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Was Swedenborg responsible for the ‘Occult Revival’?

Autumn Lecture by Robert A. Gilbert


Eighteen years after his death in 1772, Swedenborg’s coffin was opened – not for his reburial, but simply to prove that he really was dead. According to Robert Hindmarsh, who heard the anecdote from an eyewitness, the incident came about in this way.

In or about the year 1790, ‘a foreign gentleman, who held the philosophical tenets of the old sect of the Rosicrucians’, and who looked upon Swedenborg as a great philosopher, was invited to dinner by a group of London Swedenborgians. During conversation the Rosicrucian,

affirmed that such a philosopher as Swedenborg must have discovered the secret which the Rosicrucian adepts pretended to possess, by virtue of which he could protract his existence as long as he pleased: [thus] Swedenborg had not died, but being desirous to put off the infirmities of age, had renewed his existence by means of a precious elixir, and had withdrawn to some other part of the world, causing a sham funeral to be performed to avoid discovery.[1]

To settle the argument the coffin was opened, the body seen and the Rosicrucian discomfited. And there the matter rested.

But the whole affair raises other questions. Hindmarsh also noted that the unnamed Rosicrucian ‘by no means embraced [Swedenborg’s] theological sentiments’, and yet clearly associated him with both alchemy and Rosicrucianism. This view of Swedenborg’s life and work was not uncommon then and is all too frequently held today: he is revered for his visionary experiences of the spiritual worlds; for his conversations with angels; for his doctrine of correspondences; and for his insistence on an inner, spiritual meaning of the scriptures. The specifics of his interpretations of scripture, indeed the whole of his theology, are either ignored or rejected.

In Swedenborg’s lifetime F.C. Oetinger (1702-1782), Lutheran Pietist and philosopher, was fascinated by Swedenborg’s visions, and translated Heaven and Hell into German, but distanced himself from his theology. Similarly, the Abbé Antoine-Joseph Pernety (1716-1801) – like Oetinger a spiritual alchemist – also translated Heaven and Hell, into French, although he seemed to accept rather more of Swedenborg’s Christology. Where he differed was in believing that others, members of his quasi-masonic sect, the Illuminés d’Avignon, could also receive heavenly visions and revelations, and in emphasising the role and importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

By the end of the Eighteenth Century numerous enthusiasts for Swedenborg’s reported experiences, and for some of his ideas, were to be found in England and in continental Europe. All of them were of an esoteric frame of mind, and while some of them, e.g. Benedict Chastanier and Count Tadeusz Grabianka, fell into the New Church only to fall rapidly out of it, others, Jacob Duché and General Rainsford, for example, kept their distance while maintaining their enthusiasm. A very few brought their esoteric interests – if not the practices – into the New Church with them. Ralph Mather and Manoah Sibly are the most obvious examples.

If all of these enthusiasts had one thing in common, it was a tacit rejection of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. They all embraced the world-view of the Romantic Movement and they all had a decided interest in the supernatural. A majority of them could, not unjustly, be labelled ‘occultists’, who claimed Swedenborg as one of their own. It should be noted, however – and this applies equally to their occultism and to their Swedenborgianism – that they represented only a tiny minority of both the educated and uneducated populations of Europe.

Not all observers of Swedenborg and his influence have recognised this. Thus in recent years, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has referred to Swedenborg’s ‘many followers in England’ at the end of the eighteenth century, and claims that his ‘visions were the talk of England, France, and Germany’[2] Which, of course, they were not. In similar vein, Désirée Hirst states that Swedenborg attracted ‘so much enthusiasm in late eighteenth century England’[3]; but it was the shrill enthusiasm of the few.

More problematic is the assumption of enthusiasts – and of all too many scholars – that Swedenborg really was an occultist. This was clearly the view of the doubting Rosicrucian, as it was later of the French magician, Eliphas Lévi, and of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The irrepressible historian of esoteric sub-cultures, Dr. Marsha Schuchard, has upheld Swedenborg as a kabbalist, psychic and fringe freemason throughout her academic career in this field[4], and Joscelyn Godwin – a more sober historian of ideas – has presented him as a magician.[5] Most recently, the claim that ‘Swedenborg was very much involved with Freemasonry’ has been publicised in Outlook.[6] In each case, however, the ‘evidence’ is highly unsatisfactory and either has been or can be refuted, although such refutation is not the purpose of this paper.

Indeed, all of the foregoing is presented in order to set the scene for the question of my title: was Swedenborg responsible for the Occult Revival ? Which question begs three others: what is occultism, what was the ‘Occult Revival’ and why has Swedenborg been perceived as an occultist ?

Occultism is a much over-worked word, because of the common tendency to approach it in the manner of Humpty-Dumpty, who said, you will recall, that ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. I shall try to be more objective and more precise. Occultism, then, may be defined as a collective term for the various doctrines, theories, ideas and principles believed to underlie and hold together the practices of magical, divinatory and related arts and sciences, such as alchemy, astrology, tarot and all forms of contact with the spirit world.[7] In the present context it may be broadened to include the concept of correspondences, unorthodox or ‘Fringe’ Freemasonry, and Theosophy: knowledge of the nature of God obtained by a form of ‘special spiritual illumination’. More loosely, Theosophy may be described as ‘speculative mysticism’.

