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Genuine Christianity

Genuine Christianity testifies to the value of reading and understanding more about Emanuel Swedenborg's life history. In this highly recommended article, Chelsea Odhner shares some of the insight she received from learning more about the context in which Emanuel Swedenborg wrote. Chelsea uses a light touch and makes the case for reading a biography of Swedenborg by supplying a couple of the tantalizing shifts in thinking which she herself experienced. -Editor

Have you ever read any books by a certain Emanuel Swedenborg? Do you go so far as to consider yourself a believer of his teachings? Have you been baptized into the New Church?

If you fall into any of these categories, I highly recommend that you read a biography of Emanuel Swedenborg, if you haven’t already. I’d be curious to know what percentage of people who consider themselves to be in the New Church have read a biography of the good man. Now I have to admit, I’m twenty-six years old; I fit into every category, and only recently finished reading a biography of Swedenborg for the first time.

And there are many to choose from! If you live in the Philadelphia area, or are near it sometime, take a jaunt to the Swedenborg Library in Bryn Athyn, PA. Ask the person at the front desk where to find a biography of Swedenborg and you will be led to an aisle that contains up to eight shelves worth of biographies devoted to this one man!

The one biography I read is entitled The Swedenborg Epic: the Life and Works of Emanuel Swedenborg, by Cyriel Odhner Sigstedt, published in 1952, and I’d like to tell you a little about it. At the time of its publication the author claimed it to be the first and only one of its kind: that is, she covered all the available evidence, put it in chronological order, and wrote and wove it into the form of a readable and interesting story. Sigstedt tells the reader in the foreword that, “the present work does not attempt to interpret Swedenborg’s life, but rather to tell the story of it as it unfolds itself from the epic of events” (x). She claims that, “the documentary material has, for the first time, been broken up into strictly chronological order based on internal evidence” (ibid). Her “effort has been to present Swedenborg as he appeared to his contemporaries…[and] at the sacrifice of brevity…to cover the ground thoroughly, passing by no documents of importance to make this volume a storehouse of information leaving its interpretation to the wisdom of other scholars” (ibid).

Her years of in-depth research took her to the Royal Archives, Royal libraries, and other institutions and places in Sweden, and to the Library of the Academy of the New Church (as it was known at the time) and its Swedenborgiana collection (xii). In addition to these places, I can only imagine she also traveled all over Europe, tracing Swedenborg’s paths—to Holland, Denmark, England, Germany, and France—to thoroughly understand his journeys. This is an impressive amount of work, and all the more inspiring to me to know that it was done by a wife and mother in the 1940-50’s!

In reading Sigstedt’s book over the course of the last few months, certain ideas contained therein have stayed with me, forever changing my perception of Swedenborg, his work as a servant of the Lord, and even my thoughts about the nature of the New Church. The shifts in understanding that I will share here specifically relate to Swedenborg’s work Conjugial Love, what the New Church is, and what the New Church should be called.

Growing up in a New Church town and going to New Church schools, discussion of the work Conjugial Love often brought on heated debates about whether or not the ideas in the book should be taken seriously. Living in the current cultural age of America, many young adults would express the opinion that Conjugial Love is in many ways outdated, old-fashioned, and simply not applicable to current social dynamics. It is not relevant to the purpose of this article to go into the substance of these arguments here, so I will leave you to explore the work for yourself if you are not already familiar with the contents of the book.

With this as my background, you might be able to imagine my surprise, in reading the chapter “True Marriage Love” in The Swedenborg Epic, that to Swedenborg’s contemporaries he was offering an entirely revolutionized idea of love and marriage. This is in part why he used the word “conjugial,” in order to denote the new and distinct love about which he was writing—“to set it apart from the common idea of love” (354). The ideas in this book were so new to the Western world of the 1700’s that they “cut a deep gash into orthodox theology” (355). It was crazy in Swedenborg’s time to think that marriage continued after death (ibid)! It seemed to go directly against the Word of God (see Matthew 22:30). Crazy too was the idea that angels were once people on Earth (368)! The whole concept of putting married love into the center of human existence and, indeed, the human soul was an incredibly novel idea.

Another similar opinion that floats through my mind, which I imagine I picked up also from past high school and college discussions about Conjugial Love, is that the book simply is not suited to the morally and sexually “free” state of current society—it just has too many strange ideas that might have worked for the people who lived in Swedenborg’s time, but certainly not for people today. This, too, had the rug pulled out from under it! Sigstedt informs the reader that “the minds of Christians [of Swedenborg’s time] were confused on this subject by the flagrant examples of the violation of marriage that were constantly presented to them by the civilized world of the Eighteenth century. France under Louis XV had come to be virtually governed by the king’s mistresses… The corrupt court life of France under the Louises was the accepted model for England under the Georges, and other European countries followed suit. Woman’s place was degraded, unbridled prostitution was the order of the day” (359; emphasis mine). Can you imagine?! The current state of flagrant sexual immorality in American society seems almost mild to me after reading this description! How can anyone say that since current society is the way it is, the concepts in Conjugial Love simply are not suited to it and therefore should be passed by, when the time in which they were originally published was possibly in even worse a state! It amazes me what courage Swedenborg must have had to publish his revelation about married love—“the first of his theological books to which he affixed his name” (362).

