Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the summer of 2011.
By Jonathan S. Rose and Stuart Shotwell
As people become interested in Swedenborg and what he wrote, a natural question is, “Where do I start?” The Swedenborg Foundation has recently been working on some books that will address that dilemma—for example, A Swedenborg Sampler, which will be released in June.
But even after you have a chosen a title of Swedenborg’s and have it in hand, you may still wonder how to get your exploration underway. Many of his volumes are substantial and lengthy. Should you just begin at the beginning and read sequentially, or is there an alternative?
Swedenborg himself provided an answer to this question. He suggested that we start by reading about his spiritual experiences. However, these fascinating revelations are not always easy for a beginning reader to find: Swedenborg frequently brings up information about the spiritual world in support of his theological points, so it tends to be scattered throughout his works.
To help the reader engage with this material, Swedenborg offers some unusual resources. He begins on the very first page of text in the theological works, in volume 1 of Secrets of Heaven, with a table indicating where to find the main topical material based on mirabilia, the “wonders” of his spiritual experiences. But as time passed, he seems to have felt this kind of simple list was not enough. Beginning with his publication of Revelation Unveiled in 1766, he used a new literary device that allowed him to point readily to experiential material: in this and later works he included “accounts of memorable occurrences” (traditionally called “memorabilia” or “memorable relations”). These accounts are detailed narratives of his spiritual experiences, set off from the rest of the text with ornaments and specifically labeled to distinguish them from the theological exposition.
Two cover letters sent with complimentary copies of Revelation Unveiled indicate how Swedenborg took advantage of this new feature. In the first, he writes to his friend, Dr. Gabriel Beyer:
At the end of every chapter are Memorabilia separated from the text by asterisks. The Herr Doctor will be so good as to read these first. From them one gets a fundamental knowledge of the miserable state into which Faith Alone has brought the churches of the Reformed. (Acton 1948–1955, 610)
In the second, to the Swedish ambassador to France at the time, he says:
In the same work are inserted various Memorable Accounts of my interaction with the Spiritual World; they are separated from the text of the work by asterisks, and are to be found at the end of the explanation of each chapter; since they contain some remarkable material, they will probably draw the reader’s attention as material that ought to be read first. (Rephrasing of the versions in Acton 1948–1955, 612, and Tafel 1877, 242)
In his next work, Marriage Love, Swedenborg goes further. He provides not only memorable occurrences, but an index of them. But still this index is just over a page in length in the first edition and gives only the briefest of topical blurbs in headline style. By contrast, in his final published work, True Christianity, Swedenborg provides a much longer index to this kind of subject matter. In the first edition it fills more than twenty-five tightly packed pages. It is written not in headline style, but as a prose summary. Many individual entries cover more than half a page.
Two remarkable facts about this last index show how keen Swedenborg was on “hooking” his readers with his stories of happenings in the other world.
First, he was no longer content with employing index entries simply to summarize narrative passages. He used them to improve upon the original stories. In some cases, the improvement consists of apparent corrections of the facts given in the main text. In other cases, the index expands the original account and gives details not otherwise to be found.
Second, in ten entries the index specifically directs readers to consult the main text itself. In fact, twice the author seems almost apologetic that there is not enough space to copy all the material in question to the index:
They [the speakers in the story] all gave ample support for their own definition; because there was a great deal of this supporting material, it will not fit in this index—see the account itself. (Author’s index to §459)
The arguments I used were too extensive to copy here; see the account itself (Author’s index to §462)
It is very unusual for any index explicitly to advise the reader to turn back to the
main text for more details; in the ordinary course of things, it is understood that the main text is where the details are. Furthermore, in this case the details for which readers are sent to the main text concern matters that they probably would have remembered had they already read the accounts in question. Therefore this index, although it appears at the end of the volume, apparently makes no presumption that those reading it have any familiarity with the earlier portions of the volume.
These features demonstrate how the summaries of Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences in True Christianity were designed to be the first pages to which the reader might turn, using them as a jumping-off place to access the full text of the memorable occurrences. Since the experiences that these accounts relate are centered on theological issues, they serve in turn as so many points of entry to the grand halls of Swedenborg’s theology.
It seems that if you are looking for a place to start on any volume of Swedenborg that is new to you, you might well want to look up the memorable experiences and meditate on them first. If you do so, you will have some justification for thinking that you are proceeding exactly as Swedenborg himself intended you should.
Acton, Alfred. 1948–1955. The Letters and Memorials of Emanuel Swedenborg. 2 vols. Bryn Athyn, Pa.: Swedenborg Scientific Association.
Tafel, R. L. 1877. Documents Concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg. Vol. 2. London: Swedenborg Society