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Swedenborg and Spiritualism

by Richard Lines M.A

The word ‘Spiritualism’ has acquired a specialised meaning in the English language denoting the communication by the spirits of the dead with the living. Spiritualism is a phenomenon that arose in the middle of the nineteenth century and exercised a great fascination for many, including the intellectual elite of the day. It is practised to this day and very many people seek comfort from psychics and mediums in their desire for an assurance that their dead loved ones are conscious and living in some kind of spiritual world. We live in a coldly materialistic age. Our modern intellectual elite is on the whole hostile to the concept of the survival of bodily death. For all of us death remains the great unknown. The death of a loved one, even at a very advanced age, is a reminder of our own mortality, as well as an occasion of sadness and loss. Some, I believe, are driven, not by idle curiosity, but by their grief in the face of the loss of a loved one to seek the help of spiritualists who claim to be able to make contact with the spirits of the departed.

A recent BBC television documentary on this subject was instructive, although, of course, not conclusive. The programme followed the search for contact with dead loved ones by several ordinary people. All of them had lost loved ones in tragic circumstances and had been unable to come to terms with their deaths. The programme made no reference to any of these people having specific religious beliefs that might have helped them in their plight. All consulted spiritualist mediums, who, in turn, seemed genuine people, modest about their own psychic gifts and concerned to use those gifts in the service of those seeking help. None of the seekers was acting out of idle curiosity and none of the mediums appeared to be frauds or charlatans. The programme was inconclusive. Some of the seekers believed that contact had been made with dead loved ones, while others were not so sure. No one in the programme referred to Emanuel Swedenborg or to any of his works.

Emanuel Swedenborg has sometimes been claimed as the ‘father’ of modern spiritualism. That claim should be treated with great caution. Swedenborg is famous as the man who claimed that his eyes and ears had been opened to the world beyond death, as the man who conversed with spirits and angels on a daily basis for almost the last thirty years of his life. But it must be emphasised that he did not make a public display of these powers. He used his great gifts to reveal to mankind through the written word the new revelation he had received. That revelation was first published to the world in his Arcana Caelestia (1749-1756). This was followed by Heaven and Hell (1758) in which Swedenborg gave a vivid and detailed account of the next world as he had heard and seen it. Swedenborg’s fame soon spread throughout Europe. One of those who was fascinated by him was Ludwig X, the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, the princely ruler of one of the hundreds of independent states that constituted Germany in the eighteenth century. He received three copies of Conjugial Love, published in 1768. Hearing that Swedenborg was in Holland, he instructed his resident minister there to visit him and obtain the promise of a visit. Then the Landgrave wrote a letter to Swedenborg in such flattering terms that Swedenborg at first doubted that it was genuine. It appears, however, that the Landgrave’s interest in the spirit world was casual and superficial. He enquired about the fate of several of his mistresses and comrades in arms in the next world.

Dangers of Contacting Spirits

Eventually Swedenborg replied. In his reply he wrote:

‘The gift of speaking with angels as I speak with them cannot be transferred from one person to another. It has sometimes happened that a spirit enters in and utters some word to a man, yet it is not given to him to speak with the man mouth to mouth; this moreover is extremely dangerous, for the spirit enters into the affection of the man’s own love, and this is not concordant with the affection of heavenly love’.

Swedenborg always emphasises human freedom and reason. We must not let go of these. To another questioner who asked if it was possible for others to enter into the kind of spiritual life he enjoyed, he replied: ‘Take good care! That is the direct road to insanity!’ Swedenborg realised that when a person, by his own speculation, tries to discover heavenly things, he is not protected against hellish delusions.

In the last work published in his lifetime, True Christian Religion, Swedenborg records how he once prayed to God to be allowed to speak with the disciples of Aristotle, Descartes and Leibnitz, ‘in order to learn what opinions they held on the interplay between the soul and the body’, a subject on which he himself wrote a book. He says that his prayer was answered by the appearance of nine men, three disciples each of the three philosophers and he describes the conversation he had with them in great detail.

