Dr. Jane Williams-Hogan recently passed away in the comforts of her home while surrounded by her immediate family, after a brave struggle with cancer. The professor of religion and sociology at Bryn Athyn College was seventy-five years old.
Dr. Williams-Hogan served for twelve years on the board of the Swedenborg Foundation (2005-2017); she was a long-time board associate before her formal board service began and was serving as an associate once again at the time of her passing. Her Foundation colleagues fondly recall her “rare blend of insight and integrity” and “deep, inexhaustible passion for Swedenborg’s life and works” as she helped to guide the Foundation’s scholarly publishing program and associated participation in international conferences and events.
Over a prolific career that spanned some forty-three years, Dr. Williams-Hogan made indelible contributions to the academic study of Emanuel Swedenborg. She leaves a substantial legacy in the fields of western esotericism and new religious movements, where Dr. Williams-Hogan’s pioneering scholarship on Swedenborg’s place in modern religious and cultural thought remains foundational.
Dr. Williams-Hogan was born on October 26, 1942, to Lt. Col. William R. Kintner and Xandree Hyatt Kintner. On her mother’s side, Dr. Williams-Hogan was a direct descendent of Jonas Person Odhner, an eighteenth-century Lutheran pastor who met Emanuel Swedenborg and was among the first Swedish clergymen to preach Swedenborgian doctrines from the pulpit (in Lyrestad, Sweden). Dr. Williams-Hogan’s later academic work often took her to Sweden, where the Swedish culture and its people became a veritable second home for her.
Dr. Williams-Hogan attended the University of Pennsylvania, earning a BA (in English literature, in 1964), an MA in human relations (1969), and, later, a PhD in sociology (1985). Her doctoral dissertation on the early formations of the Swedenborgian church movement in England—A New Church in a Disenchanted World: A Study of the Formation and Development of the General Conference of the New Church in Great Britain—contained several ideas that she would continue to refine and develop in the decades to come. One particularly influential concept was her notion of the “charisma of the book”: that one characteristic distinguishing the advent of Swedenborgianism as a new religious movement was not the charismatic power exerted by an individual or leader over others, but in the “charm” of a corpus of texts and the ideas they contained. Dr. Williams-Hogan would later come to argue, in a series of articles and talks, that this was one reason why so many post-Enlightenment artists and writers became enthralled with Swedenborg’s ideas: that his books empowered aesthetics (or poetics) as a means for re-enchantment.
In keying the discourse of (dis)enchantment, Dr. Williams-Hogan’s dissertation brilliantly combined the secularization theories provided by sociologist Max Weber with a careful parsing of early New Church archives, making new observations on the appearance of the early Swedenborgian church movement in the epistemological aftermath of the Enlightenment. A useful contribution to the sociology of religion, parts of Dr. Williams-Hogan’s dissertation were later translated into Italian (by the noted professor of Hermetic philosophy Marco Pasi), and published in 2004 as Swedenborg e le Chiese swedenborgiane (“Swedenborg and the Swedenborgian Churches”).
Her research interests were not limited to the purview of sociology, however; in some thirty separate articles and book chapters that appeared in various journals and collected volumes over the next three decades, Dr. Williams-Hogan tracked Swedenborg’s broad impact on world thought, writing on everything from nineteenth-century artists and writers (Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake) to the vexed question of Swedenborg’s relation to Jewish kabbalah. She penned an additional nine encyclopedia entries related to Swedenborg for different scholarly anthologies, including, most recently, the Encyclopedia of Western Esotericism in Scandinavia (Brill). Dr. Williams-Hogan further co-edited an important collection of essays that came out of the Swedenborg bicentenary conference that she had organized at Bryn Athyn College in 1988. At the time of her death on February 11 of this year, her comprehensive biography of Swedenborg was nearing completion, buttressed by years of research in Swedish archives and libraries.
At the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and other scholarly associations devoted to the study of religion, Dr. Williams-Hogan played an essential role in ensuring that Swedenborg maintained a proverbial place at the table. Dr. Williams-Hogan established and chaired the AAR’s Swedenborg Seminar from 1993 to 1997, and was further much involved in the early days of the study of western esotericism at the AAR, the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), and the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements (CESNUR, based in Turin, Italy). To honor Dr. Williams-Hogan’s seminal contributions, CESNUR is dedicating a future lectureship in her name that will be inaugurated in June 2018 at Weixin College, Taiwan. The first lecture will be given by Prof. Bernadette Rigal-Cellard of the University of Bordeaux, France, who was both a dear friend and colleague of Dr. Williams-Hogan’s.
Dr. Williams-Hogan spent her career as professor at Bryn Athyn College, a liberal-arts institution affiliated with the General Church of the New Jerusalem. At Bryn Athyn College, she was instrumental in setting up international exchanges with both the University of Bordeaux and the University of Osnabrück (Germany); one of Dr. Williams-Hogan’s several sabbaticals abroad was spent at the University of Bordeaux as a visiting professor. During her tenure as the Paul Carpenter Chair in the History of Religions at Bryn Athyn College, Dr. Williams-Hogan established a new graduate program in religious studies, which she went on to direct for many years, touching the lives of numerous students who matriculated through the program.
In spite of her cancer diagnosis in 2016, Dr. Williams-Hogan was still able to co-organize the Swedenborg and the Arts International Conference, which brought over forty academics to Bryn Athyn College for five days of rich conversation in June 2017. It was to be, in hindsight, her academic swan song. As with the earlier 1988 landmark conference and ensuing book, the 2017 lectures are currently being turned into a collection of essays. The forthcoming volume will be dedicated posthumously to Dr. Williams-Hogan in recognition of her field-advancing contributions to Swedenborg studies and her great enthusiasm for the arts. She truly was, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of Swedenborg, a “colossal soul” who impacted the lives and ways of thinking of people around the globe. Her light may have left our earthly, natural plane, but her ideas continue to shine in the work that will continue to be done by many scholars in different fields, both Swedenborgian and those in more secular contexts.
We are indebted to Dr. Devin Zuber for authoring this tribute to Jane Williams-Hogan, reproduced here with minor edits.