Thane examines the phrase 'crown of all churches,' looking for its true meaning through an exploration of its context. He cites instances when Swedenborg uses the phrase himself, the appearance of crowns in scripture, and several interpretations of this abiding concept in essays published within the church, dating back to the late 1800s. Academic and thorough, he offers an unresolved perspective that satisfies in its complexity. -Editor
What is the New Church? The vision of a New Jerusalem descending at the end of the Bible depicts some great promise for the earth, a promise which Emanuel Swedenborg calls a New Church. But what is this promise? What is the New Church?
One of the most striking answers to this question comes at the end of The True Christian Religion, the last book of theology describing this New Church published by Swedenborg. Here, in the final section of the final chapter of this work, we read, “This new church is the crown of all the churches which have up to now existed upon earth, because it will worship one visible God, in whom is the invisible God, as the soul is in the body” (§787). The crown of all churches. This is a dramatic, exultant statement about the New Church. It is a statement that has been much cited in Swedenborgian literature 1, but only a handful of people have explicitly explored the inherent meaning of the phrase.
What might it mean to say that the New Church is the crown of all churches? A crown in what sense?
In the original Latin text of The True Christian Religion, the word for “crown” used here, corona, can be translated in several ways. Its two primary English translations, crown and garland, while closely related, emphasize different nuances of meaning, and so capture a dichotomy in how we might interpret the Latin word, a dichotomy which in turn pervades the ways in which we might read the meaning of Swedenborg’s phrase. On the one hand, a corona is a distinguishing kingly symbol of honor, supremacy, and perhaps victory—a crown. On the other hand, a corona is like a wreath, an encompassing circle weaving together varied parts into a unity—a garland.
Exploring this distinction between crown and garland is not merely an academic exercise. The way in which we interpret “the crown of all churches” carries profound implications for our thinking about the ways in which members of the organized Swedenborgian churches relate to and interact with members of other faith traditions. What kind of a crown is the New Church? Do we think of it as distinguished from and superior to all other church traditions? Do we think of it as encompassing all other church traditions? Who is a part of this crowning movement in human spirituality?
One way of getting at the meaning of the phrase “crown of all churches” is to consider the term “crown of” in linguistic context. Just as in modern English, we might use the phrase “crowning achievement” to describe a culminating masterpiece, for instance, the theological texts of the New Church might use the phrase “crown of” as a standard idiom or expression. Might we get insight into “the crown of all churches” by comparing other instances in which these texts herald some other entity as the “crown of” its respective field?
In fact, Swedenborg uses the term “crown of” only a handful of times and only in the last few years of the twenty-two he spent recording and publishing the teachings for the New Church. Setting aside his use of the phrase “crown of all churches”—which occurs at the end of The True Christian Religion and in the subsequent unpublished manuscripts “Coronis or Appendix to True Christian Religion” and “Invitation to the New Church”—we find the phrase “crown of” in two other contexts. At the outset of The True Christian Religion, Swedenborg calls the Word “the crown of revelations” (§11). There is not much to gather about the idiom “crown of” here for our discussion, other than that it obviously demarcates something highly valued, since the Word is where we get a true idea of God (ibid). The other context in which we find the idiom “crown of” holds more promise for the present study. In the work on marriage published several years earlier, Delights of Wisdom Relating to Married Love, Swedenborg refers several times to a woman’s virginity before marriage as “the crown of her honor” (§460) or “the crown of her chastity” (§§501, 503). Here the surrounding text offers more clues to the nature of “the crown of.” Swedenborg also refers to the maiden woman’s virginity as a “token” or “promise of a conjugial covenant” (§§460, §501) and as a “mark” or “symbol of the sacredness of marriage” (§503). We might then use abstraction to generalize the meaning of “crown of” as the token of a special covenant, a symbol of sacredness, a mark of honor.
