Since Annette and I began this blog in 2012, we have received many expressions of surprise and excitement about the beliefs and ideas presented here. Perhaps it would be helpful, then, to provide more specific information about the origin of our theology, and of the church organizations associated with it.
The beliefs presented on our blog are based on the Bible as interpreted by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), an eighteenth century scientist, philosopher, and explorer of the spiritual world. Swedenborg wrote extensive commentaries on the Bible, opening up a deeper spiritual meaning within the literal meaning. He also presented a new perspective on Christianity—one that is solidly founded on the plain statements of the Bible.
Though Swedenborg wrote about a new era of the church that he said was beginning in his day, he never made any effort to start a church organization. However, fifteen years after his death, a small group of his readers founded the first New Church (Swedenborgian) organization, in London, England. From there it spread around the world.
Despite the relatively small number of avowed Swedenborgians, over the years Swedenborg’s teachings have had a major influence on our society’s changing views of Christianity, the Bible, spirituality, and the afterlife. Much of this influence happened not directly, but indirectly through well-known figures in the subsequent history of Western thought who read Swedenborg and incorporated some of his ideas into their own writings. For some examples, see the article, “Swedenborg’s Cultural Influence” at the website of the Swedenborg Foundation.
The Swedenborgian churches
The various Swedenborgian or “New Church” bodies around the world are Christian churches with ministers and members, churches and worship services, and church organizations that operate much like those of other Christian churches. Though there is a wide variety in the types of worship services offered by the various Swedenborgian groups, many traditional Christians find themselves quite comfortable in the atmosphere of a Swedenborgian congregation.
The main difference is not in what the church looks like and how it operates, but in its beliefs. Though the Swedenborgian churches are Christian, their beliefs about Jesus Christ, the Bible, salvation, and the afterlife distinguish them from all other Christian churches. The various Swedenborgian churches share common beliefs in:
- A God of pure love and wisdom, who is never angry and never condemns anyone
- Jesus Christ as God’s own human presence among people on earth and in heaven
- The Bible as God’s Word containing deeper levels of spiritual meaning
- God’s presence in all religions and among all people, so that all who live good and thoughtful lives according to their own beliefs will find their place in heaven
- An afterlife in which we choose heaven or hell for ourselves, based not just on what we believe, but on what we most love to do
Mind you, none of these beliefs are a response to modern enlightened views. All of them, and many more like them, have been fundamental to the Swedenborgian faith from its very beginning over two centuries ago, when such beliefs were universally condemned as heretical by the established Christian churches.
Let’s take a look at the origins and practices of the worldwide Swedenborgian movement.
Historically, those who follow the teachings found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg have preferred to be called “New Church,” and to have their religion called “The New Church” or “The New Jerusalem Church.” Swedenborg himself never sought personal fame or notoriety based on his spiritual writings. He published most of them anonymously. His authorship did not become known until a decade after the first of the many volumes of his theological writings rolled off the press.
However, once it became publicly known that he was the author of these unusual books, some of his opponents began to refer to the beliefs contained in them as “Swedenborgianism.” The name stuck. Swedenborg was philosophical about his name being used in this way. In a letter to the king of Sweden dated May 10, 1770 he wrote, “‘Swedenborgianism’ is the worship of the Lord our Savior.” However, a month earlier, on April 12, 1770, he wrote a letter to one of his supporters, Dr. Gabriel Beyer, in which he said that although the doctrine presented in his writings has been called “Swedenborgianism,” he himself calls it Genuine Christianity.
Like Swedenborg, believers in his teachings are of two minds about the term “Swedenborgian.” Some avoid it, since it calls attention to a mere human being instead of focusing on the spiritual message delivered by that human being. Others embrace the name, since it provides a distinct, recognizable name for the church, and leads people to learn about the teachings found in Swedenborg’s writings.
For better or for worse, “Swedenborgian” has became the most widely used name for the teachings presented in Emanuel Swedenborg’s spiritual writings, and for the churches and people who follow those teachings. However, just as Lutherans don’t worship Martin Luther, and Wesleyan Methodists don’t worship John Wesley, neither do Swedenborgians worship Emanuel Swedenborg. He is considered an extraordinary human being who delivered new spiritual knowledge and understanding from God.
Swedenborg never made any effort to start a church organization based on the teachings in his books. The first church based on those teachings was not founded until fifteen years after his death, by people who had never met him personally. Yet without the books written by Swedenborg, there would be no Swedenborgian churches. So let’s take a look at the person whose writings spawned this religious movement.
Swedenborg the Scientist
Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29, 1688. His father, Jesper Swedberg, was a prominent Swedish Lutheran clergyman who came from a wealthy mine-owning family. His mother, Sara Behm Swedberg, also came from wealthy mining stock. Young Emanuel Swedberg (later changed to Swedenborg) was therefore provided with a fine education. As an adult he moved in the upper circles of Swedish and European society.
For the son of a minister, a church vocation would have been a natural choice. Instead, Swedenborg chose a career in science and engineering. After graduating from university as a young man, he traveled from his native Sweden to the intellectual centers of Europe, learning from the prominent scientists of his day.
When he returned from his travels, the king of Sweden offered him a position on the Swedish Board of Mines. Mining was the largest industry in Sweden, and Swedenborg took his new post seriously. He again traveled to Europe, this time to learn the newest and best mining techniques and bring them back to Sweden. His post involved many different skills, from deliberating on mining regulations and mediating business disputes to inspecting the mines firsthand and making on-site improvements.
Meanwhile, he continued his scientific studies. He mastered nearly every branch of scientific knowledge that existed in his day, and wrote books about many of them. He made new discoveries and proposed theories to explain some of the phenomena he encountered.
However, as young adulthood gave way to middle age, Swedenborg’s goals moved beyond a search for purely scientific knowledge. He was now searching for the human soul. He focused his studies increasingly on the human body and brain, attempting to locate the soul through scientific observation. But the more painstaking his research, the more his goal eluded his grasp.
Swedenborg the Seer
Later in life Swedenborg would realize that it is impossible to locate the soul through study of the material world because the soul is on an entirely different level—a spiritual level. That realization, however, did not come through his own efforts.
When he was in his mid-fifties, Swedenborg’s life went through a profound change. Through a series of dreams and visions, he felt called by God to leave his scientific work and explore the deeper mysteries of spirit and religion. Yet his scientific studies were not in vain. He realized that every material thing expresses a deeper spiritual reality. His thorough knowledge of the physical world gave him the foundation he needed to understand the workings of the inner spiritual world. And his habits of careful observation and analysis developed through scientific study proved valuable in his explorations of the spiritual realm.
For the remaining three decades of his life Swedenborg devoted himself to spiritual studies. By his account, God had allowed him to be conscious in the spiritual and physical worlds simultaneously. Informed by his experiences in the spiritual world, and by painstaking studies of the Bible in its original languages, he laid the basis for a new Christianity appropriate to an age of intellectual freedom. And yet, he said, these were not his own ideas, but rather were shown to him by the Lord (Jesus Christ) while he was reading and meditating on the Bible.
Swedenborg wrote and published voluminously. Approximately two-thirds of the thirty to forty volumes of his theological works are devoted to explaining deeper spiritual meanings contained within the literal meaning of the Bible. The remaining books explore various spiritual topics. The most poplar of these has always been Heaven and Hell, which is a guided tour of the spiritual world.
These books provide the teachings and Bible interpretations that give the Swedenborgian churches their distinct character and personality.
Swedenborg died in London on March 29, 1772, at the age of eighty-four. Having completed his mission on earth, he happily took up permanent residence in the spiritual world.
The organized Swedenborgian church
It wasn’t until fifteen years after Swedenborg’s death that any move was made to establish a church organization based on his teachings. This was done in 1787 in London, England, by a printer named Robert Hindmarsh and a small group of avid Swedenborg readers. The organization they founded became the General Conference of the New Church in Great Britain. From this oldest of New Church organizations, most of the other Swedenborgian churches around the world owe their origins.
One of those daughter organizations was the General Convention of the New Jerusalem in the United States, whose first convention was held May 15–17, 1817, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today, this organization goes by the public name “The Swedenborgian Church, United States and Canada.” Though it has churches spread across the United States and Canada, its largest concentrations are in the northeastern U.S. coastal states, the Midwest, and California. It currently maintains its central office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its theological seminary, the Center for Swedenborgian Studies, in Berkeley, California. Speaking personally for a moment, this is the church in which I grew up, and in which I was ordained in 1996.
