SWEDENBORGIANISM , often referred to as the New Church or the Church of the New Jerusalem, is a global religious movement based upon the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). When Swedenborg died in London on March 29, 1772, his spiritual legacy was to be found in the books and manuscripts he left behind. His spiritual journey as a revelator began in 1744 when, at the end of a profound personal spiritual crisis, he responded to what he believed was a call from Jesus Christ to serve him. As he began to study the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, he concluded that the Bible was written in correspondences, and became convinced that he had been called to reveal its internal or spiritual sense. His biblical exegesis laid the foundation for a new, written revelation. By the time of his death he had published eighteen titles. His first theological work, Arcana Coelestia (1749–1756) or Secrets of Heaven was published in eight volumes. It presents the spiritual or internal sense of the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus. Also included in his corpus are works titled Heaven and Hell (1758), Last Judgment (1758), Divine Love and Wisdom (1763), Divine Providence (1764), Revelation Unveiled (1766), Love in Marriage (1768), and True Christian Religion (1771).
Swedenborg's print runs were large for the eighteenth century. It is known that in 1758 he published five books with print runs of one thousand each. He also distributed them widely, sending them to church officials in several countries, as well as offering them for sale. Still, at the time of his death there were perhaps only a handful of individuals who accepted his teachings in Europe. No organizations existed, established by him or others, to promote his new Christianity. Swedenborg was one of the last authors to write exclusively in neo-Latin; his works, therefore, required translation into the vernacular to reach the growing number of newly literate individuals. Prior to 1800, some of his works had been translated into German (1765), English (1770s), French (1782), and Russian (1780s).
Establishment of the New Church
Despite the obstacles to spreading Swedenborg's message, his religious writings had gained a sufficient following, particularly in England, by the end of the 1770s that organized reading circles developed among the artisans and industrial workers of Lancashire just as the cotton industry was taking off. By the mid 1770s copies of the translation of Heaven and Hell by William Cookworthy (1705–1780) and Thomas Hartley (1707–1784) began to circulate in the villages and hamlets surrounding Manchester. The development of the reading circles was due in part to the sensational claims made by Swedenborg in the book that he had "seen and heard" what lay beyond death's door. But as the sensationalism subsided, those who remained interested in the theology were supported by the efforts of John Clowes (1743–1831), rector of Saint John's Anglican Church in Manchester, an early believer in and translator of Swedenborg's writings.
According to Robert Hindmarsh (1759–1835), another early believer, Swedenborgian minister, historian, and author of Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church in England, America, and Other Parts (1861), these small circles in Lancashire not only read and discussed what Swedenborg had written, but they soon began to worship together based on the new vision of Christianity found in Swedenborg's writings. Their focus was on worshiping the one divinely human God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is considered to be a visible God who contains the invisible, as the physical human body contains within it the invisible soul. Swedenborg, in True Christian Religion (1771), acknowledges the trinity in God. He wrote, "These three, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, are three essential components of one God. They are one the way our soul, our body, and the things we do are one." In initiating worship, these early believers had grasped the central, indeed fundamental, teaching of Swedenborg's theology that God is one in essence and person and that the Lord Jesus Christ is that God. In addition, Swedenborg's teachings emphasize the following ideas: the reality of the spiritual world and the rationality of its operation; the spiritual nature of the last judgment, which Swedenborg claimed took place in 1757; the essential spiritual nature of human beings; the correspondence between the spiritual world and the natural world; human freedom in spiritual things; the marriage of love and wisdom in the Lord and thus in all creation; the essential partnership of faith and charity found in a life of use; and the sacred nature of marriage.