What might this analysis suggest about the New Church as the “crown of all churches”? Though the linguistic sample is not large, the indication is that “crown of” seems to be used in these theological works in the sense of a distinguishing symbol of value and honor. In other words, as “crown of” churches, the New Church is the best and most noble of all churches, distinct from what has come before. And at initial glance, this idea of crown does seem to fit the thrust of the final section of The True Christian Religion. The end of the book describes the New Church as succeeding the prior churches or spiritual eras—the most ancient, ancient, Israelite, and Christian—because those churches lacked a clear true idea of God (§§786-787).
The majority of Swedenborgian writers published in the pages of New Church Life have read the phrase “crown of all churches” in this spirit, seeing the New Church promised in Swedenborg’s theological publications as distinguished from and superior to other faith traditions. In this vein, one of the most compelling treatments of the New Church as crown, Gilbert Smith’s 1948 sermon, “The Crown of the Churches,” explores the New Church as a precious treasure to God prophesied by Isaiah, “a royal diadem in the hand of God” (Isaiah 62:3). Though Smith acknowledges how easy it is for us to find “evidences that charity and belief in the Lord are everywhere” (Smith 246), he nevertheless urges us to look more deeply to “see the spiritual desolation and ruin of the former Church… in the state of the Christian world” (245). He argues that the New Church in the hand of God is the antidote to the “inheritance of evil and falsity” amongst people of the former church, and concludes that the New Church must succeed the vastated former churches because “to live and believe as most Christians do would mean stagnation and spiritual disease” (247).
Smith’s perspective on the “crown of all churches”—a precious treasure, distinct and in an honored position—is ubiquitous, and seems in keeping with the declaration of The True Christian Religion that since all previous churches lacked a true idea of God, “it follows that a church will take the place of those” (§786).
Crown Of All
So is the case closed? Does the “crown of all churches” mean that the New Church is distinguished from other faith traditions, triumphant in succeeding what is inferior, a superior treasure of faith in the hand of God?
Let’s take another look at the distinguishing characteristic of that faith. Recall that the closing section of The True Christian Religion says, “This new church is the crown of all the churches which have up to now existed upon earth, because it will worship one visible God, in whom is the invisible God, as the soul is in the body” (§787, emphasis added).2 One visible God: this is unquestionably the central tenet of the faith set out in Swedenborg’s texts. And yet there hides a subtle paradox within the principle of one visible God. God’s nature is infinite, uncontainable, and however clearly manifest is that God in visible human form, in attempting to relate to the infinite, different people will visualize Him differently. The first work of New Church theology published by Swedenborg, Arcana Caelestia, says as much: “the way in which people think of the Lord’s human varies” (§4211).3 One visible God, ideally yes, but one God visualized and understood in quite a variety of ways.
How does the faith of the New Church account for this variety, and what might that suggest for how members of the organized Swedenborgian churches relate to those of other faith traditions?
One of the hallmarks of New Church teachings, a principle that distinguishes these teachings from the creeds of most other Christian denominations, is their celebration of the variety of human perspectives in matters of faith. Consider Swedenborg’s remarkable statement in the work on Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell that “variety in worship of the Lord” is the source of “the perfection of heaven” (§56). Swedenborg goes on to write that on earth “there are also many Churches,” and that, despite the diversity4 among them, every one is a true church to the extent that it operates from the goodness of love and faith. “There again, the Lord out of diversity makes a unity, thus, one Church out of many Churches” (§57).5
One church out of many churches—weaving a unity from variety. This dynamic sounds more like the garland interpretation of crown (corona) we considered at the outset of this essay—an encompassing circle weaving together varying parts into a unity. Might we again read the “crown of all churches” as such a circle, embracing a variety of faith perspectives? Might we conceptualize the New Church as the Lord’s work of making unity out of diversity, one church out of many churches?
