment Swedenborg pictures a gradual progression from one extreme to the other.
So the concept of the Five Churches explains the history of the Church and the concept of the Universal and Specific Churches helps us with its geography. As far as I know, Swedenborg does not actually interrelate the two concepts of the Five Churches and the Universal and Specific Churches anywhere. So we are left with the question as to whether the sequence of the Five Churches should be applied to both the Church Universal and the Church Specific. My own answer would be the compromise that all peoples, the whole Universal Church, has to some extent gone through the five age progression, but that the pattern is more especially applicable to those who form, or are associated with the Church Specific.
A Chart of the Five - or six - Churches and their parallels
MOST ANCIENT WHAT?
But to return to the main theme; what are these Churches? From the Bible we know about the Jewish Church and the Christian Church. Most of us here today know what we mean by the New Church, even if most other people don’t. But, what is the "Ancient Church" and especially the quaintly named "Most Ancient Church"?
Some Swedenborgians think that somewhere, sometime in the future we are going to dig up the remains of a great and marvellous ancient civilisation, that will exhibit all the best characteristics of New Church theology. I sympathise with these feelings, but I suggest they are based on the false premise that spirituality and civilisation are necessarily linked. One could equally argue that civilisation has been achieved at the expense of spirituality; that civilisation has brought nothing but war and conflict. I believe we have to come to terms with the apparent paradox that the Most Ancient Church was not civilised in the material sense – though very civilised in a spiritual or psychological sense.
The term Ancient Church is also rather vague, but Swedenborg does say that it was spread throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, also to Greece and Rome and even to the Indies and Great Tartary (Coronis 39). Thus we gather that it refers to the religions of the ancient civilisations all over the Old World.
I think the Jewish, Christian and New Churches need no explanation, although one can argue that the Jewish and especially the Christian dispensations may have included other religions that Swedenborg was unaware of.
The most helpful aid to an understanding of the Most Ancient and Ancient Churches that Swedenborg offers, is the knowledge that, like the Jewish and Christian Churches, they have a Biblical connection, if a less detailed one. Swedenborg says the Most Ancient Church is pictured in the stories of Adam and his descendants, and the Ancient Church in the stories of Noah and his descendants. The Book of Revelation tells us something of the New Church and Age of course.
Not a lot to go on there at first glance, but there are useful details in these early Genesis chapters. The picture of Adam and Eve eating from fruit trees in the Garden of Eden offers quite a good picture of mankind’s earliest times. And although it rarely gets into the children’s story of the flood, Genesis tells us that Noah was the first man to grow grapes and make wine, which says a lot about the level of culture of the Ancient Church.
Swedenborg also offers another interesting, if initially rather off-putting, bit of Biblical information. As he is working through Genesis in the Arcana, he runs down the long list of Patriarchs descended from Noah and he pauses at Heber (or Eber), who hardly anybody has heard of, although the Hebrews were named after him. Heber he tells us also represents a Church and he decides to call it the Second Ancient Church. So we now also have a six church system. This may be confusing, but is also convenient because six ages do fit into the pattern of history, as my chart shows.
Incidentally, you can find this Biblical five or six age pattern, or slight variants of it, in other places: in Jewish writings, in St Augustine, the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi, and in Muhammadan scriptures.
THE CLASSICAL AGES
A clearer picture still is brought to mind when Swedenborg throws in the information that his Churches are related to the Classical Ages of Greece and Rome, the Most Ancient Church with the Golden Age, the Ancient Church with the Silver Age and so forth, as shown on the chart above. (Incidentally you will also find many other versions of this pattern in other mythologies, Norse, Celtic, Persian (Daniel’s statue), Hindu, even Native American and also in Astrology.)
These Classical Ages don’t mean much to us today, most think of them as being mere myths and of little account. But not so for Swedenborg’s 18th century readership. All education then was taught through reading the Greek and Roman classical authors and so for them the classical ages were the very basis of ‘history’ and were assumed to be sound, if not actually true in all the magical detail.
ARCHAEOLOGY / HISTORY
So that was quite helpful to 18th century Europeans; they believed in mythology. But is it the sort of information that we today find persuasive? Today, we discount the Golden and Silver Ages, but we do still speak of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Archaeologists have established that the people of the Iron Age did use iron tools and those of the Bronze Age used bronze. As the archaeologists dug deeper, however, they did not find people of the Silver Age using silver or Golden Age people using gold. They found that these earlier people used stone tools, so we now talk of the Stone Age. And, half way through the Stone Age, people started making more elaborate stone tools so archaeologists talk of the Old Stone Age and the New Stone Age, though the Latin names Palaeolithic and Neolithic are more often used. The main characteristic of Palaeolithic people is that they lived as hunter/gatherers, rather like Adam and Eve perhaps – and like the Golden Age people. Next we had the Agricultural or Neolithic Revolution when people lived as farmers or herders, not unlike Noah’s descendants.