In one form or another most of these theories and practices can be traced back to the beginnings of civilisation, and they had formed a part of European popular culture for many centuries before the time of Swedenborg. Despite the advance of a truly scientific world-view, the hostility of religious orthodoxy, and the scepticism of the Enlightenment, ‘occultism’ refused to go away. Its more recent description as ‘rejected knowledge’ is thus far from accurate: it remained entrenched in the popular mind and for the bulk of the populace – both the ignorant and the educated – it was, if not a central feature, very much an accepted part of life.[8]

Despite clear, documented evidence that occult belief systems and practices survived into the next century, there was, from the 1840s onwards, an alleged upsurge, or revival of belief in, enthusiasm for, and practice of, the various forms of occultism. This was described in 1895 as ‘a tidal wave of Supernaturalism’[9], although it is more commonly known as the ‘Occult Revival’ of the nineteenth century. Its effects were felt especially in Britain, in France and in North America, and in every country over which it allegedly swept Swedenborg’s name followed in its wake.

The reason for his prominence is clear. In the eyes of occultists Swedenborg was first and foremost a visionary, all of whose references to the spiritual and celestial worlds, and to the spirits and angels who inhabited them, are direct, explicit and relate to his personal experiences. This in itself, despite the difference in the means of communication, immediately invites comparison with the experiences of Dr. John Dee some two hundred years earlier. His doctrine of correspondences is in the tradition of Paracelsus, the sixteenth century physician and alchemist who overturned orthodoxy and outraged his contemporaries. Also, his revelations related to the second coming, setting them firmly in the Millenarian tradition which had its own upsurge in the 1780s around such odd characters as Richard Brothers, who had taken up Swedenborgian doctrines at Avignon with the Abbé Pernety, and Count Grabianka.

Both Brothers and Grabianka attended meetings in London at the home of the Revd. Jacob Duché who, while studiously avoiding a commitment to the New Church, encouraged the study of both Swedenborg and Jacob Boehme, the German mystic of the early seventeenth century who was the first expositor of Theosophy. Swedenborg’s experiences and doctrines both paralleled the illuminations of Boehme, and although Hindmarsh sought to put a great gulf between the two – he belittled the doctrines of Boehme, claiming that those of Swedenborg were ‘as much superior – as the brightness of the sun is to the reflected light of the moon’[10] – he was happy to call the first formal group of Swedenborgians ‘The Theosophical Society’ and thus to link it closely, in the public mind, with Boehme. Given all of these associations, whether justified or not, it was inevitable that Swedenborg’s name would be taken in vain by all of those who looked upon him not as a theologian, but as a visionary, esoteric prophet, and occultist. But to what effect ?

Occultism, supernaturalism or whatever one chooses to call it would have continued on its way with or without Swedenborg, but he was one of a number of big fish perceived as swimming in a small pond, and it undoubtedly helped the proponents of the various forms of occultism to add the cachet of his name to their schemes and their dreams. However, if we are to establish the degree of Swedenborg’s influence on any or every part of the ‘Occult Revival’, its varied aspects must be categorised and the individual parts examined in turn.

There will, inevitably, be considerable overlapping between the categories, but it is possible to make a clear distinction between communication with the spiritual world, and any phenomena associated with such communication, on the one hand, and divinatory and ceremonial practices, with their philosophical underpinning, on the other. I will consider the second division first, and for convenience I will include within it the various forms of theosophical speculation.

Divinatory practices, especially astrology, might have been expected to fade away with the coming of a heliocentric view of the universe, but they did not. Astrology in general was not condemned by the Church, and although rejected by the scientific community and most educated lay-people, its practice – and a wide acceptance of its validity – have continued in an unbroken line since before the Reformation. It did not need reviving and with changing attitudes to its legality (astrologers are no longer prosecuted as frauds) it has enjoyed increasing popularity. Not only was there no need to call upon such eminent figures as Swedenborg in support of it, there is also nothing in his spiritual and speculative writings that would give comfort to astrologers. Equally, there is no hostility to astrology, and Manoah Sibly, who was a prominent early minister in the New Church, translated and published the astrological works of Placidus de Titus[11]. We may conclude that in the matter of divination, Swedenborg must therefore be found not guilty of responsibility.

But what of ritual and ceremonial practices, and the esoteric and masonic Orders[12] in which they take place ? Freemasonry in its basic form – that of the three Craft Degrees and the associated Royal Arch Degree – is essentially a social organisation concerned with promoting private and public morality, and with acts of charity. Whatever one may believe, it has no inherent, necessary or official connection with occultism, and thus falls outside the present discussion. Its odd fringes and byways are, however, another matter.

During the last decades of Swedenborg’s life there was a huge proliferation in mainland Europe of what are known as the Hauts Grades: varieties of masonic and quasi-masonic Orders that reflected not the basic ethos of Freemasonry, but the presumed qualities of medieval chivalry, the psycho-spiritual quests of the ancient Mystery schools (as far as these were understood in the eighteenth century), and the Rosicrucian myth of Christian Rosencreutz. With few exceptions these Orders drew their members from the aristocracy, for whom Swedenborg’s ideas were acceptable because his hierarchical heaven harmonised well with the rigidly structured society in which they lived. In practice, however, very few of them were even remotely Swedenborgian in terms of their structure, myth or ritual.

Of those few only two were of even the slightest significance and our understanding of them is incomplete: the historical sources are imprecise and not wholly reliable as to dates. But of one thing we can be sure – Swedenborg himself was not a freemason and had no involvement with masonic Rites, Degrees or Orders of any kind. Some modern historians (notably Dr. Schuchard) claim otherwise, but they have yet to produce definitive and convincing evidence for their claims. And so to the Orders in question. The Abbé Pernety established his Hermetic Rite of Freemasonry at Avignon in 1766, but it did not contain Swedenborgian elements until Pernety returned from Berlin in 1785 and transformed his Rite into the Illuminés d’Avignon. They were joined by Count Grabianka, a confirmed Swedenborgian, who attempted to bring Pernety’s Rite to London. Here he might have expected support from a fellow mason and Swedenborgian, Benedict Chastanier but it failed to take root in English soil – perhaps because of the more prosaic and egalitarian nature of English Freemasonry.