Though very few have interpreted the phrase at the end of The True Christian Religion as such an extreme endorsement of diversity, a handful of Swedenborgian writers have read the phrase’s crown image as betokening some sort of an inclusive circlet. An editorial note in an 1895 issue of New Church Life urges its readers to remember that unlike the divisive heritage of strife in Christian history, a spirit of charity “will make a unit of the Church… from the harmonious variety of its parts, the goods and truths of faith and charity of which will be so many brilliant gems that add luster to the ‘Crown of all the Churches’” (New Church Life 161). Twenty-four years later, Bishop N. D. Pendleton, reporting on enrolling a new Swedenborgian community into the General Church organization, states, “This adds another jewel to our crown of churches” (“The Bishop’s Address to the Tenth General Assembly” 713). While neither comment necessarily promotes “the crown of all churches” as embracing a diversity of faith perspectives beyond the bounds of the organized Swedenborgian church, both treat the crown image as a metaphor for inclusive unification of variety—an encompassing circle of gems.
In more recent years, Swedenborgian writers have read the “crown of all churches” as a circle metaphor for a wider embrace. In her 1992 letter to the editor, Laurel Powell suggests that the teachings about the New Church have the unique ability “to reconcile and weave together… all the different religions of the world” (Powell 331). She calls on Swedenborgians to look toward “healing all the breaches among the religions of the nations, and helping the Lord weave out of them a great wreath or Crown of Churches” (ibid). Taking up a similar theme in a 2004 article on the value of sharing groups, Dawn Potts explicitly reframes the “crown of all churches” as the “garland of all churches”: “I see the truths of the New Church someday woven throughout all the different peoples and societies on the earth as a garland” (Potts 32). Both writers have succinctly captured the way in which the New Church might be considered a “crown of all churches” in the sense of encompassing a diversity of faith perspectives, making unity out of variety, one church from many churches.6
Given the general emphasis in New Church teachings on the spirit of charity making a unity out of diverse or varying points of view, it seems a natural step to read the “crown of all churches” as an encompassing circle of faith perspectives. But is there any specific justification for mapping the particular image of the crown (the corona at the end of The True Christian Religion) onto this dynamic of unity from diversity? Are we warranted in assuming that the crown image, in the context of teachings about the New Church, is an appropriate metaphor for capturing this encircling garland idea, or are we leaning too heavily on what may be merely a convenient coincidence of the semantic fields of corona?
It turns out that Swedenborg’s books of teachings for the New Church are punctuated with imagery of crowns symbolizing the Lord’s church, and tracing some of this imagery may provide further insight into what kind of crown the New Church might be. In fact, one of the most striking church-as-crown metaphors appears in the same final chapter of The True Christian Religion from which the phrase “crown of all churches” comes—the chapter on the coming of the promised New Church. A few sections earlier in the chapter, Swedenborg writes, “I have been told that churches which possess differing kinds of good and truth, so long as the kinds of good they have relate to love to the Lord and the truths they have relate to faith in the Lord7, are like so many jewels in a king’s crown” (§763).8 Certainly the crown imagery here is directly applicable to the idea of one church formed out of many churches—weaving a unity from variety.
But is this hoped for unity of churches, this encircling crown of many jewels, the promised New Church? Is this metaphorical crown of many jewels the same as the “crown of all churches” promised at the end of the final volume of Swedenborg’s published theology? In order to find the answer, we must turn to Scripture. Searching Swedenborg’s works, we find two instances in which the New Church is directly related to a Biblical crown. Incidentally, apart from the declaration that the New Church is the crown of all churches, these are the only cases in which the body of theology published by Swedenborg explicitly associates the New Church with a crown. The more prominent of the two Scriptural images is the first great heavenly sign seen by John in the book of Revelation—a vision of a shining woman (Revelation 12:1). We read in The True Christian Religion: “the faith of the new church [is described] by the woman surrounded by the sun with a crown of twelve stars on her head” (§648).9 Though the passage offers little additional exegesis, the image of a crown of stars is quite rich.
What might this crown of twelve stars—integral to a picture of the faith of the New Church—convey about that promised church? At this point, it would be difficult to miss the striking similarity between the crown of many stars and the crown of many jewels that pictures an encompassing circle of varying churches.10 The similarity between the images is further confirmed if we consider what The True Christian Religion suggests about the imagery of stars: in the “infinite number of the stars” we see the “infinite variety” of what God creates (§32). More specifically, an exegesis of the Scriptural image in Arcana Caelestia notes the symbolic importance of the woman’s crown weaving together twelve stars, “because ‘twelve’ means all things, thus all aspects of faith” (§4918). Infinite variety and all aspects of faith. If the New Church as the “crown of all churches” is also depicted by the crown of twelve stars, it would seem a reasonable interpretation to envision this promised New Church as a circlet encompassing the infinite variety of all faith traditions that relate in some way to the goodness and truth of God.
Consider also how this cluster of stars might relate to a similar image of stars in the visions of John’s Revelation. John’s text opens with a vision of his gracious God, as the Son of Man, standing in the midst of seven lampstands and holding in His hand a cluster of seven stars (Revelation 1:12-16). Though this constellation of stars is not said to be a crown, it might easily be read as a Scriptural echo of Isaiah’s promissory image of God’s people as “a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (Isaiah 62:3)—this being the other Scriptural crown explicitly related to the New Church in Swedenborg’s works (The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem Concerning the Lord §62).11 If we read the cluster of stars in the hand of the Son of Man as a crown-like constellation, we find stunning parallels with the crown of twelve stars and the crown of many jewels, both of which we have seen to depict a garland of diverse faith perspectives or many churches. In his exegesis of the book of Revelation, The Apocalypse Revealed, Swedenborg suggests that this collection of “seven stars… symbolizes a new church” (§65). He goes on to detail how specifically the multiplicity of stars symbolizes the New Church: like the number twelve, “seven symbolically means all,” and so the seven stars and seven lampstands “do not mean seven churches but the church in its entirety, which in itself is one, though varied in accordance with people’s reception” (§66). And to what does Swedenborg then compare the variety encompassed within this New Church? “These variations may be compared to the various jewels in a royal crown”: the diversity of the jewels makes for the “perfection” of the crown, and so represents “the entire New Church in its varieties” (ibid). One church out of many churches.
Thinking of the “crown of all churches” as a royal constellation of faiths in the hand of God, I can’t help but hear another Scriptural promise of how God’s guidance extends through all the wide-ranging reaches of His creation: “He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name” (Psalm 147:4).
Crown Of All Churches
There is ample evidence here to warrant reading the “crown of all churches” as a promissory constellation of all faith traditions that relate in some way to God’s goodness and truth. In this reading, the New Church, as a crown, can be conceived of as being really a cluster of many churches, churches that may to us look quite diverse, but are one constellation in the Lord’s sight through a spirit of charity. But how can we reconcile this encompassing reading with the unmistakable emphasis at the end of The True Christian Religion on this New Church being distinguished from prior epochs of faith? Again, if the New Church is said to replace all other churches because those churches lacked a true idea of God, how can it simultaneously encompass all of those churches?
The question deepens when we discover that Swedenborg’s recorded theology speaks both of the church (or prior churches) being “brought to an end,” “totally laid waste” (The True Christian Religion §§758-759) and of the church being “restored,” “reestablish[ed]” (ibid §74, The Apocalypse Explained §304). In one peculiar phrase of these texts, Swedenborg speaks of “the Church [being] restored to life where the previous one had existed” (Arcana Caelestia §6516). If the old and new churches are actually completely distinct entities, what is being “restored” in this rebirth? On the other hand, if there is really only one church in God’s sight, now being restored, what does it mean to refer to “the previous one”?
I would suggest that this same tension lies within the promise of a “crown of all churches,” a New Church. Does this New Church embrace the many jewels that are varying faith perspectives, does it restore all the precious stars in the hand of God, or does it supersede them? Ultimately, I am inclined to leave this tension unresolved. I would argue that the New Church presented in Swedenborg’s works both restores and supersedes, is both distinguished from all the churches that have existed up to now and encompasses them.
