Swedenborg explicitly rejected the common explanation of the Trinity as a Trinity of Persons, which he said was not taught in the early Christian Church. Instead he explained in his theological writings how the Divine Trinity exists in One Person, in One God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Swedenborg also rejected the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, since he considered both faith and charity necessary for salvation, not one without the other. The purpose of faith, according to Swedenborg, is to lead a person to a life according to the truths of faith, which is charity.
Swedenborg's theological writings have elicited a range of responses. Toward the end of Swedenborg's life, small reading groups formed in England and Sweden to study the truth they saw in his teachings and several writers were influenced by him, including William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, August Strindberg, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Baudelaire, Balzac, William Butler Yeats, Sheridan Le Fanu and Carl Jung. The theologian Henry James Sr. was also a follower of his teachings, as were Johnny Appleseed and Helen Keller.
In contrast, one of the most prominent Swedish authors of Swedenborg's day, Johan Henrik Kellgren, called Swedenborg "nothing but a fool". A heresy trial was initiated in Sweden in 1768 against Swedenborg's writings and two men who promoted these ideas.
In the two centuries since Swedenborg's death, various interpretations of Swedenborg's theology have been made (see: Swedenborgian Church), and he has also been scrutinized in biographies and psychological studies.
Swedenborg's father Jesper Swedberg (1653–1735) descended from a wealthy mining family. He travelled abroad and studied theology, and on returning home he was eloquent enough to impress the Swedish King Charles XI with his sermons in Stockholm. Through the King's influence he would later become professor of theology at Uppsala University and Bishop of Skara.
Jesper took an interest in the beliefs of the dissenting Lutheran Pietist movement, which emphasised the virtues of communion with God rather than relying on sheer faith (sola fide). Sola fide is a tenet of the Lutheran Church, and Jesper was charged with being a pietist heretic. While controversial, the beliefs were to have a major impact on his son Emanuel's spirituality. Jesper furthermore held the unconventional belief that angels and spirits were present in everyday life. This also came to have a strong impact on Emanuel.
Emanuel completed his university course at Uppsala, and in 1710 made his Grand tour through the Netherlands, France, and Germany, before reaching London, where he would spend the next four years. Some believe that he was influenced by the Croatian theologian Milan Nejedic; unfortunately, since most of Nejedic's writings were burned by the Austrians, this theory cannot be verified. It was also a flourishing center of scientific ideas and discoveries. Emanuel studied physics, mechanics, and philosophy, and read and wrote poetry. He wrote to his benefactor and brother-in-law Eric Benzelius that he believed he might be destined to be a great scientist. In one of his letters he includes, somewhat boastfully, a list of inventions he claims to have made, including a submarine and a flying machine.
In 1715 Swedenborg returned to Sweden, where he was to devote himself to natural science and engineering projects for the next two decades. A first step was his noted meeting with King Charles XII of Sweden in the city of Lund, in 1716. The Swedish inventor Christopher Polhem, who became a close friend of Swedenborg's, was also present. Swedenborg's purpose was to persuade the king to fund an observatory in northern Sweden. However, the warlike king did not consider this project important enough, but did appoint Swedenborg assessor-extraordinary on the Swedish board of mines (Bergskollegium) in Stockholm.
From 1716 to 1718 Swedenborg published a scientific periodical entitled Daedalus Hyperboreus ("The Northern Daedalus"), a record of mechanical and mathematical inventions and discoveries. One notable description was that of a flying machine, the same he had been sketching a few years earlier (see Flying Machine (Swedenborg)).
Upon the death of Charles XII, Queen Ulrika Eleonora ennobled Swedenborg and his siblings. It was common in Sweden during the 17th and 18th centuries for the children of bishops to receive this honour as a recognition of the services of the father. The family name was changed from Swedberg to Swedenborg.
In 1724 he was offered the chair of mathematics at Uppsala University, but he declined, saying that he had mainly dealt with geometry, chemistry and metallurgy during his career. He also noted that he did not have the gift of eloquent speech because of a speech impediment. The speech impediment in question was stuttering, noted by many acquaintances of his: it forced him to speak slowly and carefully and there are no known occurrences of his speaking in public. It has been proposed that he compensated for his poor speech by extensive argumentation in writing.
Swedenborg's desire to understand the order and purpose of creation first led him to investigate the structure of matter and the process of creation itself. In the Principia he outlined his philosophical method, which incorporated experience, geometry (the means whereby the inner order of the world can be known), and the power of reason; and he presented his cosmology, which included the first presentation of the Nebular hypothesis.
In Leipzig, 1735, he published a three volume work entitled Opera philosophica et mineralis ("Philosophical and mineralogical works"), where he tries to conjoin philosophy and metallurgy. The work was mainly appreciated for its chapters on the analysis of the smelting of iron and copper, and it was this work which gave Swedenborg international reputation.