Chastanier also worked closely with the Marquis de Thomé, who did establish a specifically ‘Swedenborgian Rite’ at Paris in 1783[13]. This consisted of six degrees, with rituals of varying complexity. How successful de Thomé’s creation was, and how long it survived, are not known. In all probability it vanished in the turmoil of the French Revolution. The only English freemason who appears to have been associated with all of these masonic Swedenborgians was General Charles Rainsford, who was also involved with alchemy and Rosicrucianism.[14] What is more to the point is that this so-called Swedenborgian Freemasonry was unknown outside its own small circles and had no influence whatsoever on Freemasonry in general or on other varieties of occultism. But it did have a second incarnation, in which it exercised – albeit indirectly and accidentally – an enormous influence on the practical side of occultism at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Swedenborgian Rite was resuscitated – in theory if not in practice – at New York, in 1870, by Samuel Beswick, a minister of the New Church and probably a freemason. In his book Swedenborg Rite and the Great Masonic leaders of the Eighteenth Century, Beswick announced that it had been active in the city since 1859. There is, however, no independent evidence to show that the Rite was functioning before 1872, when it authorised a subordinate body in Canada. Four years later the Swedenborg Rite was introduced to England, where it outlived its North American parent by many years, surviving fitfully until 1908.[15] It was never a success. Apart from Beswick, not one of its members – who amounted in number to 130, world-wide, over a period of thirty-five years – had any connection with any organised Swedenborgian body. Without question the Rite fits perfectly Macbeth’s description of life as ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Even so, the few active members in England were all drawn from the masonic Rosicrucian society, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, and all of them were occultists. One of the most colourful of these was Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie, an accomplished linguist, a prolific author, and an inveterate joiner of masonic and quasi-masonic Orders. In the only contemporary account of the Rite[16], Mackenzie distances it from Swedenborg’s teaching:

With the religious views promulgated by the modern sect of Swedenborgians the Swedenborg Rite has nothing to do, as special forms of faith are as rigidly excluded as in Craft Masonry. (p414)

Elsewhere in the paper Mackenzie denies that Swedenborg was a mason, but suggests that ‘he was affiliated to more than one secret society of a semi-religious, semi-philosophical character’ (p415). There is nothing whatever to support this suggestion, but it does illustrate the light in which Swedenborg was seen.

Wynn Westcott, collected all the relevant papers from his widow. Among them was the outline, in cipher, of the rituals of a quite different, non-masonic Order that was yet to come into the material world. What Westcott had discovered was the basis of an Esoteric Order, indeed, the most famous of all such Orders: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.[17]

An Esoteric, as opposed to a Masonic Order has been defined as a fraternity, wherein a secret wisdom unknown to the generality of mankind might be learnt, and to which admission was obtained by means of an initiation in which tests and ritual played their part.[18]

The Golden Dawn conforms perfectly to this definition, but fascinating though they are, its history, practices and personalities have no place in this paper – save to illustrate the extraordinary manner in which Swedenborg was the unwitting midwife at the birth of the most flamboyant child of Victorian occultism. Other, and earlier Esoteric Orders are, however, still germane to my purpose.

One of these Orders was founded during Swedenborg’s lifetime. The Rite des élus Cohens, or Elect Priests, was the brainchild of Martines de Pasqually (1710-1774), who was a kabbalist, a freemason and a magician. Because the kabbalah is the speculative mysticism of Judaism, Pasqually and his Rite have often been perceived as Jewish, whereas he was a Catholic Christian and greatly influenced by Swedenborg’s writings. But for Pasqually, communication with the spirit world was by way of magical ceremonies – a procedure that eventually drove his most famous disciple, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803) to reject the practice of the occult sciences and to devote himself to the mystical path.

Nothing in Pasqually’s rituals derives from Swedenborg, and such influence as there was came from a common belief in the doctrine of Correspondences, and a recognition that conversations with angels and spirits could and did happen. For Saint-Martin, who was a mystic in the tradition of Jacob Boehme, the importance of Swedenborg lay in his doctrine of regeneration, which is a crucial feature of Saint-Martin’s own works. He yet found Swedenborg wanting in his interpretation of the inner sense of Scripture and believed him to be ‘unworthy to be compared with Boehme as regards true knowledge’[19]

This statement is clear enough, but at the close of the nineteenth century it was turned on its head by Gerard Encausse (better known by his pseudonym of Papus), who was Saint-Martin’s most dedicated follower and most inventive interpreter. In 1884 Papus had founded the Martinist Order at Paris. This instituted a series of rituals to aid the initiate in the work of regeneration and reintegration, and while this was based on the teaching of Saint-Martin, Papus claimed that it derived ultimately from Swedenborg via Pasqually. He further claimed – but without documentary support – that Swedenborg was ‘an adept of occult science’, that ‘he supplemented his written revelations by a religious practice involving a ritual’, and that he had himself instituted the Swedenborgian Rite of Freemasonry.[20] Papus went further: in 1901 he established Beswick’s version of the Rite in France, having been authorised to do so by John Yarker, the English head of the Rite, whom he had previously placed in charge of the Martinist Order in England.