Only a matter of days before Swedenborg died, his good friend Mr. Hartley came to visit him where he was lodged in London. There, also in the presence of another good friend and believer of Swedenborg, Mr. Hartley “solemnly besought him to declare whether all that he had written was strictly true or whether any part, or parts, were to be excepted” (431). Sigstedt quotes what he is said to have replied:

“I have written nothing but the truth,” Swedenborg replied with some warmth, “as you will have more and more confirmed to you all the days of your life, provided you keep close to the Lord and faithfully serve Him alone by shunning evils of all kinds as sins against Him and diligently searching His Word which from beginning to end bears incontestable witness to the truth of the doctrines I have delivered to the world.” (431)

Now, knowingly making the assumption that the doctrines Swedenborg delivered include his teachings on marriage in Conjugial Love, I appreciated this quote in respect to reading the book. Revelation would be pretty boring if we understood it all in just one read, so I like to remind myself to expect not to understand everything at first, and even to feel repelled by some ideas. It is something that we understand only gradually. As someone once relayed to me about reading the Heavenly Doctrines, “You just have to ride loose in the saddle.”

Overall, it just blew my mind to realize that what seems old-fashioned to some people currently was completely revolutionary when it was first published, and still could be considered so. Not only for Conjugial Love have I found it useful to read about the time during which it was published, but it was enlightening to read about each of Swedenborg’s works in relation to the culture of the society into which they were first disseminated.

Now, do you consider yourself Swedenborgian? “New Church”? What are we meant to call ourselves? Before reading The Swedenborg Epic I considered both to be fine terms, though my ideas on this have since changed. In the years 1769 and 1770 the doctrines contained in Swedenborg’s theological works came under hot reproach in Sweden, specifically in the coastal town of Gothenburg (387-409). I learned in the chapter “Heresy Trial at Gothenburg” that two professors in the theological school (which was called the gymnasium) at Gothenburg, Drs. Beyer and Rosen, were supporters and believers of Swedenborg’s teachings. These two men, and Swedenborg’s theological works with them, were eventually tried for heresy. Dr. Beyer lost his teaching position, Dr. Rosen was censured on what he was allowed to teach, and Swedenborg’s books were declared heretical (405). Without going into details, Swedenborg was kept informed on the developments in Gothenburg through letters from his friends there. When Swedenborg heard “that the two doctors were to be deprived of their offices and banished from the kingdom,” he was amazed (402). In a letter to Dr. Beyer on the matter Swedenborg gave many quotes “from the Creeds, from the Word of God, and even from the Swedish Hymnbook to prove that [a] direct approach [to the Lord Jesus Christ immediately] is commanded,” which he considered to be “the real point as issue” (ibid). In the letter we read this powerful statement:

“They call this doctrine Swedenborgianism…but I, for my part, call it Genuine Christianity…Were you to be removed from office and exiled, what could the present as well as future generations say but that this happened to you for no other reason than that you approached immediately Our Lord and Savior?” (402).

This brought the questions to my mind, “Are we way off to be calling ourselves Swedenborgians? Is that actually an insult to Swedenborg’s entire purpose? But is calling ourselves ‘New Church' any better? Do we have to distinguish ourselves in name from the rest of Christianity? Can we not call ourselves simply Christians and the teachings delivered through Swedenborg the doctrines for genuine Christianity?”

Swedenborg departed this world on Sunday, March 29th, 1772, at five o’clock in the afternoon (433). There on the table in his room lay an unfinished paper. Part of it reads, “‘An invitation to the New Church addressed to the whole Christian world, and an exhortation that men should go and meet the Lord…Hereafter they are not to be called Evangelical, the Reformed, and still less Lutherans and Calvinists, but Christians’” (ibid).

This invitation is to the New Church and yet it says we are to call ourselves simply Christians. In a way, this seems somewhat paradoxical to me. What do you think? I guess one thought is just that if anyone new to “the church” comes up to anyone in “the church” and asks, “Are you Christian?” then I think we’ve missed our mark. Even if we are to call ourselves the New Church and to say that we are “New Church,” I think we are not doing our duty if it isn’t in some way obvious that we are wholly and genuinely (at least in intention) Christian.

I was a different person before I read The Swedenborg Epic. I feel that my grasp of Swedenborg as an individual and what his purpose was has become much more substantial than before I read this work. It’s not so much that I enjoyed it simply because it gave me answers about the man’s life and work, but more so because it opened and nourished a space in my mind for useful questions to arise about myself and my religion.

Chelsea Rose Odhner

Chelsea lives in Rydal, PA with her husband and one year-old daughter. She loves to read and learn more about things and to talk about what she has read and learned with other people.

Reader Comments (2)

Wow! Thank you for this great piece. I have read and or skimmed a couple biographies but don't remember the "genuine Christianity" bit. Very powerful! Funny thing is that I see Swedenborg's words/thoughts in this now reflected in some of the new impulses among "Swedenborgians." Very interesting!

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEli

In regards to some who believe Swedenborg's book Conjugial Love is "...simply is not suited to the morally and sexually "free" state of current society"...... I'd ask-
If so, how did Christianity spread through the immoral, corrupt, sexually "free" societies of the ancient Roman world?
Did the Apostle Paul compromise with sin? Not in the least! He spread Christianity throughout the known world, which was much more barbaric and immoral than our "current society", and he did so without re-defining sin just to suit his contemporaries.
God created us out of his order; "disorder" cannot be re-packaged as a "New Paradigm" to suit OUR contemporaries!
Conjugial Love (and it's opposites) is a timeless, spiritual reality of order and disorder that exist in Heaven and Hell,

October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Maiorano
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