Beginnings and Becomings
The history of Swedenborgianism begins in England, where Swedenborg had gone to
see his works through the press and distribute them to those who could read
Latin. Groups who had read his works and were anxious to spread Swedenborg's
theological teachings organized reading societies and translated the original
works from the Latin for publication. Eventually the issue of separatism arose,
and in 1787 a group of followers formally established the Church of the New
Jerusalem--based on the teachings of Swedenborg--as an independent religious
body. By the following year, the church claimed twelve members in that first
In 1784, James Glen, English owner of a South American plantation, en route to
the new United States, came in contact with Swedenborg through a copy of
Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell read on shipboard. Glen introduced the
works to America. His open lecture on Swedenborg's teachings at a bookstore
in Philadelphia attracted public attention and inspired several new readers
who were to become important leaders in the American Swedenborgian movement.
By the early 1800s, the first Swedenborgian church structure had been built,
the first periodical on Swedenborg's teachings published, and President
Jefferson invited John Hargrove of the Baltimore congregation to preach in
the Capitol rotunda before Congress.
The spread of Swedenborgian beliefs across America was furthered by
missionaries who contacted pioneer settlers at the wilderness edge. The best
known missionary is noted primarily for another aspect of his travels. In 1822,
a committee reporting on Church extensions to the Fifth General Convention of
the church referred to this unusual missionary as follows:
One very extraordinary missionary continued to exert, for the spread
of divine truth, his modest and humble efforts, which would put the most zealous
member to blush. We now allude to Mr.
John Chapman, from whom we are in the habit of hearing frequently. His temporal
employment consists in preceding the settlements, and sowing nurseries of fruit
trees, which he avows to be pursued for the chief purpose of giving him an
opportunity of spreading the doctrines throughout the western country.
The unique Swedenborgian convert, John Chapman, is better known in American folklore
as Johnny Appleseed. In addition to his legendary sowing of seeds in the Midwestern
wilderness, Johnny Appleseed carried with him all of the Swedenborgian publications
he could procure and distributed them wherever the opportunity was presented.
While Chapman's apple trees blossomed, so did mid-nineteenth century intellectual
and social movements in America. Swedenborgianism provided an influence and
involvement in many of those movements wholly out of proportion to the comparable
size of church membership. Despite the small numbers of Swedenborgians, the
American intellectual atmosphere, particularly throughout this period, reflects
the profound impact of Swedenborgian thought.
Most marked by the Swedenborgian influence is early American philosophy. Ralph Waldo
Emerson was greatly impressed by Swedenborg's writings and effected their
introduction into his intellectual world. When his essay "Nature" was published
anonymously, many praised it as a Swedenborgian work because its central idea of
nature as the symbol of the human soul mirrored the Swedenborgian concept of
"correspondence." Emerson utilized distinctly Swedenborgian terms in his writings,
made eighty references to Swedenborg's works, and published an essay, "Swedenborg,
or the Mystic," which clearly indicated a deep appreciation for Swedenborg's
The Transcendentalist movement shared many of the philosophical tenets that characterized
Swedenborgianism, although few Transcendentalists embraced the church
organization. Among the two groups' shared interests, however, was the utopian
communal movement. Followers of both philosophical schools were involved with numerous
of the utopian settlements organized in the 1800s, among them Brook Farm, the Hopedale
Community, the Jasper Colony, and the Owenite Community in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
While Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Henry James, Sr.
expressed an affinity for Swedenborgianism, other intellectual circles in America
and abroad were equally affected by Swedenborg's work. Many literary artists of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveal his influence and refer to him in their
works. Among these are William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Honore de Balzac, The Brownings,
and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The role of the church in social reform movements is yet another important aspect of
Swedenborgianism. While the church often took no official stance on social issues, the
philosophical stance of the church encouraged individual activism. The church mission,
as perceived by its leaders, "was not only to teach spiritual truths, but to teach and
practice spiritual freedom--freedom not only in spiritual, but in social, moral, and
political matters." In short, the church did not wish to dictate a dogmatic institutional
stance to its followers, but advocated reflection and responsibility on social issues.
The crucial social concerns of the last century, notably abolition and women's rights,
thus found church members active on both sides while the church maintained institutional
tolerance. In addition, Swedenborgians were active in other social reform movements, such
as the aforementioned utopian communities, and the medical and economical reform
characteristic of the nineteenth century.
In succeeding years, Swedenborgians continued to involve themselves in social movements on
a smaller scale. The Church of the New Jerusalem was among the first religious institutions
to advocate coeducation, and Urbana
University, a Swedenborgian university established in Ohio in 1850, was the second
coeducational college in the United States. When political controversy calmed, internal
controversy arose concerning doctrinal matters, and in 1890 some members split from the
original church and established an autonomous organization known as the General Church of
The New Jerusalem. Both bodies continue to exist separately today.
During the 1920s, the church found a most eloquent spokeswoman in the form of a gallant and
courageous receiver of Swedenborgian theology. Helen Keller's activism on the part of the
handicapped and her inspiring account of her personal Swedenborgian beliefs
in My Religion served to bring attention again to the small group of Swedenborg's
followers. In 1928, the church became active in mental health care reform, the beginnings of a
lasting church interest and involvement in the psychological well-being of individuals. In
1955, the church became one of the first agencies to be involved in the current movement
using human relations training and group work in personal development.
These are the roots and beginnings of Swedenborgianism in the United States. Today the church
retains its earlier commitments to individualism and social involvement. Swedenborg's writings
continue to be published and distributed: a primary focus on education is maintained. Certain
church parishes are developing as "spiritual growth centers"--nonsectarian, self-governing and
self-defining community groups devoting themselves to personal development through education
The Swedenborgian Church is at present "becoming" open to innovation and transition. To
understand more fully its evolving nature it is necessary to look
at the church today.
Early Swedenborgian History In America