The subsequent history of Martinism is one of constant division and internecine warfare, but Papus is revered by all its many varieties, and through his inventions they have all been laid at Swedenborg’s door. Nor is this the only ‘French connection’ between Swedenborg and practical occultism.

Papus’s source for his reveries was probably Eliphas Lévi[21], the most ingenious and influential occultist and magician of his age. His life, from 1810 to 1875, spanned the whole period of the ‘Occult Revival’, while his books were read – and their significance recognised – across Europe and America. Not all his references to Swedenborg are flattering, but he presents him as a visionary, a prophet, a kabbalist and a Neoplatonist.

Lévi also lamented what Swedenborg had not done. Thus,

The means proposed indirectly by Swedenborg for communication with the supernatural world constitute an intermediate state allied to dream, ecstasy and catalepsy. The illuminated Swede affirmed the possibility of such a state, without furnishing any intimation as to the practices necessary for its attainment.[22]

Which is hardly surprising, since Swedenborg’s ‘visions’ were in the nature of revelation, and the experiences were unsought. But Lévi continued:

Perhaps his disciples, in order to supply the omission, might have had recourse to Indian Ceremonial magic, when a genius came forward to complete the prophetic and Kabalistic intuitions of Swedenborg by a natural thaumaturgy. This man was a German physician named Mesmer.[23]

This was gilding the lily with a vengeance. Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815) was the originator of the theory and practice of Animal Magnetism, a healing technique that was the forerunner of hypnosis, but there is no evidence that he was influenced in any way by Swedenborg. Nor was he a magician or kabbalist. However, Mesmerism, as Animal Magnetism was termed, was to become a contentious issue among Swedenborgians and Lévi would have been well aware of this.

But before we enter the psychic world we must finish the survey of the ‘second division’ by examining speculative mysticism during the ‘Occult Revival’, in its relationship to Swedenborg.

The Theosophy of Boehme and Saint-Martin remained little known during the nineteenth century, but among those who accepted its doctrinal approach were some who also admired Swedenborg. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was the Abbé Fournié, who had settled in London, and who had also been a disciple of Pasqually and Saint-Martin. By the middle of the century Edward Penny and his wife, Anne, enthusiasts for and promoters of Boehme and Saint-Martin, were admirers, but they were little known outside a very limited circle. Far more influential were Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland, who in 1882 presented the world with their ‘New Gospel of Interpretation’ through the medium of Kingsford’s book, The Perfect Way: or, The Finding of Christ.

The book, which is concerned with regeneration in Christ, does not refer to Swedenborg, but he was – at least in the author’s mind – a driving force behind it.

Anna Kingsford firmly believed that from 1877 to 1880 she was guided by Swedenborg, in her dreams and through automatic writing, in the production of The Perfect Way. His importance was later made public. In 1884 the two co-workers founded The Hermetic Society, for the study of comparative religion, symbolism and especially of ‘esoteric Christianity’. At the sixth meeting of the society Maitland praised Swedenborg for ‘recovering and formulating the ancient canon of mystical interpretation [of the scriptures]’, and for placing the ‘spirit and substance’ of the Bible over the mere ‘letter and form’[24]. There was, however, a sting in the tail. Maitland added that by not always observing his own rule, Swedenborg ‘fell in consequence into some grievous errors’, which public statement was capped by Swedenborg’s earlier, private admission to Maitland that ‘he had abandoned much of the teaching on which he had insisted in his writings, especially as regards the Incarnation.[25] This presumably came as a relief to Mrs. Kingsford who was at heart a Roman Catholic.

The Hermetic Society closed down in 1886 because of Anna Kingsford’s illness, but its work lived on through the inspiration it gave to the founders of the Golden Dawn. Its origin is equally significant, for it was intended to be a second London lodge of the Theosophical Society. This organisation, founded at New York in 1875, was far more successful than the Hermetic Society and was destined to become the public face of occultism throughout the western world. It was not to be, however, either a happy or a harmonious face.

The Theosophical Society was the brainchild of Col. Henry Steel Olcott, an American lawyer, and Mme. H.P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), a Russian spiritualist medium who had fetched up in New York in 1873 after a picturesque career in more obscure parts of the world. Although concerned with occultism in general, and its eastern forms in particular, the society had neither a historical nor a philosophical connection with Theosophy in its traditional sense and Mme. Blavatsky maintained a deep hostility towards orthodox Christianity. Despite this she was well-read in Swedenborg and quotes from him in her first major work, Isis Unveiled (1877), although she manages both to distort the doctrines and to belittle the man. Thus, ‘Swedenborg fully adopts’

the ‘doctrine of the possibility of losing one’s soul and, hence, individuality’, and yet while he ‘was undoubtedly a “natural-born magician”, a seer; he was not an adept’[26]

Nonetheless, he was in full agreement with the Tibetan adepts, the Mahatmas who allegedly taught and guided Mme. Blavatsky. She denied the authenticity of the Bible as we know it – ‘this pretended monotheistic Scripture’ – and called upon Swedenborg for the truth:

We prefer decidedly to take the word of Swedenborg that the “Ancient Word” is somewhere in China or the Great Tartary.[27]

This is correctly drawn from The True Christian Religion 279, but it is taken out of context and, in order to suit her Mahatmic-Buddhist agenda, Tibet is later grafted on to the countries to which Swedenborg refers. Mme. Blavatsky may have looked down on Swedenborg but she was happy to use his name in support of her cause, certain that it was known and respected in the spiritualist circles in which she moved. And so to the ‘first division’.