At the other end of the time-scale we have the Christian Age, or Common Era, as it is sometimes called. My own preference would be Age of Religions as it is just as much the Age of Islam and Buddhism and other faiths. Finally we have the New Age which historians call the Industrial Age. This historical classification allows me to put some approximate dates on the chart. The dates are correct for the Middle East, but may vary elsewhere. I am supported in these conclusions by Brian Kingslake and Norman Newton, but some Swedenborgian authorities prefer a much earlier dating for the start of the Ancient Church.
RECENT CONFIRMATIONS OF SWEDENBORG’S INFORMATION
Intriguingly Swedenborg has left behind some unintentional proofs that the people of his early churches did live in the Palaeolithic or the Neolithic ages. When discussing the correspondence of tents, he tells us that the most ancients ‘wandered about and dwelt in tents’ (Arcana Caelestia 1102), but offers no explanation as to why they should do so. No one knew about the habits of Palaeolithic people in the 18th century, but we now know that they followed what we call a hunter/gatherer life style. Living off the land they soon exhausted local supplies of food and so had to move, which is why they built no homes but ‘wandered about and dwelt in tents’, just as Swedenborg describes.
Similarly when speaking of the Ancient Church Swedenborg seems to anticipate the realisations of later times. He tells us in Arcana Caelestia 1241 that the external features of worship, ‘…were high places, groves, and standing stones…’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of these features as places of worship was attributed to the Druids who lived 2000 years ago. Only in the 20th century did archaeologists date them back to Neolithic times (5,000-8,000 years ago), thus confirming Swedenborg’s suggested links to the times represented by Noah or the Silver Age.
But the material detail Swedenborg gives us is relatively unimportant when compared with the psycho-spiritual information he offers. The most revealing insight he gives is yet another way of looking at the five/six age sequence by categorising it in terms of his Celestial, Spiritual and Natural degrees. He says that people of the Most Ancient or Golden Age were essentially motivated and led by love – the Celestial disposition. They had a childish innocence which is still apparent in the aboriginal tribes of Africa and Australasia who continue today to follow a Palaeolithic way of life. The Ancient Church taught basic truths to help form people’s consciences and guided their love into wiser paths - a Spiritual state of mind. At first these truths were what we might call guidelines, but as people came to need yet more restraint they had to be replaced by just laws which the people of the Spiritual/Natural Church of Heber in the Bronze Age respected. There was still an element of wisdom and reasonableness in Bronze Age law but as we enter the Iron Age this is replaced by the demand for obedience which was administered by force. Reasonable laws become hard and fast rules like those of the Old Testament. Very much Swedenborg’s Natural state.
With the coming of Our Lord on Earth the pattern is reversed and Christianity restored a Spiritual environment where the power of the warrior kings was balanced by the teaching and scholarship of the church. In the New Age we do not yet live in a Celestial world, but there are signs. In the Celestial state love is dominant but guided by wisdom. For instance we hesitate to condemn a criminal until a motive is found. We are also giving more weight to feminine values and recognising the greater importance of childhood.
THE AGES OF MAN
Swedenborg says there is a correspondence between the pattern of our lives on this earth and that of the Five Churches which I don’t think I need to explain in detail. The Golden Age was humankind’s infancy, the Silver our childhood. The conflicts of the Iron Age and the Israelites parallel adolescence. The Christian Age is a more adult period and hopefully we are now beginning to enter maturity in the New Age.
As individuals we pass through the states of the Churches as we follow the regenerative path through life. We live through a golden age in infancy and in our personal neolithic and bronze ages seeds are sown in our minds and we build characters. In our iron age we are rebels, but in our Christian period order will be restored. In our new age knowledge will be infilled with love.
THE GOD OF THE FIVE AGES
There are many interesting details one could relate about any of these churches or ages, but what I feel is most important and valuable about this concept is the overall message.
If God is truly God, he must be the God of all people in all time.
Swedenborg says that the Lord has always given mankind a sufficiency of truth. As he writes in The Doctrine of the Sacred Scriptures no.117;
Religion has existed from the most ancient times, and the inhabitants of the world everywhere have a knowledge of God and some knowledge of a life after death.
Swedenborgians accept the reasonableness of this. For us The Lord Jesus Christ was the manifestation of Jehovah – and I also believe his spirit is manifest in Allah, the Buddha, and other deifications.
But sadly many modern educated people are less than happy with the image of the God of the Christians. For them Jesus appears to be primarily the God of only Western European culture. This God claims to be our creator, yet doesn’t really turn up to sort things out until halfway through history. Educated people may be even less convinced by the God of the Jews, who appears earlier in history, yet seems to limit his interest to a single small nation and to have rather less interest in everyone else. For the young and spiritually immature this materially unsatisfactory image of God can be a serious stumbling block.
No religion has a complete answer to this problem, but I believe Swedenborg’s concepts of the Five Churches and the Universal Church can be of very considerable help. Due to the limitations of the knowledge of history and geography in his day, Swedenborg was unable to give us very much detail. He does nevertheless give us a satisfactory overall framework, a four dimensional map. A chart which we can use to give us a sense of direction and perspective, to help us discern the path that Providence has taken in other times and other lands – indeed throughout all times and every land. A concept that helps us to see, that the God Swedenborg reveals to us, has been, and still is, the God of all people in all time.