The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents

 


Chapter 37 - Visitors Young and Old

Wider publicity brought many visitors to Swedenborg's door, most of them urged by curiosity and a few by the hope of hearing a message from some dear departed friend. Swedenborg spoke easily and naturally of his spiritual experiences, as a traveler from India might describe life on the Ganges. To him these things were commonplace, the habitual occurrences of twenty-three years. Sometimes, but by no means always, he would satisfy the demands of his questioners.

One of those who came to call on him just after Swedenborg's return from abroad, late in the summer of 1766, was a youth of nineteen years, one Nicolas Collin, a name destined to be remembered in American annals.[579] Collin was then living in Stockholm as tutor in the home of one of Swedenborg's acquaintances, Dr. Nils Celsius, and he had often heard the seer discussed but had never met him personally. While studying at Upsala Collin had come upon some of the theological works in the library and read them with interest. His young brother had recently died and it may have been this that spurred Nicolas on to the visit.

He found himself in the presence of an elderly gentleman of erect and vigorous physique, somewhat thin and of a pale complexion, whose countenance in spite of ripe old age was very pleasing and retained traces of beauty. This also is the impression one gets from the portraits for which Swedenborg sat at this time, perhaps at the insistence of his friends.[580]

Nicolas assured his host that in taking the liberty of calling upon him he was not acting from youthful presumption but out of a strong desire to converse with so celebrated a man. Swedenborg received him kindly and, the hour being early afternoon, served his visitor delicious coffee according to the Swedish custom. After that they conversed for nearly two hours principally ob the nature of the human soul, comparing the theories of various leading authors on that subject. When they came to discuss Swedenborg's intercourse with the spirits of the departed, Collin ventured to request, as a great favor, that he procure him an interview with his brother who had died a few months before.

Swedenborg explained that since God has, for wise and good reasons, separated the world of spirits from our own, communication is never granted without very weighty reasons. What were the young man's motives for wanting this? Collin confessed that he had none outside of the gratification of brotherly affection and an ardent desire to explore scenes so interesting and sublime. Swedenborg replied that although these motives were good they were not sufficient.

He then showed his visitor the garden and summer house with its adjoining wing in which the renowned author had his library. Collin afterwards described it as "a kind of temple, to which his host often retired for contemplation, for which its peculiar structure and dim religious light were suitable."[581]

On parting, Swedenborg handed the young man an elegant copy of his latest work, The Apocalypse Revealed, to take with him as a gift to Dr. Celsius.

After he had been ordained, the Rev. Nicolas Collin sailed to Pennsylvania where he served as pastor of the Swedish congregations. He became an important man in the life of the colonies and was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, founder of the American Philosophical Society. A painting showing Collin in attendance at Franklin's last hours hangs in the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia.

Collin's views in religion as in politics were extremely tolerant and liberal, but he never became a follower of Swedenborg's doctrines. Like Franklin an ardent student of astronomy, he greatly admired Swedenborg's treatise on The Earths in the Universe with its reasonable arguments concerning the immensity of the heavens and the habitability of the planets.

When the first lectures on the doctrines of the New Church were delivered in Philadelphia by James Glen, in 1784, reports about Collin's acquaintance with the celebrated seer were spread abroad and the Swedish pastor was asked to tell what he knew about his famous compatriot. To give the facts a wider circulation, he wrote a series of five articles for the daily Gazette, in the fall of 1801, which were afterward reprinted in other papers. So, in sharp contrast to Gjörwell's account, penned by the librarian on the very afternoon of his visit to Swedenborg, Collin's testimony presumably was not written down until thirty-seven years after his visit. It is, however, valuable for summing up the general impression Swedenborg made upon his contemporaries. Says Collin:

"Though persuaded of being commissioned from heaven to establish a new system of religion, Swedenborg had no desire to see it enforced by violent measures, nor did he exert himself in making proselytes, except by his writings. As to Sweden, he never intimated a wish to be the head of a sect, but indulged the fond hope that the ecclesiastical establishment would, by a tranquil, gradual illumination, assume the form of his New Church" - a statement which agrees in general with Swedenborg's repeated assertions in letters to Dr. Beyer.

Collin says that Swedenborg affected no outward sanctity in his manners. His dress was neat and conformed to the general fashion. "He observed the customary rules of good breeding and took part in the conversations and pleasures of the company where he was, so far as they were rational. Though very temperate, he had no useless scruples in eating and drinking ... " 582

Another young man who called on Swedenborg during this year was from the steel center of Eskilstuna, a youth who had "heard the new voice from on high, the message from the Lord of heaven." Having been previously "prepared" for this experience, Christian Johansen accepted it at once with inexpressible joy. He felt, he says, "as if he had been transported to heaven." Johansen was an ironworker by trade, but he was also a profound scholar of ethics and philosophy and later played a leading role in the group of those who acknowledged the new revelation. His conversation with Swedenborg touched, among other things, on the status. of the work on The Worship and Love o f God, reported in a previous chapter (see p. 202).[583]

It may have been then also that Swedenborg met a young clergyman, Jonas Person Odhner, who later translated some of the theological writings into Swedish and whose son figured prominently in spreading the new doctrines.[584]

* * * * *

Swedenborg's friendliness is nowhere better shown than in his amiable meeting with the public. While he welcomed callers graciously and even allowed strangers to visit his garden with its foreign curiosities, the gardener had instructions not to admit unaccompanied children lest their unruly manners disturb the owner - a necessary step in self-protection.

One day a little girl was halted at the entrance to the estate, when Swedenborg, who happened to be standing at a little distance in one of the walks, called out to the gardener "to open the gate, since the child was so strictly trained to obedience that she would do no harm." She afterward wondered how he could have known it, since her home was in another part of the city.[585]

Robsahm says that it was for the sake of the inquisitive public that, in the summer of 1767, Swedenborg added a number of curious devices to his garden. In the center, where four paths met, stood the square, open, trellised pavilion which had round benches in each corner, and most likely a table in the middle. From this little pavilion the path toward the southern hedge led to the birdhouse made of brass wire netting, that housed all kinds of birds 586 At the end of the path leading northward he now erected a little three-sided building with three double doors and three large windows toward the garden side. This was so constructed that when all the doors were opened the mirror in the back of the room reflected three gardens, making a charming surprise for those who opened the door to Swedenborg's "other garden" which he insisted was much more beautiful than the first one. Swedenborg derived much amusement from this arrangement, especially when curious young ladies called on him.

A charming anecdote is told about his near neighbor little Greta Askbom, whose father was on friendly terms with the assessor. Greta had often asked "Uncle Swedenborg" to show her an angel, and at last he consented. He placed her before a curtain and said, "Now you shall see an angel!" He drew the curtain aside and the little girl saw herself reflected in a mirror![587]

In the southwestern corner of the garden was a vaulted cellar for storing vegetables. In front of this he now constructed a maze out of boards for the amusement of the good people who came to see his garden, and especially for their children. He received his callers with a cheerful countenance and enjoyed their delight at his contrivances. Like a practical psychologist Swedenborg had accepted the inevitable consequences of notoriety and turned them to good account. What to do with children? Amuse them, of course. We also may be allowed a chuckle, for while the children were vainly trying to find an exit from the boarded maze, impossible without assistance, their parents were trying just as hard to unravel the riddle presented to them by the erudite and affable Assessor himself!

"Swedenborg never allowed any female visitors to come into his room without calling in one of his servants," says Robsahm,[588] "and whenever any ladies came to see him, especially disconsolate widows who desired to know the state of their husbands, or others who thought he was a fortuneteller and could reveal wonderful secrets, thefts, and so forth - he always required someone to be present. ‘For women are cunning,' he said, ‘and they might pretend that I desired to become too intimate with them; moreover it is well known that such people misrepresent, because they do not properly understand, what they hear.'"

Robsahm gives a wealth of detail about Swedenborg's domestic habits. He worked without much regard to day or night. "When I am sleepy, I go to bed," he said. He required very little attendance from his servants. Maria made his bed and placed a large jug of water in his anteroom. He made his own coffee in his study and drank it in abundance with a great deal of sugar at any time of the day or night. When not invited out, his dinner consisted of nothing but a roll soaked in boiled milk. He never used wine or strong drink at home, nor did he eat anything in the evening, but in company he ate freely and indulged moderately in a social glass.

The fire in his study stove was never allowed to go out from autumn throughout the entire winter, but his bedroom was always without a fire, and when he lay down he covered himself with three or four woolen blankets according to the weather. As soon as he woke he went into his study, put wood on the glowing embers and a few pieces of birch bark, which he purchased in bundles, so as to be able to make the fire burn more speedily, and to make the coffee which he drank without milk or cream. Directly after that he sat down to write.

His room was neat and genteel, but plain. The same could be said of his dress. Still, it did sometimes happen that when he prepared to go out, if his people had failed to look him over, some detail would be forgotten or neglected in his attire. On one occasion when he came to dine at the house of Mr. Robsahm's father he was wearing a shoe with a gemmed buckle on one foot and one with a silver buckle on the other, affording great merriment to the young girls who took occasion to laugh at the old gentleman.

He was cheerful and pleasant in company and, as a recreation from his severe labors, he enjoyed conversation with intelligent persons by whom he was always well received and much respected. He could properly meet and playfully direct into a different channel that kind of curiosity which frequently desires to obtrude itself into the consideration of serious things.