There can be no doubt that the theology presented by Swedenborg clearly calls to an end certain convictions of religious tradition. Over and over again, this theology vehemently denounces the twin doctrinal principles of faith separated from a loving life and the veneration of a vindictive, divided God. Swedenborg shows how these ideas inevitably produce a spiritual wasteland. But perhaps while the promised New Jerusalem will supersede and replace the ruins of the old, it will do so by restoring what has been true and hopeful in every faith tradition. Consider a parallel with Isaiah’s prophecy. Immediately after promising that the true Jerusalem will be a crown of glory and royal diadem in the hand of the Divine (one of the two Scriptural crowns we have seen explicitly associated with the New Church), Isaiah’s God reiterates the promise symbolized by the crown: “You shall no longer be termed Forsaken, nor shall your land any more be termed Desolate” (Isaiah 62:4). The force of the phrase “no longer” is far more a promise of restoration than a prophecy of replacement.
How can the “crown of all churches” both replace and restore, both supersede and encompass all faith traditions? The answer may be simple. Perhaps this crown supersedes what has passed before precisely because it encompasses, because it unites rather than divides. It may be that our God’s main concern in taking up His kingdom is to bring into harmony the wide-ranging variety of His creation. Swedenborg’s first published work of theology, Arcana Caelestia, says that the crown which the Lord will take up represents “Divine Good, which is the source of wisdom and also the mainspring of His government” (§9930). And what is the gold standard in that crown of goodness from which the Creator governs? In a word, freedom. In a separate work wholly devoted to the Lord’s spiritual government, Angelic Wisdom Regarding Divine Providence, Swedenborg reports that the first principle of God’s Divine government is that each individual person should “act in freedom in accordance with his reason” (§71). Infinite love for individual freedom must, by its nature, be a love that readily encompasses wide variety. This loving government of varied faith ideas is wonderfully articulately among the promises of The True Christian Religion: “The truths which make up faith are varied and to human sight appear different…. Yet they all make one in the Lord, and are made one by the Lord…. For the Lord links together scattered and divided truths, so to speak, into a single form” (§354). Or, as we have seen in the work on heaven and hell, He makes one church out of many churches.
The end of Swedenborg’s final published theological text declares that the New Church will be the “crown of all the churches which have up to now existed upon earth, because it will worship one visible God” (The True Christian Religion §787). His subsequent manuscript “Coronis or Appendix to True Christian Religion” proclaims that the New Church will be the “crown of the four preceding churches, because it will have true faith and true charity” (“Summary” §52). Perhaps the latter statement, in parallel with its antecedent in the previous work, provides us with an idea of what it means to visualize one God—to visualize one God in true faith and with true charity. That is, to have faith in a God who loves all people and works to save people coming from all different viewpoints, and to extend a charitable spirit towards people of all faiths. To recognize that these myriad people with differing faith perspectives may well be part of our Lord’s New Church.
What kind of crown is the “crown of all churches”? Perhaps the promise of the New Church is that it will be the crowning treasure because—as the Lord God’s garland—it weaves together one church out of many churches. Like so many jewels in the King’s crown. Surely the infinite God’s promise for us must always be a vision of something more vast than we can ably draw boundaries for. He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name.
1According to the NewSearch search engine, the phrase has been cited in 453 separate articles in New Church Life alone.
2Swedenborg’s subsequent manuscript “Invitation to the New Church” echoes the same idea, suggesting that the New Church is “the crown of all the churches” because it centers on a visible idea of the one God as Christ, “one God in the church, who is God man and man God” (§53).
3There is some indication in the passage that there are right and wrong ways to think of or visualize God, but the passage nevertheless emphasizes the point that God can be connected to people through varying ways of seeing or understanding Him. Compare another passage from the same work which suggests that “sensory-minded” people will see God one way, “natural-minded” people another way (§4715). Again, these more earth-bound ways of seeing God are not held up as ideals, and yet the passage notes that concepts of God will be purposefully adapted to “the nature of the recipients” (ibid). In fact, we might compare this passage’s observation—that naturally-minded people “rely on natural ideas” of God—to the reason given at the end of The True Christian Religion for the importance of a visible human concept of God: “because man is natural and so thinks in a natural fashion” (§787). Compare still another passage from Arcana Caelestia which suggests that God is seen “in a form suited to believers’ perception” (§5337).
