The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents



Emanuel Swedenborg was first a scientist, then an anatomist, and finally a theologian. His recognition by the world in general has followed a similar pattern. His contemporaries saw him as a genius in science and invention, but it was not until much later that anatomists began to appreciate his contributions to the study of the human body. Swedenborg's achievements in the province of religion are not yet well known. They have always been recognized by a few but opinions as to his importance in this field have varied sharply.

Attention was focused on Swedenborg in 1908 when the Swedish government sent a cruiser to England to bring home his mortal remains from the little Swedish church in London - where they had rested since 1772 - and later when a sarcophagus of native red granite was provided to enshrine them in the cathedral of Upsala. During the summer of 1910 the International Swedenborg Congress was held in London under the patronage of King Gustaf V, to honor the Swedish philosopher who, with the possible exception of Linnaeus, has been more highly esteemed in foreign lands than any other of his countrymen. The Congress was attended by representative men from many countries and many fields of learning, thus constituting a striking testimonial to Swedenborg's versatility. Leading physicists hailed him as a forerunner, and famous anatomists claimed for him a place in their ranks. In 1938, the 250th anniversary of Swedenborg's birth was publicly celebrated in many parts of the world.

Every century has its paramount question, and Swedenborg's life was dedicated to answering the great question of the day in which he lived - the question as to whether the Sacred Scriptures are to be believed. In Sweden this question was not as yet articulated or even formulated - there was not then enough freedom for that; but it was active in the minds of thinking men and implied in everything they said.

The 18th century had just emerged from the mysticism and metaphysics of the preceding one, in which the intellectual faculties had been so hopelessly enmeshed. It had accumulated enough scientific data to upset the thinking of learned men and to raise doubts in the minds of the unlearned. The actual question of the credibility of Scripture could not come to the surface until the nineteenth century had set men free and brought to birth the concept of organic evolution. Few could then even have dreamed that the great question of the twentieth century would be the apocalyptic query: Shall we survive our own inventiveness?

During the first part of Swedenborg's life he labored to accumulate scientific evidence to answer the question of the credibility of Scripture by rational arguments. He studied the rocks and soils of his native land to prove the existence of the Noachic flood, and in so doing he incidentally made observations that anticipated the modern science of geology. Turning to philosophy, he sought to establish a theoretic universe based on law, where precise weights, masses, and motions had their place, but which yet left room for an unseen spiritual world and an Infinite Cause. In the course of these investigations he anticipated Lavoisier in physics and Kant and Laplace in cosmology. But that was merely a by-product of his effort to establish a universe where God was present. Before Dalton, he described something that closely resembles the atomic construction of matter; before Young and Faraday, he described the vibratory nature of light by means of a hypothetical ether - and even the equivalent of radio activity- but only as a result of his attempt to explain the workings of the universe. When, in his study of anatomy Swedenborg anticipated modern researchers in describing the functions of the brain and in suggesting the nature of the ductless glands, his aim was only to find a place for the soul!

Since as a scientist his thinking had always been directed by religion, it is not surprising that he dedicated the latter half of his life to finding a solution to the question of the credibility of the Scriptures in terms of theology, nor that his method of working at the problem was still strictly scientific. The material for his work, however, was spiritual and intuitively derived, completely apart from the deliberate exercise of his rational faculties. He now called himself a servant, a term that signifies one who is employed by another to carry out his will - in this case, the will of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this point he never wavered. He startled the public by proclaiming that he talked with the dead, and in scores of instances he brought out evidence to prove it!  His attack on the orthodox faith of his day was as complete as Copernicus' challenge of the geocentric universe. The Lutheran doctrine of salvation by faith alone, his chief object of attack, was, he insisted, based on a misunderstanding of Paul's statement, a misconception that Swedenborg labored to explain away. As to salvation, his new creed was in fact very simple: that because man is born with natural tendencies to evil, true faith is not possible before these corrupting inclinations have been fought and overcome.

Whether or not one accepts his definitions, Swedenborg's work remains of paramount importance, because the search for a reconciliation of science and religion still goes on. Certain students now surmise that human destiny, ever since the birth of the original cell, has been dependent upon a Conscious Will, and that its progress is the result of an ascending evolution which, after the emergence of conscience, has depended upon man's effort to understand his origin. Swedenborg occupies a pivotal position in the history of thought, where the ancient and modern worlds come together.

After Swedenborg's funeral in London, on April fifth, 1772, his friends met for a commemorative dinner. Among them were a prominent politician, an innkeeper, an English wig-maker, a learned doctor and two Swedish clergymen. The group was fairly representative of the different ways in which Baron Swedenborg was generally regarded. The statesman loved him for his devoted patriotism, his great learning and the sincerity of his friendship; the innkeeper for his sweetness of character; the wig-maker for his saintly life. The English doctor viewed the departed as an apostle of God into whose hands had been committed a divine revelation of immeasurable importance to mankind. One of the clergymen present shared this view, the other one thought that Swedenborg had been insane.

