Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Swedenborgians

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From volume 14 of the work.

106955Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) — SwedenborgiansNicholas Aloysius Weber

The believers in the religious doctrines taught by Emanuel Swedenborg. As an organized body they do not call themselves Swedenborgians, which seems to assert the human origin of their religion, but wish to be known as the "Church of the New Jerusalem", or "New Church", claiming for it Divine Authorship and promulgation through human instrumentality.


Emanuel Swedenborg was b. at Stockholm, 29 Jan., 1688; d. in London, 29 March, 1772. His father was Dr. Jesper Swedberg, who later became the Lutheran Bishop of Skara. Swedenborg's life falls into two very distinct periods: the first extends to the year 1745 and reveals him as an adept in the mathematical and physical sciences; in the second he appears as a writer on theological subjects. Endowed with extraordinary talents, he completed his university course at Upsala in 1710 and travelled for four years in England, Holland, France, and Germany. Shortly after his return to Sweden, he was appointed by King Charles XII to an assessorship on the Board of Mines (1716). He gave signal proof of his engineering ability during the siege of Frederickshall (1718) by inventing a means to transport boats and galleys overland for a distance of fourteen miles. His family was ennobled in 1719, a distinction indicated in the change of the name from Swedberg to Swedenborg. He declined (1724) the chair of mathematics at the University of Upsala and published at Leipzig in 1743 his important "Philosophical and Mineral Works" ("Opera philosophica et mineralia"). A year later appeared his treatise "On the Infinite and Final Cause of Creation" which includes a discussion of the relation between the soul and the body. Another scientific journey took him to Denmark, Germany, Holland, France, and Italy, and in 1740-1741 appeared at Amsterdam one of his larger anatomical works ("Oeconomia regni animalis"). The trend of his thoughts became distinctly religious in 1734 and exclusively so in 1745. He alleged that at the latter date Our Lord appeared to him in London, initiated him into the spiritual sense of the Scriptures, and commissioned him to expound it to his fellow men. With this vision there began, he declared, an intercourse with God, angels, and spirits which was to terminate only with his death. In 1747 he resigned his assessorship and, at his request, received as a pension the half of his salary. He now spent his time between London, Amsterdam, and Stockholm, and wrote in Latin his voluminous theological works. These soon attracted the attention of the Lutheran clergy of Sweden; a commission was instituted in 1771 to examine them, but took no action against their author. At his death Swedenborg received the Lord's Supper from a Protestant clergyman, to whom he affirmed his final attachment to his religious principles. He was never married, was simple in his habits, worked and slept without much regard to day or night, and lay at times in a trance for several consecutive days. In 1908 his remains were transferred from London to Sweden and deposited in the cathedral at Upsala.


Swedenborg and his followers hold that as the Christian religion succeeded the Jewish so the Swedenborgian teaching supplemented the Christian. This new dispensation promulgated by Swedenborg is, according to them, based on a Divinely revealed interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. Some of the characteristic features of this new religious system are presented in the following outline.

  • God is Love Itself and Wisdom Itself. His Power is from and according to these as they flow forth into creative act.
  • The Trinity does not consist of three distinct Divine persons as Catholics maintain; but is understood in the sense that in the Incarnation the Father or Jehovah is essentially the Divine Being, while the Son is the human (or sub-spiritual) element assumed by the Godhead in order to become present among men. The Holy Spirit is the Divine Presence and Power consequent upon this assumption and resultant transfiguration (glorification in Swedenborgian language) of the human element which thus became "a Divine Human" with all power in heaven and on earth. Jesus Christ is, therefore, not the incarnation of a second Divine person, but of the Divine as a whole; he includes the Father (Godhead), the Son (assumed humanity), and the Holy Spirit (Divine-human power).
  • Life does not exist except in Him or from Him, and cannot be created. Its presence in created forms is accounted for by continuous Divine influx.
  • On this earth man enjoys the highest participation of life, but he is greatly inferior, in this respect, to the races undoubtedly inhabiting other planets, e.g. Jupiter, Mercury.
  • His three constituent elements are soul, body, and power.
  • Originally granted full freedom in the use of his faculties, he erroneously concluded that he held them from no one but himself and fell away from God.
  • The Lord, after the fall, did not abandon the sinner, but appeared to him in the form of an angel and gave him the law to reclaim him from his evil ways. These efforts were useless, and God clothed Himself with a human organism and redeemed man, opening anew his faculties to the influx of Divine life.
  • Men are admitted into the New Church through baptism; they are strengthened in the spiritual life by the reception of the Eucharist.
  • Justification cannot be obtained by faith alone; good works are likewise necessary.
  • The seclusion of the cloister is not a help but a hindrance to spiritual growth; the healthiest condition for the latter is a life of action in the world.
  • Miracles and visions produce no real spiritual change because they destroy the requisite liberty.
  • The hope of reward is not to be recommended as an incentive to virtue, for good actions are vitiated when prompted by motives of self-interest.
  • Death is the casting off by man of his material body which has no share in the resurrection.
  • Immediately after death all human souls enter into the intermediate state known as the world of spirits, where they are instructed and prepared for their final abodes, heaven or hell.
  • We need not expect the Last Judgment for it has already taken place; it was held in 1757 in Swedenborg's presence.
  • No pure spirits exist; both angels and devils are former members of the human race, have organic forms, and experience sensation.

The liturgy of the New Church is is modelled on the Anglican service. The Church organization in Great Britain is congregational; in the United States most of the various religious societies are grouped in state associations under the charge of general pastors, while the "General Church" (see below) is avowedly episcopal in government.


Swedenborg made no attempt at founding a separate Church; he presented his doctrinal works to university and seminary libraries in the hope that they might be of service; how far ahead he thought is uncertain, as he seemed to hold that his followers might be members of any Christian denomination. But his views were, in many respects, so entirely new that their adoption made the foundation of a distinct religious body inevitable. Few accepted his opinions completely during his lifetime. They found zealous advocates, however, in two Anglican clergymen, Thomas Hartley, rector of Winwick in Northamptonshire, and John Clowes, rector of St. John's at Manchester. These divines rendered his works into English and through the efforts of Clowes, who never separated from the Church of England, Lancashire became at an early date the Swedenborgian stronghold which it still remains today. The formal organization of the New Church took place in 1787, and James Hindmarsh, a former Methodist preacher, was chosen by lot to officiate at the inaugural meeting. The first public service was held in 1788 in a chapel at Great Eastcheap, London. Swedenborgian societies were soon formed in various English cities, and in 1789 the first general conference of the New Church met in the place of worship just mentioned. The number of adherents did not increase rapidly. The conference has held annual meetings ever since 1815. Its minutes for 1909 contain the following statistics for England: 45 ministers, 70 societies, 6665 registered members, and 7907 Sunday scholars.

In America the Swedenborgian doctrines were first introduced in 1784 at public lectures delivered in Philadelphia and Boston. The first congregation was organized at Baltimore in 1792. Since then the principles of the New Church have spread to many states of the Union. The first general convention was held in Philadelphia in 1817. It meets annually at present and is mainly composed of delegates sent by the various state organizations. In 1890 the General Church of Pennsylvania severed its connexion with the convention and assumed in 1897 the name of the General Church of the New Jerusalem. It numbered, in 1911, 24 ministers, 16 churches, and 890 communicants; whereas the main body had 107 ministers, 130 churches, and 8500 communicants (Statistics of Dr. H. K. Carroll, in "The Christian Advocate", N. Y., 25 Jan., 1912). Congregations of the New Church are to be found in all civilized countries; but their membership is small. In Germany the Protestant prelate Öttinger translated (1765-86) numerous writings of Swedenborg, but the most important name identified with the history of the denomination in that country is that of Immanuel Tafel (1796-1863), professor and librarian of Tübingen, who devoted his life to the spread of Swedenborgianism. His efforts were mainly literary; but he also organized a congregation in Southern Germany. The religion was proscribed in Sweden until 1866, when greater religious freedom was granted; the churches are still very few, and the membership insignificant. New Churchmen claim, however, that there as well as in all other countries the influence of Swedenborg cannot be gauged by the enrolled membership, because many communicants of other denominations hold Swedenborgian views.

The denomination maintains for the training of its ministry the New Church College at Islington, London, and the New Church Theological School at Cambridge, Mass. A preparatory school is located at Waltham, Mass., and an institution for collegiate and university studies at Urbana, Ohio. The General Church conducts a seminary at Bryn Athyn, Pa., and maintains several parochial schools. The denomination has displayed a remarkable publishing activity. The Swedenborg Society was founded in London in 1810 for the printing of Swedenborgian literature and in celebration of its centenary the International Swedenborg Congress met in the English metropolis in 1910. Other publishing agencies are the New Church Union of Boston, the American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society of New York, and a publishing house at Stuttgart, Germany. A monumental edition of Swedenborg's scientific works is in course of publication under the auspices of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. His theological works are available in complete Latin and English editions and have been partly published in numerous modern languages, including Hindu, Arabic, and Japanese. The New Church publishes two quarterly reviews, some monthly magazines, and several weekly papers.

I. TAFEL, Documents concerning the Life and Character of Swedenborg (London, 1875-77). Numerous Biographies of Swedenborg have been written: in English by DOUGHTY (London, 1857); FLETCHER (ibid., 1859); HYDE (ibid., 1863); WHITE (ibid., 1867); WORCESTER (Boston, 1883); WILKINSON (London, 1886); ODHNER (Philadelphia, 1893); TROBRIDGE (London, s. d.); in French by BALLET (Paris, 1899); BYSE (Paris, 1901); in German by RANZ (Schwäbisch Hall, 1851).

II. These biographies usually contain an exposition of Swedenborg's doctrine; a more complete presentation will be found in his own works, particularly in: The True Christian Religion; Arcana Coelestia; The Apocalypse Revealed; The Apocalypse Explained; Divine Love and Wisdom, Divine Providence; Heaven and Hell. PARSONS, Outlines of the Religion and Philosophy of Swedenborg (Boston, 1894); Transactions of the International Swedenborg Congress (London, 1910).

III. HINDMARSH, Rise and Progress of the New Church (London, 1861); DOLE, The New Church, What, How, Why? (New York, 1906).

For further bibliographical details consult HYDE, Bibliographical Index to the Published Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (London, 1897). Catholic writers on Swedenborg and his doctrine: GÖRRES, Emanuel Swedenborg, seine Visionen u. sein Verhältniss zur Kirche (Speyer, 1827); MÖHLER, tr. ROBERTSON, Symbolism (3rd ed., New York, s. d.), 353, 436-67.