Emanuel Swedenborg is a fascinating historical figure. Though he was at the top of many of his fields of study in 18th century Europe, he remains relatively unknown in the world today. This may well be because of one of the most unique features of Swedenborg’s career: in his mid-fifties, he underwent a series of spiritual experiences that completely changed the trajectory of his life. He reported having extensive visions and insight into the afterlife, the nature of God, and the purpose of life here on earth. He spent the rest of his days writing down and publishing his spiritual findings in an incredibly systematic, coherent way. He ended up writing twenty seven volumes on spirituality, which had a significant impact on many important thinkers of his century and those that followed.
Emanuel Swedenborg was born January 29, 1688, in Stockholm, Sweden. He mastered virtually all the known sciences of his time; writing on mathematics, geology, chemistry, physics, mineralogy, astronomy and anatomy. His achievements range from being the first to propound a nebular hypothesis to making the first sketch of a glider-type aircraft. He was also a skillful bookbinder, understood clock making, engraving, marble inlay and lens grinding. He improved the forerunner of our phonograph. His experimental tank for ships is still used. He reflected on the possibility of a submarine, designed a machine gun and marketed a usable fire extinguisher.
Although he was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be one of the outstanding scientific figures of his generation, the last 27 years of Swedenborg’s life were devoted to writing books on religion. Before this, and even during his period of religious writing, he served as one of the most creative and influential members of the Swedish House of Nobles.
Swedenborg’s theological works form the basis of the Swedenborgian Church or, as it is sometimes called today, The Church of the New Jerusalem. Although he never intended a church denomination to be founded or named after him, a society was formed in London 15 years after his death. This 1787 organization eventually spawned the present General Convention of Swedenborgian Churches.
As a result of Swedenborg’s own spiritual questionings and insights, we as a church today exist to encourage that same spirit of inquiry and personal growth, to respect differences in views, and to accept others who may have different traditions. Swedenborg shared in his theological writings a view of God as infinitely loving and at the very center of our beings, a view of life as a spiritual birth as we participate in our own creation, and a view of Scripture as a story of inner-life stages as we learn and grow. Swedenborg said, “All religion relates to life, and the life of religion is to do good.” He also felt that the sincerest form of worship is a useful life.