Spiritualism as such – the system of doctrines or practices founded on the belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living, or make their presence known to them in some way, especially through a ‘medium’[28] – was unknown in Swedenborg’s day and was not formally instituted until the late 1840s. But other psychic phenomena, and practices predicated on the reality of a non-material world, were a prominent feature of eighteenth century occultism. The techniques of Mesmerism, for example, were based on the assumption that there is a vital force, usually invisible, that permeates the universe and radiates from both living beings and inanimate objects. This was quite distinct from the mechanics and purpose of Swedenborg’s conversations with spirits, but both processes acknowledge that the material and spiritual worlds interpenetrate each other. Swedenborgians were thus disposed to be curious about, and attracted by such novelties as Animal Magnetism.

After Mesmer was discredited by the report of a French governmental commission, interest in his activities dwindled, but there were revivals of interest in Mesmerism in America during the 1790s and 1830s, in France and Germany in the 1820s, and in England by the end of the 1830s. There are instances of Swedenborgian interest in most of these, but little evidence that the Mesmerists, as opposed to their observers, called on Swedenborg’s ideas to justify themselves.

Within the New Church there was no official view on Mesmerism, but opinions were divided. In 1845 the anonymous author of A Few Notes on Mesmeric Phenomena, a pamphlet issued as a supplement to The Intellectual Repository[29], made his own views clear with his sub-title: ‘Shewing their coincidence and harmony with the important discoveries which are developed in the Theological Works of Emanuel Swedenborg’.

Two years later similar views were expressed in The New Church Quarterly Review, by the reviewer – again anonymous: perhaps it was the same man – of Spencer T. Hall’s Mesmeric Experiences (1845). He stated that ‘members of the New Church – alone possess the knowledge which can really explain these startling experiences’, and argued that Mesmerism ‘connects – especially with the New Church’, because of ‘the conclusive evidence which it affords of the existence of a spiritual world’[30] This, however, is a case of Mesmerism promoting Swedenborg, not the reverse.

For that we must look to the United States of America, and to an earlier George Bush – a noted Hebrew scholar, prominent Swedenborgian and author of a curious book on Mesmer and Swedenborg (1847).[31] Bush’s arguments are well presented, but they are less important than his account of his experiences with a young man who gave remarkable lectures ‘on a large class of scientific subjects’ whilst ‘in the Mesmeric state’. This young man was Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910), a shoemaker from Poughkeepsie in New York State, who was later known as ‘The Poughkeepsie Seer’. In 1844 Davis claimed to have received a dramatic spiritual illumination while wandering, in a trance-like state, in the Catskill Mountains. Here he met the spirits of Swedenborg and Galen (the Greek physician), from whom he acquired a complex spiritual philosophy that he later dictated at great length, and over a period of many years, while in a similar state of trance.

Davis was not a charlatan, but it is probable that much of the scientific and linguistic information he dispensed had been gained from public lectures that he had attended, and had been subsequently buried in his unconscious mind. His philosophy and theology contain only faint echoes of Swedenborg’s doctrines, but Davis’s continuing fame as a seer ensured that Swedenborg was perceived as his source and inspiration. Spiritualism, as a distinct entity, did not appear until 1848, when the Fox sisters became the first true mediums with the spirit rappings at their home at Hydesville in New York State. The movement then mushroomed across America, spiritualist mediums proliferated and within five years they had become a fixture in Europe also, appealing to all classes of society. Andrew Jackson Davis was recognised as the forerunner of the movement, and, despite loud protestations of innocence, both Swedenborg and the New Church were henceforth indissolubly linked to Spiritualism.

Some Swedenborgians were happy with this association. Both J.J. Garth Wilkinson and his brother William edited spiritualist journals: the short-lived Spiritual Herald (1856) and the more successful Spiritual Magazine (1860 onwards) respectively. The journal for working-class spiritualists, The Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph (1855-57) which was published at Keighley, was also edited by a Swedenborgian: John Garnett. He was happy to open his columns to rival views about Spiritualism within the New Church, and while later disputes on the same subject were aired in The Intellectual Repository they were more polite. Only in Keighley were New Church opponents of Spiritualism described as ‘pygmies’ and ‘bigots’.[32]

Others within the New Church were bitterly opposed to Spiritualism. In 1845 the Revd. B.F. Barrett of New York wrote a series of articles on ‘Open Intercourse with the Spiritual World’, setting out the dangers and emphasising the distinction between Spiritualism and the New Church: ‘How foolishly may not people act, and what nonsense may they not believe, when they talk with spirits, and really believe these spirits to be angels !’[33] By a curious coincidence it was Mr. Barrett who later ordained Samuel Beswick to the ministry. Almost forty years later, when Spiritualism was firmly established, the seal of authority was stamped on the ‘anti’ camp in America when the Revd. Chauncey Giles, President of the General Convention of the New Church, published a hostile analysis with his The New Church and Spiritism (Philadelphia, [1882])

In England an acrimonious dispute broke out in the Swedenborg Society – and thus in the New Church – in 1860 over the activities of William White, the Society’s publishing agent, and W.M. Wilkinson, the secretary. White had been impressed by the activities of Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906), a non-denominational minister who had taken up Spiritualism, blended it with Swedenborgianism and re-arranged the mixture to incorporate his own odd ideas about the cosmos and its spiritual inhabitants. He also established a Utopian community, the Brotherhood of the New Life, which was characterised by philosophical teachings loosely, but clearly based on those of Swedenborg, and such odd practices as a curious form of respiration known as ‘open breathing’.