The same year he also published the small manuscript de Infinito ("On the Infinite"), where he attempted to explain how the finite is related to the infinite, and how the soul is connected to the body. This was the first manuscript where he touched upon these matters. He knew that it might clash with established theologies, since he presents the view that the soul is based on material substances.
During the 1730s Swedenborg undertook many studies of anatomy and physiology. He also conducted dedicated studies of the fashionable philosophers of the time John Locke, Christian von Wolff, Leibniz, and Descartes, as well as returning to earlier thinkers Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, and others.
In 1743, at the age of 55, Swedenborg requested a leave of absence to go abroad. His purpose was to gather source material for Regnum animale (The Animal Kingdom, or Kingdom of Life), a subject on which books were not readily available in Sweden. The aim of the book was to explain the soul from an anatomical point of view. He had planned to produce a total of seventeen volumes.
He experienced many different dreams and visions, some greatly pleasurable, others highly disturbing. The experiences continued as he travelled to London to continue the publication of Regnum animale. This cathartic process continued for six months. It has been compared to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. Analyses of the diary have concluded that what Swedenborg was recording in his Journal of Dreams was a battle between the love of his self, and the love of God.
One explanation why the work was never finished is given in a well-known and often referenced story. In April 1745, Swedenborg was dining in a private room at a tavern in London. By the end of the meal, a darkness fell upon his eyes, and the room shifted character. Suddenly he saw a person sitting at a corner of the room, telling Swedenborg: "Do not eat too much!". Swedenborg, scared, hurried home. Later that night, the same man appeared in his dreams. The man told Swedenborg that He was the Lord, that He had appointed Swedenborg to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Bible, and that He would guide Swedenborg in what to write. The same night, the spiritual world was opened to Swedenborg.
In June 1747, Swedenborg resigned his post as assessor of the board of mines. He explained that he was obliged to complete a work he had begun, and requested to receive half his salary as a pension. He took up afresh his study of Hebrew and began to work on the spiritual interpretation of the Bible with the goal of interpreting the spiritual meaning of every verse. From sometime between 1746 and 1747, and for ten years henceforth, he devoted his energy to this task. This work, usually abbreviated as Arcana Cœlestia ("Heavenly Secrets"), was to become his magnum opus, and the basis of his further theological works.
The work was anonymous and Swedenborg was not identified as the author until the late 1750s. It consisted of eight volumes, published between 1749 and 1756. It attracted little attention, as few people could penetrate its meaning.
His life from 1747 until his death in 1772 was spent in Stockholm, Holland, and London. During these twenty five years he wrote another fourteen works of a spiritual nature of which most were published during his lifetime. The Last Judgment in Retrospect: From De Ultimo Judicio Et De Babylonia Destructa Swedenborg's lesser known works, presents a startling claim, that The Last Judgement began last year (1757) and was completed by the end of that year." This judgment was supposed to have occurred in the "spiritual heavens" when God saw that the church had lost its true identity, which is compassion and charity. Swedenborg's writings on the Last Judgment stress God's love and mercy and rejects the fearful prophecies of fiery destruction and eternal damnation. Freedom of the press was not allowed for religious works at the time, which is why they were all printed in either London or Holland.
Throughout this period he was befriended by many people who regarded him as a kind and warm-hearted man. When in the company of others, he was jovial, and conversed about whatever subject was discussed. Those who talked with him understood that he was devoted to his beliefs. He never argued matters of religion, except when ridiculed, when he replied sharply, so that the ridicule would not be repeated.
In July, 1770, at the age of 82, he traveled to Amsterdam to complete the publication of his last work. The book, Vera Christiana Religio (The True Christian Religion), was published in Amsterdam in 1771 and was one of the most appreciated of his works. Designed to explain his teachings to Lutheran Christians, it was the most concrete of his works.
In the summer of 1771, he travelled to London. Shortly before Christmas he suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed and confined to bed. His health improved somewhat, but he died on March 29, 1772. There are several accounts of his last months, made by those he stayed with, and by a pastor of the Swedish Church in London who visited him several times.
He was buried in the Swedish church in Shadwell, London. On the 140th anniversary of his death, in 1912/1913, his earthly remains were transferred to Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden, where they now rest in close proximity to the grave of the botanist Carolus Linnaeus. In 1917, the Swedish church was demolished and the Swedish community that had grown around the parish moved to West London. In 1938 the site of the former church where he was buried in London was redeveloped, and in his honour the local road was renamed Swedenborg Gardens. In 1997 a garden, play area and memorial near to the road was created in his memory.
Some assert that Swedenborg lost his mind, suffering some sort of mental illness or nervous breakdown. While this idea was not uncommon during Swedenborg's own time, it is mitigated by his activity in the Swedish Riddarhuset (The House of the Nobility), the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament), and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In fact, close analysis of the historical facts of his life, would appear to establish clearly his sanity. Additionally, the system of thought in his theological writings is remarkably coherent.
Some of the biographers of Swedenborg propose that he did not in fact have a revelation at all, but rather developed his theological ideas from sources ranging from his father to earlier figures in the history of thought, notably Plotinus. This position was first and most notably taken by the Swedish writer Martin Lamm, who wrote a biography of Swedenborg in 1915, which is still in print. Olof Lagercrantz, a noted Swedish critic and publicist, had a similar point of view, calling Swedenborg's theological writing "a poem about a foreign country with peculiar laws and customs".
Swedenborg's approach to demonstrating the veracity of his theological teachings was to find and use voluminous quotations from the Old Testament and New Testament to demonstrate agreement between the Bible or Word of God and his theological teachings. The demonstration of this agreement is found throughout his theological writings, since he rejected blind faith and declared true faith is an internal acknowledgment of the truth. The vast and consistent use of Biblical confirmations in Swedenborg's theological writings led a Swedish Royal Council in 1771, examining the heresy charges of 1770 against two Swedish supporters of his theological writings, to declare "there is much that is true and useful in Swedenborg's writings.
From 1745, when he considered himself to have entered a spiritual state, he tended to phrase his "experiences" in empirical terms, claiming to report accurately things he had experienced on his spiritual journeys.
One of his ideas that is considered most crucial for the understanding of his theology is his notion of correspondences. But in fact, he first presented the theory of correspondences in 1744, before his crisis, in the first volume of Regnum Animale dealing with the human soul.
The basis of the correspondence theory is that there is a relationship between the natural ("physical"), the spiritual, and the divine worlds. The foundations of this theory can be traced to Neoplatonism and the philosopher Plotinus in particular. With the aid of this scenario, Swedenborg now interpreted the Bible in a different light, claiming that even the most apparently trivial sentences could hold a profound spiritual meaning.
The second was in 1758 when Swedenborg visited Queen Louisa Ulrika of Sweden, who asked him to tell her something about her deceased brother Augustus William. The next day, Swedenborg whispered something in her ear that turned the Queen pale and she explained that this was something only she and her brother could know about. The third was a woman who had lost an important document, and came to Swedenborg asking if a recently deceased person could tell him where it was, which he (in some sources) was said to have done the following night.
Immanuel Kant, then at the beginning of his career, was impressed by these in 1763, and made inquiries to find out if they were true. He also ordered all eight volumes of the expensive Arcana Cœlestias (Heaven Secrets). In 1766 he published Träume eines Geistersehers (Dreams of a Seer) where he concluded that Swedenborg's accounts were nothing but illusions. He could however not give a scientific explanation for Swedenborg's description of the fire in 1759.
The foundation of Swedenborg's theology was laid down in Arcana Cœlestia, or Heavenly Secrets, published in eight volumes from 1749 to 1756. In a significant portion of that work, he interprets Biblical passages. Most of all, he was convinced of how the Bible described a human's transformation from a materialistic to a spiritual being. He begins his work by outlining how the creation myth was not an account of the creation of Earth, but an account of man's rebirth in six steps. Everything related to mankind could also be related to Jesus Christ, and how Christ freed himself from materialistic boundaries. Swedenborg examined this idea by an exposition on Genesis and Exodus.
He regarded marriage as being fundamentally about the union of wisdom — physically represented in the man — and love — physically represented in the female. This dualism can be traced throughout Swedenborg's writings. Faith, he writes, is a union of the two qualities of reason (represented by the man) and intention (represented by the female). And, similarly, the wisdom of God has its corresponding part in the love from the Church.
Instead he claimed that the three were different aspects of the one God, one Person, in whom is the Divine Trinity, and that divinity is impossible if divided into three Persons. Swedenborg spoke sharply against the Trinity of Persons in virtually all his works, and taught that the Divine Trinity exists in One Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, as a trinity of the soul, body, and spirit exists in each person. The Divine Trinity in the Lord Jesus Christ is the Divine called the Father as the Soul, the Divine Human called the Son as the Body, and the proceeding Divine called the Holy Spirit as the Spirit. The Divinity or Divine essence of the three is one, as the Person is one. According to Swedenborg, Muslims, Jews and people of other religions are mainly opposed to Christianity because its doctrine of the Trinity of Persons makes One God into three Gods. He considered the separation of the Trinity into three separate Persons to have originated with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and the Athanasian Creed, circa 500. For example:
Swedenborg's theological teachings about the Trinity being in the One Person Jesus Christ is labeled by some as modalism because it identifies three aspects (not persons) of One God, a unitarian God.
Within parenthesis, the common name used in text, based on the New Church online bookstore. Then follows the name of the original title in its original publication. Various minor reports and tracts have been omitted from the list.
Older material of importance, some of it not in print: