Swedenborg’s Cultural Influence
During his lifetime, Swedenborg earned an international reputation as a scientist and national respect as a member of the Swedish Board of Mines and of the House of Nobles. He published the first of his theological works when he was sixty-one, and it was another decade before he was publicly identified as the author who had such remarkable spiritual experiences. It was his theological writings, however, that made the greatest impact.
Swedenborg’s vivid descriptions of heaven and hell, his concept of the material world as a reflection of spiritual realities (what he called “correspondences”), and his vision of divine love and wisdom as the source of all creation gave inspiration to people from all walks of life, particularly those seeking an alternative to mainstream religion.
Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and Nineteenth-Century Counterculture
Even in Swedenborg’s lifetime there were groups of readers who came together to discuss his writings, and in some cases went on to found Swedenborgian churches. As those groups began to translate Swedenborg’s writings from Latin into their local languages, his work started to get more popular attention, sparking discussion among artists, writers, philosophers, and other influential figures of his time.
One of the earliest such readers was William Blake (1757–1827), a British poet and artist who read some of the earliest English translations of Swedenborg’s books in the 1780s. From the annotations in his copies of those works, we know that Blake was strongly attracted to Swedenborg’s vision of divine love pervading the universe and giving life to all of creation. He and his wife attended the first General Conference of the what would become the New Church in 1789—the only meeting of any organization that Blake is known to have attended—but Blake was turned off by the formality and the doctrinal nature of the church. Indeed, he turned away from Swedenborg entirely, publishing a satire called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93).
In later years Blake’s position on Swedenborg seemed to soften, and he produced paintings (now lost, though referenced in correspondence) based on Swedenborg’s writings. Two of Blake’s good friends, the sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826) and poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), were also readers of Swedenborg whose works show his influence. Blake also inspired a love of Swedenborg in Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939).
Another eminent reader of Swedenborg was the New England transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82). Emerson, who frequently referenced Swedenborg in his writings, chose Swedenborg as one of the “representative men” in his 1850 book of the same name. There, among Plato, Shakespeare, and Napoleon, Emerson wrote of Swedenborg, “the Mystic,” in a typically romantic fashion: “A colossal soul, he lies vast abroad on his times, uncomprehended by them, and requires a long focal distance to be seen.” Emerson’s embrace of Swedenborg encouraged other transcendentalists, among them Margaret Fuller (1810–50), a journalist and early leader in the women’s rights movement. Also in Emerson’s social circles was Henry James Sr. (1811–82), a devoted Swedenborgian and the father of psychologist William James (1842–1910) and novelist Henry James Jr. (1843–1916). It was probably a student of William James’s who introduced the Zen author D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) to Swedenborg’s writings. Suzuki would later translate some of Swedenborg’s works into Japanese.
Artists and thinkers like Blake and Emerson were hugely popular among the intellectual “counterculture” of the nineteenth century. These were the creative and intellectual types who felt the pull of the frontier and the drive to reform and reshape society; these were the people who were attracted to the creative, emotional, mystical impulses of the Romantic movement; and these were the people who felt strongly that there was an underlying spiritual force to the world but rejected the ritual and dogma of organized churches.
Swedenborg’s vision of a “New Jerusalem,” a new spiritual age where religion would be radically redefined just as it had been centuries before with the arrival of Christ, appealed strongly to people who were ready to leave church-based Christianity behind. They were, like Blake, inspired by Swedenborg’s idea of a divine love that pervaded and moved the world and a heaven that would accept anyone, who loved goodness—regardless of church affiliation
This was the element of society where Swedenborg was most widely read and appreciated, and it may be no surprise that references to Swedenborg or his ideas pop up again and again in writers like Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81), Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), and artists like painter George Inness (1825–94), sculptor Hiram Powers (1805–73), and painter William Page (1811–85).
Social Reform Movements
The people who were attracted to this Romantic approach to life also tended to be interested in social reform and in new ways of relating to the divine, and for that reason Swedenborg’s name often comes up in connection to social reform movements.
