The documents concerning Swedenborg's life are contained in three large tomes. There are a number of biographies, two of which have a length of four hundred large pages. The following is a brief sketch of his life.
His father, Jesper Swedberg (the name was changed to Swedenborg when the family was ennobled), was at the time of Swedenborg's birth Court Chaplain at the court of Charles XI. Later, Jesper Swedberg was appointed by the king as first professor of Theology at Upsala University and, shortly afterward, as Rector and Dean of the Cathedral. Later he became Bishop of Skara, and his diocese included "New Sweden" on the Delaware River. Emanuel Swedenborg's mother was the daughter of a wealthy mine owner. She was a modest and lovable person. When Emanuel was eight years old, his mother died. Some time later, Bishop Swedberg married again, and Emanuel had a new mother, who loved him dearly. He had a happy childhood. When he was four years old, the family moved to the university town of Upsala, the seat of the leading university of Sweden. At the age of eleven Swedenborg entered the university. He was bright in his studies and took a very active part in an institution which was somewhat like a fraternity but whose activities were mostly intellectual and included debating. These fraternities were called "nations," and the students joined them according to the part of the country from which they came.
While he was living with his father, he took great delight in listening to the religious discussions which went on in the home when visitors came.
He was born in 1688 and died eighty-four years later in the year 1772.
To convey even a general impression of the remarkable career and eighty-four years of Swedenborg's life in a chapter of a book is not easy. There are few indeed who lived two hundred years ago whose life is so fully documented as Swedenborg's.
When Emanuel Swedenborg was fifteen, his father was appointed Bishop of Skara and left Upsala to reside in the episcopal mansion of Brunsbo. The youth remained in Upsala to continue his studies, staying with his sister, Anna, and his brother-in-law, Eric Benzelius, the university librarian.
At the time that Swedenborg was in the university, a controversy was raging between the old school of scholastic education and the new spirit of scientific investigation. Descartes, who had lived the last year of his life in Sweden, had given great impetus to the newer philosophic-scientific point of view. Eric Benzelius, with whom Swedenborg lived, was keenly interested in the new scientific development, and by him Emanuel was fired with enthusiasm and the ambition of advancing Sweden and making it one of the leading countries in culture, philosophy, science, and manufacturing.
Some time after Swedenborg was graduated, he journeyed to England, Holland, and France. He was away for four years, most of which he spent in England. Here he contacted the most learned men of the times and worked with some, for example, Halley, the famous astronomer, after whom Halley's comet was named.
At this time, Swedenborg's center of interest was astronomy, mathematics, and inventions. He worked out a system of finding the longitude of any place by the sighting of two stars in relation to the moon. The difficulty he encountered was that at that time the tables of the stars and moon were not sufficiently accurate to accomplish this purpose. His proposed inventions included a fixed-wing flying machine, a submarine, something like a player piano, and many other inventions. He also wrote Latin poetry. He sent a list of the most worth-while English authors, including Shakespeare, to his brother-in-law, with the recommendation that they should be studied in Sweden. When in London, he made a practice of living with various artisans and picking up their trades. In this way, he learned to grind lenses, to make scientific instruments, and also the craft of bookbinding. At this period his enthusiasm was given to science and its practical application. Although he was intensely ambitious, his ambition was focused on the advancement of Sweden rather than being merely personal.
On his return to Sweden, he worked with Polhem, the great Swedish inventor and engineer. Charles XII, King of Sweden, took a very active interest in the inventions and mathematics of Polhem and Swedenborg, and encouraged Swedenborg in the publication of the first scientific magazine in the Swedish language. With the encouragement of the king, work was commenced on the great canal linking Stockholm and Gothenburg, traversing Sweden and having a length of three hundred miles. Swedenborg was put in charge of the construction of the locks. About this time he made a name for himself by transporting naval sloops over fifteen miles of rugged territory, giving Sweden a naval advantage in the war with Norway.
At this time, Swedenborg desired to marry Polhem's daughter; Polhem favored such a union, but as the daughter preferred someone else, Swedenborg withdrew. He never married.
Swedenborg contemplated the idea of applying for the appointment as first professor of Mechanics at the University of Upsala. This subject would have included what are now called Physics and Engineering. But as there was an insufficiency of funds for the university, this plan did not materialize. When the opportunity came up at a later date, Swedenborg turned it down in order to accept the position of Assessor on the Board of Mines.