John Clowes had ordered a copy of Swedenborg's Vera Christiana Religio (True Christian Religion) in 1773 upon the recommendation of his solicitor. Upon receiving it, he put it aside, only picking it up to read months later, just before he was to leave on an extended trip. He saw the words Divinum Humanum (divine human) and closed the book. Several days later his recollection of these words was accompanied by a deep sense of peace. This experience reoccurred daily. Finally, with a sense of urgency, he broke off his journey and returned home to read the book that seemed to be calling to him. Clowes wrote that after reading Swedenborg's book, all his theological questions had been answered. Clowes immediately became actively involved in the work of translation, as well as seeing to the publication and distribution of Swedenborg's writings. He also assumed the role of shepherd to the groups that began to emerge in Lancashire. He remained active in this work until his death, although he never separated from the Anglican Church in which he served as a pastor. In fact, Clowes lamented the move to form a separate "New Church" organization promoted by Robert Hindmarsh in London.
Hindmarsh, a printer by trade and a member of John Wesley's Methodist movement, had frequently heard Swedenborg's writings discussed in the circles in which he lived and worked. In 1782 he was given two of Swedenborg's writings, Heaven and Hell and The Commerce between Soul and Body (1769). Many years later, Hindmarsh wrote that after reading them, he was immediately convinced of their heavenly origins. Late in 1783 he circulated an advertisement calling for any interested readers of Swedenborg to meet on December 5. Four of the five men who came to the meeting formed the nucleus of the London Theosophical Society devoted to the study and publication of Swedenborg's writings.
The fifth man, James Glen (1749–1814), a plantation owner in South America, soon left for the New World carrying copies of Swedenborg's writings with him. He stopped in Boston and Philadelphia, giving lectures in both cities and leaving behind books for sale. Even though he was just passing through, Glen's efforts made a significant contribution to the development of Swedenborgianism in the newly formed United States.
By 1787, when the New Church (the name, from Revelation 21:2, often taken by Swedenborgian churches) was formally established in England, there were six groups in Lancashire and the founding society in London. One of the remarkable sociological facts of the establishment of this organization is that it was founded by individuals who had never personally known Swedenborg. Those who developed the rituals for worship and the organizational structure were attracted to the message of the theology, rather than to the man who had written it.
The British Conference of the New Church, as it was officially named, was an offshoot of the London Theosophical Society, which by 1787 had approximately one hundred members drawn from various ranks in British society and including individuals from a variety of countries who resided in London. Their religious backgrounds were also diverse, coming from a wide range of Christian confessions, including Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Calvinist, and Dissenters. Among them were also individuals who were mystics, Quakers, deists, or agnostics. This Theosophical Society, which predates the organization founded by H. P. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in 1875, was an organization whose membership had widely different interests in Swedenborg's religious writings. Some members believed that they were divinely given revelation from God and thus were to become over time the source of renewal for Christianity. Among this group, however, some believed that renewal first should be attempted within existing Christian confessions, while others felt that it was more in keeping with the message to form a new and separate organization. Other members were interested in Swedenborg's writings in order to learn the secrets through which spirits could be contacted.
Those who wished to form a separate organization asked that a vote be taken in order to proceed. Losing the vote by a small margin, these members decided to go ahead with plans to form a new church. Hindmarsh led this movement. Clowes hastened to London to dissuade them from making such a move. Unconvinced, the separatists went ahead with their plans and, on July 31, 1787, fourteen men and two women gathered to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the holy supper in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and thereby established the New Church. According to Hindmarsh's record in Rise and Progress, "All those present declared themselves to be 'of the Lord's New Church in its outward and visible form on Earth.'" On June 1 the following year they completed the establishment of a new church when two men were ordained into the priesthood. Although other Swedenborgian or New Church organizations have developed in different countries around the world since 1788, all of them acknowledge some form of direct or indirect indebtedness to the actions taken by the men and women present at these foundational ceremonies.
The operational structure of this new organization was far from clear. In order to proceed, it was determined that a national conference of believers should be called to establish common beliefs, principles of association, and forms of worship. A circular was sent out that included forty-two resolutions of belief to be affirmed at a conference to be held at a chapel in London's East Cheap section in April 1789. On Easter Monday that year, approximately eighty men and women gathered at the chapel to attend the five-day conference, which ran from April 13 to 17. Among those present was the poet William Blake (1757–1827) and his wife, Catherine. Both signed the conference minute book acknowledging their assent to the thirty-two propositions drawn from the religious writings of Swedenborg that had been discussed and affirmed during the conference. Among other things, the approved resolutions stated that "the Theological Writings of the Honorable Emanuel Swedenborg are perfectly consistent with the Holy Word; they also contain the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church, which he [Swedenborg] was enabled by the Lord to draw from the Holy Word, while under the Inspiration and Illumination of his Holy Spirit."