White, supported by Wilkinson, promoted Harris’s books and lectures from the premises of the Swedenborg Society, at which he also began to stock and sell a wide range of spiritualist literature. Most members of the society objected to being associated with Spiritualism, and a long and costly – but ultimately successful – struggle ensued to remove White from both office and offices. But the damage was done: to the man in the street Swedenborg and Spiritualism were as one.

This was already the view of spiritualists, both in Europe and in America, and mediums regularly delivered messages from the spirit of Swedenborg, whose character seems to have changed for the worse in the spiritual world. He was, for example, frequently called upon at the séances of J.W. Edmonds and G.T. Dexter in New York, and at one of these, in April 1853, he announced his presence, before delivering a rambling dissertation, by stating ‘In the name of God I am Sweedenborg (sic)’.[34] In the same year a young French medium, at a séance near Grenoble, called upon Swedenborg, together with Washington and the theologian Frederick Oberlin, to manifest themselves. This they did, but the medium reported that ‘Mr. Swedenborg is particularly annoyed’.[35]

Communication with the spirit world was not confined to spiritualists, it was also the province of many of the French Mesmerists, or ‘Magnetists’ as they preferred to be called. Among them was Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet, an ardent Swedenborgian, who used magic mirrors to induce trance in his subjects. He claimed that he had received detailed instructions for making them from the spirit of Swedenborg, and revealed the process in his book Magie Magnétique (Paris, 1854). Many years later T.H. Pattinson, an English occultist from Bradford, made one of these magic mirrors for a clerical friend, the Revd. W.A. Ayton.[36] Both men were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and they thus unwittingly forged yet another indirect link between the Order and Swedenborg.

A final link was made through the writings of Dr. E.W. Berridge, a London homoeopathic physician who was not only a prominent member of the Golden Dawn, but also a great advocate of Thomas Lake Harris and his Brotherhood of the New Life, about which he wrote extensively. Berridge did not make an overt link with Swedenborg, but he did not need to do so: Harris himself had made it and William White had publicised it.

White’s career did not end in 1861. He continued to distribute spiritualist literature and in 1867 published a major, if biased, biography of Swedenborg. In this he jeered at Swedenborgians for their hostility to Spiritualism and noted in contrast to it that,

Spiritualists have no animosity to the Swedenborgians, who occupy but a corner in their great and growing camp. They rank Swedenborg among their chief apostles, and question and adopt his testimony at discretion.[37]

Such an attitude was typical among spiritualists, but those who – like White himself – had come to Spiritualism via Swedenborg often maintained their belief in his teachings. Thus William Oxley, an active member of the New Church long before he became a prominent spiritualist writer, considered that Swedenborg’s ‘system of philosophy’ was ‘the true and only Key to unlock all the mysteries pertaining to spirit and matter’[38]. He also believed that angelic as opposed to purely spirit communication still occurred, and between 1875 and 1883 he published a long series of Angelic Revelations[39], received at private sittings of a small circle of friends, which he seems to have placed on a par with Swedenborg’s experiences.

Nor was the New Church itself totally hostile to Spiritualism. From 1883 to 1896[40] The Dawn, a popular New Church periodical, was published by E.W. Allen, the foremost publisher of spiritualist works of the time, and in which they dealt almost exclusively. The Dawn, which had no spiritualist content at all, regularly carried announcements for Allen’s publications. Such associations undoubtedly helped to confirm a public perception of Swedenborg as a proto-spiritualist and as the ultimate source of the whole movement.

But what does this tell us ? What conclusions can we draw about Swedenborg’s responsibility, if any, for the ‘Occult Revival’ ? That ‘Revival’, if such it was, was made up of disparate but loosely related parts: divination, magic, ceremonial Orders, communication with a spiritual world, and speculative mysticism. Considered chronologically communication with a spiritual world, Spiritualism, with a specific starting date in the 1840s, comes first – as it does also in terms of numbers of adherents and public awareness. And there is no question but that from the beginning, Swedenborg was considered, rightly or wrongly, to be a significant influence upon its theory and its practice.

Historians of Spiritualism, both within and without the movement accept that this is so. Thus Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eulogised Swedenborg in his History of Spiritualism stating that,

In point of fact, every Spiritualist should honour Swedenborg, and his bust should be in every Spiritualist temple, as being the first and greatest of modern mediums.[41]

He also emphasised that Swedenborg was the first modern man to describe a future life that mirrors earthly life. This point was also noted by Frank Podmore, a sceptical historian whose Modern Spiritualism (1902) is still the best history of the subject. Podmore observed that Swedenborg’s ‘special contribution to the Spiritualist belief consists in his conception of a future life’, and that

The idea of intercourse with distinctly human spirits, if not actually introduced by Swedenborg, at least established itself first in the popular consciousness through his teaching. Emanuel Swedenborg is therefore deservedly ranked as the first Spiritualist in [this] sense.[42]

It would thus seem that even if in other areas of occultism – Fringe-masonic and Esoteric Orders, and Theosophical illumination – Swedenborg’s name has been taken casually or in vain, responsibility for at least this aspect of the ‘Occult Revival’ does lie with him.

Except that there never was an ‘Occult Revival’: it is simply a convenient construct used by modern historians of ideas (including myself) who have failed to see the wood for the trees. The word ‘revival’ suggests a measurable increase in activity and in numbers of persons involved, following a previous, and also measurable, decline. In its various forms, occultism – or Esotericism to use the term currently preferred by scholars – is now recognised as a major part of a continuing ‘Western Mystery Tradition’. As with all schools of speculative thought, levels of belief in, and active engagement in, the various aspects of occultism have fluctuated over the centuries. But even in periods of religious and philosophical scepticism and disinterest, there have always been small groups of enthusiasts.

They have not always included famous, or even infamous, individuals. Most have been ordinary people, often in humble circumstances. We know about them only because there are, from the seventeenth century onwards, occasional records – usually in manuscript – of their identities and activities. An appropriate example is a detailed, descriptive list of people, who might best be described as ‘mystical Christians’, compiled in 1775 by Ralph Mather, a former Wesleyan who had become enthused with the mysticism of Boehme and William Law, and who later espoused the doctrines of Swedenborg. An account of Mather’s List is given in Désirée Hirst’s book Hidden Riches, where she describes it as ‘a Baedeker’s guide to mystical Britain’.[43]

She further comments that ‘His survey throws a flood of light upon the true interests of a lively minority, in an age supposed to be given over entirely to rationalism and materialism’[44] Much the same can be said for the Miscellaneous Papers of General Rainsford relating to Freemasonry and Magnetism[45], which relate to alchemists, kabbalists, Rosicrucians and freemasons of the late eighteenth century. Other sources[46] provide evidence of continuing activity by a broad spectrum of committed occultists throughout the early nineteenth century. From these it is clear that we should think in terms of a continuum rather than a revival.

It is also clear that there was no substantial increase in the numbers of occultists. The Golden Dawn attracted only 300 members throughout its active heyday from 1888 to 1903, while the masonic Rosicrucian Society drew in a similar number between the date of its foundation, 1867, and the end of the century. The Theosophical Society was more successful, but it was a world-wide organisation, and had the advantage of offering what was, in effect, an alternative religion. In 1907, when Col. Olcott died, there were 1,860 members in Britain, 3,904 throughout Europe, and 2,637 in the United States. Spiritualism, which also transformed itself into a series of quasi-Christian religious bodies, was marginally more successful in Britain: the average attendance at meetings throughout the country was c2,000 in 1868 and c3,000 in 1880. But apart from a brief period after WWI, these numbers have not increased by any significant degree. It is thus quite clear that there are no signs at all that the ‘Occult Revival’ took place anywhere outside the minds of those with a vested interest in its reality.

Further evidence that occultism, in all its aspects, was a minority activity in the nineteenth century comes from a statistical analysis of relevant publications.[47] Of the numbers of books and periodicals published throughout the century, only 2% - to be generous - of those classified as religious or philosophical can be considered to belong to the sub-class of Spiritualism, occultism or a related topic. A similar, indeed a smaller, percentage applies to numbers of specialist publishers in this field, and there is no evidence that their titles enjoyed conspicuous critical or commercial success.

Thus we are left without an occult revival, but with a continuing tradition of a minority enthusiasm for esoteric beliefs and practices. Many of these enthusiasts included Swedenborg in their pantheon of great men and we must accept that whatever we may think of his doctrines, and however innocent he was of conscious involvement in either their dreams or their realities, Swedenborg certainly played his part in the continuity of an ancient tradition.

[1] The Intellectual Repository, Vol. 6, No. 47, 1822-23, p472

[2] Ernst Benz, Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason. Introduced and Translated by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. West Chester, 2002, p ix

[3] Désirée Hirst, Hidden Riches. Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake. London, 1964, p206

[4] Dr. Schuchard’s views were first presented in 1975 in her doctoral dissertation, Freemasonry, Secret Societies, and the continuity of the occult traditions in English literature, published from microfilm by UMI, Ann Arbor & London, 1982. They have most recently been reiterated in her paper ‘Jacobite and Visionary: the Masonic Journey of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)’, in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, the Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, Volume 115 for the year 2002. London, 2003. See pp33-72.

[5] Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment. SUNY Press, Albany, 1994 p97

[6] G. Roland Smith (Ed.), Outlook, incorporating the Swedenborg Movement Newsletter. No. 50, Manchester, 2004 See p 5, ‘The Swedenborg Rite’

[7] This is my modification of the definition given in J. Gordon Melton (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology. Fourth Edition. Detroit, 1996. See Vol. 2, p948

[8] Evidence in support of the continuity of ‘occult’ beliefs can be found in a number of scholarly works. See, e.g., Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Hermeticism. Albany, 1994; A. Faivre & J. Needleman (Ed.), Modern Esoteric Spirituality. New York, 1992; Joscelyn Godwin, op. cit.; Herbert Leventhal, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment. Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America. New York UP, 1976

[9] [Revd. Charles Maurice Davies], The Great Secret and its Unfoldment in Occultism. A Record of Forty Years Experience in the Modern Mystery, by A Church of England Clergyman. London, 1895, p209

[10] Robert Hindmarsh, ‘A comparison between Jacob Behmen and Emanuel Swedenborg, particularly on the subject of Divine Influx’, The Intellectual Repository, Vol. 2, London,1814-15, p190

[11] The three works comprise A Collection of Thirty remarkable Nativities (1789); Astronomy and Elementary Philosophy (1789) and Supplement to Placidus de Titus (1790). Among his other occupations, Sibly was a bookseller specialising in occult works.

[12] There are precise but complex distinctions between Orders, Rites and Degrees in Freemasonry, but I have used the terms as they were applied – often incorrectly – to the bodies in question when they were active.

[13] According to Marsha Schuchard (‘The Secret Masonic History of Blake’s Swedenborg Society’, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, Fall 1992, pp 40-51), this lodge was founded in 1773. She cites French sources that I have not been able to check, but the date seems improbable – not least because de Thomé is supposed to have gained his inspiration from the Illuminés d’Avignon in 1786, thus making both dates of foundation suspect.