The German church historian Ernst Benz in his authoritative biography of Swedenborg (Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason, translated by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Swedenborg Foundation 2002), only recently translated into English, makes this comment on this experience:

‘Such wishes for meetings with specific deceased persons are an extraordinary rarity for Swedenborg. Throughout his whole life, he constantly warned others against any spiritualistic experiments, and he was also personally terrified of undertaking any experiments himself in this direction. He had a fine sense for what he could and could not take upon himself regarding his visionary gift and always lived in fear of losing his gift through abuse. He had too high an estimate of the origin and meaning of this gift to risk profaning it through self-willed use. He could not be moved from this position even by the requests of princes, ’

In the conclusion to his work Benz makes the following statement:

‘Swedenborg was not a spiritualist. It is wrong to abstract a system of spiritualism from his visionary theology and dismiss its specifically Christian impulses as superfluous or irrelevant. His vision and his teachings about the transcendental world and its relationship to the earthly world cannot be separated from his view of Christ, his exegesis of the Bible, and the Christian content of the doctrine of the New Church’.

The Beginnings of modern Spiritualism

We must now go forward nearly a century. Spiritualism in its modern sense may be said to have begun with the ‘rappings’ heard by two young girls, the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, in New York State in 1848. They caused a sensation and went on to give public performances in New York by 1850. Then there was a young man, also from New York State, called Andrew Jackson Davis, who claimed to have received communications from the spirit of Emanuel Swedenborg and who, for a while, attracted the attention of a translator of Swedenborg, a certain Professor George Bush. But the American trance medium who caused the greatest sensation in Europe during the 1850s was the ‘physical’ medium Daniel Dunglas Home. Born in Edinburgh in 1833 (his father being the illegitimate son of the then Earl of Home), the family emigrated to the USA early in Daniel’s life. In 1855 Home came to England and held a séance at the London home of Dr Garth Wilkinson, homeopathic physician, friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James senior, translator of Swedenborg and a well-known member of this Society. Wilkinson was sufficiently impressed by Home’s performance to write a detailed account, which was published in a daily newspaper, ‘The Morning Advertiser’. He reported that during the séance a large hand appeared with fingers extended. Home recoiled from it, saying: ‘O! keep me from that hand! It is so cold! Do not let it touch me’. The hand disappeared and was replaced almost immediately by a hand wearing a glove. Garth’s brother, the solicitor William Wilkinson (at that time Secretary of the Swedenborg Society) was even more involved with spiritualism. He edited the Spiritual Magazine for a number of years and actually ‘ghosted’ the bulk of Home’s memoirs, Incidents in My Life, published in 1863 and wrote a preface to the second edition published the following year. As Secretary of the Society, William Wilkinson supported the efforts of the agent and manager William White to introduce spiritualist literature into the Society’s shop (then at 1 Bloomsbury Street), but left office when the Society’s committee took legal proceedings to evict White from the building. For Garth Wilkinson, the interest in spiritualist manifestations appears to have been a passing phase. Twenty years later he made plain his final attitude: ‘I do not deny, but prize, in their place, spontaneous motions of the spiritual world upon and in the natural world… . On the other hand, solicited intercourse with the spiritual world is, to me, a mistake, and with my convictions, it would be a sin to take part in séances, or any other means, in such solicitation’. That seems to me to be a good summary of the Swedenborgian position with regard to spiritualism.

The interest of the Brownings

That same summer Home gave another séance at the Ealing home of the solicitor John Snaith Rymer. Present on this occasion were the poets Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The climax of the evening occurred when a hand crowned Elizabeth with a garland of flowers. She described the episode in a letter to her sister Henrietta. After describing the raps, the table moving and the touching by invisible hands she continued: ‘At the request of the medium [ie Home], the spiritual hand took from the table a garland which lay there and placed it upon my head. The particular hand which did this was of the largest human size [Elizabeth herself was tiny and had tiny hands], as white as snow and very beautiful. It was as near to me as this hand I write with, and I saw it distinctly…I was not troubled in any way and felt convinced in my own mind that no spirit belonging to me was present on the occasion’.

On another occasion Home gave a séance at the home in Florence of the American sculptor Hiram Powers, a convinced Swedenborgian and a friend of the Brownings. Seven people (including Home himself) were present. Powers described how a delicate, shadowy hand appeared dancing slowly on the other side of the table. A lady put her fan near the hand and it began to fan her with much grace and then the rest of the company in turn before it was lost to view. Home who had a colourful career, marrying a Russian aristocrat and impressing the nobility of Europe before dying in 1886 at the age of 53, might have been just a consummate conjuror, but it should be noted that charges of fraud were never proved against him.

