New Church Day: Swedenborgian adherents recall scientist’s influential writings

Row of buildings on a downtown street corner in London, England

The Swedenborg House, in London, is headquarters for the Swedenborg Society. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, JUNE 19: What do Helen Keller, Johnny Appleseed and Carl Jung have in common? Enthusiastic support of a man named Emanuel Swedenborg, a scientist whose doctrines would become the basis for the little-known denomination known as New Church. Today, the approximately 10,000 adherents of this faith celebrate New Church Day.

Though the numbers are small, the impact that this faith has had on world history is significant. As written by Gary Lachman (formerly known as Gary Valentine, of the band Blondie), in Swedenborg, An Introduction to His Life and Ideas: “It is difficult to imagine modern Western alternative spirituality without the influence of Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Every movement in alternative spirituality—from mental healing and Spiritualism to New Age mysticism and the 12-step recovery movement—owes an immeasurable debt to the ideas he exploded upon the Western world.” (Read more about Lachman’s book in our 2012 New Church Day column; and stay tuned—Lachman will return to ReadTheSpirit this summer to talk about a new book.)

EMANUEL SWEDENBORG:
THE MAN BEHIND THE MYSTERY

Emanuel Swedenborg, born in 1688, was a theologian and scientist who claimed to have received a new revelation from Jesus Christ; the revelation was received through visions that were experienced over a period of 25 years. Swedenborg’s 35 volumes of writings relayed, among other things, that God would replace the traditional Christian Church, establishing a “New Church” that would worship God in one person. (Wikipedia has details.) Although Swedenborg spoke of “New Church,” he never attempted to establish any type of organization; it was approximately 15 years after Swedenborg’s death that the New Church movement was founded. With its roots in England, the New Church faith was spread throughout the world by men and women who saw wisdom in his work—such as the famous American historical figure, Johnny “Appleseed.”

Swedenborg believed that Africans were in greater enlightenment that others on earth, and it is most likely for this reason that many members of the New Church welcomed freed African converts into their homes from the 1790s and through the turbulent years of the Civil War. Into the 19th century, occultism—belief in or study of the influence of the supernatural—soared in popularity in France and England, as did the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Some researchers believe that Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, Jr. was influenced by Swedenborg’s writings; Carl Jung acknowledged the clairvoyance of the Swede, particularly in relation to his visions of the Stockholm fire of 1759.

WHAT IS ‘NEW CHURCH DAY’?

Though some spiritual thinkers may admire the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg without considering themselves full members of his Church, those who do consider themselves adherents recognize, today, the 1770 publication of Swedenborg’s substantial work, “The True Christian Religion.” The annual Swedenborgian Church convention will be held this year at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, July 2-6. Click here for details.