The history of Swedenborgianism begins in England, where Swedenborg had gone to see his works through the press and distribute them to those who could read Latin. Groups who had read his works and were anxious to spread Swedenborg’s theological teachings organized reading societies and translated the original works from the Latin for publication.
Eventually the issue of separatism arose, and in 1787 a group of followers formally established the Church of the New Jerusalem–based on the teachings of Swedenborg–as an independent religious body.
In 1784, James Glen, English owner of a South American plantation, en route to the new United States, came in contact with Swedenborg through a copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell read on shipboard. Glen introduced the works to America. His open lecture on Swedenborg’s teachings at a bookstore in Philadelphia attracted public attention and inspired several new readers who were to become important leaders in the American Swedenborgian movement.
First Swedenborgian Church in America
By the early 1800s, the first Swedenborgian church structure had been built, the first periodical on Swedenborg’s teachings published, and President Jefferson invited John Hargrove of the Baltimore congregation to preach in the Capitol rotunda before Congress.
The spread of Swedenborgian beliefs across America was furthered by missionaries who contacted pioneer settlers at the wilderness edge. The best known missionary is noted primarily for another aspect of his travels. In 1822, a committee reporting on Church extensions to the Fifth General Convention of the church referred to this unusual missionary as follows:
One very extraordinary missionary continued to exert, for the spread of divine truth, his modest and humble efforts, which would put the most zealous member to blush. We now allude to Mr. John Chapman, from whom we are in the habit of hearing frequently. His temporal employment consists in preceding the settlements, and sowing nurseries of fruit trees, which he avows to be pursued for the chief purpose of giving him an opportunity of spreading the doctrines throughout the western country.
The unique Swedenborgian convert, John Chapman, is better known in American folklore as Johnny Appleseed. In addition to his legendary sowing of seeds in the Midwestern wilderness, Johnny Appleseed carried with him all of the Swedenborgian publications he could procure and distributed them wherever the opportunity was presented.
While Chapman’s apple trees blossomed, so did mid-nineteenth century intellectual and social movements in America. Swedenborgianism provided an influence and involvement in many of those movements wholly out of proportion to the comparable size of church membership. Despite the small numbers of Swedenborgians, the American intellectual atmosphere, particularly throughout this period, reflects the profound impact of Swedenborgian thought.
Most marked by the Swedenborgian influence is early American philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson was greatly impressed by Swedenborg’s writings and effected their introduction into his intellectual world. When his essay “Nature” was published anonymously, many praised it as a Swedenborgian work because its central idea of nature as the symbol of the human soul mirrored the Swedenborgian concept of “correspondence.” Emerson utilized distinctly Swedenborgian terms in his writings, made eighty references to Swedenborg’s works, and published an essay, “Swedenborg, or the Mystic,” which clearly indicated a deep appreciation for Swedenborg’s philosophical position.
The Transcendentalist movement shared many of the philosophical tenets that characterized Swedenborgianism, although few Transcendentalists embraced the church organization. Among the two groups’ shared interests, however, was the utopian communal movement. Followers of both philosophical schools were involved with numerous of the utopian settlements organized in the 1800s, among them Brook Farm, the Hopedale Community, the Jasper Colony, and the Owenite Community in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
While Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Henry James, Sr. expressed an affinity for Swedenborgianism, other intellectual circles in America and abroad were equally affected by Swedenborg’s work. Many literary artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveal his influence and refer to him in their works. Among these are William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Honore de Balzac, The Brownings, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Church in Social Reform
The role of the church in social reform movements is yet another important aspect of Swedenborgianism. While the church often took no official stance on social issues, the philosophical stance of the church encouraged individual activism. The church mission, as perceived by its leaders, “was not only to teach spiritual truths, but to teach and practice spiritual freedom–freedom not only in spiritual, but in social, moral, and political matters.” In short, the church did not wish to dictate a dogmatic institutional stance to its followers, but advocated reflection and responsibility on social issues. The crucial social concerns of the last century, notably abolition and women’s rights, thus found church members active on both sides while the church maintained institutional tolerance. In addition, Swedenborgians were active in other social reform movements, such as the aforementioned utopian communities, and the medical and economical reform characteristic of the nineteenth century.
In succeeding years, Swedenborgians continued to involve themselves in social movements on a smaller scale. The Church of the New Jerusalem was among the first religious institutions to advocate coeducation, and Urbana University, a Swedenborgian university established in Ohio in 1850, was the second coeducational college in the United States. When political controversy calmed, internal controversy arose concerning doctrinal matters, and in 1890 some members split from the original church and established an autonomous organization known as the General Church of The New Jerusalem.
During the 1920s, the church found a most eloquent spokeswoman in the form of a gallant and courageous receiver of Swedenborgian theology. Helen Keller’s activism on the part of the handicapped and her inspiring account of her personal Swedenborgian beliefs in My Religion served to bring attention again to the small group of Swedenborg’s followers. In 1928, the church became active in mental health care reform, the beginnings of a lasting church interest and involvement in the psychological well-being of individuals. In 1955, the church became one of the first agencies to be involved in the current movement using human relations training and group work in personal development.
These are the roots and beginnings of Swedenborgianism in the United States. Today the church retains its earlier commitments to individualism and social involvement. Swedenborg’s writings continue to be published and distributed: a primary focus on education is maintained. Certain church parishes are developing as “spiritual growth centers”–nonsectarian, self-governing and self-defining community groups devoting themselves to personal development through education and interaction.
The Swedenborgian Church is at present “becoming” open to innovation and transition. To understand more fully its evolving nature it is necessary to look at the church today.