4I am aware that the word “diversity” may make some Swedenborgian readers wary based on a distinction made in one place in Swedenborg’s publications between heavenly “variety,” on the one hand, and the “diversity” between heaven and hell, on the other (Delights of Wisdom Relating to Married Love §324). However, I believe that if we study the passage carefully, we will find that the distinction between heavenly “variety” and hellish “diversity” made here depends not on the quality of the differences of ideas in disparate perspectives, but rather on the intrusion of an oppositional spirit of evil in that difference—that is, a selfish, domineering (or hellish) spirit (see also Arcana Caelestia §3024). I would maintain that by “diversity” in contemporary usage we simply mean difference in perspectives, and most of the teachings for the New Church use the terms “variety” and “diversity” more or less interchangeably.
5Consider also the following statements from Arcana Caelestia celebrating variety in the Lord’s church: “the Lord’s spiritual church… is spread throughout the whole world, and wherever it exists varies so far as matters of belief or truths of faith are concerned” (§3267); “although there are so many variations and differences in matters of doctrine…, nevertheless they all together form one Church when everyone acknowledges charity to be the essential thing” (§3241); if love to the Lord and charity toward the neighbor were held as the essential things of religion, “one Church would result from many, no matter how differing the doctrinal teachings and also religious practices might be” (§2385).
6To this list of articles could be added Daniel Fitzpatrick’s 1987 sermon, “Evangelization and Pride.” Fitzpatrick urges his hearers to see the “crown of all churches” not as a static treasure, but as a symbol adorning the head of an active, useful body, a body working to accommodate and cooperate with those of other faiths (Fitzpatrick 105).
7Jonathan Rose, in his New Century Edition translation of the same work, renders the phrase, “provided their goodness has something to do with loving the Lord and their truths have something to do with faith in him” (emphasis added).
8This passage echoes an earlier statement from the work Angelic Wisdom Regarding Divine Providence which more emphatically highlights the real differences involved in variety. Here we read that if acknowledgement of the Lord and a life of charity from the Word were “regarded as the church’s essential components, intellectual disagreements would not have divided it, but only varied it, as light varies colors in beautiful objects, or as various jewels produce the beauty in a king’s crown” (§259).
9Compare also The Apocalypse Revealed §§532 and following.
10The Greek word for crown used in the book of Revelation—stephanos—is equivalent to the Latin corona in that it can be equally translated “crown” or “garland.”
11Compare also The Apocalypse Revealed §880.
“The Bishop’s Address to the Tenth General Assembly.” New Church Life 39.11 (1919): 705-717. Print.
Fitzpatrick, Daniel. “Evangelization and Pride.” New Church Life 107.1 (1987): 103-106. Print.
New Church Life 15.11 (1895): 161. Print.
Potts, Dawn. “A Different View of Sharing Groups.” New Church Life 124.1 (2004): 29-32. Print.
Powell, Laurel. “Our Unique Contribution.” New Church Life 112.1 (1992): 330-331. Print.
Smith, Gilbert. “The Crown of the Churches.” New Church Life 68.6 (1948): 241-248. Print.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Angelic Wisdom Regarding Divine Providence. Trans. N. Bruce Rogers. Bryn Athyn, PA: General Church of the New Jerusalem, 2003. Print.
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---. Delights of Wisdom Relating to Married Love Followed by Pleasures of Insanity Relating to Licentious Love. Trans. N. Bruce Rogers. Bryn Athyn, PA: General Church of the New Jerusalem, 1995. Print.
---. The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem Concerning the Lord. Trans. John Potts. New York: The American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society, 1915. Print.
---. Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: from things heard and seen. Trans. John Ager and Doris Harley. London: The Swedenborg Society, 1958. Print.
---. “Invitation to the New Church.” Posthumous Theological Works. Trans. John Whitehead. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1996. 119-150. Print.
---. True Christianity. Trans. Jonathan Rose. 2 vols. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2008-11. Print.
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