Swedenborgianism is the belief system developed from the writings of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772). It is claimed by its followers that it is a new form of Christianity, and the movement is founded on the belief that God explained the spiritual meaning of the the Scriptures to Swedenborg as a means of revealing the truth of the second coming of Jesus Christ. It is also believed that Swedenborg witnessed the Last Judgment in the spiritual world, along with the inauguration of the New Church. Some Swedenborgian organizations teach that the writings of Swedenborg (often called The Writings or The Third Testament) are a third part of the Bible and have the same authority as the Old and New Testaments. Other names for the movement are also used, especially by adherents, including Swedenborgism, New Christians, Neo-Christians, The New Church, and Church of the New Jerusalem.
Swedenborg spoke of a "new church" that would be founded on the theology in his works, but he himself never tried to establish an organization. At the time of his death, few efforts had been made, but on May 7, 1787, 15 years after Swedenborg's death, the New Church movement was founded in England, a country Swedenborg often visited and where he also died. Its ideas were carried to United States by missionaries. One famous Swedenborgian was John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. Early missionaries also travelled to parts of Africa as Swedenborg himself believed that the "African race" was "in greater enlightenment than others on this earth, since they are such that they think more interiorly, and so receive truths and acknowledge them." (A Treatise concerning the Last Judgment, n. 118) Although merely odd-sounding today, at the time these concepts were judged highly liberal, and so Swedenborgians accepted freed African converts to their homes as early as 1790. Several of them were also involved in abolitionism.
In the 19th century, occultism became increasingly popular especially in France and England, and Swedenborg's writings were, by some, blended in with theosophy, alchemy and divination. What fascinated these followers most was Swedenborg's mystical side. Much emphasis was laid on his work Heaven and Hell, wherein Swedenborg visits Heaven and Hell to experience and report the conditions there (compare The Divine Comedy).
In the U.S., Swedenborgianism was organized in 1817 with the founding of the General Convention of the New Church (sometimes referred to as the Convention), now also known as the Swedenborgian Church of North America.
The movement in the United States grew stronger until the late 19th century, when a controversy about doctrinal issues and the authority of Swedenborg's writings caused a faction to split off to form the Academy of the New Church which would later become the General Church of New Jerusalem (sometimes referred to as the General Church), with headquarters in Bryn Athyn, a suburb of Philadelphia. In the 1930s, a doctrinal issue about the authority of Swedenborg's writings arose in the General Church. Members in the Hague branch of the General Church saw Swedenborg's theological writings as the Word of the Third Testament, which they wrote about extensively in their Dutch magazine De Hemelsche Leer. Actions by the leading Bishop of the General Church caused those holding this new doctrinal view to split off to form The Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma.
Today, the General Church has about 5,000 members in 33 churches. The Swedenborgian Church of North America, with headquarters in Newton, a suburb of Boston, now has 37 active churches with about 1,500 members in the U.S. The Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma, with headquarters in Bryn Athyn, now has about 28 active churches with about 1900 members worldwide.
As of 2000 the most recent membership figures for the Four Church Organizations were :
- General Conference (Great Britain): 1,314
- General Convention (USA): 2,029
- General Church of the New Jerusalem: 5,563
- The Lord's New Church Which Is Nova Hierosolyma: 1,000
The Lord's New Church is primarily associated with South Africa, although roughly 200 members are found in the United States. It is noted for its concern for justice issues. The nations of Australia and Germany are estimated to have 504 and 200 members, respectively. When counting additional members in Asia, Africa, and South America, current sources put the total of Swedenborgians as between 25,000-30,000.
Membership in the United States has been in long decline since peaking in the 1850s, although it should be noted it was never a large organization. In 1911 the total US membership in all Swedenborgian organizations was estimated at roughly 9,400.
The doctrines of the New Church are as follows:
- That there is one God and that He is the Lord Jesus Christ. Within the single Person of God there is a Divine Trinity.
- That a saving faith is to believe in Him and to live a life of charity.
- That all evils originate in mankind and are to be shunned.
- That good actions are of God and from God, and are therefore necessary for life and should be done.
- That these good acts are to be done by a person as if from him/herself; but that it ought to be acknowledged that they are done from the Lord with him/her and by him/her.
- That one's fate after death is according to the character one has acquired in life; specifically that those governed by the love of the Lord or the love of being useful to others are in heaven, and that those governed by love of self or the love of worldly things are in hell.
(see Swedenborg's True Christian Religion, author's introduction )
Added to this the Swedenborgians believe that marriage is eternal. They state that an individual will be married to his or her spouse in the afterlife if he or she has a true spiritual marriage, and that if a person dies unmarried he or she will find a spouse in heaven.
The term may also be used to refer to people inspired by some part of Swedenborgian philosophy or theology who nevertheless take an eclectic approach to such topics and so blend "pure" Swedenborgian thought with ideas from other systems, including Jungian psychology
, and "traditional" Christianity
. Such Swedenborgianism bears little resemblance to the more ecclesiastical form usually referred to by the term. For various reasons, such as not believing in the trinity that is esteemed as a third century development by Tertullian
, Swedenborg held to a modalistic
, "oneness" view of God such as modern day Oneness Pentecostalism
The relationship with the historic Churches
Swedenborgians have been viewed skeptically by the mainline Churches (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and the Free Churches) for the unorthodox aspects of their religion. Views will range from citing Swedenborgianism as Heresy, to being misguided. These aspects are the rejection of the common explanation of the Trinity
as a Trinity of Persons (Swedenborgians see the Trinity in One Person, the Lord Jesus Christ), and the rejection of the satisfaction theory
of the atonement
as an avenging justice (Swedenborgians see atonement as an act of love apart from revenge). The view that marriage is eternal (a view shared by Mormonism) cuts against the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, which is that death ends the Union. This position is naturally adopted by the mainline Churches as being fundamental Christian teaching. There is a whole list of areas of departure by Swedenborgianism from historic Christianity - so much so, that it is considered not as a branch of the Christian Church, but a separate religion.
They have been accused of being a fringe or even occult
movement in which people communicate with spirits. While the mystical aspect certainly appealed to some people, and still does, this is not the focus of most New Church members today. Interestingly, in contrast to accusations of occultism, the doctrine of the New Church actually warns against contact with spirits. However such criticism is a minor part of the difference between Swedenborgianism and the historic Church.
Whilst it can be pointed out the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and the Free Churches differ over belief, these differences become minor when measured against Swedenborgianism. Over the last century discussions between the mainline Churches has led to degrees of reconciliation between them, especially between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church representing the Catholic position, and the Anglican Church and the Free Churches representing the Protestant position, with discussions and doctrinal agreement between the Catholic position and Protestant position, but not sufficient to overcome the present divisions.
Notable persons influenced either by Swedenborg's writing or by the New Church
- Johnny Appleseed – Swedenborgian missionary first written about by the Swedenborgian society of Manchester, United Kingdom.
- Honoré de Balzac
- Charles Baudelaire
- Henry Ward Beecher
- William Blake
- Elizabeth and Robert Browning
- Daniel Hudson Burnham –This famous American architect was responsible for the 1893 Chicago Fair known as the "White City" as well as for many city beautiful plans and individual buildings in Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere. His parents were Swedenborgians and he and Joseph Worcester, later Reverend of the Swedenborgian Church in SF were relatives and close friends.
- George Bush (biblical scholar) – Converted to Swedenborgianism and promoted it to his death.
- Thomas Carlyle
- Andrew Carnegie
- Robert Carter III – Became a Swedenborgian in 1787 after his wife died and remained in the movement.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Alfred Deakin - Australia’s second, fifth, and seventh Prime Minister
- Robert Frost – His mother joined the Swedenborgian church and had him baptized in it , but he left it as an adult.
- Scott Glenn
- Gyllenhaal family:
- George Inness
- Henry James Sr. – lectured on Swedenborg's thought
- Carl Jung
- Helen Keller – wrote Light in my Darkness which advocated the ideals of Emanuel Swedenborg
- James Tyler Kent - Homeopathic physician.
- Stephen King
- Fitz Hugh Ludlow
- Lucius Lyon – “In politics he was Democrat, in religion a Swedenborgian.”
- Kristine Mann - American psychoanalyst.
- William Rainey Marshall – Fifth governor of Minnesota and advocate for black suffrage.
- John Moffat - Financier mining entrepeneur homeopath
- William Page
- Coventry Patmore – Catholic after 1862.
- J.M. Schneider – Meat/Sausage Business empire in Canada, influential in the spread of Swedenborgianism across Canada
- Walt Whitman
- Joseph Worcester with a collaborative circle of architect friends conceived the design of the SF Swedenborgian Church now a National Historic Landmark
- James John Garth Wilkinson – “commemorated by a bust and portrait in the rooms of the Swedenborgian Society in London.”
- Lois Wilson – Founder of Al-Anon, raised Swedenborgian. (Her husband Bill W, of A.A. fame, married her at her family's Swedenborgian chapel. Still the influence of the faith on him is disputed)
- Charis Flamburis
Other English speaking countries