The New Church of Southern Africa was founded independently in 1911 by the Rev. David William Mooki and a group of followers who had accepted the teachings of Swedenborg. It became a mission of the British Conference in 1917, and returned to independent status in 1970, at which time the Rev. Obed S.D. Mooki, the son of the founder, became its first African superintendent. At its peak of 25,000 to 35,000 members in the 1960s to the early 1990s, it was by far the largest Swedenborgian church body in the world. It continues to maintain its own theological seminary, Mooki Memorial College, on the grounds of its home church in Orlando East, Soweto, Johannesburg, and has over eighty churches spread throughout South Africa, as well as in the country of Lesotho.
The New Church in West Africa, a Nigerian Swedenborgian church organization founded by Africanus Mensah in 1935, has followed an arc similar to that of the New Church of Southern Africa, being affiliated with the British Conference for many years before becoming an independent body. Its headquarters is located in the city of Owo, in Ondo State, Nigeria.
Other significant Swedenborgian organizations around the world that owe their origins to the British Conference are The New Church in Australia, the National Convention of Swedenborgian Churches in the Philippines, and a loose federation of Swedenborgian churches in Western Europe. There are also individual churches or groups of churches in other parts of the world, including South America, the Caribbean, and Asia—especially South Korea, Japan, and India.
The Academy Tradition churches
There is, however, another strain of Swedenborgianism that originated from a schism in the North American church, whose ripples were felt in the various Swedenborgian churches around the world. After a protracted internal struggle over church polity and the status of Swedenborg’s theological writings, a group of Swedenborgians centered in the Philadelphia area broke off from the General Convention in the U.S. to form a separate denominational body that became The General Church of the New Jerusalem, headquartered in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia.
This group maintained—contrary to the position of the other Swedenborgian bodies—that in addition to the Old and New Testaments, Swedenborg’s theological writings are themselves the Word of God. This was based largely on a desire to establish their divine and doctrinal authority. The General Church also adopted a hierarchical, episcopal-style, clergy-led church government organized as a single bishopric administered by a bishop and clergy council in its headquarters in Bryn Athyn. This is in contrast to the more congregational-style lay- and clergy-led church polity of most of the other Swedenborgian organizations. It also set aside the regionalism of the rest of the Swedenborgian movement, and organized itself as a worldwide body. It placed a heavy emphasis on New Church education, maintaining a system of private church schools, including a college in Bryn Athyn originally known as The Academy of the New Church, and now known as Bryn Athyn College.
Though much of the General Church’s membership remains concentrated in and around its original community in Bryn Athyn, with smaller congregations located around the U.S., Canada, and Europe, it also has a significant presence in South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Brazil, and individual congregations in several other parts of the world.
The General Church, in turn, experienced its own schism in 1930s. A group of ministers and laypeople within the General Church began to maintain that if, as the General Church held, Swedenborg’s writings are the Word of God, then they must also have a spiritual meaning, in line with Swedenborg’s teachings about the Word of the Old and New Testaments. The main body of the General Church rejected this view, leading its adherents to form their own church organization in 1937, which they named The Lord’s New Church which is Nova Hierosolyma. (“Nova Hierosolyma” is Latin for “New Jerusalem.”) The Lord’s New Church is also headquartered in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. It has a church polity and structure similar to that of the General Church, including being organized as a worldwide body. However, its major concentrations of churches are in South Africa and Europe.
Within the Swedenborgian movement as a whole, the General Church and the Lord’s New Church are known as the “Academy Tradition” churches, whereas the rest of the Swedenborgian bodies are known as “Conference Tradition” churches.
Despite its two centuries of existence, the organized Swedenborgian church remains a small movement, with perhaps only 20,000 to 30,000 members worldwide in all of its branches combined. However, its influence on contemporary religious thought has been all out of proportion to its small size. Swedenborgians rejoice in seeing many of their long-held beliefs gradually gaining acceptance in the wider society. For example, though Christian leaders of Swedenborg’s day almost universally rejected the idea that non-Christians could go to heaven, today many Christian leaders and ordinary Christians have come to believe this.
Swedenborgian rituals and worship
The beliefs of the Swedenborgian churches are what especially distinguish them from other churches. But they engage in some of the same rituals that other Christian churches do. Here are some of the rites and sacraments practiced in the Swedenborgian Church, and the meanings attached to them.
Baptism is a sacrament of cleansing and spiritual rebirth. It is a sign that the person being baptized is a Christian, and will strive to live by Christian principles, avoiding doing what is evil and destructive, and doing what is good and loving instead. Baptism itself does not contribute anything to our salvation. However, the self-examination, spiritual cleansing, and rebirth symbolized by baptism are essential to salvation and Christian living. Most Swedenborgian churches practice infant baptism as a sign that this child is to be brought up as a Christian.
The Holy Supper, also known as communion, is a sacrament of accepting the Lord’s love and wisdom into our lives. Communion also does not contribute to our salvation by itself. Rather, it symbolizes our willingness to accept love (symbolized by the bread) and wisdom (symbolized by the wine or grape juice) from the Lord Jesus Christ, and make them a part of our life.
Marriage is a ritual of union between two people. Swedenborgians believe that human marriage has its origin in the marriage of love and wisdom in God. Marriage is therefore seen as a sacred and eternal union that is first and foremost an inner union of souls and minds, and from that an outward union of bodies and lives.
Memorial Services are rituals of passage from life on earth to life in the spiritual world. Since Swedenborg provided extensive clear teachings about the afterlife, these services usually have a comforting and sometimes even a celebratory feel to them. Swedenborgians do recognize our human need to grieve over our loved ones who have died. Yet overall, the Swedenborgian faith provides a positive and hopeful message about death as a natural transition from one life to the next.
Ordination is a ritual of consecration for ministry in the church. Men, and women also in most Conference Tradition churches, who are seeking ordination go through a recognized program of theological training. Once ordained, a minister may be called to be pastor of one of the church’s local congregations, or in some Swedenborgian churches may serve in another form of ministry such as pastoral counseling or chaplaincy at a hospital or hospice.
Most Swedenborgian congregations hold weekly worship services. Some use traditional Christian orders of worship modified to accord with Swedenborgian beliefs. Others use more contemporary worship styles. Each church has its own character. Yet there is a sense of shared faith and extended church family among the members of the various branches of the Swedenborgian movement.
To join or not to join?
Today, many people do not feel the need for organized worship services within a church setting. And with the Internet Age has come much Swedenborgian outreach that focuses on spreading Swedenborg’s ideas to the general public rather than on attracting new members to one or another of the Swedenborgian churches. Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life is one example. This trend seems likely to continue as traditional churches and worship services wane in popularity. Most of the Swedenborgian church bodies mentioned above have declined considerably from their peak membership in earlier decades.
Swedenborgian churches are spread very thinly around the world. Many people do not live close enough to a Swedenborgian congregation to attend regular worship services. However, if you feel drawn to Swedenborg’s style of Christianity, and you wish to join with other Swedenborgians, I encourage you to look up one or another of the Swedenborgian organizations and see if there is a church or group near you. Different churches have different cultures and different styles of worship. Academy Tradition churches tend to be more conservative in their culture and worship, whereas Conference Tradition churches tend to be more liberal in their culture and worship. If you happen to live near a Swedenborgian church, the only way to find out if it’s a good fit for you is to attend a few of its services and meet its people.
One place to look for a congregation near you is the World Map of New Christian Groups, Publishers, Churches and Schools at the New Christian Bible Study website. This map aims to include all of the Swedenborgian churches around the world. Be aware, though, that it is still missing many churches in Africa and Asia. If you are involved in a Swedenborgian church that is not shown on the map, please let me know.
There are also a number of online gathering places for people interested in Swedenborg’s teachings, including the offTheLeftEye YouTube channel and Facebook page sponsored by the Swedenborg Foundation.
If you aren’t finding what you’re looking for, feel free to leave a comment below, and I’ll do my best to help.
Meanwhile, you are always welcome to read the articles on many different subjects here at Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life (use the “Search This Site” box to find what you’re looking for), and to ask any questions you may have in their comment sections. Our goal is to give you the spiritual insights you need in order to live a good and fulfilling life here on earth, and to find your place in the spiritual community of heaven once your time on earth is finished.
For further reading:
- Who was Swedenborg? What Should I Read?
- Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?
- Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- Can We Really Believe the Bible?
- What Happens To Us When We Die?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth