by James Dilworth
Emanuel Swedenborg (originally known as Svedborg before he was made a nobleman) and called by the French author Honoré de Balzac “The Buddha of the North” was born on January 29, 1688 in Stockholm, Sweden. His father was a professor of Theology and later a bishop who considered himself to be in constant contact with angels. Even when he was young, according to his parents, Emanuel thought that angels spoke through him. Emanuel had an usually keen mind and he learned all there was to know about Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mathematics and the Sciences but his interests didn’t include theology or religion early in his life. In 1710, he graduated from the University of Upsala, Sweden and then went on a five year long tour of Europe, as was the custom in those times.
Returning to Sweden in 1715 he busied himself with studies of higher engineering and science, while editing a scientific journal called Daedalus Hyperboreus. In the following years Swedenborg wrote many scientific books and journals, was elevated to the nobility by the Queen of Sweden, designed a flying machine that he felt would work if scientists applied themselves to the problem, made many engineering breakthroughs and was made the assessor of the Swedish College of Mines. Much of his writings in physics, chemistry, geology and atomic theory were well ahead of many others at the time, although his writings were not widely read. By 1721 his interests began to change to philosophy and metaphysics in an attempt to have a scientific explanation of the origin of things and the existence of the universe. Despite his attempts at using science to explain the spiritual aspects of life, his studies went nowhere although he received many insights into things that would soon develop into much more, all of which led to his taking a spiritual path. Late in his life, in a letter to a friend he wrote that he: “was introduced by the Lord first into the natural sciences from the year 1710 to 1744 when heaven was opened to him”
In 1744 when Swedenborg was fifty-six, he had a spiritual illumination. His spiritual illumination, being dreams, visions and the voices of higher beings was described as “the manifestation of the Lord in person” and “his introduction to the spiritual world.” Swedenborg said that God filled him with his spirit in order to spread the teaching of the New Church in the world. In 1747 he resigned his post at College of Mines, receiving a pension of half his pay from them, otherwise eschewing the world for his spiritual studies. Again devoting himself to the study of Hebrew, Swedenborg began to interpret the Bible using the knowledge he gained in his visions. His most famous work is the Arcana Coelestia or the Mysteries of Heaven, sixteen volumes which Swedenborg claimed was totally given to him by God himself. Other major works are De Coelo et de Inferno or Heaven and Hell, which is mostly extracts from Arcana C¦lestia, Apocalypsis Explicata (The Apocalypse Explained), and Sapientia Angelica de Divino Amore et de Divino Sapientia (Angelic Knowledge of Divine Love and Knowledge).
Swedenborg’s concepts of heaven and hell offered significant improvements over those of orthodox Christianity. His heaven is not just a bland state of eternal bliss of adoration and angelic singing, but rather a place where the spirits of the dead conduct life in a similar fashion as on earth. His hell is as frightening as the orthodox hell, but without the devil. Both heaven and hell have social structures and governments. Swedenborg believed both were products of the state of mind, self-created by every individual during his life on earth. Therefore, he did not believed that Jesus at his crucifixion died to atone for the sins of humankind, but each individual makes his own heaven or hell. This Swedenborgian concept of a self-made, self-chosen heaven or hell seemed to become popular again in the second half of the 20th century.
After death, according to Swedenborg, the individual enters a transition state, so earth-like that the spirit does not immediately realize he is dead. The spite is met by dead relatives and friends. He goes through a self-evaluation process after which he can choose whether he wants to enter heaven or hell. No mater which he chooses the individual will continues living as he did on earth: eating, sleeping, wearing clothes, carrying on activities and marrying. The person may remarry his or her earthly spouse or someone more compatible. It seems the choice of heaven or hell depends largely on how the person lived on earth. Swedenborg thought selfish, materialistic people tended to choose hell. They keep the same vices they had on earth, only their vices in hell became more excessive and they are beaten by other souls in hell, and not by supernatural beings of demons. An interesting not is that Swedenborg thought all angels were human once too.
Swedenborg was a man who put anyone who met him immediately at ease, quickly earned respect and was loved by all. Although many people discounted his having visions of angels and good spirits as well as spiritual warfare with evil spirits (Swedenborg would lie peacefully on his bed for days on end in a deep trance, during the day with speaking with angels and at night fighting demons while still having full control of his senses, with peace, calm and total focus), no one dared ridicule him in his presence, for fear of what he might do. Accounts of three extraordinary visions were made, however all but one were explained without supernatural reasons by Swedenborg himself. None of these accounts survive, except for mentions by the philosopher Immanuel Kant who considered two of them to have “no other foundation than common report.”
Swedenborg lived the rest of his life between Sweden, Holland and London all the while writing, publishing his works and receiving more and more visions. Long before he died, he correctly predicted the exact date of his death. At the age of eighty-four, when the average life span was barely fifty years, Swedenborg died in London on March 29, 1772.
Swedenborg’s views inspired his follows to establish a new religion, Swedenborgianism, in his name after his death. The Church of the New Jerusalem was founded in England in 1778, and in the United States in 1792. The Swedenborg Society was established in 1810 to publish new translations of his works, create libraries, and sponsor lectures and meetings. The religion never became a prominent force.
Many views of Swedenborg were adopted by the 19th century Spiritualists. They totally rejected his hell and divided his heaven into seven spheres which the soul passes through after death.
The survival of Swedenborg’s ideas and their penetration of the general population is mainly due to intellectuals and writers who were influenced by them. These men include: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson (see Transcendentalism), and Henry James. James and Emerson were attracted by Swedenborg’s ideas even though they were critical of him. Swedenborgianism seemed to greatly influence the James family. Theologian Henry James, Sr., father of the novelist Henry James, was a Swedenborgian. William James, son of Henry James, Sr., reflected Swedeborg in his philosophical works. Besides being influenced by his family, William James took his doctrine of pragmatism from Charles Sanders Peirce, a Swedenborgian.
Encyclopædia Brittanica 9th edition vol 7 Edinburgh 1887
Encyclopædia Brittanica 11th edition vol 7 New York 1911
Spence, Lewis The Encyclopedia of Occultism New York University Books 1959