A prominent example of this is abolition. Swedenborg praised the spiritual nature of Africans in his writings, as seen in this passage from his short work Last Judgment: “The African people are more capable of enlightenment than all other peoples on this earth, because they are of such character as to think interiorly and thus to accept truths and acknowledge them” (section 118). Passages like these inspired many of Swedenborg’s followers to campaign against slavery. A notable early example of this was Carl Bernhard Wadström (1746–99), a Swedish chemist and Swedenborgian whose book Observations on the Slave Trade (1789) provided fuel for the British antislavery movement. Writer and antislavery activist Lydia Maria Child (1802–80) took spiritual inspiration from Emanuel Swedenborg, as did poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–81).
A markedly less successful social change movement also attracted a number of Swedenborgians of the nineteenth century: social utopianism. Swedenborg’s descriptions of the structure of heaven were interpreted in an entirely new way by leaders like Charles Fourier (1772–1886) and Robert Owen (1771–1858). Guided by a disenchantment with capitalism, both men developed plans for ideal societies based on sharing of resources and working as a group for the common good. While neither Fourier nor Owen were particularly religious, they and their followers embraced the idea of creating earthly societies that echoed what they saw as the order of the natural universe. In their ideal societies, everyone would have some form of employment and all people had equal standing, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
Their efforts to create a blueprint for life here on earth, including their descriptions of an ideal society in which there was universal unity, echoed Swedenborg’s writings. Fourier’s idea of “universal analogies,” or correspondences between the natural world and aspects of the human psyche, bears a striking resemblance to Swedenborg’s doctrine of the correspondence between the natural world and the spiritual realms.
Spiritualism, Healing, and Other Alternative Practices
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, people of all backgrounds flocked to a new spiritual movement whose name would become strongly linked with Swedenborgianism: Spiritualism.
In his introduction to Secrets of Heaven, first published in 1749, Swedenborg writes, “The Lord in his divine mercy has granted me the opportunity for several years now, without break or interruption, to keep company with spirits and angels, to hear them talking, and to speak with them in turn.” Swedenborg discussed his experiences in the spiritual world openly with friends and acquaintances, and some famous stories of his psychic ability gave him an international reputation as a seer.
Swedenborg warned others against attempting to contact the spirit world as he did, saying that it was too easy for evil spirits to fool the unwary, and that the gift of speaking with angels was something that had to be given by the Lord rather than sought by people on earth. However, those warnings were ignored by members of the Spiritualist movement, who actively sought to contact the spirits of the dead and who credited Swedenborg as an early medium.
“In point of fact, every Spiritualist should honour Swedenborg, and his bust should be in every Spiritualist temple, as being the first and greatest of modern mediums,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in volume 1 of his book The History of Spiritualism (1926). This association sharply divided the Swedenborgian community of the time, with some arguing (citing Swedenborg himself) that Spiritualism was potentially dangerous and to be avoided, while others were attracted to the new movement and became Spiritualists themselves.
Swedenborg’s name was invoked in one prominent case, that of Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910). Davis claimed that he had been visited by the spirit of Emanuel Swedenborg in a trance and that he had been given the power of spiritual healing. Davis proceeded to produce a number of books, many of which bore a suspicious resemblance to Swedenborg’s own writings, though Davis claimed to have received the information clairvoyantly. Davis became enormously popular in the Spiritualist movement, thus helping to cement the connection between Swedenborg and Spiritualism.
These Spiritualist movements were paralleled by an interest in how the mind can heal the body, a topic explored by homeopaths (including a number of Swedenborgians), mental healers like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–66) and Warren Felt Evans (1817–99), and, later, psychologists such as William James.
One of the most enduring movements involving spiritual healing was initiated by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910). Mrs. Eddy’s ideas, and even her very wording, are in some instances so similar to Swedenborg’s that many people have concluded that Christian Science is derived from Swedenborgianism. While Swedenborg never advocated exclusive reliance on spirit to heal the physical body (as did Mrs. Eddy), he did write voluminously on the interconnectedness of soul and body—an awareness that is now gaining ground in modern medicine. Thus Swedenborg’s influence continues to be felt today—especially among artists, spiritual seekers, and people who like to think “outside the box”!
Other Famous Swedenborgians
Swedenborg’s writings have inspired people across the years, including some that you might not expect.
For example, not many people know that John Chapman (1774–1845), better known as the folk hero “Johnny Appleseed,” was a devoted reader of Swedenborg. On his travels to the frontier regions of Ohio and Indiana, he would take parts of Swedenborg’s books, which he would leave for people to read as a kind of circulating lending library. People recall him referring to Swedenborg’s writings as “Good News, right fresh from heaven.”