The last of the resolutions called for the group to meet again in April of the following year. On the agenda for subsequent conferences was the need to approve a liturgy consistent with Swedenborg's teachings, as well as principles of organization that would likewise be drawn from Swedenborg's revelation. Harmony reigned during this first general conference of the New Church, but the same spirit did not prevail in the gatherings that followed. The underlying issue that developed among conference participants was the growing attachment of certain members to opposing models of church governance—congregational versus hierarchical.
British Conference of the New Church
The issue was not resolved until the general conference of 1815, when the congregational model favored by the majority was no longer challenged. By that time there were three societies in London, thirty societies in Lancashire, and ten others in Great Britain. The British Conference has convened every year since that date with the various congregations and societies sending delegates. In 1815 the conference also adopted a presidential form of government with a one-year renewable term. This form of government persisted within the British Conference until 1970, when the length of the presidential term became five years. In 1900 the British Conference had seventy-three societies with a total membership of 6,337. They ran eleven day schools, which served 4,375 students, and they had over 7,000 children in attendance at their Sunday schools.
From its beginning until the middle of the twentieth century, the British Conference not only served the New Church in Great Britain, but also believers and congregations throughout the British colonies. It was a source of theological training, ministers, and hymnals and other printed material for groups in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Nigeria. At the beginning of the twenty-first century these groups form independent associations, although history and tradition connect them to the British Conference. The largest of these groups (approximately 15,000 members) is the New Church of Southern Africa, founded by David Mooki (1876–1927) in 1911. It was run as a mission of the British Conference for many years, creating its own theological school in Orlando, Gauteng. The New Church of Southern Africa became independent in 1970, under the leadership of Obed S. D. Mooki (1919–1990), son of the elder Mooki. The president holding office in 2000 was Paul S. Kenene.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the clergy of the British Conference were trained through a tutorial system. A theological school was established in London in 1865 in order to standardize training. It moved to Radcliffe, a suburb of Manchester, in 1984 to be closer to the geographical center of the membership. A congregational system of government had been chosen to enhance local control. A consequence of this system was that salaries of the clergy were paid by the local congregations without any assistance from the national body. As a result, recruiting men for the ministry was difficult, because in many locations with small congregations an adequate living could not be guaranteed. Thus, the British Conference throughout its history has had more congregations than ministers to serve them. This difficulty was at least technically addressed by opening the ministry to women in 1998. But the challenges of secularization and modernization could not be overcome simply by recruiting women into the ministry. Organizational and constitutional changes were initiated in 1999 in an attempt to meet these difficulties head on. The conference has thus become more centralized and more reliant on the Internet for all types of communication, including recruitment of new members and instruction in the theological school. According to its vision statement, the British Conference has also chosen to be inclusive and nonjudgmental, while at the same time it seeks to stimulate spiritual growth by applying the writings of Swedenborg to life.
From 2001 to 2002, the British Conference of the New Church had the following statistical profile: 1,148 members, 29 worshiping congregations, and 7 groups; there were 25 ministers, of whom 14 were retired or no longer in active service, and 44 lay worship leaders.
The Swedenborgian Church of North America
The Swedenborgian Church of North America was organized as the General Convention of the Church of the New Jerusalem in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in May 1817. At that time there were approximately 360 receivers of Swedenborg's teachings in the United States, located in seventeen different societies. The issues before the convention were to establish a permanent organization that could oversee the needs of the already existent congregations; to assist in the development of new ones; to regularize ordination; and to support missionary efforts. Delegates assembled in Philadelphia from five states: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio. Two foreigners also attended the Philadelphia convention, one from Scotland and one from Sweden.
The General Convention's adoption of a congregational form of government was natural, due to the democratic temper of early America, and because the congregations had existed prior to the central organizing body, as had also been the case in England. A proposal to consider a hierarchical form of government was placed on the agenda during the 1820s, but it was never actively considered. The General Convention organized itself into regional associations, and delegates from the associations attended the annual convention and conducted the business of the church. To oversee the work, officers were selected. At the first convention a president was chosen; the next year the position of vice president was also established, but it was not until the eleventh annual convention that a financial report was submitted for approval. This basic system of government still frames the work of the Swedenborgian Church of North America.
The doctrinal principles outlined by the General Convention emphasized "knowledge of the Lord in his Divine Humanity," because church members believed it is the fundamental principle of all true religion. These principles also emphasized sharing one's faith with others so that the Lord's kingdom might come through the practice of the divine teachings of charity, good works, and love for each other. Attention was paid to the recruiting of sincere men to the ministry, and a system of licensing and ordination was created that persisted until a theological school was established in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1867.
Controversy emerged within the General Convention of the Church of the New Jerusalem when, after the American Civil War, some ministers and church members with a belief in a hierarchical form of government began to press their views. Rebuffed by the General Convention, they formed their own theological school in Philadelphia in 1876. The inability of the two groups to find a mutually acceptable solution led to a schism in 1890.
The high point of growth for the General Convention in the nineteenth century was in 1890. In that year the annual reports listed 154 societies, 119 ministers, and 7,095 members. During the nineteenth century the convention's doctrinal emphasis on inward and individual spiritual development fit well into the American spirit. The teachings were a particularly unique source to learn more about human psychology and motivation. There was a strong identification of the membership with the teachings of Swedenborgianism, and Swedenborgian thought and teachings were absorbed into the broader American culture, helping to create what John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886), historian and founder of the Oneida Community, called "Swedenborg's century." Samson Reed's (1800–1880) Observations on the Growth of the Mind (1826), a book based on Swedenborg's principles, suggested that changing times originate in a changing mind. Reed's work had a far-reaching impact. It appealed to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and Emerson's good friend, the English author Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). It inspired Emerson's masterwork Nature (1836), and Emerson included Swedenborg in his essay "Representative Men" (1850). Carlyle wrote that Swedenborg's new spiritual philosophy would soon leaven all religious thought.
Swedenborg was also an important source of inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Both men broke important ground by bringing new psychological insights into the very structure of their art, as did the celebrated landscape artist George Inness (1825–1894), a member of the Swedenborgian Church and a man who used Swedenborg's teachings on the correspondences of color and form to shape his spiritualized landscapes.
This convergence of psychology and Swedenborgianism was an obvious strength for the development of the General Convention in the nineteenth century. However, as psychology became an independent, nonreligious discipline, what had been a unique Swedenborgian contribution to American culture became more widely available in a secularized form. This affected the growth of the General Convention.
In the twentieth century, the General Convention of the Church of the New Jerusalem became the Swedenborgian Church of North America. It maintained its congregational structure, with a president (elected for a three-year term, eligible to serve one additional consecutive term), a vice president, recording secretary, and treasurer. Those who serve in the latter three offices are elected for one-year renewable terms. Together, these officers, plus three ministers and six laypeople, constitute the General Council that governs the church. In addition there is a Council of Ministers that supervises the pastoral and theological matters of the church.
The Swedenborgian Church of North America is known as the liberal "branch" of the New Church in North America. It is a member of the National Council of Churches, and it has attempted to meet the challenges of secularization by adapting to the enlightened values of Western postmodern society. It supports environmental causes and has policies that welcome diversity and inclusiveness. The Swedenborgian Church of North America has ordained women since 1975 and does not view a person's sexual orientation as an impediment to ordination.
In 1999 the Swedenborgian Church of North America closed its theological school, the Swedenborgian School of Religion in Newton, Massachusetts, and the property was sold. In 2001 the Swedenborg School of Religion formed a partnership with the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. The program, supervised by the Pacific School's Swedenborg House of Studies, offers a master of divinity degree, as well as a certificate of theological studies in conjunction with the Pacific School. Distance education is a feature of the program, and the holdings of the library have been integrated into the database of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley. This move has brought the theological education of the Swedenborgian Church of North America under the umbrella of one of the most progressive Christian theological schools in the United States.