While strong-minded people like the Wilkinson brothers, Hiram Powers and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were impressed by Home, Robert Browning most certainly was not. He was disgusted by what had happened at the Ealing séance and felt that Home was a very doubtful character who had worked on the susceptibilities of his wife. Spiritualism was the one subject that divided this most united of married couples. Robert Browning’s scepticism did not arise from lack of belief in the continuance of life after death. As is evident from so many of his poems, he believed in it as passionately as his wife did. Like her, he was a reader of Swedenborg. After Elizabeth died he wrote a long satire on Home, the poem Mr Sludge the Medium, which is generally regarded as an attack on spiritualism. But the poem is perhaps really an attack on charlatanism under the guise of spiritualism.

In the introductory section to his immensely long poem, The Ring and the Book, he addresses the spirit of his dead wife and appears to long to have communion with her:

That still, despite the distance and the dark,
What was, again may be; some interchange
Of grace, some splendour once thy very thought,
Some benediction anciently thy smile:…

Some years before Tennyson, another reader of Swedenborg (several of his siblings were actually members of the New Church at one time or another), had expressed the same wish in In Memoriam, his great poem on the theme of death and immortality:

How pure at heart and sound in head,
With what divine affections bold
Should be the man whose thought would hold
An hour’s communion with the dead.

Browning ends another long poem, Fifine at the Fair, with the narrator, now widowed, visited by the spirit of his wife:

When, in a moment, just a knock, call cry
‘What, and is it really you again’, quoth I
‘I again, what else did you expect?’ quoth she.
‘If you knew but how I dwelt down here’, quoth I
‘And was I so much better off up there?’ quoth she
‘Help and get it over’. Reunited to his wife.
‘Love is all, and Death is naught’, quoth she.

Browning may well have been thinking of Elizabeth, but his friend, the younger poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom he had sent an inscribed copy, read it as an attack on him and was greatly offended. This poem was published in 1872. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died in 1861. Rossetti’s wife, the artist Elizabeth Siddal, had died in 1862 from an overdose of laudanum. After her death Rossetti was convinced that Elizabeth’s spirit had visited his house on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea and was the cause of ‘rappings’ he had heard. He attended séances in attempts to contact his dead wife and, in 1869, obtained a Home Office licence to exhume her body in order to retrieve his poems, which he had buried with her. Rossetti was a reader of Swedenborg and was acquainted with Garth Wilkinson, who had treated Lizzie Siddal on at least one occasion.

Alfred Russel Wallace

One can speculate about the extraordinary outburst of spiritualist interest and practice in mid-Victorian times. Christian belief was being undermined by scientific discoveries. One thinks particularly of Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution through natural selection. His Origin of Species was published in 1859. But we should not forget the neglected figure of Alfred Russel Wallace who arrived at the same theory quite independently of Darwin and wrote to Darwin about it, thus prompting Darwin to go ahead and publish his work. Darwin, who had originally intended to become a clergyman of the Church of England, lost his Christian faith as result of his scientific discoveries, but Wallace (who always deferred to the older man) developed in a different direction. He was convinced of the existence of the spiritual world, was a reader of Swedenborg and a member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). The founding of the SPR in 1882 (Tennyson was another member) represents the beginning of the attempt to study spiritualism and other paranormal phenomena in a rational, scientific way. The SPR attracted the intellectual elite of the day. Members included the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick, the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and his sister Eleanor who married Sidgwick. One of its most remarkable members was Frederic William Henry Myers, a classical scholar, poet and inspector of schools. Myers lost his Christian faith as a young man and thereafter devoted much of his time to investigating spiritualism in his search for an assurance of human survival of death. In his Phantasms of the Living he investigated Swedenborg. ‘The case of Swedenborg’, he wrote, ‘carries us still further beyond the limits of our assured knowledge. Of madness and its declensions, indeed, we know much; but it would be a mere abuse of language to call Swedenborg mad’. His major work, published in 1903 two years after his death, is Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death in which he postulates the soul as the unifying principle underlying all mental phenomena. The book had was praised by William James.

