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Swedenborgian Churches


SWEDENBORGIAN CHURCHES, or the Churches of the New Jerusalem, follow the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and theologian. At the end of a distinguished scientific career, Swedenborg began experiencing an ability to converse with spirits and angels and turned his attention to the relation between the spiritual and material worlds. His theological beliefs included a spiritual and allegorical method of interpreting scripture, a belief that his own spiritual revelations took part in the ongoing second coming of Christ, and an understanding of the afterlife as a continuation of each individual's freely chosen spiritual path. Swedenborg denied the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity along with original sin, vicarious atonement, and bodily resurrection. In 1783, followers of Swedenborg began meeting in London, where Swedenborg's books had been published. After reading Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell on his voyage to Philadelphia, James Glen, a planter, introduced Swedenborg to the New World with a series of lectures in 1784. Swedenborg's ideas then spread to Boston and New York and through the missionary work of the tree-planter and Swedenborgian "Johnny Appleseed" (John Chapman), to parts of the Middle West. By 1817, when the General Convention of the Church of the New Jerusalem was established, the church had about 360 members in nine states. Membership grew quickly after 1850, reaching its peak of about 10,000 in 1899. During this time period, Swedenborgian thought appealed to many American intellectuals, including transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, members of Owenite and Fourierist utopian communities, and spiritualists. The small size of the church belied its sizable cultural influence, since many prominent devotees of Swedenborg, including Henry James Sr., did not join the church. In 1890, as a result of a disagreement concerning the divine authority of Swedenborg's writings, the General Church of the New Jerusalem broke away from the General Convention. In 1999, the General Church had about 5,600 members, and the General Convention had about 2,600 members.


Block, Marguerite Beck. The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America. New York: Henry Holt, 1932.

Meyers, Mary Ann. A New World Jerusalem: The Swedenborgian Experience in Community Construction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.


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