In 1784, John Glen, sailing from London, brings to Philadelphia Swedenborg's most popular work, Heaven and Hell. Glen lectures on Swedenborg's descriptions of the ever-present reality of a spiritual world. Many prominent Pennsylvanians attend Glen's talks and turn to Swedenborg's volumes. Some of these followers establish churches, whereas others simply become devoted readers of Swedenborg.
Reading groups appear in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Cambridge, and later in Virginia and in what would become Ohio and Indiana. Readers distribute books all over the thirteen states and the Northwest Territory. In 1789 Francis Bailey, Pennsylvania's official printer, published Swedenborg's True Christian Religion; its subscribers include Benjamin Franklin. By 1817, cloth merchant William Schlatter sends out more than 3,000 of Swedenborg's books in bales of merchandise.
Baltimore is home to the first Swedenborgian church in America in 1792. In 1793 that church presents Swedenborg's True Christian Religion to George Washington as he begins his second term, a gift to which he graciously responds. When Thomas Jefferson becomes president in 1801, the Baltimore congregation again sends True Christian Religion. In 1802, President Jefferson and 100 members of Congress hear Baltimore minister John Hargrove speak on Swedenborg, and in 1804 Jefferson invites Hargrove to preach in the Capitol to both houses of Congress.
Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman, whose life of usefulness and loving-kindness to humanity and the natural world reflects his devotion to Swedenborg's teachings, acts as a one-man circulating library. While traversing Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana from 1807 to 1845 to sell seedlings from his nurseries, Chapman distributes chapters of Swedenborg's books to his customers. He enters frontier settlements, crying, "News! Fresh from heaven!" as he gathers up chapters that have been read by the pioneers and gives out new chapters.
In 1821, Sampson Reed's Harvard University address on genius interests Ralph Waldo Emerson in Swedenborg. By the 1830's, the transcendentalist reading group including Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Henry Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller reading Swedenborg. Later, Emerson showcases Swedenborg, whom he calls "a colossal soul who lies vast upon our times," in his book Representative Men.
In 1817, the first convention of Swedenborgian church delegates meets in Philadelphia. By 1830, there is a Midwestern convention, and Urbana University, one of America's earliest co-educational colleges, is founded by the Church in 1850 in Ohio. In 1852 a Swedenborgian congregation is organized in San Francisco.
Swedenborgians influence the public sentiment that eventually ends slavery. Boston Swedenborgian Lydia Maria Child published the nation's first antislavery story in 1830, and her best-selling 1853 biography of the anti-slavery hero Isaac Hopper fires up abolitionists. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who mobilizes public opposition to slavery with Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a reader of Swedenborg; and antislavery sermons appear frequently in leading Swedenborgian periodicals. Abraham Lincoln is introduced to Swedenborg's works in 1842.
Swedenborg's respect for all faiths that promote brotherly love and service to others attracts Henry James, Sr. Henry James, Jr., and his brother William tote their father's thirty volumes of Swedenborg in and out of hotels and trains throughout the family's years of travel abroad.
Swedenborg's emphasis on the essential connection between the natural and the spiritual worlds appeals at mid-century to American artists. Swedenborgian painter George Inness becomes America's leading landscape artist and early Impressionist. Some major artists of that era influenced by Swedenborg are Hiram Powers, William Page, and Thomas Cole. Swedenborgian Church member Howard Pyle reads Swedenborg to his students, among them popular illustrators Jessie Wilcox Smith and N.C. Wyeth.
Swedenborg, who believed that usefulness is the very heart of religion, wrote, "Everything in heaven, in the world, in the human body, both great and small, was created from use, in use and for use." This belief attracts physicians, engineers, and others in the practical professions. Swedenborgian engineer John Roebling designs America's first suspension bridges, including Cincinnati's Suspension Bridge and later the Brooklyn Bridge. Inspired by Swedenborg's vision of the heavenly city, architect and city planner Daniel Burnham constructs the setting for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a dream city, all in white, using the new electric lighting on a vast scale.
Swedenborg saw and conversed with persons of many faiths and so urged acceptance of other religions long before ecumenism came into vogue. Chicago lawyer Charles Bonney, a Swedenborgian Church member, initiates and manages the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. Bonney's vision brings representatives from all the world's great religions to the Parliament, an event that later historians term the dawn of religious plurality in America.
The Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco was designed by a distinguished group of architects including the celebrated Bernard Maybeck. Its founding pastor, Rev. Joseph Worcester, was longtime friend of John Muir. The Arts and Crafts movement was viewed by Worcester as harmonizing particularly well with Swedenborgian teachings about harmonizing man with nature. The National Landmarking Committee’s 2004 decision: The Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco is “a critically important example of the American contribution to the Arts and Crafts Movement … The interior shows the employment of the decorative arts to create a special atmosphere, and also the first examples of the ‘mission chairs.’ Among the designers were A. C. Schweinfurth, A. Page Brown, Bernard Maybeck, William Keith, Bruce Porter, and the Rev. Joseph Worcester. The Church is important as an example of the Swedenborgian contribution to American religious, social theory and intellectual life.”
Wayfarers Chapel began as a dream in the mind of Elizabeth Schellenberg, a member of the Swedenborgian Church who lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the late 1920s. Elizabeth Schellenberg dreamed of a little chapel on a hillside above the Pacific Ocean where wayfarers could stop to rest, meditate and give thanks to God for the wonder and beauty of creation. Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, also a member of the Swedenborgian Church, responded to the dream and agreed to contribute land for the chapel site. The depression of the 1930s and World War II forced a delay in developing the plans for the Chapel. Following the war organic architect Lloyd Wright, son of the renowned American architectural pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright, was urged to apply his genius to the project. Lloyd Wright found himself in complete accord with the positive outlook of the Swedenborgian Church and its emphasis on harmony between God’s natural world and the inner world of mind and spirit. Inspired by the cathedral-like majesty of the redwood trees in northern California, Lloyd Wright surrounded Wayfarers Chapel with redwood trees forming living walls and roof to a natural sanctuary encased in glass with view of the surrounding forest and nearby Pacific Ocean. Lloyd Wright’s design of Wayfarers Chapel is the perfect combination of nature and architectural genius and is one of the foremost examples of organic architecture. Wayfarers Chapel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.