Helen Keller (1880–1968), a blind and deaf woman who inspired the world with her accomplishments, read Swedenborg’s writings in braille, and was deeply moved. “For the first time,” she writes, “immortality put on intelligibility for me, and the earth wore new curves of loveliness and significance.” From then on she considered herself a Swedenborgian. She was even moved to write a book about it, My Religion, which has been more recently published as Light in My Darkness. In it she refers to Swedenborg as “one of the noblest champions true Christianity has ever known.” She adds that the truths contained in Swedenborg’s writings “have been to my faculties what light, color and music are to the eye and ear.”
The American poet Robert Frost (1874–1963) was raised a Swedenborgian, and although he did not stay with the church, Swedenborg’s writings about the physical world corresponding to the spiritual one can be clearly seen in his poetry. In his own words, Frost says, “I was brought up a Swedenborgian. I am not a Swedenborgian now. But there’s a good deal of it that’s left with me. I’m a mystic. I believe in symbols.”
Architect Daniel Burnham (1846–1912) was the director of works for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1893. The exposition was also home to the first World’s Parliament of Religions, an interfaith congress that was organized by another Swedenborgian, Charles Carroll Bonney (1831–1903). The World’s Parliament of Religions marked the first formal meeting of religious leaders from East and West, including the Hindu Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who was a key figure in introducing the Hindu philosophies of Vedanta and yoga to the United States.
John Bigelow (1817–1911) was an American statesman who, as an ambassador to France, helped to win the Civil War for the Union, and later served as Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant. He was also, at various times, editor of the New York Evening Post and one of the founders of the New York Public Library. After encountering one of Swedenborg’s books on a boat journey to the West Indies, and he became a passionate, lifelong Swedenborgian. Speaking of that momentous occasion in his life, Bigelow writes, “[A fellow traveler] lent me one of Swedenborg’s books. I became so interested that I read it without ceasing from ten o’clock in the morning until six o’clock that night. For twenty days thereafter I read Swedenborgian books for an average of fifteen hours a day.”
Swedenborg’s influence has been significant, but not always visible. Nevertheless, he has had a profound impact on the way we think about religion today—perhaps more than any of us realize. Helen Keller puts it this way: “Many years have passed since Swedenborg’s death and slowly his achievements have been winning recognition. . . . Many intelligent people have advocated his teachings in the centers of civilization and carried them to nooks and corners of the world undreamed of by most of us. His message has traveled like light, side by side with the new science, and the new society, which are struggling to realize themselves in the life of humanity.”
In 1932, the scholar and church historian Marguerite Beck Block conducted an extensive and thorough examination of Swedenborg’s influence on American culture. The result was a 460-page book, The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America. Her conclusion was simple, yet profound. As she put it, the continuation of Swedenborg’s influence “lies in the loyalty to the spirit, if not the letter, of Swedenborg—a cultivation of his ideas, not a cult of his words.”
For a fun introduction to some of the people influenced by Swedenborg, check out our video “Swedenborg’s Influence Game Show!”
Emanuel Swedenborg: Essays for the New Century Edition on Swedenborg’s Life, Work, and Impact, published in paperback as Scribe of Heaven, is a companion volume to the New Century Edition of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg. The essays provide an overview not only of Swedenborg’s life and theology, but his influence as well.
Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision is a massive and masterful compilation of essays on Swedenborg and his influence. Prepared for the three hundredth anniversary of Swedenborg’s birth in 1988, it remains the definitive collection in this field.
For Swedenborg’s influence on specific individuals, see:
Johnny Appleseed: The Core of Johnny Appleseed
Helen Keller: Light in My Darkness (an edited version of her classic My Religion) and How I Would Help the World, a reprint of an essay originally written as an introduction for a translation of Swedenborg’s work True Christianity.
D. T. Suzuki: Swedenborg: Buddha of the North
Immanuel Kant: Swedenborg, Oetinger, Kant, an examination of Swedenborg’s reception by these two German thinkers.
Friedrich Schelling: Schelling and Swedenborg. You can read an excerpt from the book in our blog post “Swedenborg’s Influence on German Idealism and Mysticism” or, for a look at how Swedenborg influence Schelling’s philosophy on the nature of thought, see “From Böhme and Swedenborg to Hegel and Schelling: The Role of Mysticism in German Idealism.”