The New Age
The Pattern of Time VII
The New Age; the Industrial Revolution, the maturity of mankind; to be a 'Celestial age', when God will come as the Bridegroom of the New Church
From 1750 onwards, in his work the Arcana, Swedenborg began noting that the end of the Christian Age was near (nos 900, 9312, 18504, 2121) and finally claimed to witness a Last Judgement on that age in 1757, which he recorded in his book of that title. Little notice was taken of the date for many years, though when the New Church was established, its members took it very seriously and some started dating their letters etc. by both the First and Second Advents, i.e. 1757=1, 1760=4, 1800=44 etc.. William Blake, having read Swedenborg, and having himself been born in 1757, was also happy to go along with the idea.
I don't know that anyone else took much notice of the date until recently. Writing as late as 1926, Trevelyan notes many interesting things concerning Church and society in the mid 18th c., but fails to label the time as pivotal. Churchill, predictably, does recognise the significance of the Seven Years War (1756-63) as the first 'World War', but goes no further.
Support for Swedenborg's date of 1757
But recently the concept of a critical change about 1757 has been growing, and we can now back up this wild Swedenborgian fancy with reasonably persuasive arguments. When historians consider the 18th c. today, it is to label it as a time of unprecedented change. Andrew Graham Dixon in his recent TV series on British Art said, 'During the late 18th century, Western civilisation changed profoundly and forever'. I like quoting the beginning of J M Roberts section on the 'Great Acceleration' in his History of the World (1976);
'In the middle of the 18th c. most people in the world could still believe that the world would go on much as it seemed always to have done. ..But;../ the next century and a half change was to come thick and fast...a world once regulated by tradition was on a new course....continuing and accelerating transformation.'
The massive four volume Chronology of the World published by Helicon, chooses to start Vol 4 entitled The Modern World, in 1763 (the end of the Seven Years War); and the penultimate chapter of A J Toynbee's last book Mankind and Mother Earth (c. 1970) also picks 1763 as a starting point. The Oxford History of Art chooses the years 1700-1830 for one of its volumes, to cover 'an Era of Unprecedented Economic Growth'. One can go on quoting titles: European Society in Upheaval; Social History Since 1750; The British Revolution 1750-1970; or Britain Transformed; The development of British society since the mid-eighteenth century. Everybody is beginning to go along with Swedenborg's date, even if they wouldn't agree with his reasons the for choice. Any critic of Swedenborg has to accept that, although he didn't have the benefit of hindsight, he was bang on target when he nominated this by no mean obviously special year of 1757.
Of course none of these history books mention the beginning of a new spiritual age, they are primarily concerned with the material plane, but we know that the two planes are interrelated. Swedenborg notes in his Last Judgement paragraph no.73, that some things will go on as before, such as 'politics, peace-treaties, alliances and wars', but that 'The future state of the Church will not be the same'. (The Editor won't let me quote the whole paragraph, but look it up if you can.) I am interpreting, but I believe, that between these extremes of politics and the Church, there is a wide spectrum of activities that Swedenborg does not mention, but which will be also be changed; if to greater or lesser extents. In particular, in so far as they touch on spiritual or psychological matters, I would suggest that music, art, literature and social matters would, to use Swedenborg's words: 'not be the same....because people in the church will henceforward have more freedom in thinking about matters of faith, and so about spiritual matters which have to do with heaven, because of the restoration of spiritual freedom.' (L.J. 73)
Preparing for the New Church,
The 'restoration of spiritual freedom' was what the New Church and Age was all about - 'freedom of thought'. In the first three quarters of the Second Millennium, in most of Europe and the World, people accepted the ideas their priests and rulers imposed upon them. Then in the 15th c. in Italy, even in the heart of the Catholic Church and with the encouragement of the Popes, the Renaissance was born. A return towards Classical ideas and a willingness to see things from another point of view; a warm 'humanist', rather than the cool ecclesiastical, scholastic, point of view.
The Renaissance challenged Catholic attitudes, but not the authority of the Pope himself. In the 16th c. this further step was taken by the 'Reformation' in Northern Europe, through Luther's insistence on the supreme authority of the Word. But religion was still firmly in control, particularly in Calvinist circles.
In the 17th c. however, the aristocrats and intellectuals of French-dominated Europe launched the 'Enlightenment'. They ceased to take the Church seriously; although they invented Deism, a religion without the Church and not very much morality. On the emotional and practical planes they may have had their faults, but intellectually the men, and women, of the Enlightenment were earnest seekers after truth. They took a delight in scientific discovery. Swedenborg, born in the period, was very much a child of the Enlightenment. But without Divine Revelation they could only find material truth. After much searching in science, anatomy and philosophy, Swedenborg too had reluctantly discovered this. But as he reached this point, he was offered exceptional spiritual awareness and began to accept a higher enlightenment, which could prepare the world for a New Age or Church.
Signs of a New Age?
I don't need to repeat all that Swedenborg writes about the Last Judgement. I just want to see if history confirms his claim that something important happened in 1757 when he said it occurred. Swedenborgians have noted that such general movements as the Industrial Revolution, Modern Democracy, Universal Education, and Female Emancipation began at this time. Note that these are all practical movements affecting large numbers of people; not just the theoretical discoveries of the scientists or philosophers of the Enlightenment which might not have any immediate wider application.
The publication of historical research in popular form now permits us to identify specific events, as well as the general movements noted above. I would suggest that much depended on the ease with which the spirits of the new heavens could 'inspire' the minds of those willing to exercise the 'freedom of thinking' that Swedenborg tells us was now possible. Probably the smoothest transitions were of feelings rather than ideas, so that the Arts tended to change more quickly than the Sciences. Especially music, which derives its very name from the assumption that it is inspired by 'muses', the Greek goddesses who cared for the Arts.
I dealt with this subject recently in the October '96 issue of Lifeline, so I won't elaborate on the subject. I note, however, that after the creative period of Bach and Handel in the 1740s and 50s there was a dark period when little music was composed, and that in the year 1757 nobody seems to have written any music at all. But almost immediately after the 1757 we find Haydn, Johann Christian Bach, James Boyce, and then Mozart blossoming forth into a new youthful exuberance of excitement and melody that was soon to settle down into a new pure and elegant classicism, and eventually the power and the glory of Beethoven.
Frozen music from heaven?
Another form of art that may, because of its abstract nature, be easily influenced by the heavens is architecture (sometimes poetically called 'frozen music'). Architecture too undoubtedly changed in the latter half of the century, with the sudden dismissal of the elaborate and rather frivolous Rococo style and its replacement by the simple and pure Neoclassical style (for Englishmen 'Regency' style). Again the year 1757 has its significance as the Pantheon (or Church of St Genvieve) in Paris was conceived that year. Its story is interesting. Great symbolic significance could be placed on the fact that in 1757, Louis XV King of France, then the most powerful man in the world, appeared to be dying; the despair of his doctors. He did not lack faith, however, and turned to God, vowing to rebuild the ruined church of St Genvieve if he could live on. Perhaps God was impressed; certainly Louis lived on and began the construction of the Church. (It was completed in the French Revolution, when the atheist government used it as a mausoleum for their 'new age')
Within a few decades buildings in the same style appeared all over Europe, and America too. The same pure, simple style also inspired furniture design, clothes fashion, painting and sculpture. In the latter cases we can claim some Swedenborgian connection as John Flaxman, the first Professor of Sculpture of the Royal Academy and member of the Swedenborg Society Council, was one of its most influential exponents. His books of illustrations to Homer, in simple confident line drawing, became the standard text book in art schools all over Europe.
Rather more slowly - though very rapidly compared with earlier times - literature, education and social awareness also developed in new ways. Scientific knowledge greatly increased and turned craft into the 'technology' that has so changed our everyday life. One could quote many familiar and unfamiliar examples, but we haven't space here.
Politics, war and language.
Even in the fields where Swedenborg did not predict change it has been very apparent. In the political field the American and French Revolutions had provided a firm basis for modern democracy. Wars did continue, but tended to have more positive outcomes. To return to 1757, there was the Seven Years War, often ignored by English history books as it had no glorious English victories such as Blenheim or Waterloo. It began as a small conflict in Silesia between Prussia and Austria in 1756. But in the critical year of 1757, it escalated into the first world war, when Austria sought assistance from France, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Saxony, while Prussia involved Hanover and Britain. Britain avoided the bloody continental conflict, in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers died and towns and villages without number were laid waste, but helped Prussia with finance and by creating diversions in India and Canada, where France had colonial interests. After six years of suicidal battling the European war dragged to a halt with the Peace of Paris in 1763 (which you may remember was the date most frequently mentioned in the history books). At the cost of a generation of young men Prussia gained Silesia, the only real winner was Britain who gained dominance over France in India and North America and so became the world's leading colonial power. As a result, although the then population of France was double that of Britain; today ten times as many people speak English as talk French. The language in which the vast majority of New Church literature has come to be written is now found everywhere.
Britain, America, Africa, and the New Church
Swedenborg never predicted a successful political future for Britain, but he tells us that at that time, because of their respect for the Word, the British occupied the centre of the earth's heaven. In time, however, he said the African's would come to occupy this position. Today, the dominant cultures of the USA, the world's leading nation, are English and African.
America is very much a Christian nation; (yet tolerant of Judaism). Like Judaism the Christian Church did not die with the Christian Age and though beleaguered keeps going. It has, however, changed and many of those changes began in the late 18th century and gradually moved Christianity in a Swedenborgian direction. Methodism got underway and spread enthusiasm and change into other denominations. In America they speak of 'The Great Awakening' at this time, when evangelical preaching became popular. Innumerable sects blossomed in America, perhaps reflecting variety in the New Heavens. Colonialism also enabled Christianity to become the most widespread world religion and by 'meeting' African and Asian cultures to develop yet more variant forms.
Reformed Judaism also began around this time, thus ensuring the conservation of the Old Testament text for the New Age. There have been less obvious revivals and transformations among the Eastern religions and merging of ideas between faiths.
As you read about these major events in history books, if you are very, very lucky, you may come across a short mention of a certain Swedenborg or the New Church. Most historians suspect they are a passing phenomenon, yet few are disrespectful. This tiny privileged group, and their unassuming prophet, without much deliberate missionary effort, have somehow spread themselves all around the world. They turn up in all sorts of theological, scientific and cultural situations; they are still alive and well, if suffering from a seemingly permanent identity crisis. Are they and their doctrines going to inherit the earth, or are they like the Jews, the custodians of the Old Testament, destined to a subordinate yet probably eternal future? To what extent I wonder, will they, like their Jewish predecessors, gain strength from their realisation of the nature of their special, if uncelebrated, place in history?