Sir Oliver Lodge and Swedenborg

In the history of spiritualism Myers makes a remarkable re-appearance as a transmitter of messages from the spiritual world through mediums. Another member of the SPR, the eminent physicist Sir Oliver Lodge (who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom), had a son called Raymond who was killed in Flanders in September 1915. Now I suspect that the appalling loss of young life in the carnage of the Western Front stimulated an interest in survival of bodily death and of spiritualistic practices, although Lodge had been investigating the phenomena for some years and was already convinced that the human personality survives bodily death. Lodge published a book, Raymond, in which he claimed that he had received communications from his son in the other world. Just eleven days after Raymond was killed his mother took part in a séance at which a message was received from Raymond. In further sittings in which both Lodge parents took part it emerged that the spirit of Frederick Myers was acting as a kind of spiritual guardian to Raymond, easing him gently into spiritual existence after the traumatic shock of death in battle. In one trance sitting Raymond is alleged to have said, ‘FM has helped me so much, more than you think, … for God’s sake, father, break away the dam that people have set up. If only you could see what I see: hundreds of men and women heart-broken…’ Raymond, as is the case with other spiritualist revelations, gave an account of conditions in the spiritual world which will resonate with those familiar with Heaven and Hell and other works by Swedenborg. The picture given is of a real world with a life of purpose or ‘use’, to use a Swedenborgian term. One of Raymond’s messages relates to the relations between the sexes in the next world. ‘I don’t think men and women stand to each other quite the same as they did on the earth plane, but they seem to have the same feelings to each other, with a different expression of it. There don’t seem to be any children born here.’ Compare this with what Swedenborg says in Arcana Caelestia, Heaven and Hell and Conjugial Love about marriage in the next world. There are no babies born of these marriages. Their offspring are goods and truths. Oliver Lodge ends his book with a useful warning against attempting to get in touch with the spirit world: ‘It may be asked, do I recommend all bereaved persons to devote the time and attention which I have done to getting communications and recording them? Most certainly I do not…. I recommend people in general to learn and realise that their loved ones are still active and useful and interested and happy – more alive than ever in one sense – and to make up their minds to live a useful life until they rejoin them’.

Rosamond Lehmann

My last example of someone’s experience of contact with the dead is a more recent one. The distinguished novelist Rosamond Lehmann, who died in 1990 aged 89, suffered the most dreadful grief when her daughter Sally died of poliomyelitis in Indonesia at the age of 24. Nothing in her life had prepared her for such a blow. A strikingly beautiful woman, she had been married twice, having Sally and a son by her second husband. Sally’s death, wrote Rosamond Lehmann later, ‘…was the end of my life in one sense and the beginning of a totally new one. I didn’t expect to survive it, but I did, and I had a number of overwhelming mystical experiences which transformed my thinking, transformed my whole life and have remained with me ever since’.

Lehmann gives an account of these experiences with great delicacy and literary skill in the second half of her short autobiography, The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life, which was published in 1967 nine years after Sally’s death. She describes how she felt the presence of Sally, was able to converse with her and received an assurance that she was still alive. Lehmann was a complete agnostic and had no faith in which she could take refuge when Sally died. She wrote later that ‘God, whatever God might be, had listened to me, that I had been granted these "graces" because, for her sake, I had gone through death with her and would have done so gladly a hundred hundred times – still in my pursuit of one loved being, one alone, self-separated from the source’. Rosamond Lehmann never did become a religious person in the conventional sense, but her overwhelming sense of the existence of a world beyond death set her reading a huge variety of philosophy, poetry and spiritual literature. She mentions a number of authors in her book, including some mentioned above, but Swedenborg, perhaps surprisingly, is not among them. She made contact with the College of Psychic Studies, of which she later became a Vice-President, and remained unshaken to the end of her life in her conviction that there is life after death and that it is possible to communicate with those who have moved on to other worlds and other states of being. The Swan in the Evening was re-published as a Virago paperback in 1982 and it has been reprinted several times. At the age of 80 Lehmann wrote an epilogue especially for the new edition which concludes: ‘Over the years I have been taught by Sally and by others, some of them discarnate, something of how it will be when I wake up after I have shed my body; so I look forward, I look forward. But physical bodies fight so tenaciously sometimes to hang on. I do pray that mine will let go easily. No matter how far ahead of me Sally has gone – and I know she has – she will be waiting, as she promised. She will pull me through the door’.

Richard Lines, a Barrister, is a Past President of the Society and has a strong interest in Swedenborg’s influence on Literature.

Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 1 (Spring 2000) pp. xx-xx.


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