Life & Soul

Heretic of the Week: Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was – not too surprisingly, given his name – a native of Sweden. Emanuel’s father, Jesper Swedenborg, was the Lutheran bishop of Skara. Despite his position and official denomination, the senior Swedenborg was a Pietist, holding that direct experience of religion was more important than dogma – and he also held a firm belief in angels and spirits.

Rather than following his father into professional religion, however, Swedenborg Jnr followed the sciences. He graduated from the University of Uppsala in 1709, and spent the following years travelling through France, Germany, and the Netherlands, settling in London to further his chemistry studies. Returning to Sweden in 1715, he studied and wrote about physics and metallurgy, and in the 1730s began exacting research into anatomy and physiology.

About 1735, he began to study philosophy ancient and modern, and in 1744 he received the first of his visions, during which he claimed that Christ revealed to him that He alone was God, the terms Father, Son and Holy Ghost referring to various aspects of His personality.

Years later he wrote that the Final Judgment had taken place in 1757, that there were various levels in the afterlife (which Swedenborg visited, chatting with various historical figures), as well as inhabitants on other planets (which he also went to).

He died in London on March 29 – the date he had predicted to John Wesley.

Swedenborg’s vivid writings attracted much interest, providing one strand of the 19th-century occult revival. But in 1817 a denomination was founded on them: the Swedenborgian Church of North America – which suffered a schism in 1890, forming the General Church of the New Jerusalem. Although together the two bodies today have only about 7,000 members, two American folk heroes were Swedenborgians: Johnny Appleseed and Helen Keller.