The Board of Mines had broad powers: mining was the chief source of Sweden's wealth. The whole economy of Sweden depended on the success of Swedish mines. The Board of Mines was directly responsible to the Crown. It controlled all mining and allied interests, having every power short of actual ownership. It appointed mining officials and settled industrial disputes involving owners and workers. It regulated prices and imposed or withdrew taxes. It licensed new mines, forges, and all buildings and mapped out the distribution of charcoal—the fuel in those days. It was in charge of metal testing, charts and measurements, and a chemical laboratory. Swedenborg undoubtedly felt that by accepting this position he could be of greater service to the welfare of Sweden than in any other way. He had far more knowledge of mechanics and engineering than anyone else on the Board. In fact, there was scarcely anyone else in Sweden who had such a broad knowledge in this field. On accepting this position, he set about learning everything it was possible to learn about mining. He visited mines all over Europe, and finally wrote the most comprehensive work on iron and copper mining and smelting then extant. This work, which was written in Latin, made him famous throughout Europe. It was, however, a description not merely of applied science and engineering, but also of what we now call pure science, which also involved philosophic principles. Swedenborg was an indefatigable worker. The minutes of the Board of Mines report that he traveled extensively in Sweden, to settle disputes and to oversee the mining; the daily meetings he attended when the Board was in session indicate a labor which with most men would have left little time for other pursuits. But in his spare time he was acquiring a thorough knowledge of all the science and philosophy known in his day. During his travels he made remarkable geological observations, with the result that he is considered by those who are acquainted with the facts one of the fathers of geological science. It would take a large book to enumerate all the contributions Swedenborg made to science and philosophy. In science, he made contributions and sometimes discoveries in Anatomy, Cosmology, Crystallography, Mineralogy, Psychology, and other sciences which were one hundred years or more before his time.
Svante Arrhenius, Nobel prize winner, vouched for Swedenborg's cosmology, which surmised the nebular hypothesis and the existence of galactic universes. Anatomists said that he was the first to localize the mental processes in the cortical cells of the brain. He also stated that different parts of the brain controlled different parts of the body, and that nerves from the upper part of the brain controlled the lowest part of the body and vice versa. Leading modern anatomists have marveled at how Swedenborg came to this knowledge, which has since been verified, from the limited anatomical knowledge of his day. His placing of the seat of consciousness in the cortex or cortical cells of the brain was a discovery which may be compared in importance with Harvey's discovery of the nature of the circulation of the blood in the body.
To give even a general idea of Swedenborg's philosophic and scientific works, which are contained in many large volumes, would require a book in itself. We shall here give only some idea of the purposes he had in mind. In his early manhood his ambition was centered in the advancement of Sweden in science and industry. But as he approached middle age, while still serving Sweden diligently in the practical matters of his official office, his mind turned more and more to Philosophy. He had the strong belief that philosophy had to be built not only on a scientific foundation, but also on the Word of God. His aim came to be to see the relation of God to His creation. He never questioned the being of God, for in all things of science he saw an order that must have a source in God, and above all, he had faith in the Bible.
In all his later scientific works his aim was to demonstrate the marvelous laws and order of creation as emanating from a God of Divine Love, Divine Wisdom, and Divine Order. In order to convey as full an idea as possible of this, he felt he must have as broad and deep a knowledge of science and the laws governing it as possible. His first concentration along these lines was in Cosmology, within which he sought to show the relation of Divine Order in God Himself to the things of the created world, and by what order the material world was created from God. He took as his premise that God was Divine Order Itself and that, therefore, everything which He did was necessarily done according to the laws of order, including creation. To give too brief an account of Swedenborg's works on creation would lead rather to confusion than enlightenment, according to the saying: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." (Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism.) Really, it is not the little knowledge that is dangerous, but the vast ignorance still remaining!
Swedenborg's objective was to see as clearly as possible the aim and purpose of human life, and the relation of God to man and of man to God. After his large work on Cosmology, he turned to the study of Anatomy. His aim here was to acquire a knowledge of the relation of the soul, the mind, and the body.
The principle that guided him in his studies was a truly scientific one, namely, that before we can make any approach to a subject, we must have a sufficient body of factual knowledge. From this, by contemplation, we discover laws. These laws must then be verified by again checking them with known facts. Swedenborg's faith was not, indeed, dependent on science, but his effort at this time was to strengthen faith, which was being brought into doubt by many philosophers and scientists. A true philosophy and science, he believed, would strengthen and confirm faith in God.
He saw the human body and all the laws governing it as a vehicle for the soul to express itself. He said that the conscious mind corresponded to the soul, and the body corresponded to the mind. By "correspondence" he meant a relationship such as shown by the fact that when the mind is happy, the face smiles; and when the mind is grieved, the body weeps. When love is stirred, the heart beats more rapidly. These relations are obvious, and of them we are instinctively conscious; but he maintained that this revealed a universal law, and that every least thing of the body, of most of which we are not conscious, corresponds to things of the mind and soul. For example, the heart corresponds to love, and the lungs to thought. Love affects the beating of the heart, and thought the breathing of the lungs. The relation of the two correspond to the relation of the will and understanding. To consider these matters fully would also require a separate book.
Swedenborg has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci as being a universal genius. In the eighteenth century there were a number of persons who were outstanding in various fields: Jefferson was outstanding not only as President, but also as a political philosopher, an architect, and an inventor. Benjamin Franklin was a statesman, economist, moralist, and inventor, besides having practical accomplishments in many fields. Neither of these men was, however, an outstanding theologian as well.
Swedenborg was not only a great scientist and philosopher, but he was also an outstanding administrator, a capable businessman, an economist, a legislator, a judge in mining disputes, an inventor, and, above all, a great theologian—in a word, an outstanding man in nearly all realms of human endeavor.
Most persons have a limited bent of mind. This means that they are attracted to a limited field. When they are, therefore, confronted with the Writings of Swedenborg, they are often repelled. Swedenborg is too idealistic for the realist, and too realistic and matter- of-fact for the idealist. He is too poetical and spiritual for the materialistic scientist, and too matter-of-fact and rationalistic for those who are poetically or mystically inclined. He is too literal for those who seek a vague spiritual interpretation, and too spiritual for the literalist. In a word, the golden mean appeals to few. Most people prefer one extreme or another, according to the bent of their mind. A uniting in a balanced proportion of all aspects of life has, to most people, little appeal.
When the family of Bishop Swedberg was ennobled, Emanuel Swedenborg regularly took his place as head of the family at the sessions of the House of Nobles, which was the most powerful legislative body in Sweden.
When Swedenborg was fifty-nine years old, one of the councilors on the Board of Mines died, and Swedenborg was unanimously recommended by the Board for advancement to the position of councilor. He, however, petitioned the king that another should be selected and that he should be released from office, as he wished to engage in other important work, the nature of which he did not mention.
For more than thirty years, he reminded King Frederick, he had served as an official on the Board, had made frequent journeys and published many works for which he had never asked any recompense from the country. He therefore requested that His Majesty now grant him the continued use of half his salary in his retirement, but without the customary honorary title of councilor.
This favor the king so much the more gladly granted as he felt sure that the new work on which Swedenborg was then engaged would, like all his other publications, contribute to the welfare of the country. When Swedenborg handed in the royal decree releasing him from duty, all the members of the Board of Mines expressed their regret at losing so worthy a colleague, and asked that the assessor continue to attend the sessions until all those cases had been settled in which he had participated. To this he consented and we find him present at five more sessions. On June 17, 1747, on the eve of his sixth foreign journey, Swedenborg took leave of the Royal Board of Mines, thanking all the members for the favors he had enjoyed at their hands during his connection with the Board and commending' himself to their continued kindly remembrance.
The Royal Board thanked the assessor for the minute care and fidelity with which he had attended to the duties of his office as an assessor up to the present time, and wished him a prosperous journey and a happy return ; after which he departed. (Tafel, Documents Concerning Swedenborg, I, 464 ff., Swedenborg to the King.)
This important work of Swedenborg's was the exposition of the Word of God. During the next twenty-five years, he continued to publish his theological works, at first anonymously, no one knowing their authorship.
When he was seventy-one years old, returning to his native land from England, he stopped at Gothenburg. While at dinner in company with fifteen others, he suddenly announced that a fire had broken out in Stockholm, three hundred miles away, and was burning quite a large section of the town and was approaching his house. He later said that the fire had been arrested, three houses from his, and gave a description of the extent and region of the damage. This caused quite a stir, and the account rapidly spread through the town. Three days later, a messenger brought from Stockholm the news of the fire, which was just as Swedenborg had described it. About this time he included his name on one of his theological works, and it became known that he was the author of his other works.
This caused much excitement in Stockholm. In these works Swedenborg had said that he had been Divinely commissioned by the Lord to unfold the Word and that for many years he had spoken with those who had died, in full wakefulness, as man with man. One can imagine the astonishment at this announcement if we picture in our minds what would happen if Herbert Hoover were to announce that ever since leaving the Presidency, at Divine command, he had been publishing an explication of the Bible and was in daily communication with those who had departed this life. Many thought that Swedenborg must have become demented. Yet during the period he had been writing these books, no one had observed anything strange or unusual in his behavior. He had taken part in the sessions of the House of Nobles. Count Hopken, the Prime Minister, said of him during this period, "He possessed a sound judgment upon all occasions; he saw everything clearly and expressed himself well on every subject. The most solid memorials on finance and the best penned, at the Diet of 1761, were presented by him." As a result of one of these memorials, Swedenborg was asked to sit on the government board in control of the finances of Sweden, but he declined.
As a result of what had taken place, a number of the leading citizens called on Swedenborg, and their testimony was unanimous that he spoke most clearly and rationally on every subject. But we do not need such testimony, for the books which he published are most clear and rational, with nothing to indicate any mental disturbance, if one believes in the possibility of communication with those in the spiritual world.