Statistics for the Swedenborgian Church of North America reported in their journal, The Messenger, for the year 2001 are as follows: the church had a total membership of 1,926, of which 1,431 were listed as active. They had 40 churches, 34 active ministers, and congregations in the United States, Canada, and Guyana.
The General Church of the New Jerusalem
The General Church of the New Jerusalem, unlike the British Conference and the Swedenborgian Church of North America, has an episcopal form of church government. It was legally established in 1897 after withdrawing from the General Convention in 1890. The principles of what was called the "Academy Movement" within the General Convention led to the schism and separation. The members of the Academy Movement believed that the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg constituted the third testament of the Christian Bible. That is, they believed that Swedenborg's writings were not merely divinely inspired revelation, but were, in fact, the word of God. Like the Old Testament and the New Testament, they were the third part of the divine word. Just as the sign on the cross calling Jesus "the king of the Jews" was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, so, according to the General Church of the New Jerusalem, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, and the third and final testament was produced in Latin. Secondly, they believed that the theological writings of Swedenborg prescribed a hierarchical form of church government with three degrees of the priesthood. And thirdly, they believed in the necessity of educating children based on principles drawn from these same theological works. Thus, even prior to separation from the General Convention, they had established schools from the primary grades through high school and college, culminating in a theological school for the training of priests.
The schism was based on principle, but it also came about as a result of the clash of strong personalities and political maneuvering within the organization of the General Convention of the Church of the New Jerusalem. Once separated from the convention, the dominance of Bishop William H. Benade (1816–1905) created new difficulties within the fledging organization. Finally, the members of the Advent Church that Benade had formed withdrew from him and established a new organization in 1897—the General Church of the New Jerusalem. The scope of the organization was international from its inception. Congregations in Canada and Great Britain joined with those in the United States in support of the principles of the Academy Movement. These principles, developed by Benade, were maintained by the new organization, but his autocratic style of leadership was rejected. A group numbering 347 participated in the move to withdraw from the General Convention. In 1900, just three years after incorporation, the General Church of the New Jerusalem had an international membership of 560. Because it was founded on principle rather than propinquity or nationality, it competed with both the American General Convention and the British Conference for members.
The General Church of the New Jerusalem created an organization in which theological and ecclesiastical matters were separated from financial ones. The bishop was to supervise the spiritual life of the church but a lay board of directors was to supervise it financially. Furthermore, instead of adopting a binding constitution, the organization decided to write a document titled "The Order and Organization of the General Church of the New Jerusalem." Originally published in 1914, it has been revised six times since that date. The last revision occurred in 1999, when the language of the document was made gender inclusive. The decision not to write a constitution was made so that the organizational structure of the General Church of the New Jerusalem could be more responsive to the membership as it grew and developed. Furthermore, given the difficulties of its own foundation, those involved did not want any form of organization that would prevent future generations from making changes they might deem necessary for the life of the church.
Council and assembly are also important governmental principles for the General Church of the New Jerusalem. The bishop and the ministers all have lay councils that meet with them on a regular basis. In addition, every four or five years, all the members of the church get together at a general assembly to make important decisions. These councils and assemblies are governed by the principle of unanimity, with doubt signaling the need to delay decision making.