[14] See G.P.G. Hills, ‘Notes on some Masonic personalities at the end of the 18th century’, AQC 25, 1912, pp141-164; ‘Notes on the Rainsford Papers in the British Museum’, AQC 26, 1913, pp93-130

[15] For a full account of the Rite, see R.A. Gilbert, ‘Chaos out of Order: the Rise and Fall of the Swedenborgian Rite’, AQC 108, 1995, pp122-149

[16] K.R.H. Mackenzie, ‘The Swedenborgian Rite: otherwise known as the Primitive and Original Rite of Freemasonry’, The Rosicrucian and Masonic Record. New Series. Vol. 1, No. 10, April 1878, pp414-419

[17] The origins of the Golden Dawn have always been a contentious issue, although the evidence for this scenario is very strong. It is set out in detail in my paper ‘Provenance unknown – A tentative solution to the riddle of the Cipher Manuscript of the Golden dawn’, in Wege und Abwege – Festschrift fŸr Ellic Howe – Freiburg, 1990, pp79-89

[18] Dion Fortune, The Esoteric Orders and their Work. London, [1928], pix

[19] Quoted in A.E. Waite, The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, the Unknown Philosopher, and the substance of his Transcendental Doctrine. London, 1901, p91

[20] Waite, op. cit., p461

[21] Lévi’s real name was Alphonse Louis Constant. There is no satisfactory biography in English, but Paul Chacornac’s Eliphas Lévi. Renovateur de l’Occultisme en France. Paris, 1926, is excellent.

[22] Eliphas Lévi, The History of Magic – Translated with Preface and Notes by Arthur Edward Waite. London, 1948, p292 First published in 1861; the English translation first appeared in1913.

[23] ibid. p 292

[24] ‘The Hermetic Society’, report of the sixth meeting, in Light, Vol. 5, No. 232, June 13, 1885, p287

[25] Edward Maitland, Anna Kingsford, her Life, Letters, Diary and Work. Third edition, edited by S. Hopgood Hart. London, 1913 Vol. 2, pp356-357

[26] H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. New York, 1877 Vol. 1, pp317 & 306

[27] ibid. Vol. 1, p471

[28] This definition is that of the Oxford English Dictionary, with slight alterations.

[29] It is found at the end of Vol. VI of the New Series. The author signs himself simply as ‘Aleph’.

[30] The New Church Quarterly Review and Philosophical Examiner, Vol. 1, 1847, pp426 & 428

[31] George Bush, Mesmer and Swedenborg; or the relation of the developments of Mesmerism to the doctrines and disclosures of Swedenborg. New York, 1847. Bush was initially an enthusiastic champion of Davis, but he soon distanced himself. For details of other publications relating Animal Magnetism to Swedenborg’s doctrines, see Marguerite Beck Block, The New Church in the New World. A Study of Swedenborgianism in America. New York, 1932, pp131-133

[32] Quoted in Logie Barrow, Independent Spirits. Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850 – 1910. London, 1986, p17

[33] The New Jerusalem Magazine. Vol. 19, New York, 1845. The articles appeared between January and November. See p95 of the November issue.

[34] J.W. Edmonds & G.T. Dexter, Spiritualism. New York, 1853-55. 2 vols. Vol. 1, p101. Quoted in Frank Podmore, Modern Spiritualism. A History and a Criticism. London, 1902 2 vols. Vol. 1, p271

[35] C. McIntosh, Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival. London, 1972, p58, quoting Erdan [i.e. A.A. Jacob], La France Mystique. Paris, 1855

[36] See J.P. Deveney, Paschal Beverly Randolph, a Nineteenth Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician. SUNY, Albany, 1997, p56

[37] William White, Emanuel Swedenborg: his life and writings. London, 1867 2 vols. See Vol. 2, pp645-646

[38] See his obituary, ‘William Oxley’ by T.P., in Light, Vol. 25, No. 1,279, July 15, 1905, p329

[39] William Oxley, Angelic Revelations concerning the origin, ultimation, and destiny of the human spirit; illustrated by the experiences in earth and spirit life of Teresa Jacoby, now known as the Angel Purity. Manchester, 1875 – 1883 4 vols.

[40] The last volume of The Dawn that I have examined is Vol. 10, published in 1896. The two holdings listed in BUCOP show 11 volumes.

[41] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism. London, 1926 Vol. 1, p12

[42] Podmore, op. cit. Vol. 1, p15

[43] Hirst, op. cit., p241. The account of A List of some names and places of abode of those in whose minds the Light of God has arisen or is graciously arising, is on p241-246. The original manuscript is in the Brooke Correspondence in Dr. Williams’s Library, London (Walton MS. I. i. 43)

[44] ibid. pp245-246

[45] British Library, Additional Mss. 23,675. The papers cover the period from 18 July 1783 to 15 December 1796.

[46] Notably the scrapbook of Frederick Hockley which covers the years from c 1820 to 1850. This is in the Harry Price Library, now an integral part of the Library of University College, London.

[47] See, e.g., Simon Eliot, Some Patterns and Trends in British Publishing 1800 – 1919. Bibliographical Society: Occasional papers Number 8. London, 1994


Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 15 (Autumn 2004) pp. 44-51.


Swedenborg Biography
Heavenly Doctrines
The revelation process
Who is God?
The Word of God
Bible & the Writings
Time and Eternity
History of Religion
On Being Useful
Providence and  Evil
Getting Rid of Evil
The Death Process
Life after Death
Life on Other Planets
The Second Coming
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