Swedenborg was such a highly respected, good, and lovable man that no one who knew him intimately or who has studied his life has questioned his honesty or sincerity. The only question was whether he was suffering from delusions.
When Swedenborg was asked by Count Hopken, the Prime Minister of Sweden, why he included the description of the spiritual world in his writings, "of which ignorance makes jest and derision," Swedenborg replied: "that he was too old to sport with spiritual things, and too much concerned for his eternal welfare to yield to such foolish notions, assuring me on his hope for salvation, that imagination produced in him none of his revelations, which were true, and were from what had been heard and seen." (Tafel, II: 241-242, 239240, 416; I:66.)
Swedenborg was once asked why the Lord had chosen him instead of one of the clergy to make the new revelation, to which he replied:
In the same manner that fishermen were made disciples and apostles by the Lord; and that I also from early youth had been a spiritual fisherman. On hearing this the inquirer asked, What is a spiritual fisherman? I replied that a spiritual fisherman in the spiritual sense of the Word, signifies a man who investigates and teaches natural truth, and afterwards, spiritual truths rationally. (The Intercourse Between the Soul and the Body, Number 20.)
To investigate spiritual truths rationally is to gather together a sufficient number of facts, and upon these, with an enlightened understanding, to come to a conclusion as to the laws involved. As Swedenborg was a master of this in relation to science, he was well suited to do the same in relation to the phenomena of the spiritual world.
Three weeks before his death, Swedenborg predicted the day of his decease. When he told the maid who looked after his room, and who was very fond of him, the approaching day of his death, she said he was as happy as if he were going to a fair. (Tafel, II: 546)
Mr. Hartley, a friend, visited him when Swedenborg was nearing his end. In the presence of another friend, Mr. Hartley solemnly besought Swedenborg to declare whether all that he had written was strictly true, or whether any part or parts were to be excepted. "I have written nothing but the truth," Swedenborg replied with some warmth, "as you will have more and more confirmed to you all the days of your life, provided you keep close to the Lord and faithfully serve Him alone by shunning evils of all kinds as sins against Him, and diligently searching His Word which from beginning to end bears incontestable witness to the truth of the doctrines I have delivered to the world." (Tafel, II: 579-580)
The afternoon of March twenty-ninth the predicted day Mrs. Shearsmith (Swedenborg was living with the Shearsmiths in London at the time) and Elizabeth, the maid, were seated at his bedside. It was the close of a peaceful spring Sabbath. Swedenborg heard the clock strike and asked what time it was. When they answered, "Five o'clock," he said, "That is good. I thank you. God bless you." He heaved a gentle sigh and tranquilly expired. (Sigstedt, The Swedenborg Epic, p. 433.)
The great majority refuse to believe that such communication as Swedenborg had with those who have died is possible, and therefore will not evaluate with an open mind Swedenborg's statements about the spiritual world.
Swedenborg's theological writings contain much that is obviously true—truths that have affected the thinking of the world on many subjects. They would have had a wider acceptance if he had not spoken of his intercourse with angels and if he had omitted the description of the spiritual world.
Why is it that most persons will not believe that such communication as Swedenborg said he had is possible? The whole evidence of the history of the human race is that communication with the dead has taken place in more ancient times. Why, then, cannot people believe that such communication took place in relatively modern times if the evidence is sufficiently strong? We can see no reason but prejudice. This prejudice is based on many things. There have often been charlatans and fakers who have made fantastic claims, so that reasonable people are naturally wary. Swedenborg himself warned against thoughtless credulity on the part of those who had a tendency toward the fantastic.
There are many who feel an aversion for thinking about the life after death, because they find it disturbing, depressing, and troublesome. They form a mental block as a means of escaping the problem of death so that they can live comfortably in this world.
Others are not willing at heart to "Seek first the Kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33) because they are eager to seek the good things of this world. There are others who are prejudiced against the Writings of Swedenborg because these do not agree with the habits of thought or the teachings in which they have been brought up from childhood. Most, however, are too lazy to think about matters which require concentration of thought in a field to which they are unaccustomed and in which they see no material profit.
Swedenborg had been an open-minded scientist, and as such he did not expect a proposition to be accepted on the mere statement of anyone, but only on the thing being seen as true by the person accepting it. All he asked for was an open-minded consideration of the matter.
Besides the fire in Stockholm, there were several similar incidents. Of the two most widely known, of which there were many witnesses, the first was the queen's secret. Queen Ulrika Eleanora, having heard of Swedenborg, was curious to speak with him. In order to test him, she asked if he could tell her a secret that only her brother, who had died, and she knew. Some days later, Swedenborg visited the court and, calling the queen aside, told her the secret, at which she nearly fainted.