Education is a word that is synonymous with the Academy Movement and the General Church. This Swedenborgian organization has made education one of its highest priorities; however, in 1995 evangelization became an equivalent priority when an Office of Evangelization was established. Due to its origins in the Academy Movement, the General Church was a school before it became a church. The Academy Movement organized a theological school in 1876, when several ministers who were proponents of academy principles were no long welcome to teach at the theological school in Waltham, Massachusetts. Soon the Academy Movement not only ran a theological school in Philadelphia, but also a college and high school. These institutions moved to Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in the 1890s and were still in operation in 2003. The international character of the General Church of the New Jerusalem has helped to create an international student body at all of its schools, but particularly at the college. In 2000, students came from more than seventeen countries, including Brazil, Canada, France, Korea, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
The General Church of the New Jerusalem is considered the most conservative of the New Church organizations. By 2003, for example, it still did not ordain women. Nonetheless, it is the most diverse both racially and nationally. An unpublished study by Jane Williams-Hogan in 1998 showed that the British Conference had a minority membership of 5 percent, the Swedenborgian Church of North America had a 1½ percent minority membership, and the General Church of the New Jerusalem had 11 percent.
Although nowhere is it mandated that members of this church live together in communities, in practice this is also a characteristic of the General Church of the New Jerusalem. Communities have developed around existing General Church schools, or individuals will band together to form a community and a school. In the year 2000 the General Church operated ten elementary schools, six of which are located in New Church communities in the United States and Canada. In addition, there is a New Church elementary school in South Africa, and one was established in Ghana in 1999. Two preschools were established that same year in Denver, Colorado, and Ivyland, Pennsylvania.
A statistical profile of the General Church of the New Jerusalem in 2000 indicated a membership of 4,585, with a total international community of approximately 14,000, including minors, young adults, and adults who attend church services but who have not signed the rolls. The church had 92 public places of worship in 2000—57 in the United States, 8 in Canada, and 27 outside of North America. These groups were served by a total of 99 active and retired clergymen.
The Swedenborgian Movement Worldwide
Other Swedenborgian organizations exist in the world beyond the three discussed above. In 2003 independent New Church groups existed in Australia, France, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the Ukraine, among other places. It is interesting to note, however, that from its inception the Swedenborgian movement has developed organizationally primarily within the framework of English-speaking countries. The three organizations discussed in this article not only developed in Great Britain and the United States, but they also chose to establish theological schools. Although other theological schools have subsequently been established outside of the United States and England, these have all been developed through the missionary efforts of English-speaking organizations.
Many of these independent Swedenborgian organizations have been started as a result of an individual reading one of Swedenborg's theological writings and discovering the divine within it. The reader has then determined to form a church or religious organization in response. This pattern occurred in Great Britain, France, Russia, and Sweden in the eighteenth century; in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States in the nineteenth century; in Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, Japan, Korea, and Ghana in the twentieth century; and already in the twenty-first century in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. While the membership numbers are not large, these groups nonetheless represent a different mechanism of conversion than that of a personal encounter with believers, guru s, or some other religiously inspired charismatic person. Conversion occurs after reading a book, after which the individual often attempts to find other similarly interested people or organizations. Writing to book publishers is a common method by which these individuals find existing organizations and fellow believers. Thus, Swedenborg's method of spreading his message by publishing and distributing books, although it is no longer the only method used to recruit new members, has been surprisingly effective.
Block, Marguerite Beck. The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America. New York, 1932.
Evans, Jean. A History of the New Church in Southern Africa, 1909–1991, and a Tribute to the Late Reverend Obed S. D. Mooki. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1991.
Hindmarsh, Robert. Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church in England, America, and Other Parts. London, 1861.
Robinson, I. A. A History of the New Church in Australia, 1832–1980. Melbourne, 1980.
Williams-Hogan, Jane. A New Church in a Disenchanted World: A Study of the Formation and Development of the General Conference of the New Church in Great Britain. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1985.
Williams-Hogan, Jane. "Contemporary Swedenborgian Religious Organizations: A Comparative Sociology Analysis." Unpublished paper presented at a Plenary Session of the 12th International CESNUR Conference, Turin, Italy, September 10–12, 1998.
Williams-Hogan, Jane. "Discovering the Two Faces of Religious Charismatic Action—Traditional and Modern: A Model." In Approaching Religion, part 1, edited by Tore Ahlbäck, pp. 273–304. Åbo, Finland, 1999.
Williams-Hogan, Jane. Swedenborg e la Chiese swedenborgiane. Torino, Italy, 2004.
Jane Williams-Hogan (2005)