The Baron's most intimate friend in Sweden, Prime Minister Count Anders von Höpken, when asked for his estimate of Swedenborg, replied that it was the most delicate question he had ever been called upon to answer in his entire career. For what to him might appear manifest and incontrovertible might, to others, seem incomprehensible and absurd. It was hard enough to reconcile differences of opinion in temporal concerns, he said, but almost impossible in spiritual matters. But as. far as the late Baron's character was concerned, von Höpken had never known a man more virtuous than Swedenborg who was always contented, never fretful or morose, a true philosopher and richly endowed with genius. He considered him without contradiction the most learned man in the country and one possessed of a sound judgment at all times. On the subject of Swedenborg's revelations von Höpken refused to pass any judgment. He thought that his study of anatomy and his meditations on the effects of the soul upon the body had led him by degrees from material realms to spiritual ones. "Swedenborg has taken the same road by which we proceed from the visible to the invisible, from things known to things unknown . . . in like manner as in arithmetic we are led from known numbers to those we seek. . . . Few persons have judiciously read his works, which everywhere sparkle with genius."

It is not surprising that many accounts have been written of the life of so remarkable a man, and from many different points of view. 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. The documentary material has, for the first time, been broken up into strictly chronological order based on internal evidence. My effort has been to present Swedenborg as he appeared to his contemporaries and, as nearly as such a thing is possible, autobiographically. At the sacrifice of brevity I have tried 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.

The broad outlines of Swedenborg's life have always been known, the chief source of information being Doctor Rudolph Leonard Tafel's monumental work, The Documents concerning Swedenborg, published in London, 1875-7. Later researches have unearthed numerous details that throw the first lines into sharper relief without altering them in any essential, but the chronological order into which the documentary material has now for the first time been arranged, produces the effect of a new light.

The work of collecting and listing all the documents pertaining to Swedenborg's life was initiated by the late scholar, Alfred Henry Stroh, and afterwards continued by the present writer who worked with him on this project for several years in Sweden. These as yet unpublished collections and lists are in the possession of the Academy of the New Church, in Pennsylvania, and of several societies who have shared in the labor of publishing and translating Swedenborg's works, and of reproducing, by photographic processes, all of his remaining manuscripts.

Much new material has been introduced to the public through the research, translations, and commentaries of the learned bishop, Doctor Alfred Acton. This indefatigable one-man-institute, working through the Swedenborg Scientific Association and its periodical, The New Philosophy, has enlarged the scope of available sources by such volumes as The Letters and Memorials of Emanuel Swedenborg, published in 1948, and the eight-volume translation of The Word Explained, issued from 1928 to 1951.

Until recently the English Life of Emanuel Swedenborg, by George Trobridge, London, 1913, has served as the standard biography of the Swedish seer. More recent studies have been made in Sweden, Germany and the United States, notably by Doctor Martin Lamm, in his Swedenborg, en studie öfver hans utveckling til Mystiker och Andeskådare (Swedenborg, a study of his development to Mystic and Seer, Stockholm, 1913); by Doctor Ernst Benz in his impressive volumes: Swedenborg in Deutschland (Swedenborg in Germany, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1947); and Emanuel Swedenborg, Naturforscher und Seher (Emanuel Swedenborg, Scientist and Seer, Munich, 1948) [both of which have recently appeared in English translation from the Swedenborg Foundation]; and by Signe Toksvig in her biography, Emanuel Swedenborg, Scientist and Mystic, New Haven, 1948, a discussion of his relation to psychic research.

It should be mentioned that occasionally, in quoting translations, I have taken the liberty of using alternate wordings, where such a choice has seemed justified, to make the meaning of a passage clear. No extensive bibliography has been undertaken, since the Notes and References, with the Indexed topics cover, almost completely, all known sources. As these are mostly in Swedish and scattered over Swedish archives and libraries, they are, in any case, largely inaccessible.

In introducing the present volume I am happy to mention the benefit gained from my collaboration with Alfred Stroh and his instructive interpretations of Swedenborg's development, and of my association with the Swedish anatomists Professors Gustaf Retzius, Martin Ramström and Wilhelm Hultkrantz while helping to translate their essays into English. The statement of my gratitude would be incomplete without a reference to my uncle, the late Professor Carl Theophilus Odhner, whose contagious zeal for church history focused on Swedenborg.

I am indebted to many for help and advice in preparing the present work, and wish especially to mention the Reverend Richard Tafel of Philadelphia for his support in promoting its publication; Doctor Amandus Johnson, author and historian, for his painstaking revision of the text; my brother, Doctor Hugo Ljungberg Odhner, for the checking and weighing of various chapters against the background of his long acquaintance with Swedenborg's philosophy and theology; Doctor Marguerite Block of Columbia University, for her stimulating and expert guidance; Doctor Henry Goddard Leach, president of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, for his moral support. The Reverend William F. Wunsch has done me a great service with his careful editing of the text and Doctor Clarence Hotson and Cornelia Hinkley Hotson have given me loyal assistance in indexing and proofreading. Especially, I want to mention Amena Pendleton Haines who gave the initial impulse for this undertaking and has been a constant source of heart-warming encouragement.

Among the libraries and archives whose staffs have given me valuable aid I take great pleasure in acknowledging the courtesy I have always enjoyed, during years of research in Sweden, from the Royal Archives, the Royal Library and other institutions; and, in America, from the Library of the Academy of the New Church who put at my disposal their complete and unique collections of Swedenborgiana.

- Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, October, 1952

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