His unmarried state, says Robsahm, was not owing to any indifference to the sex, for "he esteemed the company of a fine and intelligent woman as one of the purest sources of delight, but his profound studies required that in his house there should be perfect stillness both day and night." There are frequent traces, in Swedenborg's story, of his preference for the society of intellectual women. His early verses expressed admiration for a poetess of his acquaintance in England, and another in Sweden. Emerentia Polhem, the friend of his youth, was the author of a book of poetry of which, unfortunately, no copy has come down to us. She died in 1759, and when some time later her daughters with their husbands once paid Swedenborg a visit, he assured them that "he conversed with their departed mother as often as he pleased," which would indicate that his admiration for Emerentia never ceased. In later years an anecdote tells of his being highly entertained by some Dutch bluestockings. Some basis, also, there must have been, for his friends' reference to a spiritual bond between Swedenborg and the authoress Elizabeth Stjerncrona.[589]

Swedenborg enjoyed excellent health and was scarcely ever indisposed. "As he was always content within himself and with his circumstances, he spent a life which was, in every respect happy, nay happy in the very highest degree."[590]

One likes to think of him in this happy state during the years 1766-8 when he was writing the work on Conjugial Love, in which he discusses the theme of angelic blessedness and peace. No one on earth as yet knows the origin and essence of true marriage love, he says, and therefore the secrets of it were revealed to him by angels of the highest heaven. Two of these, an angelic pair, descended from the heaven of the Golden Age in a chariot that glittered before his eyes like a diamond. It was drawn by snow-white horses, and the occupants held in their hands two turtle doves. From this heaven Swedenborg received a parchment upon which was written words of wisdom concerning this heavenly love. It was laid upon a table and the door to the apartment was locked, but Swedenborg was given the key and bidden "Write!"[591]

* * * * *

The work was finished in the spring of 1768 and on May 27 the author left his homeland to have it printed in Holland. just as he was starting from his house in his carriage, he met his neighbor, Carl Robsahm.[592] "How can one who soon will be eighty years old dare to undertake so long a journey?" Robsahm asked him, wondering whether they should ever meet again in this world.

"Do not trouble yourself about that," said Swedenborg "If you live we shall certainly meet again, for I shall have to undertake yet another journey like this." This prediction, somewhat distorted, was repeated in an English paper which stated that Swedenborg "foretold before his departure that this voyage, which is the tenth he has made to foreign countries, would be his last; but that he should return and die in his own country."[593]

It was on this outward voyage that Swedenborg met, for the first time, a man who was to become one of his most enthusiastic disciples - Major-general Christian Tuxen, a military commissary stationed as chief customs inspector at the Danish port of Elsinore, where the boats plying between Baltic and Atlantic ports stopped for examinations. For many years Tuxen had been the secret agent of the King of Denmark to secure information on Russian affairs.[594] His curiosity about Swedenborg was aroused, some years before, when the stories of his remarkable psychic powers were being widely circulated. Tuxen's intimate friend, the Swedish ambassador to Denmark, Baron Charles Frederick von Höpken - a younger brother of the prime minister, Count Anders von Höpken - assured him that Swedenborg was one of the most learned men in Europe. These reports induced Tuxen to ask the Swedish consul to let him know the next time that Swedenborg came to Elsinore. Soon after that he was informed that the celebrated Swede was at the consul's house for dinner and that if Major Tuxen desired to see him he must make haste, as the wind was favorable and they were on the point of embarking.

"I made all possible haste," says Tuxen. On arriving he asked permission to put some questions to the famous visitor.

Swedenborg readily agreed. "Ask what you please; I will answer all in truth."

His first question related to the report of what had passed between Swedenborg and the Queen in Stockholm, already discussed. (See Chapter XXXI.)

Tuxen's previous experience in intelligence service stood him in good stead, and his account of Swedenborg is written with great attention to detail. While they were conversing on the principles of religion, Tuxen asked him how a man who was confident of being sincere in his duty toward God and his neighbor could be certain whether he was on the right road to salvation?

Swedenborg replied:

That is very easy. Such a man need only examine himself and his own thoughts according to the Ten Commandments whether, for instance, he loves and fears God; whether he is happy in seeing the welfare of others and does not envy them; whether, on having received a great injury from others which may have excited him to anger and revenge, he afterward changes his sentiments because God has said that vengeance belongs to Him, and so forth. He may then rest assured that he is on the road to heaven. But when he discovers himself to be actuated by contrary sentiments he is on the road to hell.

"This led me to think of myself as well as of others," Tuxen comments.

to Chapter 38