The second was the account concerning the widow of Monsieur de Marteville, the Dutch ambassador to Sweden. A goldsmith presented Mme. de Marteville with a bill, demanding 2,500 Dutch guilders in payment for a silver service bought by her husband. Mme. de Marteville was sure the bill had been paid but could not find the receipt. She was told that Swedenborg might be able to help her. Shortly afterward, through Swedenborg's aid, she was told that the receipt was in a secret drawer about which she did not know and there she found it. These accounts had wide circulation. When Swedenborg was asked by a friend whether they were true, he said they were but were of little moment, and that his writings were to be judged on their contents and not on the basis of such events.
There are two kinds of proof, one a demonstration to the senses, or scientific demonstration on the basis of material facts; the other, by internal evidence, namely, whether the matter is reasonable and harmonious, is in agreement with the laws of the mind, and strikes one as being obviously true. One does not ask for scientific proof that stealing or cheating is bad and honesty is good.
Swedenborg gave as the criterion of judgment "the self-sounding (or resounding) reason of love." That is, his criterion is whether the idea rings true or not—not merely from a cold judgment devoid of feeling, but from a love of God and one's neighbor, and from a love of the Kingdom of God. A man who is devoid of such loves has no judgment in spiritual matters, for they have no significance or reality to him.
If we consider the Writings of Swedenborg, there are three aspects from which we can come to a judgment: the unfolding of the Word or Bible; the theology contained; and the description of heaven and hell.
We have considered the first two above, but to many the third point appears like a real stumbling block. That Swedenborg should have lived consciously in the spiritual world, speaking with those who have departed this world, as man with man, appears to them incredible.
Why is it that this is so difficult to believe? Is denial of this possibility based on reason or on prejudice? On intellectual or on emotional grounds ? Most would say it is based on rational or intellectual grounds. But is this really so?
If we believe that there is a life after death, to have knowledge concerning it would obviously be useful, as it would enable us better to prepare for it, and this the more insofar as it became a greater reality to us. It would also remove the fear of death. Many have said they would like to believe in a spiritual world such as is described by Swedenborg, but are not able to.
We have said it is useful to know the nature of life after death. Why could not God reveal this? And if God wished to reveal it, what other way would be more suitable than to introduce the spirit of a man into it while he was still living on earth? From this it can be seen that the grounds for not considering, with an open mind, the possibility of Swedenborg's being introduced into the spiritual world are not intellectual. They must, therefore, be emotional or from prejudice.
What, then, are these emotional prejudices?
Many persons are fearful of being considered naive and credulous, and of being ridiculed on this ground.
The spirit or fashion of the times is scientific materialism, and few have the ability or will to think clearly, apart from the intellectual fashion of their day.
Many persons wish to appear up-to-date or modern. These people fear to be considered old-fashioned in their ideas; and a belief in the possibility of open communication with the dead is not considered modern.
Whereas many have a vague hope for a life after death, with most there is little living faith in such a life.
In the case of many people, their life is contrary to the idea of "seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33), and they do not wish to be disturbed in the life they are leading.
Because Swedenborg described his experiences in the spiritual world, he has been called a paranoiac. Hardly anyone who has read the Writings of Swedenborg and is acquainted with his life doubts his sincerity. The argument for his mental aberration is based solely on the preconceived idea that such communication is impossible. But those holding such a view, if logical, must necessarily apply this epithet to John the Baptist, the Apostle John, Paul and the other Apostles, and the Lord Himself, all of whom were accused in their time of being mad or possessed by a devil, and the same ban applies to the Old Testament prophets, such as Ezekiel and Daniel.
Swedenborg is said to have suffered from paranoia. This word gives the impression that this is a modern, scientific diagnosis. Many psychologists apply the same term to the above-named religious teachers.
"Paranoia" is defined in Webster's Dictionary as being "mental derangement; insanity; especially a chronic form of insanity characterized by a very gradual impairment of the intellect, systematized delusions, and usually by delusions of persecution producing homicidal tendencies. In its mild form paranoia may consist of well-marked crochetiness in persons commonly called 'cranks.' Paranoiacs usually show evidence of bodily and nervous degeneration, and may have hallucinations of sight and hearing."
Swedenborg's writings are very clear, logical, and systematic. As shown above, as to his person, he was highly respected by all who knew him; moreover, he was cheerful and friendly. He led a very normal and balanced life, and he was remarkably vigorous in both mind and body until his death at the age of eighty-four. All these characteristics are the opposite of paranoia. A prominent psychologist, puzzled by Swedenborg, said he was unique and did not fit into any known classification.
The sole reason for designating Swedenborg a paranoiac was his statements that he had open communication with those who had died. This is based on the hypothesis that such communication is not possible.
Taking such a hypothesis is totally unscientific. The true scientist examines evidence with an open and unprejudiced mind. If we go back in history, there is, as we have said, a great deal of evidence of the communication of some people with those who have died. But Swedenborg was the only man, in nearly two thousand years, who claimed such open communication and at the same time was a very wise and learned man and profoundly influenced the thinking of some of the most famous men and women during the past two hundred years. The fact that Swedenborg was the only man of this character during this period is no proof of the impossibility of such communication.
Although it might be said that open communication with those who have died has not been fully proved from a merely scientific point of view, there is certainly no scientific proof that it has not taken place and much evidence from the past favors its possibility. It is, therefore, totally unscientific to call Swedenborg a paranoiac on the basis of an unproved hypothesis, as has been done. Although the above argument is, we believe, unanswerable, most will still cling to their opinion out of preconceived prejudice which makes one with the fashion of the thought of the day; modern education has so strongly formed the patterns of thought that one who has not an exceptionally independent mind can scarcely escape from the type of scientific thinking that is prevalent.
As we have said, the Theological Works of Swedenborg were extensively read during the nineteenth century, and many writers, poets, and philosophers were profoundly influenced by them. The whole religious thinking of the world was directly or indirectly modified by Swedenborg's Writings. As a result of this, in some respects, the theology in the Writings of Swedenborg does not appear to be in such contrast to the prevailing theology of the day as it did in the time when Swedenborg wrote his works. Yet in other respects, there is a greater divergence. Swedenborg's Writings, as to their letter, were accommodated to the thinking and language of his age; yet they have a universal application to all ages. But, on account of their more obvious meaning, they appear more remote to the casual twentieth-century reader than they did to those of the nineteenth century. This accounts for the fact that they have been less studied by eminent men in this century than by those in the last; yet a deeper study manifests their great importance for the present day.
Many of those who have heard of Swedenborg have misconceptions and prejudices, based on hearsay or on ideas quoted from the Writings of Swedenborg out of their context. The most common misconception of Swedenborg is that he was a mystic.
In Webster's Dictionary the definition of "mystical" includes: "remote or beyond human comprehension; baffling understanding; unknowable, obscure."
The definition of "mysticism," however, includes the following:
The doctrine that the ultimate nature of reality or the divine essence may be known, in an immediate apprehension, intuition or insight, differing from all ordinary sensation or ratiocination, hence the experience or ecstasy of those mystics who claim to attain this insight in vision, trance or sense of absorption in or union with the divine spirit or ultimate being ... a knowledge of God or spiritual things, unattainable by the natural intellect, and incapable of being analysed or explained.
Leading ideas in the Writings of Swedenborg are that Divine Spiritual or theological ideas can be understood and explained and grasped by the mind, that the rational mind is capable of receiving inmost truths, and this not in ecstasy but in wakefulness and in the clear light of the intellect. His Writings also oppose the idea of absorption in the Divine Spirit.
In the Encyclopaedia Britannica under "mysticism," we read:
Swedenborg, though selected by Emerson in his "Representative Men" as the typical mystic, belongs rather to the history of spiritualism than to that of mysticism as understood in this article. He possesses the cool temperament of the man of science rather than the fervid Godward aspiration of the mystic proper; and the speculative impulse which lies at the root of this form of thought is almost entirely absent from his writings. Accordingly, his supernatural revelations resemble a course of lessons in celestial geography more than a description of the beatific vision.
Although Swedenborg rightly does not belong in a class with the mystics, still less does he belong in a class with the spiritualists. The above quotation manifests another common misconception concerning Swedenborg's Writings.
His Writings treat throughout of man's knowledge of God and the orderly steps by which man can advance to conjunction with God and charity toward one's neighbor. Swedenborg revealed many things about the spiritual world, yet all things seen in the spiritual world, called by the writer "celestial geography," are not understood unless it is realized that every appearance in the spiritual world is representative or an appearance of some idea, thought, or affection of the inhabitants of that world. If the things seen in the spiritual world are not seen as images of the minds or spirits of those dwelling there, they have no significance.
According to the Writings of Swedenborg, the things seen in the life after death appear so similar to those seen in this world, and the life appears so much like that of this world that those who have died, if not told otherwise, believe they are still living on earth. Yet the things of the spiritual world are not material or spatial as they are in this world. For example, if one has a desire to see someone, that person is immediately present.
The spiritual world is not a material world, but a world of the mind—the most real world we can know. But the mind includes all sensations as we know them. This is illustrated by dreams, in which things appear to the mind exactly as if they were in space, namely, in appearances similar to those of the physical world. So fully is this the case that when dreaming one is not aware of the difference, although the things sensated in a dream are not material things bounded by space. In this respect the spiritual world is like a dream. But the spiritual world in other respects is opposite to a dream. In the other life, a man's mind is more alert and wide-awake than it is on earth. Contrary to what occurs in dreams, things seen in the life after death have a greater order than the things on earth, and the thinking is clearer.
In the Most Ancient Church, represented by Adam, it was common for men to have visions and dreams which were in order and in which they were instructed concerning God and heaven. But after men cast themselves out of Paradise, the mind was no longer in its primitive order, and dreams became confused and disordered. Then only occasionally were divine visions and dreams given which were of spiritual significance. The fullest descriptions of the spiritual world are recounted in Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation.
All primitive peoples, however, feel a contact with the spiritual world. Although their relation to that world is confused and mixed with superstitions it is very real to them and affects their lives, as is portrayed in their literature, their dances, and all things of their daily life. A leading Basuto chief told me I should do well in his country because I, like the Basutos, believe in the spiritual world. He said Christians say that they believe in the spiritual world, but they really do not. Now most Christians think they believe in a life after death and a spiritual world, but it is a thing very unreal to most of them, having little effect on their lives.
Primitive people have a feeling of the reality of the spiritual world which gives life to their arts and a living meaning to life which the scientifically inclined often lack. Not only primitive people, but also the wisest men of antiquity, all had a strong belief in the spiritual world—not only those we read about in the Word of God, but also the great philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Cicero.
Considering the great testimony of the whole human race as to the reality of the spiritual world, does not the lack of the perception of the reality of the spiritual world in this scientific age testify to the fact that, owing to an overdevelopment of the scientific faculty of the mind, the region of the mind that is sensitive to the reality of the spiritual world has become atrophied? Surely, to throw out the whole body of testimony of the past is neither rational nor truly scientific.
Imagine the human race so changed that no one would have dreamed for two thousand years. If a man then recounted a dream, scarcely anyone would believe him, no matter how truthful, reliable, and well-balanced the man was known to be; and those who believed his report would be considered unscientific. Is it not reasonable to believe that when the human race concentrated on the things of the material world and science, this would make such a change in the mind that communication with those who had died would cease?
Swedenborg was different from the prophets, like John and Ezekiel, who recounted what they saw and heard in vision, in this: that he not only saw and heard the things of the spiritual world, but understood them in a state of full wakefulness. He had a clear idea of the thoughts and states of mind of those whom he saw and spoke with in the spiritual world; and he saw how these states of their mind were represented in the things which appeared around them.
To have a clear idea of the spiritual world, as something which we can prepare for by our life in this world, is evidently of great value; and if the Lord wished to give such an idea to men, the natural way to do it would be to open a man's spiritual eyes and introduce him to that world, and it would be a man well prepared to describe not only the appearances of that world, but also the minds and lives of those there. Is it not irrational to deny that God could do this? Cannot a wise man see the logic of this? The sophisticated, however, either deny the possibility of a life after death, or they have an idea so abstract, so lacking in normal human appearances, that, if we are the same persons after death that we are here, we would be most miserable in the kind of life they envision.
The life of those who go to heaven, as described in the Writings of Swedenborg, however, though in appearance so similar to life on earth that apart from reflection it seems the same, is still far superior to life on earth, for the faculties of the mind become purer, clearer, and more awake, and those living there are not distressed by the material problems of this world. Nevertheless they have the same mind, with its loves and desires; the essential personality does not change. Is not any other idea one can form of the spiritual world necessarily a fantastic and unreal idea? Yet, strange to say, very few are even willing with an open and unprejudiced mind to consider the possibility that what Swedenborg said is true. By far the greater part of the theological Writings of Swedenborg are an explication of the Old and New Testaments. From his experiences in the spiritual world, he knew what things in the mind were represented by the things which are recounted in the Word. He tells us that words in the Word of God have their significance according to the appearances of the spiritual world. To illustrate: When those in the life after death are conversing about the understanding of the Word, horses appear. A horse therefore in the Word signifies the understanding of the Word. A white horse, as described by John in the book of Revelation, means the genuine understanding of the Word, and a red or pale horse, a false understanding of the Word. Again, when a man is meditating on the Word in heaven, and drawing doctrine therefrom, at a distance he may appear to be drawing water from a well, wherefore in the Word the drawing of water from a well is frequently spoken of.
Turning now to the Writings of Swedenborg, we find them written in a style that is most exact, without poetic or literary effect. The reading of them requires careful attention, and one is not carried along easily by the beauty of the style. This is purposeful, for Swedenborg in his earlier writings at times wrote with a powerful poetic imagery.
In the Doctrine of the Holy Scripture, by Emanuel Swedenborg, we read:
It is in everybody's mouth that the Word is from God, is Divinely inspired, and is therefore holy; and yet hitherto no one has known wherein it is Divine. For in the letter, the Word appears like a common writing, in a style that is strange and neither so sublime or brilliant as apparently are the writings of the day. A man . . . who thinks from himself . . . and not from heaven from the Lord, may easily fall into error in respect to the Word, and into contempt for it, and while reading it may say to himself, What is this? can this be Divine? could God, whose wisdom is infinite, speak in this manner?
Yet the style of the Word is the Divine Style Itself, with which no other style, however sublime and excellent it may seem, is at all to be compared. . . . The style of the Word is such that there is holiness in every sentence, and in every word, and some places even in the very letters. (Numbers 1 and 3)
What is here said about the style of the Old and New Testaments is equally true of the Writings of Swedenborg. In fact, the Old and New Testaments are often written in a more poetic style than the Writings of Swedenborg.
In this connection, what is said in prophecy in Isaiah concerning the Lord's Coming applies, like many prophecies, also to His Second Coming: "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men. . . . We hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." (53:2,3.)
Being one of the most learned men of his age and in intimate contact with other learned men, and living in a sophisticated and skeptical age, Swedenborg was well aware of the attitude of the sophisticated of his day. He knew that they would regard his Writings as visionary, reflecting a mental aberration. He also expected, as frequently declared in his Writings, that few would accept them for what they were. At the age of sixty he had nothing to gain and much to lose in reputation by publishing his theological works. He had independent means, and he ordered that any profit that might come from the sale of his theological works was to be given to a society for the distribution of the Bible. He made no attempt during his lifetime to organize a following or to form a church, although he foretold that a church would be formed on the basis of the Writings given through him.
It is recommended that the reader, if he has not already done so, make a study of at least some of the Writings of Swedenborg in order to understand better what follows. In the meantime we suggest that he skip to the Epilogue of this book.
In the New Testament the word translated "Jerusalem" in the English Bible is often "Hierosolyma" in the original Greek.
In the True Christian Religion, by Emanuel Swedenborg, we read: By the Nova Hierosolyma [or the New Jerusalem] coming down from God out of heaven [Revelation 21] a new church is meant for the reason that Hierosolyma [or Jerusalem] was the metropolis in the land of Canaan and the temple and altar were there, and the sacrifices were offered there, thus the Divine worship itself . . . and also for the reason that the Lord was in Hierosolyma [or Jerusalem], and taught in its temple, and afterwards glorified His Human there. This is why "Hierosolyma" [or Jerusalem] signifies the Church . . .
Behold, I create a new heaven and a new earth, and the former shall not be remembered. . . . Behold, I create Hierosolyma a rejoicing and her people a gladness; that I may rejoice over Hierosolyma and be glad over my people. (Isaiah 65:17-19)
That Hierosolyma [or Jerusalem] here means a church about to be established by the Lord, and not the Jerusalem inhabited by the Jews, is evident from . . . its description . . . that Jehovah God was to create a new heaven and a new earth. (Number 782)
Apart from publishing the books written through him, Swedenborg did nothing toward organizing a new church. When asked when the New Church spoken of in his writings would come, he replied that the Lord alone knew this. He also foretold that the Church would grow very slowly in Christian lands.
During Swedenborg's lifetime, there were about fifty who accepted his Writings as Divine Truth. These were mainly in England and Sweden, with a few in Germany and Holland. Two leading ministers, who were members of the consistory of Gothenburg, were tried for heresy during Swedenborg's lifetime for teaching the doctrines of the New Church and as a result of the trial were forbidden to teach theology. Later a minister of the State Church of Sweden, the Reverend Sven Schmitt, was even less fortunate: he was declared insane, deprived of his office, and imprisoned on account of teaching the new doctrine.
As there was no freedom of religion in Sweden, it was many years before the New Church could be organized there; but in 1788, sixteen years after Swedenborg's death, the first New Church Society was organized in London.
From the beginning of the New Church, there were two points of view concerning the nature of Swedenborg's writings. This difference was expressed in a letter published in 1794 in The Aurora, the first New Church magazine. To quote:
I have in my journeys from place to place, lately met with different classes of readers of Honourable Baron Swedenborg's works: One class holding it as a fixed principle with them that the Baron's writings are really the Word of the Lord, as positively as the Writings of any of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in his Revelation. The other class allow the Baron to be a person highly illuminated by the Lord; and that his writings are highly useful in opening the spiritual sense of the Word, and thereby the true nature of the New Jerusalem church state; but still they cannot allow his writings to be upon an equal footing with the Word Itself.
In this difference of ideas we may note a similarity to a controversy which took place in the early Christian Church when the question arose as to whether the Gospels were the Word of God and were the Scriptures, and were therefore equal to the Old Testament Scriptures. In time, those holding that they were not lost out, and this position ceased to exist in the Christian Church.